Political Animal


December 27, 2011 8:35 AM Predictions gone wrong

By Steve Benen

Dave Weigel had a good item yesterday on his “2011 Pundit Audit.” It’s a worthwhile idea, so I thought I’d join the fun.

For reasons that have never made sense to me, people seem to trust the instincts of political reporters. There’s a whole industry — I’m part of it, as an MSNBC contributor — which puts reporters on television to predict what will happen next in situations that involve hundreds or thousands of players and countless unknowable facts.

We’re not always wrong, but we’re wrong enough. In 2010, for the first time, I subjected myself to a round of pundit accountability, paging back through Slate’s easily navigable archives to discover what predictions I’d blown. It was horrible, so I decided to do it again.

Weigel points to four flubs: the assumption that Rick Perry would be a competent candidate; the belief that Perry’s book and agenda wouldn’t undermine his candidacy; the notion that Gingrich couldn’t possibly become a top-tier Republican presidential candidate; and the argument that House Republicans wouldn’t cave in the payroll-tax-cut fight.

As it happens, I got some of these same predictions wrong. When Gingrich launched his campaign in May, I thought the very idea of his candidacy was ridiculous, and scoffed at the notion that he’d rise to the top tier. He proved me wrong. When Perry announced in August, I argued that he, unlike other recent “savior” candidates, was well positioned to thrive. Oops.

But as 2011 comes to an end, my prediction that looks the worst in hindsight came in late March, when I talked about the barrage of attacks Mitt Romney would face as the year progressed. In fact, I compared Romney to Rudy Giuliani — a candidate who appeared strong as the race began, but someone who’d wilt once voters learned about his positions and background.

And that wasn’t even close to being correct.

In fact, this blown prediction is the one thing about 2011 that I just can’t wrap my head around. We’re talking about a French-speaking Mormon vulture capitalist named Willard, who used to support abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, and combating climate change. He distanced himself from Reagan, attended Planned Parenthood fundraisers, and helped create the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act. He supported taxpayer-funded abortions and taxpayer-financed medical care for undocumented immigrants.

Given all of this, I thought there was no way Romney would coast through 2011 without facing brutal attack ads from his GOP rivals. But I was completely wrong — the attacks never came; Republican voters never heard about this record; and Romney appears well positioned to win the nomination.

Steve Benen is a contributing writer to the Washington Monthly, joining the publication in August, 2008 as chief blogger for the Washington Monthly blog, Political Animal.


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  • Danp on December 27, 2011 8:49 AM:

    You were wrong about Perry. Gingrich and Romney, however, follow the pattern of the less you know, the better for them. Trump, Cain, Perry and Gingrich all had moments in the sun, but they all came tumbling down once they became the focus. The same will happen to Romney. But for now, he survives on the vague myth that he is a moderate, specializing in economics, with a strong political background, yet not an insider. He'll probably win the nomination unless the Republicans find another unknown to support in a brokered convention, but Romney can't survive scrutiny.

  • c u n d gulag on December 27, 2011 8:52 AM:

    Thank you for your honesty!
    I'm sure countless other pundits will also admit the error of their ways.

    And as for not attacking Romney, I think that, outside of the Koch Brothers and their Cain man-love, most of the money people have been, and remain, pro-Romney.

    And I think even in this field of low wattage bulbs, even the dimmest amongst them doesn't want to ruin any chance they may have of a VP or cabinet post in a Romney Administration, should he beat Obama in an election during truly trying economic times.
    They may be dim bulbs, but they're not totally dead ones.

    But the few who have attacked that dog, Mutt Romney (and I'm looking at, and thanking you, Mr. Huntsman) have done a nice job of giving Obama's people a good template.

    And just wait until thin-skinned Mutt, that pious pandering plutocrat, has to face Obama in debates.
    I await that poor cyborgs meltdown on national TV.

    For a real good read about the Republican candidates, and the season of the money boys and girls in the Republican Parties discontent, read the great Frank Rich, "The Molotov Party":

  • SadOldVet on December 27, 2011 8:55 AM:

    While it is good to read you beating up on yourself...

    - That is doing your posters job for them! (snark)
    - It would be useful to your readers to have the 2nd part of the perspective of what did you get right! (not snark)

    I suspect that your batting average would be more than respectable!

    While we are on the subject of evaluation of the predictive accuracy of the media...

    David Brooks had another op piece in the NY Times this morning. I suggest that he needs to change his diet. Seems as if he has persistent indigestion and has to take a 'dump' on the NY Times OpEd page regularly. How does someone so full of sh!t continue to have a regular paycheck for crapping onto the Times OpEd page? (rhetorical question)

  • Steveh on December 27, 2011 8:56 AM:

    I think what we often forget is that, radical as they may be, at the end of the day the republican base always submits to the will of the elites--- that's what sheep do. Six months from now, they'll all be vigorous supporters of Romney, able to twist themselves into intricate rhetorical knots to explain his many flip flops. Fox news and talk radio will make sure of it.

