Monday, November 24, 2008

Another Cycle, Another Bunch of My Misjudgments

By Stuart Rothenberg

Like everyone who makes a living in the reporting and handicapping business, I made my share of mistakes this election cycle.

While I didn’t jump on the “McCain is toast” bandwagon during the summer of 2007, I didn’t really expect him to come back to win the Republican presidential nomination. And while I never dismissed Barack Obama’s chances of winning the Democratic nomination, I certainly didn’t expect it until well into the Democratic nominating process.

Who thought that Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) would lose Iowa but win New Hampshire? And who in their right mind really thought that McCain would pick Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) as his running mate? Don’t look at me.

Anyway, I thought I’d point out some of my dumber assessments and evaluations for those of you who don’t already think that I’m totally clueless about politics. (This, obviously, excludes many bloggers, who already think that I can’t find my own navel.)

I think my biggest blunder was believing (and writing) that McCain should pick someone such as Connecticut Independent Democratic Sen. Joe Lieberman or former Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Ridge (R) for his running mate.

After watching what the Palin selection did to the GOP convention and to the entire Republican Party, I think a divisive pick, whether a pro-abortion-rights Republican or a Democrat with a liberal record on cultural issues and the environment, would have been a giant mistake.

Yes, selecting Lieberman or Ridge would have made a statement about his maverick or bipartisan approach (and that would have been a plus), but it would have created a chaotic Republican convention during which conservatives would have been in full revolt.

The GOP would have been in disarray for weeks, and McCain’s numbers, I now believe, would have tanked during that period. Lieberman or Ridge might have been more of an asset during the nation’s financial meltdown in late September and early October, but conservative Republicans would have been so turned off by a Lieberman or Ridge VP selection that I’m not sure they ever would have warmed to McCain — or voted for him, which they did.

Next, while I always thought that Obama could win Colorado and Virginia, I didn’t treat North Carolina and Indiana as in play until much too late. It’s easy to get locked into an assessment, and I did in this case.

Turning to the Congressional elections, I made two very different errors at different points in the cycle.

Initially, I assumed that voter sentiment would shift after the 2006 cycle, producing a more “normal” electorate and allowing Republicans to get out from under the “time for a change” sentiment that smothered them during the midterms. It never happened.

The public’s mood soured even worse after 2006, and the book never really closed on the 2006 election cycle until this month’s elections were over.

Then, as the 2008 balloting approached, I obviously underestimated some of the Republicans’ ability to swim against the tide. I expected Democratic House gains to be in the 27-33 range, at least a few seats higher than they are likely to net.

In individual contests throughout the cycle, I was too late in seeing the wins by Tom Perriello (D-Va.) and Walt Minnick (D- Idaho), as well as Democrat Travis Childers’ victory in the special election in Mississippi’s 1st district.

I hadn’t met either of the candidates in the Mississippi special, so I mistakenly assumed that the district’s Republican bent would be enough to elect Greg Davis. My job is to be ahead of the curve, not behind it.

I also totally messed up when I repeatedly warned readers that I expected a handful of GOP seats to fall that I had not even rated as vulnerable. This happened in 2006, when I failed to note that then-Reps. Jim Leach (R-Iowa) and Jeb Bradley (R-N.H.) could go down to defeat. This time, since the Democratic wave was smaller than I expected, not a single true long-shot won. I remain surprised by that.

My single biggest rating mistake was rating Republican Rep. Don Young of Alaska’s at-large House seat as “Democrat Favored.” I expected Young, who received his share of bad press over the past couple of years and is under federal investigation, to be defeated by challenger Ethan Berkowitz (D). I was wrong. Young won, and he did so by more than a razor-thin margin.

Finally, I wrote that the Louisiana Senate race would be a tossup all the way until Election Day, even asserting it was “likely to be decided by a point or two.” It wasn’t. In fact, my own newsletter moved the race from “Toss-Up” to “Narrow Advantage” for Mary Landrieu on Sept. 26. Landrieu ended up winning 52.1 percent to 45.7 percent, a 6-point win. Landrieu’s 52 percent showing was in line with her earlier wins (50 percent in 1996 and 52 percent in 2002), but the margin was not all that close.

This column first appeared in Roll Call on November 20, 2008. 2008 © Roll Call Inc. All rights reserved. Reprinted with permission.