Pundits Predicting Election Should Pipe Down

Predictions can be wrong—or be correct but have real-world consequences.

By SHARE

Veteran political commentator Charlie Cook has joined my Thomas Jefferson Street colleague Robert Schlesinger in calling this presidential race over before the polling booths have even opened.

Numbers gazers certainly find merit in the calls made by both men. But quite frankly, all this business of calling elections before they're over makes me nervous. I hope I won't be looking back at this post next week and thinking, "How foolish was I? Of course it was over." But two things come to mind when commentators call elections before the votes are tallied. The first is a presidential election that took place before I was born. The second was a presidential election in which I voted.

There's the obvious correlation between the " Dewey Defeats Truman" Chicago Tribune headline held up for newspaper photographers by a beaming Harry Truman, who of course won that 1948 race.

More recently, there was the 1980 call of Ronald Reagan as the victor by one of the broadcast networks based on exit polling conducted in states where the polls had closed. This practice, no longer in use for obvious reasons, apparently sent hundreds of thousands or millions of western voters home before they reached the polls, thinking their votes were rendered meaningless. According to one study:

The election projection of the 1980 presidential contest by NBC raised much speculation concerning its possible impact on voting in states where the polls were still open.

Both events make me wonder about the difference between the public's need to know versus the pundits' need to tell.