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The Perils of Political Forecasting


Seems obvious, of course, but it’s all about the unknown. Things that seem logical on paper have a way of being ripped apart by unexpected events.

It seemed an absolute given, for example, that a President drowning in 9% unemployment figures would make an easy target. Entire political campaigns- like Mitt Romney’s- have been built on that assumption. Enter the “turnaround specialist” strategy. Touting his business and private sector credentials, Romney built a logical model for the foundation of a political strategy. Except what happens to this course if the economy starts recovering and unemployment starts dropping significantly?

In this case, many pundits are making the argument that an improving economy is one of the reasons Rich Santorum has surged. Widely seen as a candidate more focused on championing the conservative position on social issues from abortion and gay marriage to birth control and women’s role in the military, the theory goes that conservative voters will gravitate to politicians with strong social views absent alarm over the state of the economy.

Except what happens if all hell breaks loose in the world and, say, Israel decides to bomb Iran in a preemptive attempt to delay or kill off their nuclear capability? With the world on full alert in the case of such military action, Iran under attack and closing the Strait of Hormuz, and tensions escalating throughout the Middle East- it kind of makes birth control a bit of a back-seat issue, doesn’t it?

And what of the recently embraced assumptions that the American economy is on the mend and that with the President’s approval ratings on the rise, he is looking much more secure in his reelection efforts?

Looks good- except what happens if Italy, Spain and Greece go into default and world stock markets panic and the business climate suddenly becomes toxic out of fear and uncertainty? This would be the double-dip recession scenario.

But it doesn’t take cataclysmic events like war or the collapse of the European economy to change the political calculus. Today, for example, there are reports that retail sales were really sluggish in January. Maybe the jobless drop last month was just a positive blip in a still rocky road to recovery.

There’s concern that with gas prices already at $3.50 a gallon in the U.S., unusually high for this early in the year, that there could easily be $5 a gallon gas by election day. That’s a squeeze on consumers that could make for some pretty angry voters.

Taken to its extreme, the argument about the effects of unforeseen events on politics can get silly. What happens if a large meteorite strikes the Earth. What happens if a sudden burst of radiation from the Sun melts our electrical grid and modern society collapses. You could go on and on.

But here’s the thing: Our own Secretary of Defense says there’s a chance Israel really will launch an attack on Iran’s nuclear facilities, possibly as early as the spring. Moody’s really did downgrade the economies of Spain, Italy, and Portugal this week and warns the same may be in store for France and England. Gasoline prices really are already high- even without a Middle East war.

The problem with those who make political predictions for a living- the punditry class- is they can only base their assumptions on the present and guess a little on what else might happen.

But anybody who’s willing to venture a prediction about who will win the next election in November is full of it. Remember that if turns out, say Jeb Bush, is standing on the west front of the Capitol building taking the oath of office next January.

How’d that happen? We don’t know now. But we’ll know then after a zillion words will have been written about how reality is stranger than fiction and how weird it was that the incredibly implausible scenario came to pass.

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