    Of course when Romney loses to Obama, they'll be back to lamenting their Party's loss of principles and ideological purity. And the cycle will start again.

  • hells littlest angel on December 27, 2011 8:56 AM:

    "...Romney appears well positioned to win the nomination."

    So you're winding up your post on failed predictions with... a prediction?

    I'd like to take that as an omen. Romney is the candidate I'd least like to see win the nomination, not because I think he could win, but because he is ridiculous without the redemption of being laughable.

    I'm a Bachmann man.

  • Alli on December 27, 2011 9:03 AM:

    Well with Romney - just look at the field they have. Romney is the only serious candidate up there. He's the only one that actually wants to be president. The others are just selling books or looking for members for their cult.

  • BetweenTheLines on December 27, 2011 9:09 AM:

    Of course when Romney loses to Obama, they'll be back to lamenting their Party's loss of principles and ideological purity. And the cycle will start again.

    so true.

    But for now, I eagerly await the moment when members of the flip-flopper chanting party stake Romney '12 signs like a sea of irony throughout my neighborhood.

  • Danp on December 27, 2011 9:09 AM:

    Romney is the only serious candidate

    If by serious, you mean he is the only one who is actually running, as opposed to participating in some self-promotion event, I think I would argue that Pawlenty, Barbour and Perry were serious, too. I'm not sure I can find another definition of "serious" that would apply to Romney.

  • Darsan54 on December 27, 2011 9:15 AM:

    I appreciate your honesty. It's always been my impression most pundits are wrong more than they are right. I appreciate the need for predictions. You need them to be looking for surprises and dangers. At best they are simply speculations from limited existing information [or in FOX's case, wholly made up narratives divorced from objective reality by a psychosis of Republican philosophy].

    Don't underestimate Republican's Borg tendencies. They will always submit, there is not an independent bone in any of their bodies. They are physically unable to think as individuals, only as a hierarchical group mind.

  • DAY on December 27, 2011 9:20 AM:

    Not since Nostradamus conjured his impenetrable scribblings have so many entrail interpreters been so wrong on so many augers.
    For the professionals, it was the case of not seeing the forest for the trees.
    And, for the Great American Moron, it was not realizing that every four years another electoral forest sprouts anew.

  • berttheclock on December 27, 2011 9:30 AM:

    Don't feel too bad, Mr Benen, in '91, Hearst wrote a column for his syndicate, where, he stated he would not want to be in anyone's shoes trying to run against GWHB, the victor in Gulf I.

  • The BPI Squirrel on December 27, 2011 9:42 AM:

    In Thinking, Fast and Slow, psychologist Daniel Kahneman presents research showing that the predictions of pundits are less reliable than random guesses. That's not because pundits are stupid, but because pundits usually offer predictions about events that are much more inherently unpredictable than we imagine.

  • bob h on December 27, 2011 9:43 AM:

    I won't know what to think until William Kristol has weighed in. By the way, what has become of him? Not so ubiquitous as before.

  • Ron Byers on December 27, 2011 9:48 AM:

    Have you noticed that as it becomes more popular Obamacare is increasingly referred to as the Affordable Care Act or the ACA? I wonder if the rebranding is intentional.

  • JD on December 27, 2011 9:51 AM:

    As for the lack of attacks on Romney, don't be too hard on yourself. You were probably assuming that the rest of the clowns in the race want to be president, when they are actually angling for a lucrative sinecure at Fox News, the Heritage Foundation, et al. It's darned good work if you get it, requiring no knowledge, little effort, and a prodigious amount of arrogance. It's as if Herman Cain and Newt Gingrich wrote the job description themselves.

  • E.Hatt-Swank on December 27, 2011 9:55 AM:

    Don't be so hard on yourself, Steve. I think reasonable people are having a difficult time predicting what the right-wing will do next because the right-wing has gone completely insane. They keep doing things that make me say "No way! They couldn't have!" ... but they did.

    That said, I do really hate it when pundits make confident predictions about election results based on arguments like "no senator has EVER been elected president right from the senate!" or "no governor from state X has ever won the presidency!". The sample size is so small with the presidential election that such predictions are truly meaningless, but you see lots of folks making them as though they were being scientific. I'd much rather have pundits just give a guess based on their gut feelings. At least that's honest.

    One unrelated question for everyone: why is it that when we want to subtly cut down Mitt Romney, we sometimes emphasize that his real first name is Willard (as Steve does in this post)? Is there something about that name that's inherently bad? Is it worse than "Mitt"? I got it when the right-wingers kept saying "Barack Hussein Obama" -- no subtlety there -- but I just don't get the "Willard" thing.

  • timb on December 27, 2011 10:07 AM:


    To paraphrase Mencken: no one ever went broke underestimating the stupidity of the Republican primary voter.

