Doyle McManus: Political punditry has perils

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Back in 2011, at the dawn of a long presidential campaign, I established a fine baseline for my credentials as a political prognosticator: I told readers that Mitt Romney’s strongest challengers for the Republican nomination would be Texas Gov. Rick Perry and former Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty.

Neither one has been heard from since.

Could I top that record in 2012?

Pretty close. Last spring, I announced in a column that Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio would be Rom­ney’s running mate. Sure, I hedged a little, saying the choice was “almost certain.”

But, hey, Portman seemed perfect: a bland, budget-savvy conservative from the most important swing state.

Yes, I noted, Romney seemed to like Rep. Paul Ryan of Wisconsin. But it didn’t seem possible to me that he’d take the risk of embracing Ryan’s proposal to turn Med­icare into a voucher plan. The smart money was on Portman, I wrote. That was true. But the smart money and I were wrong.

That was only one of several bad calls, blind alleys and blunders that I lavished on readers in the course of 2012, an election year with a lot of surprises.

My biggest wrong turn, in retrospect, was a theme I sounded several times during the campaign: the presidential election was certain to be close. Not just close, but “razor close … and headed toward an unpredictable finish,” I wrote in October, after President Obama’s lackluster performance in his initial debate with Romney.

Only it wasn’t close. When the dust settled, Obama defeated Romney soundly, winning 51 percent of the popular vote and all but one of the swing states.

Heck, it wasn’t even unpredictable. As political junkies know, several people, including statistician Nate Silver of The New York Times and political scientist Simon Jackman of Stanford University, called the outcome down to the last electoral vote. What happened?

Simple: Obama voters, especially Latinos and young people, turned out in greater numbers than most forecasters expected. Romney voters didn’t.

To quote Romney’s pollster, Neil New­house, who thought his candidate was going to win: “We saw, in the last two weeks, an intensity advantage” — but it turned out to be a mirage. “The real hidden story [was] the number of white men who didn’t vote.”

My only consolation is that I wasn’t as wrong as Newhouse or his GOP colleague Karl Rove, who predicted that Romney would win by a comfortable margin.

On the eve of the election, I wrote that Obama had a clear advantage in the swing states, making his electoral-vote victory almost certain. But the popular vote, I warned, was still “too close to call.”

Instead, Obama won the popular vote by almost 4 percentage points and became the first Democrat since Franklin D. Roosevelt to win more than 50 percent in consecutive elections.

Beyond the perils of horse-race punditry, the scale of Obama’s victory was significant for several reasons. It demonstrated that the demographic transformation of the American electorate has occurred more quickly than expected, which means the GOP has a permanent problem if it continues to depend on aging white voters. And as my colleague Ron Brownstein pointed out, the Democratic coalition that re-elected Obama was solidly in favor of liberal positions on taxes, immigration and gay marriage, giving the president an unusually united electoral base as he pushes for agenda items such as immigration reform.

Did I get anything right? Sure. I forecast early and often that Romney would survive challenges from that dizzying chorus line of primary opponents. I argued that Romney would run as a conservative, not as a moderate; that turned out to be mostly true. And in a minor feat of clairvoyance, I wrote on the eve of the first Obama-Romney debate that incumbent presidents often stumble in those contests.

Obama walked straight into the historical trap; like earlier presidents, he thought he had more important things to do than prepare for a debate. Wrong!

On some predictions, the jury is still out. I wrote that an election that returned a Republican House and a Democratic Sen­ate would guarantee two more years of gridlock; I hope I was wrong about that.

After the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colo., in July, I wrote that the de­bate on gun control was long over and the National Rifle Association had won; public revulsion at the murder of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., will put that crabbed diagnosis to the test.

DOYLE MCMANUS is a columnist for the Los Angeles Times. His column is distributed by MCT Information Services.


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