The Perils of Presidential Predictions

Hold off on the Giuliani and Clinton coronations--this thing ain't over yet

Last summer, before the college football season began, sportswriters and coaches drew on all their experience, savvy and predictive powers to rate the best teams in the land. The top five schools in both the major polls all got to enjoy the honor, but not for long. Two months into the season, only one of them (Louisiana State) is still in the top five. Of the newcomers to the top five, Boston College and Oregon weren't even in the preseason top 25.

All this must come as a shock to those who thought the University of Southern California was invincible, and who never dreamed that their preseason No. 5, Michigan, would lose to Appalachian State. Even more than most years, the experts have been reminded of their fallibility. And the rest of us have discovered that all the predictions in the world don't mean a thing once it's time to play the game.

It's a lesson that applies equally well to presidential politics. If you listen to the latest soundings on any given day, you might wonder if you had just awakened from a coma that caused you to miss the 2008 election. Plenty of forecasters have been eager to declare a winner before the opening gun.

This is particularly true on the Democratic side, where Hillary Clinton is regularly advised to dispense with campaigning and start looking at fabric swatches for the Oval Office drapes. An Associated Press story the other day began, "Memo to the Democratic presidential candidates: You can still beat Hillary Rodham Clinton, but you better act fast."

Said a former aide to Democratic National Committee Chairman Howard Dean, "If this were a wedding, we'd be at the 'speak now or forever hold your peace' part." It took a barrage of attacks on Clinton in Tuesday's debate to force some commentators to consider delaying the coronation.

On the Republican side, experts have been busier writing off losers. Mike Huckabee and Ron Paul are given no chance, Fred Thompson is regarded as a flop, and the vultures are circling around John McCain. Rudy Giuliani and Mitt Romney must agree that they're the only two with a chance to win, since they spend a lot of time attacking each other.

A casual observer might be stunned to learn that no actual ballots have yet been cast. For that matter, most Americans are only starting to pay attention. By the time the voting starts, today's polls and predictions will have all the pertinence of today's weather forecast. In Iowa and New Hampshire, it should be noted, voters often amuse themselves by confounding expectations.

A week before the 1988 Iowa caucuses, Bob Dole and George H.W. Bush were thought to be, in the words of a Chicago Tribune story, "far in front of their four competitors." When the caucusing was over, Bush found himself not in first or second place but in third, well behind televangelist Pat Robertson.

Four years later, Bush got another surprise when Pat Buchanan beat him in New Hampshire. In 2004, Howard Dean was expected to cruise to victory in Iowa, while John Kerry was running a poor third in the polls. Come caucus night, it was the other way around.

Political history often seems to validate the biblical maxim: "But many that are first shall be last; and the last shall be first." In November 1991, notes the AEI Political Report, a survey of Democrats put Bill Clinton sixth in a field of six, chasing Mario Cuomo, Jerry Brown, Doug Wilder, Bob Kerrey and Tom Harkin.

In November 1975, Jimmy Carter had a microscopic three percent of the Democratic vote. "On only two occasions in the modern era," says the Report, "did the eventual Democratic nominee place first in the polls among fellow Democrats a year before the election."

Republicans are less unpredictable, but this year may be an exception. Among GOP voters who currently favor a particular candidate, two out of three say they may change their minds. It can't be reassuring to Hillary Clinton to learn that nearly half of Democrats feel the same way.

Which only goes to show that we are not at the "speak now or forever hold your peace" part, or the shopping for a dress part, or even the engagement part. We're still at the Match.com part, and we're going to be there a while. Like, until voters start voting.

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  • iowan||

    Clinton, Giuliani, Romney . . . all aliens from another world

  • ||

    Guh. Does it really matter which of these identical oafs gets the job? Some may accelerate the descent into totalitarianism a lot, some a little. The direction is the same.

    I almost hope Clinton gets it. At least she's fun to hate.

    I've said it before, I'll keep on saying it. Left wing, right wing, same carrion bird in between. I wouldn't vote for any of them. And I can't wait for all the weeping and wailing from the Paulites when he vanishes in the primaries like a soap bubble, and they really didn't see it coming.

