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Pundit, Predict Thyself

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It’s finally Super Tuesday, and the pundits are all abuzz about what the voters will decide to do. You’d expect that. But the pundits are also abuzz about what they will decide to do.

I saw an interesting exchange yesterday on MSNBC, among Dan Abrams, MSNBC political director Chuck Todd, and Newsweek’s Howard Fineman. The three were talking about how, particularly on the Democratic side, with neither Obama nor Clinton mathematically able to sew up the nomination, how will the media determine a winner?

Because you can’t not declare a winner! This is TV! You gotta have a winner! That other guy on that other channel’s calling a winner! Who’s the winner, damn it?


Anyway, Todd and Fineman noted that there are many ways people could interpret “victory” that night. There’s victory in terms of expectations. (Expectations being assiduously pre-spun by the campaigns.) There’s the number of delegates–to the extent you can count them. There’s the popular vote. There’s the absolute number of states won. Each campaign can, and likely will, declare victory on any combination of these.

But the most interesting observation Todd and Fineman made is that a lot will depend on the psychology of the media, and the tone of commentary that night. For instance, Fineman pointed out, it’s the East Coast states that will be most likely to have results before viewers go to bed and before newspapers print up early editions. Will they have a disproportionaste effect? Will they drive the momentum of the punditry, since commentators will be chewing over their results in primetime?

Even more significant: what about the map? Say the delegate haul is fairly even between Obama and Clinton, but one wins a lot more states numerically. Will that just look more like a win on a graphic level? What if one candidate wins the states with greater land mass? You think I’m joking, but Fineman noted–I’m paraphrasing–that all the networks will be coloring in maps tonight, and those will affect the psychology not just of the viewers but of the commentators.

In other words, one of the biggest pundits facing the pundits is how they themselves will react tonight–how they’ll get carried away, whether the heat of the moment will cause them to exaggerate the impact of the result–even if it’s a result they thought was likely to begin with.

It sounds bizarre, or like some weird thought experiment. But it’s a good point, and a very important factor in this election–the runaway psychology of punditry. Before Iowa, after all, it’s not as if pundits didn’t know Obama was likely to win the caucuses. But he did, somewhat on the upper range of expectations, then he made a speech–and suddenly the boulder was rolling downhill. Then Hillary won New Hampshire–defying the previous week’s polls, but by more or less the same margin you’d have predicted a week earlier–and it was exactly the opposite.

There is something weird going on in the political media today: the amount of instant analysis and the pressure to draw dramatic conclusions means that, repeatedly, the pundit class ends up getting caught in the heat of the moment and getting overexcited even about things they already knew would happen. Obama wins South Carolina: crushing victory! Hillary makes a victory speech in Florida: momentum shift! There’s a built-in bias toward the most exciting conclusion, whatever it is. And that, in turn, is affecting the course of the actual campaign.

Campaigns are wild, unpredictable things, all right. But it’s not the voters who are volatile. It’s the pundits.

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