I've been meaning to get to this for a while now...it seems to have become rather long and meandering. I guess that makes it appropriate for a Friday afternoon.
Nate Silver had an outstanding post up earlier in the week regarding Rick Perry's about-face about dropping out. It's really, really, first-rate. Silver goes through the possibilities of what Perry is up to. Perhaps it's a personal, emotional decision despite there being no plausible chance of winning; or, perhaps there's additional information we don't know about, and he's actually making a "highly informed and strategic decision." We don't know! Go read it.
It's just a much smarter, and more interesting, and more useful post than what I wrote earlier about the decision, which was just the smaller point that we shouldn't necessarily believe his first claim that he's staying in. In my defense, I watched a lot of cable news on Tuesday! I wound up just way annoyed at how the cable news people had apparently never heard of any candidate who says that's she's staying in the race forever on one day and then drops out the next, and wanted to remind everyone of that...which is fine as it goes, but sort of misses the big point of what Perry may or may not be up to. Ah well -- if you read the comments to that post, a bunch of the commenters had useful things to say. But Silver nailed it.
I do want to clean up a couple of things he said that need a bit of clarification.One is that Silver thinks that political scientists "prefer" the second type of explanation, the incentive- and institutional-based explanation. I don't think that's correct as a blanket generalization. Most good political science leaves plenty of room for personal variation in how (for example) politicians respond to incentives.
The other thing is something that Silver called the "maximal expression" of incentive-based reasoning about his stuff, which is the thing that I usually say: that the best way to think of it is that they're all candidates, everyone from Tim Pawlenty to Haley Barbour to Mitch Daniels to John Thune. And I'm comfortable with defending that position...but I should point out that as far I know, it's sort of peculiar to me, at least as explicitly stated.
At any rate, I'm not complaining, but I do want to point out that lots and lots of political scientists, myself certainly included, do not treat politicians as if they are nothing but rational utility calculators.
OK, let's hide some substance down here at the bottom of the post. Following Silver's logic, Perry could be staying in because of a personal and emotional reaction to the situation; he could be staying in because he mistakenly believes that he could still win; or he could be staying in because he correctly believes he could still win.
If it's the first two, we have nothing much to analyze; the only question is how much he would take away from Santorum in South Carolina, and the answer is: probably not much, and not enough to make much of a difference.
What about the possibility that he correctly believes he still could have a chance? What's interesting about that is that it would really mean that something in the process would have changed. Certainly no candidate in the reform era has failed to register any success in either Iowa or New Hampshire and then come anywhere close to the nomination. So something would have to have changed. One possibility is the Mickey Kaus theory -- that media spin and news cycles have accelerated so much that the normal relationship between Iowa and New Hampshire, and then New Hampshire and the rest of the states, breaks down. If that's the case, then it just wouldn't necessarily matter that Rick Santorum broke out in Iowa and Perry finished out of the money; we would still be in the pre-Iowa situation in which a slight bit of good news could spark a surge from any candidate, and Perry would still be better positioned than Santorum (or Newt, or Paul) to take advantage of it.
The other possibility, at least the other one I can think of, is that the "party decides" side of things has strengthened so much that it overwhelms the media-centered mechanisms that make Iowa and New Hampshire so important. That is, if it's even more the case now that party actors' decisions determine the nomination, then perhaps those decisions could be made much later in the process and rapidly enforced by the parties (presumably through use of the partisan media). So: if all this was true, then Perry might simply be waiting for conservative party actors and groups to finally make their decision -- and the results in Iowa and New Hampshire might be irrelevant to that decision.
I'm willing to believe that both of those things are possible...but I don't think either is particularly likely. To put it another way: there are two different tracks here. One is about party actors, everything from elected politicians on down to activists, collectively competing and cooperating to settle on a nominee. The other is about ordinary voters and the mass media. Since about 1980 or 1984, the first track has been able to impose its choice on the second track in part by knowing how the incentives and mechanisms of the second track work (although that's not all; party actors also presumably also use the primaries and caucuses to gather information about the candidates, including how they appeal to voters, so it can run both ways). If, however, the mechanics of how the media works and how voters are influenced has changed sufficiently, it's always possible that the party will lose control (as it did in the 1970s when the rules were new and party actors were slow to adapt), or that the party's control will be much stronger (perhaps through advances in partisan polarization and the partisan press).
I don't believe either of those changes have happened. The only change I've really observed is an acceleration of the early winnowing that has been showing up in GOP nomination cycles for some time now. But the evidence so far is still consistent with the possibility of significant change, and of course we should always be open to that possibility. And a Perry comeback now would certainly, I'd say, indicate that things have changed somehow.