For opportunities to embarrass yourself, there is nothing quite like writing a political column in an election year. One must make predictions, right? And boy, do some of them look bad when the time comes, as it does today for this column, to look back over the year.
In point of fact, it’s remarkable how many people in the business don’t make predictions, at least not in print. (Television chat shows are different. Once on a cable news show, a brash, funny, irreverent, attractive, leggy, blonde host I hope that narrows it down for you demanded to know whether I thought Mr. X, already in much hot water, would be indicted. I hemmed and hawed and stalled while contemplating a) the fact I didn’t have the slightest idea and b) my legal exposure in the event I predicted Mr. X would be indicted and he wasn’t. My host would have none of it. “C’mon,” she exhorted me, “This is cable!”)
It seems likely that these non-predictors are worried about their credibility in the event their predictions go wrong. But really, how honest is that? Do the non-predictors really have no thoughts on what the results will be? I doubt it. And does one really protect one’s credibility by concealing one’s thinking?
After all, the purpose of writing about politics is to try to illuminate the subject. Shouldn’t one say what one thinks? How self-important is it to conclude that one’s readers are better served by one’s taciturny? Besides, it’s not as if stray political predictions can tank the stock market or sink the Maine. Neither lives nor fortunes nor sacred honor are at stake here. Very well then. Time to look back and admit error.
To start with the worst, on Feb. 1, 2000, I predicted that George W. Bush would beat John McCain in New Hampshire by 2 percentage points. This was, oh, 20 points off in the wrong direction, as Mr. McCain delivered as mighty a blow as you could imagine to the front-runner and nearly upended the entire GOP establishment.
How do you go so wrong? Here’s how: Polls aren’t terribly reliable, especially when you have an open primary in which independents can vote. So you have to guess. And it seemed to me at the time that the Republican establishment had long since united around George W. Bush, as the Democratic establishment had around Al Gore, and that the chance of either being derailed as nominee was slim to nil. (I was thus not a participant in hyping Bill Bradley or John McCain). The question as I saw it was whether the New Hampshire GOP would validate the establishment choice or render an eccentric judgment. I guessed that after a couple of eccentric verdicts in recent elections, it might veer back to a steadier course.
This was, in a sense, not wrong in that Mr. Bush did win by about two points among Republicans only. What I didn’t see was how huge the McCain surge among independents would be. Afterward, though, I thought that even as mighty a blow as Mr. McCain delivered did not change the fact that establishment opinion was both fixed and dominant.
Next major error: I thought Mr. Gore would look to his left for a vice presidential nominee. (Mr. Bush, I correctly predicted, would look for someone with gray hair.) I figured that Mr. Gore, running as heir to the “New Democrats,” would need to buttress his left flank. No go. Mr. Gore did act to shore up his left, but he did it himself with the populist rhetoric he grafted onto his largely centrist issues agenda.
To round out the year, I predicted that Mr. Bush would win the popular vote 49-45, but win less than 300 votes in the electoral college. Missing here was the surge in the final days toward Mr. Gore among undecided voters (who were, as we knew all along, more in tune with Mr. Gore’s positions on issues than Mr. Bush’s). This prediction was entirely poll-driven. But as I noted, nobody, pollsters included, really knew who was going to turn out Nov. 7, and the variation in the polls wasn’t due to shifting opinion so much as the different screens pollsters used to determine “likely voters.” They were guessing, too. As I noted election day: “It’s possible the polls are consistently pointing the wrong way because they are consistently underweighting Democratic turnout.” But I wrongly thought this was the less likely possibility.
What does this reign of error mean? In the words of one e-mail correspondent this year, “I believe you are an idiot.”
I have a slightly different view, of course. To take accuracy in prediction as the test of this column or any other exercise in political analysis and commentary is to mistake the purpose of the genre. That purpose is to explore the realm of reasonable political possibility and chart its hitherto unknown features. After that, we’re all guessing.
Tod Lindberg is editor of Policy Review magazine. His column appears Tuesdays.