Every December, when the news cycles have spun themselves out, I actively try to humiliate myself. I page back through the articles and blog posts I wrote (196 pages of them this time) and record my worst blown predictions and lazy punditry. Never have I had to do this in a presidential election year, when the gut-checks and guesstimates grow like sweet corn in the field.
The year started out harmless. On Jan. 2, I filed a story about Rick Santorum’s likely win in the nonbinding precinct caucuses and wrote that he would likely win them, then lose “New Hampshire, or Nevada, or South Carolina, [and] the nomination.” That was conventional wisdom, sure, but I stuck to it and predicted a Romney primary win even before Santorum, Newt Gingrich, and then Santorum again took turns humbling him. On Jan. 3, I noticed that turnout of Republicans in those caucuses was actually down from 2008, and argued that “Republicans aren’t so excited about 2012.” And they weren’t. Not as much as the high-paid pollsters for the Romney campaign thought. (I hope they’re spending those bonuses wisely.)
I’m disinclined to believe whatever most people currently believe. That helps out in an election year. Every bend in this year’s primary season or general election inaugurated a media panic—Gingrich can be the nominee! Romney will close the gender gap! The first presidential debate changed everything! I didn’t fall for too much of this, and frequently enough I saw nontrends and nonstories through They Live glasses. Here’s what I did fall for.
Jan. 13: Romney can lock this up in South Carolina. Reagan. Bush. Dole. Bush. McCain. These men won the Palmetto primary then easily won the Republican Party’s nomination. Before the polls captured Newt Gingrich’s rise, I assumed that Mitt Romney would stagger to some kind of unimpressive Southern win, comparable to McCain’s. After Gingrich bet everything on an attack against Romney’s business experience, we lacked proof, I thought, that “actual Republican voters are blanching at this more than they’d blanch at Bain Capital’s investment moves.” Well, they blanched. They blanched all the way to the polls, where they gave Gingrich a landslide victory that presaged Romney’s wan popularity with the GOP base. Months later, when Gingrich quit the race, he took a moment to apologize to South Carolina voters, as “we will have broken their tradition of always picking the nominee.”
Feb. 2: Maybe Ron Paul will surprise us! Much of my reporting life has been spent on the Ron Paul beat. I’ve seen him and his movement underrated many times—I remember how eyes rolled when Rand Paul decided to run for the Senate. This year, I slightly overrated Paul’s ability to win popular votes, and refused to believe polls that had him running third in Nevada. “Paul has an advantage that won’t show up in polls.” He didn’t, and never met the media’s metric for popular support. But his movement managed to control the delegations of five states, and provided all manner of drama through the convention.
Feb. 8: The Republican primary will drag on for months, because it’s in all the fringe candidates’ interest to make it drag. Not quite enough, not really. See also my optimistic take on Santorum’s blather about dragging this thing out with proportional delegate selection.
March 7: Gingrich can come back, again. Having underrated the loveable former speaker once before, I endeavored never to make the same mistake. I was impressed by his vote totals in counties in the Deep South, especially in his adopted home of Georgia, and surmised that “Gingrich is in a good position to win Alabama and Mississippi next week, further muddling the ‘Santorum, conservative champion!’ story.”
April 12: The “war on women” is over. If I were composing this article in the proper holiday manner, as a list or slideshow, this would be No. 1. The Obama campaign responded to the GOP’s inevitable anti-abortion and anti-birth control politics by labeling it part of a “war on women.” The Romney campaign, staffed by generally moderate-minded Republicans (Stu Stevens, Eric Fehrnstrom), did not know how to respond. Not until Hilary Rosen, who wasn’t even affiliated with the Obama campaign, went on a low-rated CNN show and said Ann Romney “hadn’t worked a day in her life.” The Romney campaign blew this up into a news-cycle-chewing “outrage,” and I sort of fell for it. The lesson: Voters pay attention to policy, even when the pundits don’t.
July 19: Obama’s policy giveaways weren’t helping him with nonwhites. Luckily, I didn’t invest too much in this storyline, but the occasional summer poll suggested that the White House was losing support to Romney despite the president’s aggressive moves to satisfy Hispanic voters and gay donors. Future lesson: Pay less attention to polls! (I need the rest of the Internet to take the lead on this.)
Sept. 26: Republicans will elect a black, female, Mormon congresswoman. The myth of Mia Love had always looked outsized and untested. A daughter of Haitian immigrants, with a fantastic story, Love hit that candidate sweet spot where reporters preferred to profile her potential history-making power than to investigate her actual views. I was thrown by polls that gave Love a huge lead, spotted her some points because she was running on Mitt Romney’s ticket, and scoffed at the ads her Democratic incumbent opponent was running. “In an age of stronger partisan loyalty,” I wrote, “it’s increasingly hard for the ‘I hate my party, really!’ message to overcome the ‘there’s an R behind my name’ message.” Hard, but not impossible. Love lost.
Oct. 2: Todd Akin could pull this off. Before the presidential debates I flew to Missouri to find out what the state was going to do with its instantly famous gaffe-o-matic Republican candidate for U.S. Senate. “Akin’s team,” I found, “sees a clear separation between the national media’s focus and the worries of Missouri.” They would, wouldn’t they? Even the polls found the race deadlocked, with Claire McCaskill running only a few points behind Barack Obama, who was sure to lose the state. But the polls (except for Survey USA—take a bow, guys!) were wrong.
Nov. 5: It’ll be close, and Romney has a shot. When New York magazine asked me who would win, I chose Romney, narrowly, with 276 electoral votes—all of the Bush 2000 states minus New Hampshire and Nevada, plus one electoral vote from Maine.
If we leave out Twitter, that Octopus’s Garden of overconfidence and B.S., then this is really all I got wrong in 2012. A few times, I was even bailed out by reality—it seemed that the state would lose the Pennsylvania voter ID trials, and then the state won, and then a higher court reversed the decision. But I’m at peace with what I got wrong. In most cases, I could have saved myself if I’d done more reporting or gone to more hot zones. In a few cases, I fell too easily for spin and access.
There is much more to this business than prediction, which is why the pundit who did it best—Nate Silver—eschewed gut feelings and Advisers Speaking on the Condition of Anonymity for data. Next year, with its promise of constant fiscal showdowns, will require a combination of hard math and careful reporting. And I’ve already gone on record saying that Democrats might reform the filibuster, so we’ll see how I manage.