The little girl looked up at her teacher with a question as sincere as it was naive.
“Does the weather man get paid when he’s wrong?”
My wife enjoys telling that story from decades ago, when weather forecasting was not as reliable as it is today. It is story of young innocence. It is also a story of the budding realization we all encounter when we come face-to-face with the fact that those with responsibility and authority, those who have the microphone, are often wrong.
What if you applied that question to “experts” in other fields with prediction success rates to rival the weather forecasters of old?
We just had an off-year election in the U.S. As is always the case in the odd-numbered years following a presidential election, the voters in Virginia and New Jersey go to the polls to elect governors for a four-year term. Many cities also elect their mayors on the same cycle.
Over the past 40 years, here is what has happened in those two states in the first year of a new president’s term:
- 2021 – Joe Biden (D) is in his first year as president. Virginia elects a Republican governor. New Jersey reelects its Democratic governor in a close race, the first time a Democrat has been reelected in NJ in 44 years.
- 2017 – Donald Trump (R) is in his first year as president. Both Virginia and New Jersey elect Democratic governors.
- 2009 – Barack Obama (D) is in his first year as president. Both Virginia and New Jersey elect Republican governors.
- 2001 – George W. Bush (R) is in his first year as president. Both Virginia and New Jersey elect Democratic governors.
- 1993 – Bill Clinton (D) is in his first year as president. Both Virginia and New Jersey elect Republican governors. (Seeing a pattern here? *)
- 1989 – George H.W. Bush (R) is in his first year as president. Both Virginia and New Jersey elect Democratic governors.
- 1981 – Ronald Reagan (R) is in his first year as president. Virginia elects a Democratic governor. New Jersey elects a Republican governor by a margin of less than 2,000 votes.
What happened last Tuesday is that Democrats actually outperformed the normal expectations based upon the historical pattern. But instead of that story, we were told that with “surprise losses” the “Democrats were in disarray” (a phrase that may be trademarked by the New York Times).
The losses were only a big surprise to those who don’t know their history. Both states, evenly divided politically, have regularly gone with the opposite party in off-year elections over the last four decades.
The Times seemed to understand that pattern in 2009, during Obama’s first term in office, when the newspaper had only a single piece of analysis on the races in Virginia and New Jersey. Somewhere along the way they lost that knowledge. Journalist Eric Boehlert, who studies the press, noted on Wednesday that the Times had already posted at least 9 articles about Democratic candidate Terry McAuliffe’s loss last night in Virginia.
Meanwhile, some of the election news was good for progressives and people of color.
- Progressive Michelle Wu became the first woman and the first person of color to win the mayorship of Boston in 199 years.
- Democrat Eric Adams became New York City’s second Black mayor.
- Cities across the country elected Democrats of color.
- Three Michigan towns — Dearborn, Dearborn Heights, and Hamtramck — elected their first Muslim mayors Tuesday.
- The promised swamping of local school boards by anti-mask, anti-vax, anti-CRT candidates really only worked in districts that are already heavily Republican.
Judd Legum notes that 2022 will be very different than 2021, because politics is much more dynamic than the coverage suggests. Those “surprise” losses may portend dark days ahead for the Democrats. Or they may not. As Legum reports, nationally famous pundits and reporters are wrong all the time. And they still get paid.
I am not innocent or naive, understanding that those who are in positions of public responsibility and who have the microphone often behave badly. But when you consider how often the political coverage of the news is wrong, one may want to ask an updated version of the little girl’s question.
There is much of consequence to cover in the news. Our democracy is under attack, several people who participated in the violent coup attempt at the Capitol on January 6th were just elected to public office, and Senate Republicans have filibustered a motion to begin debate on the John Lewis Voting Rights Advancement Act, to name just a few news items. It would be helpful to our understanding of these events if the incentive system for the press was not so focused on showing divisiveness and short-term political warfare. Political fortunes shift quickly. Building things of value takes time.
Perhaps we could have less coverage of the political horserace and more on the ideas and goals behind those things being built to help ordinary Americans.
More to come…
*Hat tip to Rachel Maddow for pointing out the pattern.