The Dangers of Predicting Elections Before the Campaign

George Allen’s racial slur has received a lot of coverage this week. One lesson of this is the danger in predicting races months ahead of the election. Regardless of how strong one candidate appears, campaigns do occur, and every move is under intense scrutiny. A single wrong move can totally change the race (especially like this when Allen’s comments reinforced suspicions about him which already existed).

Last week Allen’s seat seemed safe. One comment later and it appears competitive. As the conventional wisdom is that Democrats are likely to pick up five Senate seats, while needing six to take control, surprising changes in a single race such as this are particularly important this year.

Many elections have been influenced by a single moment. Some are fair reasons to reconsider support of a candidate, such as with Allen’s comments. Other times the relevance is more questionable, such as with George Romney in 1968 for his comments on being brainwashed into supporting Vietnam, Ed Muskie crying in 1972, and Dukakis in the tank in 1988. Even Kerry’s politically disastrous statement that he voted for the $87 billion appropriation before he voted against it, while sounding absurd when taken out of context, was a totally sensible and accurate account of two different votes when taken in context and the changes in how this would be funded is considered. The actual speech was well received by the audience, which was not subject to hearing a single line out of context.

It is over two months until election day. Each candidate will make many statements. Many will also be subject to statements being misunderstood or taken out of context. Unexpected events, such as Katrina a year ago, may also impact the elections. Predicting the results and the make up of the next Congress is amusing, but we must not be deluded into thinking that our predictions today are going to be very accurate.