ANALYSIS: Political Pundits Have No Idea What They're Talking About

Nevertheless, they persist

February 18, 2020

Sen. Elizabeth Warren's (D., Mass.) presidential campaign is over. She's still in the race, for now, but she is not going to be the Democratic Party's nominee in 2020. All that remains to be seen is (A) when she'll drop out, and (B) whether she'll endorse Sen. Bernie Sanders (I., Vt.) to help him clinch the nomination or shiv him in the back like the opportunistic snake she is accused (by some) of being.

Warren's collapse reveals the sorry state of today's political media. From the perspective of voters who watch cable news and take seriously the so-called analysis and punditry they hear from so-called political experts in the media, Warren's downfall is a shocking development. But it's only the latest of many examples of said "experts" having absolutely no idea what they're talking about and showing why no one should take them seriously.

Warren's campaign, oddly enough, made this very point in a memo it sent to supporters (and the New York Times) ahead of the New Hampshire primary—in which Warren finished a distant fourth and failed to win any delegates. "People who are predicting what will happen a week from now are the same people who a year ago predicted that Beto O’Rourke was a frontrunner for the nomination," wrote campaign manager Roger Lau.

Lau makes a legitimate point, but it applies to his own candidate as well. Warren, who made history as the "first woman of color" employed by Harvard Law School, was once widely touted by political pundits as the candidate to beat.

Not that their analysis was based on anything other than conventional wisdom. For most of 2019, betting markets viewed Warren as the second most likely candidate to win the nomination, behind former vice president Joe Biden. After New Hampshire, betting markets rank Biden fourth, at 9.2 percent. Warren is sixth, at 2.2 percent, behind Hillary Clinton.

The point could apply equally well to Sens. Kirsten Gillibrand (D., N.Y.) and Kamala Harris (D., Calif.). Like O'Rourke, whose most notable achievement before joining the Democratic field (as a frontrunner) was losing to Sen. Ted Cruz (R., Texas), the female senators were widely regarded as strong candidates in the early stages of the primary. All three dropped out months before the Iowa caucus. Oh, and don't forget Michael Avenatti, the media darling and onetime Democratic frontrunner who was just convicted on extortion charges.

Here, for example, are the "definitive 2020 Democratic power rankings," as determined by CNN in July 2018:

  1. Joe Biden
  2. Elizabeth Warren
  3. Kamala Harris
  4. Kirstin [sic] Gillibrand
  5. Bernie Sanders
  6. Eric Holder
  7. Steve Bullock
  8. Cory Booker
  9. Mitch Landrieu
  10. Sherrod Brown

Sure, that's an early prediction, and many of these prospective candidates didn't even run. Still, only one of these people (Sanders) has a realistic shot at the nomination. And CNN's list of Democratic candidates "with the best chance of winning the nomination" still looked pretty awful in July 2019:

  1. Joe Biden
  2. Kamala Harris
  3. Elizabeth Warren
  4. Bernie Sanders
  5. Pete Buttigieg
  6. Cory Booker
  7. Beto O'Rourke
  8. Amy Klobuchar
  9. Julián Castro
  10. Andrew Yang

Biden continued to lead CNN's power rankings in January 2020, when the network said he was "as close to the nomination as anyone has been this cycle." After failing to even crack the top three in Iowa and New Hampshire, and with former New York City mayor Michael Bloomberg lurking, the former VP is now about as far from the nomination as anyone this cycle. Adulation from expert pundits has spelled death for many a campaign.

Nevertheless, they persisted. Pundits now tout Klobuchar's third-place finish in New Hampshire as evidence the Minnesota senator's underfunded, understaffed campaign will be competitive in Nevada, South Carolina, and on Super Tuesday, just three weeks from now. Buttigieg's strong showing in the first two primary contests—in predominately white states—gives him the illusion of viability, despite "Mayor Beast's" inability to record statistically significant levels of support among minority voters.

This has led to some absurd analysis reminiscent of the media's wishful thinking about Donald Trump in the 2016 Republican primary and general election. "What if Buttigieg, Klobuchar, and Biden were a single candidate?" the pundits ask, nonsensically. Recent polling suggests Sanders would win head-to-head matchups against every remaining Democratic rival.

Maybe all this terrible analysis proves is that elections are strange and complicated, hard to predict and analyze with any certainty. Maybe it's just difficult for upper-class residents of New York City and Washington, D.C., to assess the hearts and minds of average Americans. No one in the political punditry business would ever admit this, however. If it were true, what would be the point of their careers?