Sure, this election has been unique in almost every way, but focusing too much on this season's peculiarities obscures an important fact: media predictions are mostly bologna. Predictions from pundit Bill Kristol, for instance, have earned the catchphrase “Kristol Ball,” the premise being that if Kristol predicts it, the opposite will be true. So why are these folks still paid to prognosticate (botch)? Perhaps they’re just liars? Well, maybe on occasion. But usually it’s more complicated than that.
BOB GARFIELD: So this is the year that indicators have been on the fritz, across the board. The polling numbers weren't as reliable as expected, the money chased the wrong candidates, the endorsements fell flat. But focusing too much on the quirks of this election season obscures an important fact. The media always make mistakes.
Submitted for your consideration, Bill Kristol. Kristol is the editor of the conservative Weekly Standard, a pundit notable for being one of the wrongest people in politics. In fact, his predictions are so reliably off the mark that they've earned the catchphrase “Kristol Ball,” the premise being that if Kristol predicts it, the opposite will be true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: He was an outspoken advocate of the “Biden will run” narrative last year.
BILL KRISTOL: Joe Biden’s going to get in, I’m quite confident. He will signal that he’d like to have Elizabeth Warren as his running mate.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Or not. Kristol, a vocal opponent of Donald Trump, uses the hashtag #PeakTrump whenever he predicts that his campaign is washed up, which, since last summer, he has done again.
BILL KRISTOL: I think we, we are past #PeakTrump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And again.
BILL KRISTOL: I think he’s hit a ceiling of about 30%. I do think it’s we’re at #PeakTrump.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: But Kristol’s predictile dysfunction isn’t limited to this election cycle. In 2006, he said that Barack Obama wouldn't win a single primary against Hillary Clinton.
BOB GARFIELD: Kristol routinely admits he's a feeble forecaster.
BILL KRISTOL: I kind of like to be in denial, you know?
It’s generally a healthy psychological – it’s a healthy psychological state often, compared to facing reality.
BILL KRISTOL: They’re not just making a prediction about what’s going to happen. They’re making a statement of what they – what they hope will happen.
BOB GARFIELD: Phil Tetlock says the reason pundits like Kristol seem unruffled by their never-ending errors is that, unlike weather forecasters, political pundits are engaged in magical thinking.
PHIL TETLOCK: And they hope they will increase the likelihood of that thing happening by saying it.
BOB GARFIELD: Tetlock offers the example of former Clinton advisor turned to GOP talking head, Dick Morris. In 2012, Morris predicted Mitt Romney would win by a landslide.
DICK MORRIS: It will be the biggest surprise in recent American political history. It will rekindle a whole question as to why the media played this race as a nail biter.
BOB GARFIELD: And Morris insisted he was backed by cold, hard science.
DICK MORRIS: I base this not on intuition or on smelling the tea leaves. I base it on reading the polls. It’s not a question of being smarter than anybody else. It’s that I've done this for a living, and there are very few people on television who talk about politics who’ve ever made a living doing it.
BOB GARFIELD: Wrong – and also wrong. What’s remarkable is not Morris's stupefying miscalculation, but his admission to Fox's Sean Hannity a week later.
DICK MORRIS: I spoke to about what I believed and I – and I think that there was a period of time when the Romney campaign was falling apart. People were not optimistic. And I felt that it was my duty at that point to go out and say what I said. And, at the time that I said it, I believe I was right.
BOB GARFIELD: And there we have it, the final vector that explains why, election after election, pundit predictions are mostly baloney. It's because the prognosticators want them to be true.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: And if the evidence says otherwise, well?
EVAN OSNOS: People are more inclined to say, okay, I have a hypothesis. I’m now gonna go out and essentially market my hypothesis, rather than go out and find evidence that challenges my assumptions.
BROOKE GLADSTONE: Evan Osnos is a writer for The New Yorker. In an episode of their Politics and More podcast, he highlighted the tendency of pundits to see themselves as exemplars of the American mind.
EVAN OSNOS: You can have perception that you are encompassing the universe of American opinion when, in fact, you are looking at a set of views of already self-selecting people who agree with you. The reality is a lot of the people who write these stories, ourselves included, live in places like Washington, DC and New York. And when you go out to Iowa and New Hampshire, it takes about five minutes before you discover that there is this enormous anger out there. The seclusion, in effect, of the part of the media that has a big megaphone from what is, in fact, the lived experience on the ground of a lot of Americans mean that we’ve been caught off guard.
BOB GARFIELD: But we don’t need to look to The New Yorker to know this. Here’s The New York Times’ David Leonhardt on OTM last July.
DAVID LEONHARDT: Donald Trump is almost certainly not going to be the Republican nominee. He has never won elected office. He looks nothing like the profile of people who win campaigns. He is attracting almost no support from Republican elected officials and from Republican operatives and from Republican donors, so Donald Trump is almost certainly not gonna be the nominee.
BOB GARFIELD: Or we could look even closer, at me, because one month before that clip aired I said this.
BOB GARFIELD: From birther ravings to comparing Obamacare to Naziism, to decorations of native Mexican criminality, Trump is absolutely a joke, along the lines of the kid in geometry class making fart sounds in his armpit.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, I wasn’t a shill for the Clinton campaign, nor was I for the Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio campaigns. I wasn't lying and I wasn't trying to diminish Trump's odds. I didn’t think he had any odds. I was just saying something that I knew to be true because I just know it. My error, and, fellow prognosticators, take note. There happens to be a difference between what you think or assume or have learned from history or simply wish to believe and what’s gonna happen next.
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BOB GARFIELD: That's it for this week’s show. On the Media
is produced by Meara Sharma, Alana Casanova-Burgess and Jesse Brenneman. We had more help from Micah Loewinger, Emma Stelter and Isabel Cristo. And our show was edited – by Brooke.
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BROOKE GLADSTONE: Katya Rogers is our executive producer. Jim Schacter is WNYC’s vice president for news. Bassist composer Ben Allison wrote our theme. On the Media is a production of WNYC Studios. I’m Brooke Gladstone.