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3 Questions: Adam Berinsky on the unpredictable GOP campaign

Political scientist who studies public opinion assesses a campaign with wildly fluctuating polls.

The 2012 Republican primary season has featured many sharp swings in the polls, some of which have caught seasoned political professionals by surprise. MIT News spoke with Associate Professor of Political Science Adam Berinsky, an expert in public opinion and director of MIT’s Political Experiments Research Lab (PERL), about the unpredictable nature of the ongoing campaign.

Q. By some counts, at least 10 potential candidates have topped various national polls covering the Republican presidential nomination. When was the last time we had a presidential primary season like this one, with so much uncertainty and upheaval in the polls?

A. In 2008, we saw something a little similar when John McCain was written off early, then came from way back to be the eventual Republican nominee, but much of that happened before the formal primary season took place. And this time, before the primaries, we saw Herman Cain surging and then trailing, Rick Perry surging and then trailing, and so on. What’s unusual about this primary season is that we’re watching it unfold in real time, during the election campaign itself.

To see this kind of unsettled race emerge in the heat of the campaign, I think you have to go back to 1976, when Jimmy Carter got the Democratic nomination. It used to be this kind of dynamic wasn’t strange, but over the last 30 or 40 years, there’s been a compression of the primary calendar, in the sense that the race has often been over by Super Tuesday in March, except for the Obama-Clinton race in 2008. That’s one thing that makes this seem so unusual.

The other element is that it hasn’t been a two-person race. We’re used to seeing two politicians compete, but here, it’s clearly Mitt Romney and the not-Romney candidate, whether it be Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum or a candidate who could emerge at a brokered convention, as there has been talk of that again. Santorum got written off, then he won in Iowa, it seems, but then Gingrich took that role, and now Gingrich has faded.

Q. What accounts for this dynamic?

A. I think the big reason is that there wasn’t a clear front-runner coming in. There was a belief that Romney would eventually be the nominee, and I think he still will be, but what determines if a candidate is atop the polls is partially the enthusiasm of the base, and also if party elites — who help manage and determine where the money goes from big donors — are coalescing around a candidate. Also, I don’t think you can ascribe an organizational role to the Tea Party, but there’s no clear candidate who supports that point of view, which is another factor we continue to see in the polls.

Q. It seems that part of the argument for Romney is that he would be the most electable in November. But how much does the electability argument really help candidates, or can it be a kind of house of cards that eventually collapses?

A. There are two important decision points, one being the collective decisions that ordinary voters make. … We know from political science research that what matters a lot in primaries is momentum. Gingrich had it for a while, Santorum has it now, and momentum matters because it’s a lot easier for the candidate who is perceived as surging to raise money. I just read that in January, Romney spent more money than he took in.

Second, it’s partially about other politicians jumping on board with endorsements. There is a general sense that Romney is endorsed by more party insiders than other candidates, but he hasn’t lined them up at quite the rate he would have liked. So it’s not just the decisions of voters, but also party insiders, and electability is a large concern for them. I’m surprised that we’re seeing Santorum again. I thought that once Romney blitzed Gingrich with money in Florida, the race was almost done, but clearly there is a sense of unease with Romney as a candidate that’s still coming through.

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