Commentators are rarely held accountable for their assessments. They should be. So each year I look back to determine which of my columns hit the mark and where I fell short.
If there was a prediction I reasserted most often, it was that President Obama was likely to be reelected. At the end of November 2011, when Nate Silver suggested Obama “was toast” in a front-page New York Times Magazine piece, I dissented.
A few months later, in detailing those strategic options, I asserted, “The natural state of an election involving an incumbent, particularly a presidential election, is to be a referendum on that incumbent. … [W]e can stipulate that President Obama will do less well if voters simply cast an up-or-down vote on the last four years. Thus, the central strategic imperative facing the president’s campaign is to transform the race from a referendum into a choice between the president and his Republican opponent or even into a referendum on that opponent … Evidence is beginning to accumulate suggesting President Obama … is enjoying exactly that kind of success — moving away from a referendum and toward a choice.” Later in the cycle such descriptions were all the rage, and accurate on all counts.
In early October, when many discounted the president’s ability to win because he was under 50 percent in the polls and “if you haven’t decided to vote for the incumbent, you won’t,” I argued that this so-called incumbent rule provided “a useful guide for many years; however, it no longer holds true.” My assessment proved accurate not only in the presidential race, but for three out of the four incumbent senators whose final poll averages languished under 50 percent but who went on to win (the fourth, Scott Brown, was actually running behind his opponent).
In May and June, I was almost apoplectic about what I labeled “fatally flawed” polling in the North Dakota Senate race and urged readers not confuse “independent” with “accurate.” Poorly conducted newspaper polls showed our client, Heidi HeitkampHeidi HeitkampSenate Democrats dig in as shutdown approaches Overnight Finance: Senate Dems dig in as shutdown looms | Trump taps fast-food exec for Labor chief | Portland's new CEO tax McConnell tees up spending bill as shutdown looms MORE, 7 and 10 points behind Republican Rick Berg. Suffice it to say that our “non-independent” polling proved vastly more accurate.
That’s a lot of self-congratulations, but where did I go wrong? In April, I reported 90 percent wanted labels on genetically modified foods and suggested these views were “almost impervious to arguments from the other side.” This assertion was put to the test on the California ballot (though we were not involved in the race) where a labeling measure lost by 6 points. Yes, labeling advocates were outspent by almost $40 million; yes, opponents made completely inaccurate statements about scientific organizations determining that GMOs were safe; but in the end, support was not impervious to what the other side said.
At the end of 2011, as Mitt Romney battled Newt Gingrich for the nomination, I noted that “a party leadership at war with its base has ugly consequences.” Gingrich’s ascendancy was brief and the civil war rhetoric I used proved blatantly over the top.
And there were predictions never made. While I wrote (accurately) about the importance of the Hispanic vote, it wasn’t until after the election that I examined the politically consequential transformation of the Asian-American community.
All in all, though, I hope readers found something useful in this
Mellman is president of The Mellman Group and has worked for Democratic candidates and causes since 1982. Current clients include the majority leader of the Senate and the Democratic whip in the House.