Pundits suffer the Night of a Thousand Deaths

GREG BEAN

For a political junkie likemyself, there was no better theater than watching the results of the New Hampshire primary election on CNNand the other networks Jan. 8. It’s always fun to watch people who have made such stupendous boobs of themselves attempt to salvage the tattered remnants of their credibility after making a world-class blunder.

I’m talking, of course, about the media prognosticators and pollsters who, in the week before the primary, had all but declared Hillary Clinton’s campaign as dead as Elvis. One of them (I can’t remember which one) even said that after her inevitable loss to Barack Obama in New Hampshire, the lady would be nothing but “Ed Muskie in a skirt.”

Almost every national daily newspaper, every network, every polling organization and every pundit (called “pundints” byWolf Blitzer) had predicted a huge victory by Obama, probably in the double-digit range.

Therewere all those peoplewho said her emotional breakdown (it didn’t look like one to me) at that diner was an indication that she was too tired and unstable to go on. There were all those people who said that once she lost, she’d at the least have to replace her campaign staff, but she would probably just drop out of the race. There were all those people who took dozens upon dozens of column inches speculating on where she’d gone so wrong.

As far as they were concerned, Hillary Clinton was deadmeat and Barack Obama would cakewalk into the White House. It was a done deal, and all the polls said so.

Even the candidates believed the predictions. Bill Clinton spent the whole week desperately lashing out at his wife’s critics and making a general fool of himself. Hillary was starting to spin her upcoming drubbing as the loss of one small battle in a war of many. She looked like that cartoon character who always had a cloud over his head, and you can’t really blame her for getting a little emotional toward the end. It’s never fun to take a whuppin’.

Then, the results started coming in.

At first, it was mildly amusing to watch Blitzer, and Brit Hume, and Tom Brokaw and Brian Williams and every other talking head in the universe, try to explain Clinton’s early lead.

They actually seemed a little mad that reality was putting the lie to their predictions, but they had plenty of explanations. The early results were from redneck precincts, they solemnly informed us, but once the university towns started weighing in, Obama would beat Clinton like a rented mule.

As result tallies started tilting even more decisively toward Hillary (they didn’t use these exact words), they started sheepishly admitting nobody had any idea what the hell was happening.

“It’s gonna be a long night,” one of them said. And he was sure right. For all the knowit alls in the national prognostication game, it was the Night of a Thousand Deaths. Like Blitzer, they stood in front of their fancy graphic generators with looks on their faces just like the dumfounded stare Shep had after Moe whacked him on the noggin with a ball-peen hammer.

Throughout the night, Obama trailed Clinton by between 3,000 and 5,000 votes, and the mood at the various networks was akin to that in almost any barroom in New York and New Jersey on that fateful day in 2004 when theYankees lost the last playoff game to the Red Sox.

Say it ain’t so, Joe! They were all so stunned by the magnitude of their miscalculation there wasn’t a single one who was prepared to compound the epic debacle by calling a winner. About the only thing CNN was prepared to call in the Democratic primary, in fact, was that Edwards would take third place. Duh!

“This just in from CNN,” Blitzer might as well have said, “tomorrow the sun will rise in the east and Dennis Kucinich will still be a goofball.”

Lordy, it was fun! And almost as much funwas the after-analysis aboutwhy everybody was so wrong.

“One of the great upsets inAmerican political history,” Tim Russert said.

“Bill Clinton helped her in the end,” Bill Kristol from the Fox network said.

And yadda, yadda, yadda, ad nauseam.

My favorite explanation came from CNN’s Anderson Cooper, who speculated that people must have lied to the pollsters before voting, claiming they were planning to vote for Obama when they were actually voting for Clinton.

I tuned out before he explained the logic behind that ludicrous theory, but I’m sure it was a knee-slapper.

Personally, I believe you should always lie to pollsters on general principle, but I doubt the media blunder can be blamed on a vast conspiracy of primary voters out to make every pollster, politician, prognosticator, pundit, political consultant, talking head and election-panel expert look like an incompetent, blithering idiot.

Maybe they were just out to make Anderson Cooper look bad, which would be an admirable endeavor, but I doubt that also.

Nope, the “experts” were just flat wrong. The pollsters got paid a lot ofmoney to provide wildly inaccurate data, and the media folks lapped up every tasty bite of it.And in doing so, they became the professional descendants of those guys at the newspapers who believed the pollsters so implicitly that they printed the infamous “Dewey Beats Truman” headline before the results were in.

We’ve laughed about that one for a generation, but in some ways this one is even better because polling has become so sophisticated there should be no way to bollix things up this badly.

Yet, it happened, which leads us to two conclusions.

One, as the great Yogi Berra said, “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Two, you shouldn’t believe a single pre-election prediction you hear on television, on the radio, that you read on the Internet or in the big daily newspapers.

Except this one, naturally. I predict there are a lot of pollsters and “pundints” this week who are hoping that – if they don’t get fired – we’ll forget about this whole sorry episode as soon as possible. If we don’t, when they start predicting the outcome of the next batch of primaries before the first vote is cast, nobody will listen because their credibility was blown to smithereens.

You know what,Wolf,Anderson, Brit, et al.? I think that ship has already sailed.

Gregory Bean is executive editor of Greater Media Newspapers. You can reach him at gbean@gmnews.com.