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'Tis the Season for Poor Political Prognostication

Michael Sigman: Expert political prognostications may be devoid of useful information, but they can help us resist our own tendencies to act like big shots, prediction-wise.
George Will

George Will

A recent Hamilton College survey of political predictions made during the 2008 campaign season concluded that out of the 26 elite pundits examined, only six made predictions that were more accurate than a coin toss.

Who can forget Weekly Standard editor Bill Kristol's string of howlers? He told us that Hillary Clinton would be elected president and that Barack Obama wouldn't win even one Democratic primary. After Obama had won many primaries, Kristol declaimed, on the eve of the North Carolina primary, that Hillary would win that contest, which Obama went on to win by a landslide. On the Republican side, where the conservative Kristol presumably has inside information, he assured us that John McCain would never be the nominee, but that Fred Thompson "knows what he's doing, and he will be formidable."

The worst and most shameless 2008 pundit, of course, was Dick Morris, erstwhile advisor to Trent Lott, Bill Clinton and Jesse Helms. Morris got his mojo working with Hillary versus Condi, which wasn't a novel. Like Kristol, Morris "knew" early on that McCain would strike out in his attempt at the GOP nod. Then, five days before the general election, when Obama led comfortably in every poll, Morriswrote, "McCain's gains over the last five days are remaking the political landscape as Election Day approaches." On election night, when the only question was the size and scope of Obama's win, Morris blogged that things "could go either way." After Obama's victory was confirmed, Morris took his ball and went home: "If ever there was an election that was not worth winning, it was the contest of 2008."

This election cycle, Twitter and other instant recorders of every campaign twitch have ratcheted up even further the media's 24/7/365 desperation to generate new stories. Depending on what hour you read this, Romney is or is not inevitable, Cain is or is not the flavor of the month and Obama is a goner or is sure to win a second term. To be heard above the din, commentators are making more outrageous predictions -- and more creative excuses to avoid accountability -- than ever.

When Donald Trump didn't run, as Morris assured us he would, Morris told Bill O'Reilly he was "not an expert on Donald Trump." Anne Coulter, who earlier this year told CPAC that "If we don't run Chris Christie, Romney will be the nominee and we'll lose," has now changed her mind about the Mittster, dismissing her earlier prediction as a lark. Even the brilliant Lawrence O'Donnell tripped up when he repeatedly promised that Tim Pawlenty would be the GOP nominee. When TPaw's sub-microscopic support forced him out of the race, O'Donnell pledinsanity. The Republicans party's, of course, not his own.

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Some of the most absurd 2012 forecasts have been phrased to allow the self-appointed expert to predict just about anything. In June, Kristol said, "Giuliani intends to run for the GOP nomination for president in 2012 and may throw his hat in the ring soon." While Morris, the man of many mistakes,instructs us to "Make no mistake about it: Obama may pull out."

Even punsters who know better can't help themselves. George Will, who once wrote a column about the silliness of predictions, was named among the worst seers in the Hamilton survey, with only 18 correct calls out of 48 (16 were "hedged"). Not long before TPaw withdrew and Mitch Daniels demurred, Will stated that he knew with "reasonable certainty" that our next president would be Obama, Pawlenty or Daniels. Does that mean the conservative Will is now reasonably certain of an Obama win? Nah.

The most brazen defense of pathetic prognosticating can be a good offense. Here, it's useful to wander into that most hilarious stomping ground for know-it-alls, the stock market. James Glassman's 1999 best seller, Dow 36,000, assures readers that, well, you know. Ten years later, with the Dow at a dismal 8736, Glassman stood by his whopper, writing in the Wall Street Journal, "What went wrong? Actually, nothing." Earlier this year, Glassman finally admitted the error of his ways. The reason? "The world changed." Who knew?

"Expert" political prognostications may be devoid of useful information, but they can help us resist our own tendencies to act like big shots, prediction-wise. I, for one, can predict with utter certitude that I will never make another prediction.

Michael Sigman

Republished with permission from The Huffington Post.