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The Pundit Audit 2014

Every year, sometime in December, I pore over my stories from the previous months and ask what I got wrong. The theory behind this hairshirting is that I will not re-make the same mistakes; that public shaming, even if self-inflicted, is going to stop me blundering into some weak punditry or lazy analysis.

The theory is not wrong. In 2014, I was bearish on the Tea Party’s challenges of incumbent senators because Republicans had been on their best behavior—Kansas Senator Pat Roberts even voted against his own amendments, lest the Tea Party be angered. Not for one second did I think Republicans would let another shutdown happen in an election year. Zephyr Teachout let me tag along with her on the trail to prove that progressives were challenging the Democrats from within; that didn’t stop being true. The Latino vote, the political skills of Al Franken, the troubles of Sam Brownback—all of that was worth covering and worthy of rumination. 

Yet, as every year, there were whiffs. Most of them can be explained by the natural reporter’s tendency to locate conflict, and start writing from there. Some, sadly, can be blamed on a failure of imagination and a failure to make that extra phone call or extra trip down the road. Did anything speak as loudly about the political press’s foibles as the fact that the biggest gubernatorial upset (Maryland) and closest Senate race happened in the Washington, D.C. suburbs, yet were covered a fraction as much as the race for Senate in Kentucky? Sure: The failure of most big media (apart from the New York Times, Washington Post, and Politico) to notice the mounting problems of Eric Cantor, whose district was a full 90-minute drive away from Washington. I’d interviewed now-Representative David Brat before the election, so I didn’t miss that story.

Instead, I bungled all of these:

Jan. 6: Brian Schweitzer is the Democrat best positioned to challenge Hillary Clinton. Should the interview have told me something? In early 2014, I called former Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer through a spokesman; Schweitzer himself called shortly thereafter. He didn’t give me (or I failed to ask for) anything self-destructive, so in the short term, he proved my point: Schweitzer, who passed on a 2014 bid for U.S. Senate, had big lungs, nothing to lose, and a total absence of fear about Hillary Clinton. Then he started ushering journalists into his home, and, eventually, National Journal’s Marin Cogan sprang a gusher of dopey, offensive quotes that killed Schweitzer’s buzz. (We know from Ruby Cramer that Schweitzer was sure “nobody reads” National Journal.) By year’s end, Schweitzer had disappeared from MSNBC mid-sulk, and Jim Webb had taken his berth as the White Male Democrat Who Wants to Save the Party from Corporatism candidate.

Jan. 10, Jan. 16, May 9, June 4, Aug. 21, et cetera: Ed Gillespie is a hopeless candidate. I never seriously thought that a former Republican National Committee chairman was a contender for Virginia’s U.S. Senate seat. Democratic Senator Mark Warner was just too mighty. “Gillespie’s betting that even a candidate basically genetically engineered to win elections in modern Virginia can be brought low by Obamacare,” I sniffed in one item. Come on—the guy called himself a “counselor to a president” without reminding voters that the president’s name was George W. Bush, and they couldn’t stand that guy.

Again and again, and with even greater frequency on Twitter, I wrote Gillespie off. His strategy for winning coal country away from Warner? Nice try. The weekly columns by D.C. conservative insiders, insisting that the press was writing off Gillespie? Well, sure, they would say that. It wasn’t until 8 p.m. Election Night, when Gillespie defied every single poll and closed to within 1 point of Warner, that I realized my mistakes. I’d failed to get honest answers from Democrats, who worried that Warner was going slack on the Democratic strongholds and wasting time in vote-poor rural areas. I’d compared the D.C. establishment’s Gillespie obsession to other, baseless obsessions, without giving the race a hard look. After the election, when I expressed contrition to one Gillespie strategist for being “a doubter,” he corrected me: “You were a hater!” It’s a thin line between ... actually, no, it isn’t.

Jan. 14: Florida’s special house race may prove that Obamacare isn’t toxic. Before I headed there, before anecdote and data blended into a powerful mind-changing tonic, the vacant and blue-ifying district of the late Representative Bill Young looked like a Democratic pick-up. Republican strategists were bravely donning their cloaks of anonymity and saying that failed Democratic gubernatorial candidate Alex Sink could take the seat. Polls showed Sink slipping, but not losing. “Republicans have been attacking Sink over Obamacare for two months,” I noted. They sure had, and Sink was damaged enough by the backlash to early Affordable Care Act crises that a strong Republican ground game did her in.

Feb. 6: Chris Christie’s Republican Governors' Association days might be numbered. They weren’t. The embattled governor of New Jersey waited out the “Bridgegate” news cycles and campaigned endlessly in states where he was more popular and less scandalized—i.e., anywhere that wasn’t New Jersey. He finished his tenure and helped Republicans win races in Maryland and Maine, not to mention all the key red states.

March 8: We’d all be debating the Christian drama “Persecuted.” No, we wouldn’t.

May 12: Maybe Mark Pryor can pull it off in Arkansas. Or maybe he couldn’t. Republicans were publicly a little worried that Representative Tom Cotton struggled to find an advantage over Arkansas’s two-term Democratic senator. In late summer, one strategist explained to me that Cotton was a harder sell than some Republicans statewide because he’d built a hard-right record. And then he won by 19 points.

