On November 2, 2012, professional political pundit Michael Barone announced that he was “going out on a limb” to predict that Mitt Romney would win that year’s presidential election by a landslide.
Barone didn’t make a prediction that turned out to be incorrect, but might at least be considered reasonable. He “went out on a limb” in order to bring attention to himself, and predicted that the Romney/Ryan ticket would win the states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Now, nobody — not even the pollsters most sympathetic to Romney — was predicting at the time that Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were even competitive, let alone likely to be won by Romney. This was a totally ridiculous stunt by Barone — again, for no apparent purpose other than to generate attention to himself, and therefore clicks. Because he couldn’t possibly have been that stupid. (Or could he?)
What was the basis for this outlandishly, flagrantly wrong prediction? Barone had determined that the importance of “fundamentals” — i.e., actual data and empirical evidence — was being oversold in the media, and therefore skewing most predictions in favor of Obama/Biden. Let me state that again, a little more sharply this time: Barone actively, proudly eschewed data and empirical evidence in order to puff up his preferred candidate, thereby giving his readers the false impression that Romney was likely to win the election.
At the time I hypothesized that Barone would suffer no professional consequences for this dereliction of basic journalistic duty. And sure enough, here he is again, making predictions about the 2014 midterm elections from his comfortable slot at the Washington Examiner, as if nothing happened.
Why is this person still getting paid (rather well, presumably) to prognosticate about election outcomes?
Pundits of virtually all persuasions, but especially conservative pundits, often demand that teachers be “held accountable” for their poor job performance, be subjected to strictures like merit pay, and the like. I’m not commenting on the wisdom of any such proposals right now. What I’m merely pointing out is that the standards these pundits wish to impose on others never get imposed on pundits. In fact, they suffer no professional consequences for making flagrantly wrong predictions. Because if the same standards they demand for others were applied to themselves, they’d almost uniformly be out of jobs.
John Podhoretz was also flagrantly wrong about the 2012 presidential election, and yet here he too is again, comfortably commentating on the day’s events as if nothing happened. Jennifer Rubin admitted that she intentionally deceived her readership during the 2012 presidential election in order to promote the Romney campaign. She remains at her influential Washington Post perch. Why? Since everyone likes to talk about “incentives” nowadays with respect to behavioral economics, how about we apply that same logic to the punditocracy?
By no stretch am I asserting here that any error made by a political pundit should be cause for termination. I’ve made errors aplenty: I predicted that Rick Perry would be the 2012 GOP nominee (still insist he had a real shot!) and that the Scottish Independence referendum last month would pass. The difference, I like to think, is that I freely acknowledge these mistakes, in the interest of transparency. Pundit culture seems to encourage covering them up and lying about them.
Harry Enten of FiveThirtyEight (and formerly of The Guardian) has a good recommendation: at the end of each year, pundits should review what they got right and what they got wrong, so that readers might better assess their reliability. Something tells me if this guideline was ever widely enacted, there’d be a lot fewer chronically-wrong, yet mysteriously high-profile, pundits.