- The Washington Times - Tuesday, February 3, 2004

If weather forecasters predicted the weather as poorly as media commentators, political consultants, Washington wheeler-dealers and other political prognosticators forecast elections, they would be fired.

That’s because most of us rely on weather forecasters to be right, while political pundits provide comic relief even when they are wrong.

I admit it. I’m one of the guys who, based on past elections, confidently forecast a sunny outlook for Sen. Joe Lieberman last summer when he was way ahead of his competitors in the money chase. Thank you for remembering.

Let’s face it: A lot of commentators would be great political predictors, if only voters would stop getting in the way.

And the candidates. Remember how well Sen. Bob Graham of Florida was expected to do as a “national security” candidate? What? You can’t remember back that far?

Remember how cute and quirky but, alas, inconsequential we used to think former Vermont Gov. Howard Dean’s Internet fund-raising would be? (That was $40 million ago, which is record-breaking for a Democrat.)

Remember how the Iowa caucuses looked like a photo finish between Mr. Dean and Rep. Dick Gephardt of Missouri, the two candidates with the biggest armies of foot soldiers to boost turnout? (Their foot soldiers showed up. Their voters didn’t.)

Remember those polls that showed Wesley Clark inching up on Howard Dean as the Democratic front-runner? (That was before Mr. Clark spoke too often without preparing his talking points in advance.)

What happened to the people who said Sen. John Kerry’s campaign was toast when he replaced his campaign manager, reshuffled his staff and shifted his strategy? (By the way, Howard Dean’s campaign is toast now that he has replaced his campaign manager, reshuffled his staff and shifted his strategy.)

And wasn’t this supposed to be the year of the Angry Democrats? The red-faced Bush haters? The lefty radicals who would shove aside the centrist “New Democrats” of Bill Clinton, restore the “Democratic wing of the Democratic Party,” as Mr. Dean called it (borrowing from the late Sen. Paul Wellstone) and sweep Mr. Dean into nomination as the new George McGovern, who only carried one state in 1972?

Thanks, to paraphrase the late Bob Hope’s theme song, for not remembering. (I didn’t predict it, but thanks anyway.)

All those predictions appeared to be perfectly reasonable and sound — until the voters started voting.

Nothing changes a candidate’s outlook more than voters do. Mr. Kerry’s unexpected Iowa victory transformed his image overnight from sad-eyed schlump to triumphant front-runner. An equally unexpected second-place finish turned Sen. John Edwards’ image from baby-faced novice to the party’s New Southern Hope. Mr. Gephardt dropped out and Mr. Dean vowed to fight on — quite loudly.

That’s another thing that fouls up pundit’s predictions: unexpected candidate bloopers.

Eventually, as the old New Hampshire campaign metaphor goes, Mr. Kerry won the first-class ticket out of town and Mr. Dean, with a sigh of relief, took coach. Messrs. Edwards and Clark stood anxiously in standby and Mr. Lieberman was last seen on the highway outside Manchester thumbing a ride south with Rep. Dennis Kucinich and the Rev. Al Sharpton.

What happened to those mad, mad Deaniacs? Mr. Dean’s orange-hat volunteers turned out for the Vermont doctor in force, but his voters didn’t. Fearful centrists like Terry McAuliffe, Bill Clinton’s handpicked chairman of the Democratic National Committee, were reassured. Angry lefties would not easily saddle the party with a nominee the general public would never support.

Instead, Iowa and New Hampshire voters became the great levelers. They cut their way through the media chatter and took the candidates seriously. With record turnouts in both states, they judged the issues. But mostly they judged win-ability.

Judging by the exit polls in both contests, the Dean ranks are filled heavily with people who want to make some point or other, while the Kerry voters want to win. Voters who thought beating George Bush was more important than other issues gave more of their votes to Mr. Kerry than to anyone else. Good choice. Their champion is a centrist-liberal and decorated Vietnam War veteran who will not easily be smeared as a threat to America’s future, although the Bush forces almost certainly will try, if they get the chance.

That’s right. Don’t get your hopes up, Dems. The chattering media classes say President Bush has a record-breaking $200 million in his war chest, thanks largely to his big-business “Ranger” and “Pioneer” fund-raising friends. With no Republican primary opponent to worry about, buckets full of that cash will be devoted to pummeling whomever the Democrats nominate.

In other words, big money makes Mr. Bush a shoo-in for re-election, unless the economy or the war on terrorism turn sour. That’s what the big-time political predictors say. After all, Mr. Bush is way ahead in the money chase. Just like Joe Lieberman was.

Yup, you can always trust political predictions, as long as the voters don’t get in the way.

Clarence Page is a nationally syndicated columnist.

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