  • dbust1||

    The only reason there is any "surprise" come election time is because, as the article states, voters finally get a say. The "surprise" is entirely on the part of the media because before elections the talking heads gab so loudly that they only hear themselves talking. It merely highlights the narcissism inherent in the media today. All the pre-election predictions are attempts by media types to be the first one to predict an outcome and get a scoop. After the elections all they do is gab more about how voter outcomes were so different than expected since, after all, what the media predicts must surely be so

  • ||

    And I can't wait for all the weeping and wailing from the Paulites when he vanishes in the primaries like a soap bubble, and they really didn't see it coming.

    Oh, I see it coming. Still, I'd rather tilt at windmills than wring my hands and whine. You?

  • Sam Grove||

    Giuliani, played by Robert Duvall.

  • JBinMO||

    I am curious to see how many votes Colbert gets.

  • stephen the goldberger||

    I'll believe it's not over (especially for Dems) when I see it's not over

  • ||

    All the pre-election predictions are attempts by media types to be the first one to predict an outcome and get a scoop.

    Or maybe to direct that outcome.

    "Who controls the media controls what hits your eyeballs. Who controls your eyeballs programs your brain."

    --Dr. Timothy Leary

  • ||

    Oh, I see it coming. Still, I'd rather tilt at windmills than wring my hands and whine. You?

    Tilt away, if that's what floats it for you. But remember the definition of insanity.

    If someone like Paul actually became the candidate, I might have to rethink my actions. But until that miracle occurs, I just don't want to be humiliated again. The "republican revolution" was the last dying gasp of my faith in any political process.

    BTW, I prefer "chuckling darkly" to "whining." And I definitely don't wring my hands.

  • ||

    Chapman might want to recheck the 1992 New Hampshire primary results. Buchanan didn't actually defeat Bush there. He lost to Bush, but his 37% of the vote was well above expectations:

    http://www.unionleader.com/article.aspx?articleId=dcb13ad9-7d52-41c5-9204-63b796c6b927

    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/New_Hampshire_primary#Republicans

  • Geotpf||

    Meh. With 24 hour news channels and the Intratubes, people are paying attention earlier this time than ever before, making historical comparisons somewhat misleading. Also, Hillary's lead is very substantial-and growing.

    Look at the charts here:

    http://www.pollster.com/

    Hillary is leading everywhere, AND trending upwards everywhere. Also note that she is now leading in Iowa, bypassing Edwards a few months back. Obama is ahead in none of the states tracked and never has been (although he's trending upward in Iowa too and now is ahead of Edwards as well there).

    All Hillary has to do is run out the clock and she wins. Every state tracked has it Clinton, Obama, Edwards, Richardson, with Clinton rising everywhere and Edwards dropping or steady everywhere and mixed bags for the other two.

    Now, on the Republican side, things are slightly different. Basically, Giuliani is ahead in most places where Romney isn't self-financing his way to a win. Giuliani is ahead nationally, but Romney is ahead in Iowa and New Hampshire due to his ability to spend an infinite amount of money on TV ads in those locations (even though Romney is in fourth place nationally). The trends are also quite messy, with Giuliani more or less treading water in most places, but Romney trending upwards everywhere. Huckabee appears to be making a recent play in Iowa but is a nonentity elsewhere (although trending upwards in most places). McCain is trending down and has been for quite awhile. Thompson had a burst of support who took another look and then looked elsewhere. Paul is not going anywhere.

    The net result of all of that is that, unless Huckabee gets some late momentum, it's going to come down to Romney or Rudy, with the question being, "Does winning New Hampshire and Iowa mean you win the nomination?" That is, will people who are currently for Giuliani elsewhere in the country switch to Romney after Romney wins Iowa and New Hampshire, or will they stand pat? If they stand pat, Rudy probably wins. If they switch (either due to mo from the two early states, or due to Romney spreading the wealth nationwide on his campaign ads), then Romney wins. Also, with things this messy, a brokered convention can't be completely ruled out.

    I'm hoping for a Romney win, because I'm a Democrat and Hillary (or any other Democrat) will beat Romney in 45+ states. A Giuliani nom will make things quite a bit tougher for my side.

  • ||

    It would appear that Ron Paul has spent some of his funds on a speech coach. Here's the Jay Leno clip.

