The Perils of Punditry

Speaking of extrapolating recent trends into the indefinite future, this was making the rounds of Facebook this morning.  Quel ouch:


Over the past couple of weeks, at least three Republicans -- House Minority Whip Eric Cantor (Va.), former Speaker Newt Gingrich (Ga.) and campaign consultant Tony Marsh -- have raised the possibility of the GOP winning back the House of Representatives next year. That idea is lunacy and ought to be put to rest immediately.

None of the three actually predicted that Republicans would gain the 40 seats that they need for a majority, but all three held out hope that that's possible. It isn't.

"I don't remove the prospect that we could take the majority back in 2010," Cantor said at a breakfast with reporters early this month.

Gingrich recently told Roll Call contributing writer Nathan Gonzales that Democratic support for the budget and the stimulus bill could help the GOP "beat enough Democrats to get Republicans back into the majority."

Tony Marsh, a consultant to Republican National Committee Chairman Michael Steele, went further in a Townhall.com piece. He argued that Republicans can win back the House next year by expanding the playing field, running smarter campaigns and offering a "contrasting and visionary message to America."

Yes, Republicans have plenty of opportunities in good districts following their loss of 53 House seats over the past two cycles. And yes, there are signs that the Republican hemorrhage has stopped and even possibly that the party's fortunes have begun to reverse course.

But there are no signs of a dramatic rebound for the party, and the chance of Republicans winning control of either chamber in the 2010 midterm elections is zero. Not "close to zero." Not "slight" or "small." Zero.

There's some of the predictable "they pay him for this?"--none of it, I'm glad to see, from journalists.  Pundits, who have to put predictions down every week, in writing where they can come back to embarrass you, should be aware just how hard this stuff is.  I am aware of no analyst of any political persuasion or intellectual capacity, who has managed to avoid making some really heroic mistakes.  One of the smartest, most capable journalists I know was responsible for the Economist's cover story predicting oil might hit $5 a barrel--right before it started shooting up towards $100 a barrel.


If you think you've found a pundit with a great track record of making accurate predictions, it's much more likely that you've simply forgotten the bad ones--or that you've hit on the sort of pundit who predicts the same thing over and over (GOP to win election, recession coming, etc.) and is eventually proven right.  This is particularly true if the pundit is you; we have an astonishing ability to forget inconvenient mistakes.

I don't exclude myself from this.  I try to avoid making predictions, and when I do, I try to keep them modest and acknowledge uncertainty.  But I've made my fair share of howlers--"of course Argentina won't default on its IMF debt"--and no doubt will again.
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Megan McArdle is a columnist at Bloomberg View and a former senior editor at The Atlantic. Her new book is The Up Side of Down.

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