Predictions gone wrong

Dave Weigel had a good item yesterday on his “2011 Pundit Audit.” It’s a worthwhile idea, so I thought I’d join the fun.

For reasons that have never made sense to me, people seem to trust the instincts of political reporters. There’s a whole industry — I’m part of it, as an MSNBC contributor — which puts reporters on television to predict what will happen next in situations that involve hundreds or thousands of players and countless unknowable facts.

We’re not always wrong, but we’re wrong enough. In 2010, for the first time, I subjected myself to a round of pundit accountability, paging back through Slate’s easily navigable archives to discover what predictions I’d blown. It was horrible, so I decided to do it again.

Weigel points to four flubs: the assumption that Rick Perry would be a competent candidate; the belief that Perry’s book and agenda wouldn’t undermine his candidacy; the notion that Gingrich couldn’t possibly become a top-tier Republican presidential candidate; and the argument that House Republicans wouldn’t cave in the payroll-tax-cut fight.

As it happens, I got some of these same predictions wrong. When Gingrich launched his campaign in May, I thought the very idea of his candidacy was ridiculous, and scoffed at the notion that he’d rise to the top tier. He proved me wrong. When Perry announced in August, I argued that he, unlike other recent “savior” candidates, was well positioned to thrive. Oops.

But as 2011 comes to an end, my prediction that looks the worst in hindsight came in late March, when I talked about the barrage of attacks Mitt Romney would face as the year progressed. In fact, I compared Romney to Rudy Giuliani — a candidate who appeared strong as the race began, but someone who’d wilt once voters learned about his positions and background.

And that wasn’t even close to being correct.

In fact, this blown prediction is the one thing about 2011 that I just can’t wrap my head around. We’re talking about a French-speaking Mormon vulture capitalist named Willard, who used to support abortion rights, gay rights, gun control, “amnesty” for undocumented immigrants, and combating climate change. He distanced himself from Reagan, attended Planned Parenthood fundraisers, and helped create the blueprint for the Affordable Care Act. He supported taxpayer-funded abortions and taxpayer-financed medical care for undocumented immigrants.

Given all of this, I thought there was no way Romney would coast through 2011 without facing brutal attack ads from his GOP rivals. But I was completely wrong — the attacks never came; Republican voters never heard about this record; and Romney appears well positioned to win the nomination.