    This is an amazing species of silliness: the can't remember anything that happened prior to 2010, they took Herman Cain AND Newt Gingrich seriously, and they know absolutely nothing about Mitt Romney, their candidate.

    No wonder they think less revenue brings in more money; more carbon dioxide is good, and that freedom means going without health insurance

  • Danp on December 27, 2011 10:07 AM:

    Willard ... Is it worse than "Mitt"?

    They both have a "Biff Throckmorton" vibe, don't they?

  • rea on December 27, 2011 10:43 AM:

    You were partly rigt about Romney--few republicans can really stand him. The one factor you failed to take into account, though, is that everyone else running for president on the Republican side is obviously worse.

  • TR on December 27, 2011 11:06 AM:

    Who could have predicted the Obama administration would have so many scandals to contend with this year? The Fast and Furious gun running scandal, Solyndra, etc.

    So who wants to go out on a limb in predicting which one will lead to Obama's impeachment?

    Will it be one of those or what's behind door number four?

  • booch221 on December 27, 2011 11:56 AM:

    We're talking about a French-speaking Mormon vulture capitalist named Willard, who used to support abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, "amnesty" for undocumented immigrants, and combating climate change. He distanced himself from Reagan, attended Planned Parenthood fundraisers, and helped create the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act. He supported taxpayer-funded abortions and taxpayer-financed medical care for undocumented immigrants.

    Don't forget, he also promised to be a sleeper agent inside the Republican Party.

  • Tom Allen on December 27, 2011 12:28 PM:

    And as a pundit, you've been predicting that President Obama will be re-elected as a visionary Democratic liberal icon, rather than a tremendous sellout worse in some ways than George W. Bush. And he certainly won't be primaried! But only a silly liberal would say that, just as we predicted those other four things you were utterly wrong about.

    Guess you won't ever learn your lesson, will you?

  • chi res on December 27, 2011 1:11 PM:

    Excuse me, Tom? Would you mind moving your comments to the post about Ron Paul?

    We like to keep all the fringies and kooks in one place as much as possible. Thanks.

  • Rick B on December 27, 2011 1:31 PM:

    Steve, thanks for the update on the unreliability of punditry. I should probably test my own posted opinions similarly, but who in hell gives my opinions much weight anyway?

    This election year is going to be a graveyard for pundit's predictions, though. I have never seen an election with such poor reporting in general. The punditry can never be better than the reporting it is based on.

    Since I live in Texas and follow politics I was aware that very little accurate data was being reported on Rick Perry. Unfounded self-interested opinions is all we have gotten. Thirty years ago every big city had two newspapers and they tended to be the conservative one that the real estate interests used to promote their taxpayer boondoggles and the more liberal one that reported what was wrong with the boondoggles and the governments that were pushing them. Then under Reagan the anti-trust stopped being enforced on newspapers and we are left with one newspaper cities dominated by conservatives and real estate developers.

    A big part of the problem is that there are so few professional political reporters left who are digging into the muck. Rick Perry is as crooked as a dog's hind leg, but he has had to go national before anyone bothered to look at how bought he is. Until he was promoted to governor in 2000 his state salary was $7,200 per year, the same pay as Texas Reps and Senators have gotten since WW II. Yet he has become a multimillionaire.

    How do we make accurate evaluations and predictions when the information we get is so ... sparse? The pundits, yourself included, work from the same sparse base of data.

    @c u n d (8:52 AM), I think you are right that the money Republicans circled the wagons around Romney. He's one of them, and they really don't want a recurrence of the McCain/Palin fiasco.

    But the Koch brothers and Murdoch/Ailes detest Romney - for different reason, I suspect. So they keep throwing up alternatives and trying to build a popular groundswell against him. Since the only reportable data is polls, this seems to work in the media. But the alternatives are all too flawed.

    I don't think the Republican base has any real say in the race. I agree with @Steveh (8:56 AM). This is all a battle of the Republican/conservative elites played through the media. The polls measure public reaction to the manipulations of those elites.

    The so-called Republican political A-Team simply has no representation in that group of elites making the choice this year. No candidate can run without being promoted by one of the Republican elites. That's what both Pawlenty and Huntsman have run up against.

    If the pundits are basing predictions on the polls and little else, and the polls are controlled by the decisions and money of the Republican/Conservative elites who are choosing the candidate, then it is not surprising that the pundits' predictions are so often wrong. Bob Novak, with his lines to the Republican insiders, would have been much more accurate - depending on which insiders he reported from.

    @E.Hatt-Swank - wasn't 'Willard' the name of a rat in some recent movie? That's what I associate that name with - a rat and a Richy-Rich super elite clown.

    I hate captcha!

  • Doug on December 27, 2011 8:57 PM:

    Actually Mr. Benen, you didn't get it wrong; the Gingrich campaign IS ridiculous!
    That he's currently a leading contender for the GOP nomination says more about THEM and in no way impugns your prognosticatory abilities.