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Taibbi writes: "Bloomberg asks if Bernie Sanders is finished, forgetting the industry-wide prediction errors of 2016."

Bernie Sanders campaigns in Warner, New Hampshire, 27 May 2019. (photo: Aflo/Shutterstock)
Bernie Sanders campaigns in Warner, New Hampshire, 27 May 2019. (photo: Aflo/Shutterstock)

Campaign Conventional Wisdom Is Dead

By Matt Taibbi, Rolling Stone

12 June 19

Bloomberg asks if Bernie Sanders is finished, forgetting the industry-wide prediction errors of 2016

loomberg’s Jonathan Bernstein just published a new piece called, “Is Bernie Finished?” Citing Iowa poll numbers that show poor Sanders “essentially in a three person race for second” (he actually is in second, but whatever), its premise is that Bernie now rests “at the fringes of plausibility.” Worse, he could “fail to reach the delegate threshold” in Iowa, Nevada and South Carolina.

Citing poll wizard Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight, Bernstein paints a dire picture:

“While Sanders is faring somewhat better nationally, that’s mainly because almost all the other candidates remain unknown to voters. As Nate Silver points out, only 8% of Democrats say they’re definitely supporting Sanders…”

This is absurd, and the absurdity isn’t confined to coverage of Bernie Sanders. It’s early, and stupid, to be making pronouncements about any candidate’s viability.

It was silly back in December when a spate of pundits suddenly decided to run “worries abound” stories about Elizabeth Warren whose campaign months later is doing, surprise surprise, just fine.

It was absurd for New York magazine to run “Joe Biden May Be Less Electable Than He Looks” stories in April as he jumped to a big lead in the polls.

And it was ridiculous for the Washington Post to run four different stories in the span of a few winter days earlier this year about Sanders being a “one-hit wonder” whose moment had “come… and gone” and who was “no big deal the second time around.”

These stories are not based on anything. They’re space-filling guesses usually grounded in some grumbling personal complaint the outlet or pundit in question has about whatever politician they’re trashing.

It’s an annoying and condescending kind of campaign reportage. What makes it particularly ridiculous is that a lot of the people doing it were part of an epic face plant on the horse race front four years ago.

The across-the-board failed prognostications of last election season were a thing to behold. They constituted one of the larger industry-wide failures in a journalism business that has seen a few of them since the Iraq fiasco. Literally every major news outlet called the 2016 election wrong.

The most inexcusable mistakes involved the complete dismissal of Donald Trump’s chances at the nomination at a time when he was either leading the Republican field or in clear contention.

This is similar to what’s going on now with Sanders, who is sitting firmly in second place nationally, at about 17%, as Bloomberg is wondering if he’s “finished.” But what happened with Trump in 2016 was even more bizarre.

Bernstein should know. Four summers ago, when Trump was surging, he penned a piece under a headline, “No, Trump can’t win.” He meant the nomination, insisting (emphasis mine):

Everything we know about presidential nominations screams that Donald Trump has no chance of winning the Republicans’ nod.

Nate Silver, too, placed Trump’s chances of winning the nomination (the nomination, not the general!) at “2 percent.” This was under the headline, “Donald Trump’s Six Stages of Doom.”

FiveThirtyEight wrote multiple articles in 2015 insisting it was a near-mathematical impossibility for Trump to be the nominee. They claimed Trump would play “in the NBA Finals” or cameo in another Home Alone movie with Macaulay Culkin (they really wrote that) before winning the nomination.

Countless pundits made the same mistake. Dana Milbank in the Washington Post wrote:

“I’m so certain Trump won’t win the nomination that I’ll eat my words if he does. Literally: The day Trump clinches the nomination, I will eat the page on which this column is printed in Sunday’s Post.”

To Milbank’s credit, he actually ended up eating that paper.

In the New York Times, Nate Cohn said Trump has “just about no shot” of winning the nomination, adding — in an observation that was an odious subtext to a lot of these wrongly certain predictions — that it is “the party elites who traditionally decide nomination contests.”

Silver four years ago correctly noted that “fringe or factional” candidates like Herman Cain and Michelle Bachmann tended to fall back to the pack under “heightened scrutiny.”

This did actually happen in that race. Trump slipped in the polls and briefly lost his frontrunner status in the fall of 2015. But the beneficiary of his slide was another non-politician, Ben Carson.

Again, pundits were right that Trump on the surface was a preposterous bet to win the nomination, given that 57 percent of Republicans disapproved of him in the summer of 2015.

But he won anyway, not so much because Republican voters learned to love Trump, but because they couldn’t shake the belief that the other choices were worse. Voters were ready to try anything that was different. On the trail they frequently said things like, “Why not?” and “We have to try something.”

The huge, underreported story of 2016 was the utter failure of the Republican Party Brahmins to be competitive in their own primary. Big-dollar donors poured $150 million into the campaign of Jeb Bush, only to end up with three whole delegates. People simply would not respond to the usual cues.

