Prognosticating the Primaries

My skills as a prognosticator are about as good as the average political reporter's -- not so hot. I'm living up to that track record ...
by | June 14, 2006

Crystalball_1 My skills as a prognosticator are about as good as the average political reporter's -- not so hot. I'm living up to that track record so far this year.

I posted a few weeks ago that Steve Westly's polling lead over early frontrunner Phil Angelides was an inevitability in the California Democrats' gubernatorial primary. Westly was spending more money and in a humdrum race between two little-known guys that might have been enough.

But, although I was careful to mention Westly's personal tepidity, I failed to factor in the dynamic that holds that the candidate who appeals to the party's most fervent supporters could prevail amidst low turnout. Angelides was running with a more ardently liberal message -- and won. On the same day, Iowa Secretary of State Chet Culver took the Democratic nomination for gov for much the same reason (although other factors were in play in that race).

Voters, especially in primaries, like to vote for the person they like -- not necessarily the one they think offers the most strategic pick to appeal to the broader electorate in the fall.

Those of us in the media write and chatter so much about electability and whether voters want to go with the likeliest winner against a tough general election opponent that we sometimes forget that fact.

With all that in mind, I sort of expected that Harris Miller would prevail in yesterday's Democratic primary for the U.S. Senate. After all, he was the more liberal candidate and had the endorsement of the Washington Post. What difference would it make that the Democratic Senate Campaign Committee and other national party leaders were backing former Republican James Webb, believing he was the better bet against incumbent George Allen?

Especially when turnout turned out to be an especially anemic 3 percent. That's not a typo, incidentally. Given such a miniscule number of voters, certainly old party loyalties would die hard and Democrats would reject the underfunded Democrat-come-lately. "Some Democrats have convinced themselves that only a candidate with Mr. Webb's résumé and panache stands a chance of knocking off incumbent Sen. George Allen, a Republican with a daunting track record of electoral success," wrote the Post -- so what?

Well, such reasoning carried the day, of course. We'll see whether Webb can derail Allen's presidential wannabe train, or whether he's just won the honor of getting whupped.

But now I'll have to decide whether I believe Republican Governor Mark Sanford is in real trouble. I wrote that if his primary opponent made any kind of showing at all, that would be a sign of Sanford's potential weakness. Sanford's margin was less than 2 to 1 in his primary yesterday -- which to most people would still seem like a pretty good win. But the South Carolina press has taken up my angle, arguing that it was not overwhelming and therefore a sign that troubles lie ahead.

Again, sometimes political reporters ignore the evidence that is before them in favor of nursing a pet theory or storyline. That's why we make lousy prognosticators.