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.