The failure of all that cash, institutional muscle and media clout to reel voters back to any “traditional” Republican — to the latest Bush, McCain or Romney — was evidence of a massive crack in the political establishment.

Trump’s thin Electoral College win against Hillary Clinton was a similar story. One of the most amazing stats from Election Day was that around one in six of Trump’s voters in November 2016 actively disapproved of him.

This allowed him to enter the White House with a ridiculously low 38 percent approval rating.

What predictions can you possibly make in a political environment so saturated with ambivalence and pessimism that a person with a 38 percent approval rating can win the presidency? The answer should be none, or nothing obvious.

2016 was an indication that voters had traveled so far off the reservation that any choices they made going forward were likely to be hard to predict.

Pundits however didn’t go back and recalibrate after 2016. A common explanation for Trump’s rise was that he was a “black swan” event. As Vanity Fair noted, this was a concept developed by risk analyst Nassim Taleb to describe “incredibly rare, hard-to-predict events, like the 9/11 attacks.” Trump, it was argued, was someone whose uniqueness defied models, which meant the Great Pundit Whiff of 2016 deserved a mulligan.

But Taleb himself dismissed the idea of Trump as a “black swan” event. When asked why pundits got the last election so wrong, he had a hilarious answer:

“Basically the mainstream media is presumptuous club for people with 1) a lack of understanding of complex systems, 2) a fear of diverging from the norm, 3) zero independent thought.”

This is why people should be careful about any horse race pronouncements about any candidate going into 2020.

Taleb is right: the press is a club full of presumptuous conformists who regularly ignore data they don’t like or understand, and they don’t understand a lot — beginning with the recent decline in their own influence.

A lot of these “read-the-tea-leaves” pieces — whether about Warren, Sanders, Trump, Biden or anyone else — represent a yearning for the old days when a handful of op-ed writers really did have influence over who rose and fell in the polls.

Those days are long gone. Voters today not only ignore pundit pronouncements, they often seem motivated to vote just to spite them.

Editorialists don’t understand that when they write things like, “X candidate can’t win because elites won’t allow it,” that will tend to make people in the current environment vote for that person, not against him or her.

This is why Taleb makes a lot of sense when he says:

“The main surprise event is that the New York Times is now so impotent and weak that it can no longer control America. The Media is gone. Social media are much harder to fully control.”

Not only are news audiences sensitive to the fact that we suck even at our own degraded horse race form of guessing-game politics coverage, they see us as a conflicted part of the power structure whose opinions about candidate viability should probably be ignored on principle.

They realize we can make numbers say pretty much anything. They know if we wanted to, for instance, we could argue that centrist candidates are less electable, while the Bernies and Warrens of the world might be more so, as political economist Thomas Piketty recently did in a new study.

After the disaster of 2016, the 2020 election race represented an opportunity for the press to win back some credibility. The fastest way would have been to go back to the basics, just telling voters what candidates stand for, what their records are, etc.

Not only is this easier, it might result in people hating us less. But we refuse to do it. Sometimes it seems like we’re trying to be disliked.

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+3 # economagic 2019-06-12 13:43
But Matt, we all have to put our money down before the horses leave the gate!

Thanks for saying the obvious, which is also lost on the majority or readers here. The one thing my econometrics (big statistics) professor said that I could really understand was, "The future is unknown and unknowable.")
+33 # PABLO DIABLO 2019-06-12 14:44
I'll get a lot of thumbs down for this, but I need to remind you Trump didn't win, Hillary lost. 90 Million registered voters (half of all Registered voters) did NOT vote. Hillary's whole campaign was "I'm not Trump" and "I have a vagina". "STAY THE COURSE" when obviously the USA was clamoring for change. "MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN" was red meat to the base. If the Democrats nominate Joe Biden, you will see another four years of Trump. The DNC and the DCCC doesn't care because they just keep raking in the Corporate dollars.
+4 # wrknight 2019-06-13 08:49
No truer words were ever spoken. What on earth made you think you would get a single thumbs down?
+8 # Observer 47 2019-06-13 09:26
Thanks for speaking the truth!! Biden = Hillary. Biden can have Republican fat cats hold kick-off parties for him, but, as you say, the Dem power structure doesn't care. Doesn't matter who sits at 1600, as long as the corporatocracy kicks in the big bucks.
+21 # chrisconno 2019-06-12 17:25
Doesn't the lead in the polls showing the conservative Biden ahead just say that the progressive vote is split between Saunders and Warren? If one combines the two wouldn't that make the progressive vote around 60%? Biden is a spoiler. If the democratic party nominates Biden we will be getting just a little less of the same. Those of us who want something far less republican will be stuck and unhappy, and in danger from a future with too little time left.
+15 # rivervalley 2019-06-12 20:11
I agree with Pablo; if the Dems nominate the same candidate as last time, but this time played by Biden, with the same platform - Trump Bad! - we will see the same result. Which leads me to think that the DNC would rather elect trump than Bernie. When that happens, I'm moving to a new party & we'll leave the DNC in the dustbin of history
+15 # Rodion Raskolnikov 2019-06-12 18:47
It is tough to be a political pundit these days. They always get it wrong and they really don't give a shit. They just keep churning out their lame analyses.