    After an attention getting 3rd quarter report, October contributions topped $2.5M. It might have been more, but the herd of cats is waiting for November 5th.

  • ||

    Hillary against anybody in the world is a 50/50 shot. She couldn't win 45 States against someone caught by Chris Hansen.

  • Geotpf||

    Cab-The Republicans need the South to win.

    Say the choices are a woman who was a wife of a governor of a southern state and a Mormon who is connected to Michigan, Massachusetts, and Utah. Who will a white, conservative, Southern Baptist vote for?

    The answer is probably neither, which still means Hillary wins the entire South and the election in a landslide. She might have more trouble in the northern non-coastal West (she has the coasts and the states along the Mexican border (including Texas) and Colorado and Nevada), the Great Plains states, and Alaska, so it might be closer to 40 than 45, but who gives a shit? If the Republican loses half of the South, or even a quarter of it, he loses.

    Here's a poll showing Clinton beating Romney 48% to 46%...IN ALABAMA!!!

    http://www.surveyusa.com/client/PollReportEmail.aspx?g=f0d6f9b6-c31e-4a51-9593-e7fe8a6dec8e

    Giuliani wins in the same poll 52% to 44%, which is still pretty damned good for a Democrat in Alabama.

    This is a state Bush won 56.5% to 41.6% in 2000 and 62.5% to 36.8% in 2004.

  • ||

    All the pre-election predictions are attempts by media types to be the first one to predict an outcome and get a scoop.



    Or maybe to direct that outcome.





    Maybe to direct that outcome? I think you and I both know better than that, goodly Mr. sage.


    Also, why is an article like this even necessary? Is it necessary? I mean, to point out that outcomes can't be determined until the action that actually causes the outcome occurs? Is everybody on this planet retarded or something?

    This concludes my nightly soliloquy in a vacuum.

  • VM||

    Is everybody on this planet retarded or something?

    yes. most. the rest are in Detroit.

    *brays happily. ambles off*

  • ||

    The problem with the predictions is that the media rely almost entirely on random telephone surveys, yet the people surveyed barely know who is running, let alone what they stand for. When asked to name a candidate without prompting, most struggle to name more than a few.

    Yet this survey of the uninformed becomes the basis for determining which candidates get the most free air time in the news, and the most free air time during the debates. Worse yet, when people do start paying attention, they use these polls to help them decide which candidates to investigate further.

    No rational person would make other life decisions in such a haphazard manner. Would you ask 500 random people which movies are worth watching, when 400 of them haven't seen the movies either?

  • ||

    The election is shaping up nicely for a big Ron Paul surprise.

    Wyoming, Iowa, and Nevada hold early, low-turnout contests, not that much better attended than the Republican straw polls Ron Paul has been dominating.

    New Hampshire and Nevada hold high profile early contests, and are arguably the two most libertarian-leaning states in the US. They ranked first and second in per-capita Ron Paul donations in the third quarter.

    Michigan holds an early open primary, and Democrats there have no incentive to care, since arguments over the date have caused the DNC to penalize the state all of its delegates, and most of the Democratic candidates to remove their names from the ballot. Talk about a perfect storm for Ron Paul.

    South Carolina seems somewhat less Paul-friendly than the states named above, but a recent survey there showed no candidate with over 20% support right now, 33% still undecided, and 25% favoring a timetable for withdrawal from Iraq.

    In Iowa, over 50% of Republicans want out of Iraq.

    When the smoke clears at the end of January, Ron Paul is going to be getting a boat load of free publicity, heading in to the 20-state showdown on February 5th.

  • ||

    "I might have to rethink my actions"

    Quote of the hour for talking heads and pollsters alike.

    Downplaying Edwards because of national polls is a mistake. The polls, as has been suggested, count only a miniscule portion of the voting mass; a lot of the polled are voting for Hillary because hers is the name most often toted. Let's see the polls in a couple of weeks when the media is picking her apart; it was bound to happen, there is so much to pick and pile on; while Edwards is getting all the kudos for handing her a knock or two.

    It's is unexciting to wait for the votes in the primaries but the fact remains that even the primary results can't predict the final decision on a new president.

    All we know for sure is he or she can't possibly be as reprehensible as the present robotic moron.

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