Rick Perry: Gaffe-Prone Hick or Crafty Pol?

There are two kinds of smart, the saying goes: book-smart and street-smart. In political journalism, where the book-smart people rule, the street-smartness of a political candidate can fail to register -- or even be misread as stupidity. Take, for example, the case of Texas Gov. Rick Perry, the frontrunner in the contest for the Republican presidential nomination. Okay, so maybe what passed for a street where Perry grew up in Haskell County, Texas, was made of dirt. Call it cowboy smarts, then.

The headline in Politico pulled no punches: "Is Rick Perry Dumb?" The story it accompanied, published earlier this week, was, in fairness to reporter Jonathan Martin, a much more fair assessment of Perry's intelligence than that headline would imply. But the very fact of a story devoted to debating the topic of Perry's intelligence betrayed the cultural gulf between flyover country and the coastal press, not to mention the class gulf between the national media and people who come from a world where not everybody goes to college.

Yeah, some ask, but didn't Perry say he doesn't believe in evolution? Sure, but you can't get a majority of Americans to say they do. According to a 2009 Gallup poll, only 39 percent said they accepted evolution as the explanation for human existence, while 25 percent said they outright reject evolution, and another 36 expressed no opinion.

Meanwhile, nobody's questioning the brainpower of former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney for doubting the scientific consensus on the role of human activity as the  primary driver in climate change. When the rich guy from Massachusetts -- who graduated from Harvard Law School, don't you know -- flips the bird at empirical evidence, that's just smart politics. Smart because Rick Perry, with his bachelor's degree from Texas A&M, completely rejects the notion of a human role in climate change, and Perry is beating Romney among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents in the latest polling on the GOP presidential field.

Real Estate Flipping and Pay to Play

It's not easy for a dumb guy to become a millionaire, but that's just what Rick Perry has done during the time he's been in office. Though his windfall derives from a variety of investments, his special skill appears to be in the flipping of real estate, a sector in which Perry has been known to double, and even triple, his initial investments in land when it came time to sell, according to Aman Batheja, reporting for McClatchy Newspapers.

Even if you believe, as do the folks at Texans for Public Justice [PDF], that some of these deals were a little shady, you can't say they were dumb. I mean, how dumb is it to buy a tract of land for $314,770 from your buddy, a state senator, and then sell it six years later for $1.1 million? Never mind that the guy who initially sold the tract to your senatorial pal happened to be the business partner of the guy to whom you turned around and sold it for more than a cool mil. Stinky? Sure. Stupid? No.

Then there were all those appointments of people to state jobs who were inclined to give hundreds of thousands of dollars to Perry's campaigns. Texans for Public Justice reports [PDF] that Perry has gleaned $17 million in campaign contributions from his political appointees and their spouses. Would a dumb guy appoint so many people so inclined to share their wealth with him?

(For more on Perry's campaign donors and allegations of pay to play in Texas, go to the TPJ site.)

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.

Paul's language is rife with the phrases and catchwords of the John Birch Society, with all of its accusations of "tyranny" and very particular notions of "sovereignty," and cries to "end the Fed." It's a code that JBS-inspired libertarians understand. (Ron Paul is a JBS ally, and was the keynote speaker at the segregationist organization's 50th anniversary gala.) When Perry went accused the Fed chairman of perhaps being guilty of treason, he was appealing to Paul's constituency. One of the most influential tracts among John Birch Society members in the 1960s was John Stormer's book, None Dare Call it Treason, which warned of a dark conspiracy to take down American by, among other things, "planned inflation."

Perry's assertion, this past spring, that the 10th amendment -- a favorite of "states' rights" advocates -- would be the defining issue of the 2012 presidential election was a direct appeal to both the Tea Party movement and likely Ron Paul voters.

Rick Perry may be a lot of things, things that unnerve the national political press corps: an unabashedly right-wing, cowboy-boot-wearing, twang-talkin', farm-bred kind of a fella. But in any poker game between a top-tier political reporter and Rick Perry, my money's on Perry.


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