Milbank: Pundit’s predictions can be pointless

By Dana Milbank, Columbian Syndicated Columnist

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Pundits say the darnedest things on TV. Take, for example, the genius who said in January that “the president has a fairly easy” re-election ahead of him. Or the guy who said in June that Newt Gingrich, now the leading challenger to Mitt Romney for the Republican presidential nomination, was “finished, whether he knows he is or not.” How about the talking head who said in July that House Speaker John Boehner had suffered a “mortal wound” at the hands of fellow Republicans? Or the one who predicted in August that Rick Perry would “hold his own” in the presidential debates?

One can only pity the commentator who pronounced Michele Bachmann “formidable” in August, just before her campaign imploded, or the one who forecast a months-long “donnybrook” between Romney and the now-irrelevant Perry. The pundit in each of these cases was, alas, the poor schnook whose byline appears with this column.

The luxury of being a prognosticator is never having to say you were wrong. Journalism is so disposable that, if you make your predictions with a long-enough time horizon, people will almost always forget what you said by the time it can be proved false. This year, though, I decided to hold myself to account by going through every transcript of my TV appearances, and several recordings, to score my forecasts. It is not an exercise I’d recommend for pundits with fragile self-esteem (if there is such an animal), but the results might be a useful guide for viewers wondering whether that talking head on the tube is full of it.

I argued in January that Sarah Palin should no longer be regarded as a major political figure, and I predicted in early May that Herman Cain could well become the front-runner. I argued in August that the debt supercommittee was bound to fail, and asserted in September that Ron Paul, now vying for an upset win in Iowa, had managed to exert outsized influence in the race. In August, I predicted that voters would regard Perry as “goofy,” and, a month before his “oops” moment, I described him as “on his way to being just another Rick Santorum.”

Outcomes vs. trends

If there’s a pattern to my hits and misses — other than dumb luck — it’s the distinction between predicting specific outcomes and recognizing broad trends. When making predictions based on a specific event, there’s a danger of exaggerating the significance. When Haley Barbour decided not to join the presidential race, I deduced that he “is really saying that nobody can beat (President) Obama.” In retrospect, Barbour was only saying that he wasn’t running.

Trying to predict the daily back-and-forth of politics is like trying to make sense of gyrations in the stock market. Within a few weeks this summer, for example, I went from hailing Bachmann’s staying power to predicting that it’s “probably curtains for her.” What a political journalist can do with some reliability, however, is discern underlying patterns. Covering George W. Bush’s first term, I found him fairly easy to predict: He would, invariably, stake out a position of maximum satisfaction to his conservative base. Similarly, handicapping Congress has been simple: You won’t lose money betting on failure.

In the presidential race, my predictions are based on a historical assumption: that Republican voters, as I’ve argued regularly, tend to explore all other possibilities before settling on the most obvious one. If this pattern holds, Romney will be the nominee in the end. That assumption is behind my oft-stated prediction that, despite the late surge by Gingrich, Republican voters will come to their senses.

Probably the most useful bit of TV commentary I did in 2011 was to remind viewers how little I know. The Republican presidential contest in Iowa, for example, has been dominated by volatility. I’ve noted many times that the people who will determine the outcome there are a few thousand Tea Party faithful and evangelical Christians — such a small sample that anything could happen. That’s why we’ve had half a dozen different front-runners there. The caucuses are now less than a week away, and I still don’t have a clue. If people on TV are telling you otherwise, they’re making it up.