It is too early to make many claims about what will happen at the Demo convention in July 2020. I think Sanders will come in substantially ahead of all others. He may be cheated out of the nomination by party leaders. But I think he has grass roots support -- something pundits never understand.
+6 # Citizen Mike 2019-06-12 21:56
A lot of people will not vote FOR anyone, they will vote AGAINST Trump. We must factor that in.I also thing a lot of people feel (not think, feel) that since the election was stolen from Hillary we owe the women one, so now, Warren.
+12 # librarian1984 2019-06-13 04:52
Trump gor the nomination, despite all pundit predictions, because "the other choices were worse"

Neither the msm nor party establishment are interested in substance. We get 'horse race' stories to avoid discussing policy, because they collude to loot the public coffers.

It's tricky to keep calling your country a democracy when nearly every institution keeps regular people from participating in their own governance.

Political success is not a huge mystery. Promise people things and, if you want to be reelected, fulfill those promises. But anymore the establishment is precisely about not giving us what we need, !et alone what we want.

For years the GOP told us government was the enemy -- and then they made it hapen. As soon as third-way Democrats joined then we were royally screwed.

That is why the majority of the eligible voters don't, and it's why there are more registered Independents than either party.

They lie to us. For a while people believed the lies, but fewer people do now. So now we get dirty tricks and system manipulations that are always detrimental for US but never the 'elite', like hobbling alternative media and making protests illegal.

It's time to take our country back from these criminals and liars, and only progressives seem ready to help us.

So let's elect them.
+10 # economagic 2019-06-13 12:12
Well said, especially in the context of your recent mention of the infamous "Powell Memo" of 1971, which urged business leaders to take the country back from the hippies and Commies.


That 34-page document is the fundamental textbook for any study, formal or informal, of US economic and political history of the past 50 years. The corporate executives read it and took it to heart, founded all of the "conservative" think tanks except the American Enterprise Institute, which was founded in 1938, and proceeded to turn themselves into the criminals, liars, and mere vandals they have become.
+6 # wrknight 2019-06-13 09:14
"Taleb is right: the press is a club full of presumptuous conformists who regularly ignore data they don’t like or understand, and they don’t understand a lot — beginning with the recent decline in their own influence."

“The main surprise event is that the New York Times is now so impotent and weak that it can no longer control America. The Media is gone. Social media are much harder to fully control.”

The days when we trusted the Media and newscasters like Walter Cronkite are long gone. I'm not sure exactly when the Media began to lose its credibility, but clearly 9/11 was a major turning point. All the hype about Iraq's involvement and the threat of its weapons of mass destruction, and its advocacy for an unjustifiable war cost the Media a huge amount of credibility.

without credibility, the Media loses its influence - and once credibility is lost, its recovery is nearly impossible. The future for the Media looks bleak.
+4 # trimegestus 2019-06-13 23:23
"... After the disaster of 2016, the 2020 election race represented an opportunity for the press to win back some credibility. The fastest way would have been to go back to the basics, just telling voters what candidates stand for, what their records are, etc."

Brilliant assessment of how to restore MSM credibility. Hello newspaper publishers. Is anybody steering the ship?
+7 # ahollman 2019-06-14 06:45
Perhaps the media could employ and publish more reporters, who go out, gather facts, and report news, and fewer columnists and pundits, who speculate, opine, and predict. We could then refer to this collective entity as the News Media, rather than the Media.

We are all capable of speculating. However, concentrating on hard news would take advantage of reporters' ability to do what most of us cannot do: Work full time on obtaining facts and putting them into a coherent story with context.

More hard news reporting would also emphasize the importance of truth, facts, and research, all of which have taken a serious beating in the last few years.
+2 # DongiC 2019-06-15 08:51
Well said, ahollman. We need facts and the hard truth not fake news and empty charges in the style of Sir Donald Trump. We need to know where the candidates stand, what their plans are and their past record as well. (memo: watch out Joe Biden, your past votes may bite you). We need to know context as well as stated above. For these and other reasons we need journalists to be journalists. You are the fourth estate and indispensable for the functioning of our democracy. Just do your job and all will be well and Trump will never exceed his 38 - 42
percent level.
-1 # davehaze 2019-06-16 01:09
Jesus Christ people, I keep telling you, Biden will not get the nomination, he will most likely not make it past the Iowa cacuses. Stop listening to mainstreammedia , stop believing polls-- you are as likely able to find the truth in the bottom of swimmimg pools.

Oh, you dont think you are supceptabe to propaganda? Think. Were you one of the 7 of 10 Americans in 2003 who believed Iraq had WMD? Do you believe in Russiagate? Propaganda, baby!

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