Union University

Union University Department of Political Science

Department of Political Science



How to Be a Pundit

Sean Evans, Chair and Associate Professor of Political Science
Feb 1, 2008

Due to the surprises in the presidential campaign, political analysts have been stunned, perplexed, excited, and, often, wrong. As we proceed toward Super Tuesday, here are some rules to help you understand the race and impress your friends with your political punditry skills.

First, remember that the “winner” is not always the candidate with the most votes but the one who wins the expectations game. That is, the “winner” is the candidate that does better than predicted. Thus, Barack Obama’s dramatic win in Iowa reshaped the Democratic race by destroying Hillary Clinton’s aura of inevitability and leading voters to reconsider their support for her.

Of course, you can lose the expectations game by doing worse than predicted. Fred Thompson claimed that South Carolina would recognize him as the “real conservative” and thus had to drop out after his poor third place showing. The expectations game is also why Rudy Giuliani must win Florida because he has publicly proclaimed it his firewall state.

Second, every candidate wants “momentum.” With every victory, a candidate gains momentum as candidates channel positive press coverage into more fundraising, higher name recognition and public support, larger crowds at campaign events, and more internet traffic on their website. This gives the candidate an opportunity to convince undecided and unsure voters to support him or her.

However, momentum does not last very long and must be perpetuated. The typical boost lasts 3-4 days and then critical reporting, attacks from opponents, and transforming events, like “crying,” leads those voters to reevaluate their choice. Still, if a candidate can string together several consecutive victories, voters, contributors, and the press jump on the bandwagon and the candidate coasts to the nomination.

Third, the rules matter. The method of selecting delegates favors some candidates over others. Caucuses tend to favor ideologically extreme candidates because only committed activists will spend their evenings debating politics. Open primaries favor moderate candidates because independents can vote in those primaries. Closed primaries, those limited to registered partisans only, favor establishment candidates who appeal to the base of the party.

Fourth, candidates are strategic by “hunting where the ducks are.” Since McCain appeals to moderates and independents, he focuses on open primary states like New Hampshire and moderate states like California, Illinois, and New York that vote on Super Tuesday. Mike Huckabee will spend his time before Super Tuesday in Southern states which have more evangelicals. And Clinton will spend more time in closed primary states because she receives more support from self-identified Democrats than Obama.

Fifth, it’s all about the delegates. Candidates need a majority of the delegates to become the nominee. That is why Romney strategically focused on the uncontested Nevada caucus because Romney won 18 delegates to McCain’s South Carolina total of 19, allowing Romney to maintain his overall delegate lead.

Moreover, the parties allocate delegates differently. Democrats apportion delegates based on the proportion of the vote each candidate receives. Thus, even though Obama received 9% more of the vote in Iowa, he received only one more delegate than Clinton. This system means that it takes longer for a Democrat to amass a majority of the delegates. Republicans, however, prefer identifying winners quickly and have many winner-take-all states where the victor receives all of the state’s delegates. Thus, whoever wins Florida with its 114 delegates will lead the delegate race and be one-tenth of the way to the nomination.

Finally, don’t get your hopes up for brokered conventions. The campaign tends to whittle down the party nomination between two candidates rather quickly. When this happens, one person, in the two person race, will come out on top. We can already see the Democratic race narrowing to Obama and Clinton. With Clinton’s overall national strength, she will most likely be in a commanding position after Super Tuesday.

In the Republican race, Giuliani and McCain are battling for the moderate mantle to face either Huckabee or Romney, the conservative champion. If McCain can beat Giuliani in Florida, he will become the moderate candidate and can win the nomination as long as the conservative vote is split between Huckabee and Romney. If Romney coalesces the conservative vote around him quickly enough due to Huckabee’s limited appeal and financial woes, he may be able to wrest the nomination from McCain. If all four candidates remain viable after Super Tuesday though, all bets are off.

So follow these rules and impress your friends and co-workers with your punditry. After all we have seen this month, your analysis will probably be just as good as the supposed “experts.”

Article originally appeared in The Jackson Sun on January 25, 2008