8/22/2008

Why Pundits Are Often Wrong

All pundits dream of being the only analyst who gets it right. They want to be the only person to accurately call an election down to the actual margin of victory. It's a bit like filling out your brackets during March Madness. There are obvious favorites, sleepers, longshots, and underdogs with a fighting chance just waiting to wreak havoc on a prognosticator's predictions. Anything can happen. That's the beauty of college basketball and political punditry.

When it comes to predicting a political event, such as an election or a cabinet pick, there are two routes a pundit can go:

1. Follow conventional wisdom and echo popular sentiment.

2. Go against the grain, even if you're all alone in doing so.

Of course, the rewards are far greater if you opt for the second option and your predictions turn out to be true. You are the prescient analyst. You are the only credible voice in a sea of noise. You are the analyst who can truly feel the pulse of the electorate or the politician in question. Your future opinions will be trusted, as you have earned instant credibility. Sometimes this desire to have one's punditry bonafides bolstered leads them to go out on a limb for the sake of not being like everyone else, even though they are sure that the popular choice is probably the correct one. How many pundits thought Bob Dole would beat Bill Clinton in 1996? While that was never going to happen, how many pundits inflated Dole's chances just because the benefits of being all alone on the right side of history were too tantalizing to ignore?

In my recent prediction, I said that Virginia Governor Tim Kaine would be tapped as Obama's running mate. However, over the past few hours news has surfaced that he is no longer in the running. Pass the humble pie with a side order of crow, please.

Joe Biden is looking like the obvious choice now. I have long been bullish on Biden in this blog and believe he is the strongest possible choice Obama could make. Even though I had these thoughts about Biden when I made my prediction, I was thinking that Barack Obama would surprise the electorate by choosing someone other than the obvious. Of course, while Obama still has not made his selection public, it is looking increasingly obvious that the senior senator from Delaware is on the verge of getting a promotion.

Pundits want to be right. But if there is a plausible underdog, they want to be unique too. Unfortunately, sometimes their desire to be unique is not compatible with their goal of being right. Joe Biden would have been an easy pick for me to make, as I've cited his merits on numerous occasions in this blog. But there's no fun in punditry if you are simply another "me too" in the media or the blogosphere whose identity is blurred by your own reticence to exercising independence of thought.

Of course, punditry should be about analyzing the actual data available and making intelligent judgments based on them. It should not be about inflating pundits' own egos. But like politicians, pundits have to take risks too. That's how they move up the hierarchy. So the next time a pundit gets it wrong, it might not be because they are out of touch with the electorate or because they are blowing hot air. After all, their own legitimacy as a political analyst is at stake. Sometimes it's simply a matter of not trusting oneself.

3 comment(s):

Thomas said...

I hadn't thought much of Biden until I read a book on the Robert Bork nomination. Biden, as head of the Senate judiciary committee, was instrumental in blocking Bork's way to the Supreme Court.

Ever since, Biden has been a hero of mine.

S.W. Anderson said...

I tend to shy away from predicting things like Obama's V.P. choice. It's too much a matter of chemistry and his personal preference, two things I'm not privy to. I'm OK with discussing factors in and ramification of various choices, though.

I don't have a problem with pundits going out on a creaky limb only to fall off. If they make interesting, informative observations in support of their thinking, their commentaries and predictions can be worthwhile. But then, much depends on their motives.

Two reasons for pundits making picks that you didn't mention are worth noting.

I can see a situation where some pundits throw up their hands, saying, "Beats me, what's going to happen." But then they go ahead and write or broadcast a prognostication anyway. Why? Because it's expected and they don't want to come off as slackers.

The other, more-sinister, possibility is carrying water for a favored party and candidate(s). That one really gets off with me, and I suspect it's more common than is healthy for the media, the political system and the country.

Anthony Palmer said...

Thomas,

Biden does have a reputation as a windbag, but he is an honest worker who has never forgotten where he came from. I think Obama made a smart selection.

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SWA,

You make a good point about the folly of predictions. I think if Obama was going for chemistry, he would have chosen Kaine. But it looks like his brain told him he needed Biden.

You also make two other good points about pundits' motives. Some of them really do want to plant a story or a narrative. Others simply do it simply because that's what viewers demand. I never really considered the consumerism aspect of it before. That's a good idea you've stumbled upon there.

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