Rick Perry: unelectable or GOP's best shot? Why public and pundits differ.

Polls show that the public thinks Rick Perry is the GOP presidential candidate with the best chance of beating President Obama. The punditry disagrees. Why the perception gap?

Chris Carlson/AP
Republican presidential candidate Texas Gov. Rick Perry speaks during a Republican Party of Orange County rally at Roger's Gardens in Newport Beach, Calif., Thursday.

In the days since last Wednesday’s Republican presidential debate, the so-called election experts have roasted Texas Gov. Rick Perry on one of his Lone Star state barbecue spits, declaring that he “destroyed his candidacy” by calling social security a “Ponzi scheme.” Some dubbed him unelectable.

On Monday, a new CNN/ORC International poll came out, and Governor Perry had expanded his lead on the field. Some 30 percent of Republican and right-leaning Independents favor the tough-talking Texas governor over Mitt Romney.

So, what were the pundits thinking?

Jon Stewart of Comedy Central's "Daily Show" took a stab at answering that question. After showing a montage of the dire predictions about Perry, he scolded, “When will the pundits get that this is not about a race for the presidency of pundit town?”

His obvious point: The experts and the people are living in two different worlds.

On some level, data seem to bear that out. About 70 percent of GOP insiders – the sorts of folks from whom the punditry are drawn – think Mr. Romney is the more electable candidate, according to a National Journal survey. Meanwhile the CNN poll shows that 42 percent of respondents thought Perry was the candidate most likely to beat President Obama; Romney came second at 26 percent.

Why the difference? Well, it’s still only a race for the top spot on the Republican ticket right now.

“It’s very early in the bigger race,” says Matthew Hale, a political scientist at Seton Hall University in New Jersey. The field is still speaking to only part of the electorate, and most Americans are not paying attention yet, potentially skewing the results.

But pundits can be out of touch with what average people actually care about in candidates, say others. “Perry has that thing I call command presence, which has nothing to do with issues," says veteran Philadelphia broadcast journalist and author Larry Kane. "It just has to do with command of the space, and Perry has it over Romney."

Pundits will have a place as the race progresses, suggests Costas Panagopoulos, a political scientist at Fordham University in New York. “The media pundits will begin to exert influence over opinions and preferences of the general public," he notes.

Like it or not, he adds, “the public looks to pundits for cues and guidance on candidates.”

For now, with the race so early, however, the critiques of Perry's debate performances could be a “part of the need that pundits have to actually make news themselves,” says Professor Hale of Seton Hall. “Pundits anointed Perry as the front-runner and spent a couple weeks fawning over him, proclaiming the death of Romney and [Rep. Michele] Bachmann."

Now, a weak debate performance is an opportunity for the pundits to say there is still a race, he says, “which is a lot more fun and newsworthy for them.”

Polls are by no means the last word, either. With months to go before the first primaries, much can change.

In Harry Truman's famous upset Thomas Dewey in the 1948 presidential election, polls showed Dewey was ahead and Dewey eased up, points out presidential historian Richard Norton Smith, a consultant on the new, C-SPAN series about past presidential races, “The Contenders.”

“In the end, those polls betrayed him because they only told part of the story," notes Mr. Smith.

Would he have beat Harry Truman if he hadn’t given the polls so much credit? “Hard to say,” Smith says, “but part of the lesson is you can’t necessarily trust what anyone says, whether it’s a professional analyst or a poll of the people.”

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