The 2011 Pundit Audit

My four dumbest political predictions of the year.

Rick Perry, a competent candidate? Whoops.

Photograph by Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

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.

Luckily, I didn’t botch as many calls this year. One reason for that was I didn’t make as many calls. In 2011, I tried harder to limit my chin-stroking to occasions when I’d reported out the details of something. A month before the special election for Anthony Weiner’s seat, I acknowledged polls showing that Democrats could lose it. (No repeat of my 2010 mistake of quoting Democrats who were sure, 100 percent sure, that they’d elect Martha Coakley to the U.S. Senate.) I argued that Republicans “won” the debt limit fight, and I’d stand by that, even if their poll numbers have crumbled since then. No party’s going to thrive in 9 percent unemployment; the GOP has extracted massive concessions.

No, I only fumbled a few big predictions this year. Here they are.

July 27: Rick Perry will be a competent candidate.

For weeks before Rick Perry entered the primaries, I theorized about how he could win. (In my defense, so did lots of other people.) On MSNBC Live in July, I explained that “right now there is not really any credible Southern candidate for the nomination.” If Perry got in the race, I said, he’d pull it off.

How could I have been so wrong? I blame Perry, and I blame myself for not taking more seriously the self-serving, yet true, theory that the guy was just not that ready to play the big game.

Aug. 12: Perry’s book and policies won’t sink him.

I drank deep at the Rick Perry well, slaking my thirst for a frontrunner as if I was some conquistador who’d stumbled upon a magic fountain. None of the very smart reasons why Perry would falter made any sense to me. In August, on MSNBC, I tried to convince Chris Hayes that Perry’s insistence that Social Security was a “Ponzi scheme” would not hurt him. “Republicans have shifted our conversation pretty far down this road towards rethinking whether the New Deal worked, rethinking whether we need a welfare state,” I said, mixing metaphors. (It’s TV. You try it.)

I doubted that Perry would take on water after defending his mandatory HPV policy in Texas. I wasn’t immediately sure that he had burned himself on immigration. But this was the issue—at last—that put me right. By Sept. 24, after the Florida  debate, I was talking to voters who had ruled out Perry just because he said his critics had “no heart” on immigration.

Sept. 21: Newt can never come back!

It seemed obvious at the time: Newt Gingrich couldn’t possibly bounce to the top of the GOP race. After reading a bunch of pieces on the topic, I confidently argued that Paul Bedard of U.S. News and Scott Conroy of Real Clear Politics had it all wrong. “Gingrich is campaigning independently of the field,” I reasoned. “You can see the finish line in his eyes: enhanced stature, new requests for TV and speaking jobs, new books.” These guys were clearly just writing columns for column-writing sake.

No, they weren’t. The candidate-to-candidate polling didn’t suggest that Gingrich was surging, but other evidence did. Republican voters who had given up on Gingrich after he appeared to trash Paul Ryan’s budget (Ryan certainly thought he had) had forgiven him. Gingrich hadn’t really factored in the fights between candidates, in debates or elsewhere, and the candidates who let the other guys implode almost always benefit. (Ask John Kerry.) If Rick Perry faltered, yes, Herman Cain stood to benefit. But Cain was never a credible candidate who could go the distance against Mitt Romney. He’d never been vetted. Gingrich had. He didn’t seem to know anything about anything. Gingrich did.

My mistake would have been forgivable if I’d stopped there. But my fullest statement of this nonsense, titled “Meanwhile, Mitt’s Still Winning,” ran on Nov. 2. That was after Cain started to implode and after Rick Perry had largely bumbled his way out of contention.

Dec. 20: Republicans won’t cave on the payroll tax holiday.

Well, they did. Two days after I argued that Republicans would stick to their guns and deny Democrats a two-month, fairly clean extension of the payroll tax cut, the Republicans tossed their guns to the ground and ran home. Republicans had just talked so confidently about the fight, getting snippy with reporters who asked if they were losing on “optics” or something. “Who cares?” laughed Rep. Stephen LaTourette. “The Senate is our enemy. I don’t know any House Republican who can’t go home and say, ‘I don’t know what that loony Senate is up to.’ If you can’t say that, you’re in the wrong business.”

Now he knows some. I’ll stand by my analysis that Republicans moved the argument forward and set themselves up well for the coming payroll tax fight of February 2012. But they blew it, getting a bluff called by Democrats for the first time all year. It was a surprise. Here’s to more surprises in 2012, even if they prove I’m wrong.

Got a botched prediction of your own? Notice something I got wrong but conveniently left off this list? Send it to david.weigel@slate.com.