A Straw In The Wind

It is an axiom in politics that "Winning is better than losing." That obvious conclusion can be deceptive in certain circumstances - such as when finishing second or third is just as good as winning. Or not playing the game at all is as good as losing. All depends on perception - that artificially generated instant conventional wisdom bequeathed to the public by people who think they know more about politics than the rest of us.

But do they? The trick in being a good political pundit is not in formulating wildly original analysis or penetrating insights into "what it all means." Rather, it is much better to say exactly what everyone else is saying except be meaner, or funnier, or more serious, or more dismissive than the next fellow. A good turn of the phrase and an attitude will bring you stardom in punditland.

This is important to keep in mind when looking at the gigantic block party the Republicans threw in Ames, Iowa on Saturday. Known by pundits as the Ames Straw Poll, it pitted Mitt Romney not against any other candidate but against the expectations set up beforehand by the punditocracy. What were those expectations? Romney must "do well."

Okay, can we define "do well?" In order to "do well," Romney must "exceed expectations."

See how easy it is to be a political pundit?

A little more serious pre-block party analysis would be that Romney should receive at least as much of the vote at the straw poll as he was getting statewide. In this, Mr. Romney succeeded in exceeding expectations. The latest University of Iowa poll has Romney getting 27% of the vote, comfortably ahead of Rudy Giuliani who trails with 18%. At the Ames Hoe Down, Romney walked away with 31% of the 14,000 votes cast. And since his two main rivals - Giuliani and former Senator Fred Thompson - weren't competing, it could be said that Romney won big in Ames while Giuliani lost. Thompson, not formally declared as a candidate yet, gets a pass from pundits on this one.

So what to make of Romney's win. The clever pundit will point out that Romney spent scads of money on advertising and to bus thousands of his supporters to the party - probably in excess of $3 million. It works out to more than $600 per voter which is a steep price to pay in order to "exceed expectations."

But hold on for a minute. Finishing second in Ames was none other than the former governor of Arkansas Mike Huckabee. The Huckster spent next to nothing and captured 18% of the vote. To say Mr. Huckabee "exceeded expectations" is just not good enough, not if you want to be a top pundit. The correct response when queried as to how Mr. Huckabee did in the Ames Straw Poll is he pulled off "a surprise." This is one step below "a shocker" which is a rarely used term in the pundit vocabulary. "A shocker" is reserved for those delicious circumstances when the front runner fails to exceed expectations and is defeated by someone the punditocracy had previously considered "a surprise."

Then there are those who exceed expectations but nobody cares. Third place finisher in Ames Sam Brownback fills the bill perfectly there. Brownback mounted a negative telephone campaign against front-runner Mitt Romney, accusing him of flip-flopping on abortion and touting his own credentials as the truest social conservative available. Governor Huckabee might have something to say about that claim but the tactic worked. Brownback finished with 15%, and while he was hoping for second place, he crowed about his 3rd place finish that it made him a "viable" candidate. The term "viable" is used by politicians when they don't think the pundits take them seriously. In Brownback's case, he is correct.

Finally, there are those politicians who don't exceed expectations, don't meet expectations, and don't even get a whiff of what an expectation might be. They are not important enough for pundits to bother with setting expectations. They have no chance of being a surprise or a shocker.

They are the walking dead of the campaign, zombies who don't even rate a press pool on when they're going to drop out - that is, if anyone is covering them. Poor Tommy Thompson, former governor of Wisconsin and one of the smartest pols running for president in either party, was the designated wraith at this event. His 5th place finish put him behind GOP gadfly Ron Paul and just in front of Fred Thompson who hasn't even been to Iowa yet. Not even able to exceed his own expectations of finishing first or second, Thompson gracefully bowed out of the race on Sunday.

And after all the analyzing and judging, all the serious and unserious dissections of what happened and what it all means, the pundits all got together and decided that the entire exercise was a waste of time. It doesn't mean anything they assure us. We're still five months from the caucuses. Plenty of time for one or more of the also-rans to challenge Romney and his deep pockets in Iowa.

To sum up; after creating expectations for the candidates and giving plenty of ink to both the build up to Ames and the aftermath, the pundits have sagely informed us that it doesn't mean squat.

See? Anyone can be a pundit. All you need is unbelievable arrogance and the ability to take yourself too seriously.

Rick Moran is associate editor of American Thinker and proprietor of the website Right Wing Nuthouse.