Sometimes, It's Hard to Make a Good Political Bet

If you hate sports analogies, you will really hate this: Conventional wisdom in politics serves the same purpose as the betting line in sports. It reveals a particular set of expectations, indicates the consensus about the risk of putting money on one contestant over another and provides a way to talk about an event — both in anticipation of what might happen and in the analysis of what actually took place after it’s over.

The fast way into an election chat is to ask, “So who wins the governor’s race?”

You have heard the conversation. This one is a front-runner. That was an upset. This contestant threw it away. That one lost but outdid expectations and should be a contender next time.

The talk doesn’t matter in sports, unless it gets into the players’ heads and affects their performance. For the rest of us, it is a source of pain or joy that does not actually affect our everyday existence. Sure, it’s sad that the Rangers and the Astros did not make the playoffs, but it won’t make your property taxes go up.

If you hate sports analogies about politics, chances are that it is partly because you don’t like the idea that politics is a game. It is and it isn’t.

 

Politics is consequential, and the banter about it — the conventional wisdom — actually matters. It influences who donates to whom, and how much. It makes front-runners and also-rans of candidates before the voting even starts. It figures into calculations about whether to debate and whether to run stay-at-home campaigns or to get out and do dozens of town halls. It makes stars of people like U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, and gives ulcers to supporters of stalwarts like U.S. Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas.

And sometimes, it’s worthless: in two of the high-profile races on the Texas ballot in 2014 — lieutenant governor and attorney general — a Republican looking for a sure bet has very little to go on.

Attorney General Greg Abbott is widely considered the odds-on favorite to be the Republican nominee for governor; he’s got more than $20 million in his political accounts, he’s the current attorney general and it would be a surprise — though it is certainly possible — if he lost to Tom Pauken or anyone else chasing the party’s nomination. The expectation — because of his office, his money and the way he has been working the active members of the Republican Party of Texas for years — is that he will finish first. Pauken has an argument of his own. He’s a former chairman of the Republican Party of Texas, a former Gov. Rick Perry appointee, a veteran of the Reagan administration and a guy with a reputation for challenging the status quo, running in a party that seems to like that sort of thing.

The conventional wisdom works for Pauken, to a point; Cruz, now the state’s junior U.S. senator, is the most recent version of the adage about people pulling for the underdog. Some bettors like a long shot.

In two of the next year’s noisiest Republican races, there is hardly any conventional wisdom at all. In one, the race for lieutenant governor, that is a troublesome fact for the incumbent, David Dewhurst. Under the standard rules of conventional wisdom, incumbents are front-runners. Dewhurst, challenged by State Sen. Dan Patrick, of Houston, Land Commissioner Jerry Patterson and Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples, is not considered the automatic favorite. The donors and the voters are still milling around, many of them waiting to place their bets.

In the race to replace Abbott as attorney general, three relative unknowns — all Republican officeholders with political successes to their names — are trying to distinguish themselves. Again, there’s not a straight-up front-runner. State Rep. Dan Branch of Dallas has more money in his accounts. Railroad Commissioner Barry Smitherman is the only one who has ever run statewide, albeit for a down-ballot race that did not attract much attention. State Sen. Ken Paxton, of McKinney, is one of the most conservative members of the Legislature, a big selling point in a very conservative Republican primary.

Political donors, endorsers and activists like to pick the winners, to be the early backers of the candidates who go on to become officeholders. They’ve grown accustomed to the certainty and comfort of a Republican state ticket full of incumbents, and all of this competition is disquieting.

But it sure is fun to watch the game.

 

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