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Rick Perry: Gaffe-Prone Hick or Crafty Pol?

He's an unabashedly right-wing, cowboy-boot-wearing, twang-talkin' and farm-bred kind of a fella. But that doesn't mean he's stupid. Call it smarts -- cowboy smarts.

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Where Science Matters: Campaign Strategy

Given his defiance of the evidence on the matters of evolution and climate change, it's tempting to paint Rick Perry as anti-science. He's not entirely; he just happens to be as adept as a meteorologist at gauging which way the wind blows. Among people who comprise the GOP pool of primary voters, Darwin and carbon-trading don't have much of a fan base. But when science stands to increase his chances of winning, Perry's all for it.

In 2006, Perry's chief strategist, Dave Carney, brought four political scientists into Perry's war room "to impose experimental controls on any aspect of the campaign budget that they could randomize and measure," according Sasha Issenberg, author of the electronic book, Rick Perry and His Eggheads: Inside the Brainiest Political Operation in America (quoted here in an e-mail conversation with New York Times blogger David Leonhardt).

Issenberg explains, via Leonhardt's post at The Caucus, the NYT politics blog:

No candidate has ever presided over a political operation so skeptical about the effectiveness of basic campaign tools and so committed to using social-science methods to rigorously test them...

The political scientists, Issenberg explains, were invited to:

...impose experimental controls on any aspect of the campaign budget that they could randomize and measure. Over the course of that year, the eggheads, as they were known within the campaign, ran experiments testing the effectiveness of all the things that political consultants do reflexively and we take for granted: candidate appearances, TV ads, robocalls, direct mail. These were basically the political world’s version of randomized drug trials, which had been used by academics but never from within a large-scale partisan campaign.

The findings from those 2006 tests dramatically changed how Carney prioritized the candidate’s time and the campaign’s money when Perry sought re-election again in 2010 and will inform the way he runs for president now.

How's that for stupid?

Gaffe or Good Messaging?

When Rick Perry suggested that Federal Reserve Chairman Ben Bernanke might be guilty of treason if the Fed pursued further "quantitative easing" (i.e., the printing of more money), media wags gasped. Perry even intimated that in Texas, such an act might yield Bernanke a thrashing.

Writing for U.S. News and World Report, Kenneth Walsh called Perry's comments a "gaffe", suggesting that the Texan's comments on climate change were, as well. Then there was the way Perry answered a question from a voter at a campaign stop, who asked the governor whether or not he thought President Barack Obama loved his country. From Walsh's post:

Perry said the questioner would have to ask Obama--which left the impression that Perry has doubts about the president's patriotism.

But with all that political science behind Perry, it's unlikely that these are gaffes, or that Perry, as the title of Walsh's post suggests, has "a gaffe problem." These are likely messages crafted to appeal to a well-targeted audience: the very right-wing voters who are likely to turn up in the voting booth on primary day.

Gallup reports that 70 percent of rank-and-file Republicans describe themselves as conservatives. These are just the regular Republican Janes and Joes (mostly Joes). Among the enthusiasts who will be motivated to turn out for a primary race, that percentage is likely higher. A 2008 Pew poll showed 44 percent of GOP primary voters identified as Christian evangelical, a majority of whom do not believe in evolution.

Cutting into Perry's support in at least one early state, New Hampshire, will be the enthusiastic Ron Paul voters. Paul has cannily positioned himself as a secular libertarian (the reality actually a bit more complicated than that), a category that appeals to New Hampshirites.

 
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