May 21: Bruce Braley’s “farmer from Iowa” gaffe won’t reshape his Senate race. Ha, ha! Well. The desire to be contrarian, to rise above the spin of campaign staffers, can lead you to the right conclusions. It can also lead you to over-rate a single poll that finds a candidate enduring just a perfect gaffe—a jibe at the expense of Iowa’s senior senator, about his qualifications, made to an audience of out-of-state donors. This blog post, which America Rising’s Tim Miller apparently bookmarked to cheer himself up, failed to consider how Braley’s mistake would be compounded by millions of dollars in campaign ads and earned media. And it ignored the possibility of Braley’s enemies exploiting the gaffe to portray him as an interloping snob.

That led to the year’s dumbest scandal, when a neighbor became angry that Braley took a complaint about her roaming hens to the community board, and when reporter after reporter schlepped to Brooklyn, Iowa to report that out. And it led to one of the year’s great trends, of wealthy donors in other states bankrolling ads that told Braley’s potential voters that the candidate was “not very Iowa.”

May 21: Yes, yes—the same day I overrated the survival skills of Bruce Braley, I judged that Gravis Marketing was “the worst poll in America.” My evidence was a poll of Texas’s GOP primary for U.S. Senate, which saw a 15-point margin for Senator John Cornyn. After Cornyn won by 40 points, I revealed my shaky grip of statistics and suggested that Gravis had no numbers worth remembering. Fast forward to November—when Gravis basically nailed it.

June 30: Birth control can save the Democrats in Colorado. Despite talking to plenty of Republicans who insisted that the salience of a “war on women” was fading—or that it couldn’t work unless its candidates uttered gaffes—I kept waiting for a comeback. The Supreme Court’s summer decision to allow employers to make religious exemptions against birth control seemed to re-center the electorate.

Hobby Lobby elevates an issue that scares Democratic voters,” I wrote. “The birth control coverage mandate was widely popular before today's decision. Democrats in Colorado and Alaska had been battering their likely opponents by portraying them as enemies of birth control and choice.” Colorado’s race between Senator Mark Udall and Rep. Cory Gardner seemed like the ultimate test, because, up to then, “Udall hammered Gardner's support for a fetal personhood amendment, and Gardner countered late by coming out for making birth control more available.”

The campaign went on, and Gardner skillfully made Udall look like the heavy, for refusing to allow his Republican foe to get away with a position change on contraception. Conservatives, apart from the actual Personhood lobby, didn’t punish Gardner at all.

July 7: Larry Lessig’s Super PAC could get lucky. I was maybe the only journalist taken by Mayday PAC’s campaign to complicate Scott Brown’s (doomed) comeback bid in New Hampshire. Over the summer, when Harvard’s Lessig and Republican strategist Mark McKinnon told me they’d be alternating between red and blue targets, Brown seemed like a good one. He’d carpetbagged into his race; former Republican state senator Jim Rubens was a perfectly qualified opponent. When Rubens lost, by 26 points in a three-way race, I shrugged and added it to the catalogue of pyrrhic liberal victories. Even Lessig didn’t agree. As Evan Osnos recounted, Lessig had ignored advisers, who told him not to go in. The New Hampshire race became part of an oddly gleeful post-election media burial of the Mayday project.

Oct. 17: South Dakota’s Senate race could come into play. This is good; this ends the list on a story that explains why reporters might overrate good stories. South Dakota’s election to replace Democratic Senator Tim Johnson was legitimately fascinating, from the proxy war between Tom Daschle and Harry Reid (who wanted different Democratic candidates, and got neither), to the singing populism of Rick Weiland, to the byzantine and bloody immigration visa scandal, to the brief Back to the Future renaissance of Larry Pressler.

And then the national Republican Party came in to remind voters that it was 2014, and they were in South Dakota, and after all the silliness it was time to get back to reality and vote Republican.

 This was good for one of the political parties, but a real downer for the press. As Jonathan Martin put it, “in an era of homogenized, data-driven campaigns, a quirky and unpredictable contest ha[d] emerged in South Dakota.” To some conservatives, the 11th hour media obsessions with South Dakota and with Kansas’s Republican-versus-independent race revealed a bias. The press was trying to avoid the true story of Republican success—wasn’t it?

I don’t think so. The explosion of data journalism has generally strengthened political reporting. More stories begin with data then with anecdotes. The South Dakota and Kansas boomlets began when individual polls showed the races, surprisingly, closing to single digits. Anyone who chose to follow 2014 exclusively through The Upshot or FiveThirtyEight would have started the year assuming that Republicans would take the Senate.

He or she would have been right—but still would have missed great stories. FiveThirtyEight’s models, for example, said that Democrats would most likely hold the Senate seat in North Carolina, and that Virginia’s Mark Warner would likely win by 10 points. It gave Republican Larry Hogan a 6 percent chance of winning Maryland’s race for governor; he takes office in a few weeks. Silver’s blunt, honest Maryland mea culpa explained that the site’s “gubernatorial model relies on polls, and polls alone.” Whenever I blew it in 2014, I was usually relying on a polling average, combining it with whatever insider spin sounded most credible, and blundering out of the gates.

It was better not to predict—better to just show up and report on how things looked. Binary questions like “will this candidate win?” and “will this bill pass?” are never as interesting as the biases and histories and social trends that will actually decide the questions. Also, asking those questions would lead to shorter “what I got wrong” lists.