Another Year of Prognostication Ups and Downs

by Stuart Rothenberg December 14, 2011 · 11:37 AM EST

“Regrets, I’ve had a few,” Frank Sinatra sings in one of his signature songs, “My Way,” and that should be a sentiment that every political analyst, handicapper and forecaster feels as he or she looks back on a body of work from the previous 12 months.

Few people like to admit mistakes, but when you write or speak about current events for a living, errors are an inevitable part of the process. All you can do is hope they are not too glaring or memorable — and that the astute things that you’ve written or said more than compensate for the dumb stuff.

This year, I have plenty of mistakes to acknowledge, as well as a few columns of which I am particularly proud.

Which one of my many comments and columns strikes me as the most ridiculous? It’s difficult to pick just one.

I’d have to vote for my Sept. 15 column (“Will GOP Choose John Kerry or Howard Dean?”), in which I proclaimed the Republican presidential race a contest between Rick Perry and Mitt Romney and argued that “Newt Gingrich’s victory scenario disappeared when his campaign launch flopped” and “Herman Cain lacks the experience to be taken seriously.”

Of course, it wasn’t long after that column that Cain shot to the top of the GOP pack, followed a few weeks later by Gingrich. The former Speaker currently looks like former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney’s toughest contender for the Republican nomination.

Actually, I had buried Gingrich repeatedly during the spring and summer of this year and dismissed any chance that he could compete seriously for his party’s nomination, both in interviews and in speeches I gave.

One example is a comment of mine in an “NBC News” package that aired May 18 during the “Today Show,” in which I said Gingrich’s candidacy “is almost imploding before the candidate leaves the starting gate.” True, it did implode, but Gingrich obviously reassembled it somewhere along the way. I couldn’t even conceive of that happening.

Of course, my May 24 column (“Shrinking Republican Field Benefits Pawlenty”) also looks pretty stupid now. It was one of many times I offered a very positive assessment of the former Minnesota governor’s prospects.

“So for now, forget the early polls. They are meaningless. Keep your eye on Pawlenty,” I wrote delusionally, less than three months before Pawlenty pulled the plug on his presidential bid after a third-place finish in the Ames straw poll.

In fact, the polls did pick up that Pawlenty had failed to excite voters, though I continue to believe that he might have ultimately emerged as the top conservative alternative to Romney had the former Minnesota governor not bet everything on the Ames results.

Once again, I was a little late in understanding what was happening in a special House election. While I finally got to the right place before ballots were cast in New York’s 26th district in May, I certainly wasn’t ahead of the curve in expecting Democrat Kathy Hochul to defeat Republican Jane Corwin.

Corwin, I thought, wasn’t Dede Scozzafava, the moderate Republican whose nomination caused a revolt from conservatives and resulted in a special election victory by Rep. Bill Owens (D) in New York’s 23rd district in November 2009. But Corwin had her own problems, and I was late in seeing them.

Luckily, along with the blunders were at least a few columns of which I am particularly proud.

My March 1 column (“Tim Pawlenty’s Michele Bachmann Problem”) actually anticipated the Minnesota Congresswoman’s effect on the race and the problems she could create for Pawlenty.

In my May 12 column (“Debt Limit Vote: You Ain’t Seen Nothing Yet”), I wrote, “I don’t know how the vote to raise the debt ceiling will eventually turn out, but I am willing to make one of the very few ‘predictions’ I ever offer: The issue won’t be resolved in the next eight weeks.”

I argued in that column that both parties would have to hold out “until the end of July before taking a deal” because an early deal would be criticized by those on the right and left as a premature sellout.

In fact, after weeks of threats, warnings and negotiations, a deal finally was struck on the last day of July.

Hands down, the column that I’m most proud of was my Feb. 17 piece on the possibility of a Senate run by Arizona Rep. Gabrielle Giffords (D) in 2012 (“Personal Take on Brain Injuries and Senate Bids”).

This was a difficult piece to write, on a number of levels. I was particularly concerned that my comments questioning the completeness of information released about Giffords’ condition would be seen as a criticism of the Congresswoman, her family or her staff and friends.

While the Congresswoman has made remarkable progress since the January tragedy, it’s clear seeing her now and hearing stories about her condition six weeks after the shooting that early reports did convey a misimpression about her condition and her political prospects.

As the year winds down and I have fewer opportunities to say something stupid, I will try to remember that the “rules” of politics are changing quickly, making projections more difficult and the impossible ordinary.