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Prophets Without Accuracy

eye on the news

Prophets Without Accuracy

Tuesday was a bad night for predictors. November 10, 2016
Politics and law

Not everybody got it wrong. Professor Alan Lichtman of American University, who had accurately predicted outcomes in the last eight presidential elections, said that all signs indicated a Donald Trump victory. And leftist filmmaker Michael Moore issued a grim forecast, five months before the upset: “Let’s face it. Our biggest problem isn’t Trump—it’s Hillary. She’s hugely unpopular—nearly 70 percent of all voters think she’s untrustworthy and dishonest. I’m sorry to have to be the buzzkill so early on but I think Trump is going to win.”

However, the preponderance of prophets foresaw a female president breaking the final barrier. (So, in fact, did Hillary Clinton; a glass ceiling was to be a prop in her victory announcement.) In a New York Times op-ed, Ross Douthat confidently stated, “Trump will win Ohio and Iowa and outperform Romney in the course of losing Michigan and Pennsylvania. Elsewhere he’ll slightly underperform Romney en route to losing North Carolina, Florida and Nevada . . . the call will come early, and Trump’s concession speech will be a schizophrenic mess—half a conciliatory attempt to save his kids’ brand equity, half a ranting advertisement for Trump TV.”

Douthat wasn’t singing solo. The normally reliable Moody’s Analytics claimed that Hillary Clinton would garner 332 electoral votes. Trustworthy Emerson College announced that Democrats would emerge from election night with 50 or more total seats, enough to rule the Senate, with Tim Kaine casting the tiebreaking vote. The New York Observer radiated assurance: “Hillary Rodham Clinton will become the first woman to win the presidency, decisively defeating Donald Trump in no small part due to unprecedented Latino turnout.” Tongue not quite firmly in cheek, CBS invoked the Redskins Rule: “It’s official: The Washington Redskins won their last home game. Rule says that if the Redskins win the last game before the election, then the current party stays in power.”

These tea-leaf interpreters are part of a great American tradition. Every history buff has been amused by the picture of Harry Truman joyously holding the Chicago Daily Tribune with the erroneous headline, dewey defeats truman. A decade earlier, The Literary Digest proclaimed that GOP candidate Alf Landon would win the 1936 presidential election with 57.1 percent of the popular vote and an Electoral College margin of 370 to 161. In fact, Democrat Franklin D. Roosevelt won, with 60.8 percent of the popular vote and an Electoral College landslide of 523 to 8, losing only Maine and Vermont. Two years later, subscribers were informed that the Digest would no longer publish.

Earlier still, a candidate made his own prediction, implying that the future would echo the past. Woodrow Wilson’s 1916 reelection-campaign slogan consisted of six memorable words: He Kept Us Out of War.  The media—composed entirely of print publications in those pre-broadcast days—eagerly parroted the phrase, and Wilson was reelected. Five months after Wilson’s second inauguration, the first 14,000 U.S. infantry troops landed in France. When the war ended on November 11, 1918, more than 2 million American soldiers had served on the battlefields of Western Europe. Some 100,000 never came back.

Humility is not an adjective that adheres to pollsters and pontificators, even after this most extraordinary presidential election. A pity so few of them pay attention to the aperçu attributed to Casey Stengel (and sometimes to others): “Never make predictions, especially about the future.” They’ll ignore the Old Professor’s advice and try it all again at the next mischance.

Stefan Kanfer, a City Journal contributing editor, is the author, most recently, of The Eskimo Hunts in Miami.

Photo by Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

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