Lots of politicians were wrong about lots of things this primary season. Mitt Romney was wrong to believe that millions and millions spent in Iowa and New Hampshire on TV ads months before the voting began would secure wins there. Rudy Giuliani was wrong that his huge lead in February 5 states would hold up after he declined to make a serious effort to compete in earlier states.
Lots of political gurus missed the boat as well. Refashioning Romney as a social conservative standard-bearer and establishment Republican ranks up there with the all time bad consultant ideas. Giuliani’s team made certain no future campaign will try the “Florida or bust” strategy. The National Right to Life Committee’s judgment that Fred Thompson was the more electable of the pro-life candidates turned out to be comically wrong.
The pundits repeatedly got it wrong — missing the rise of Mike Huckabee and the potential for McCain resurgence and mistaking Giuliani’s celebrity for political support.
As for me, I certainly had my share of swings and misses. Yes, I did predict the swift demise of Fred Thompson and warned that Huckabee’s effort in Iowa would not be slowed by Club for Growth or Romney’s immigration ads. I frequently opined that Romney’s many flip-flops would raise huge character questions and be his undoing.
However, I would be remiss if I did not point out a few of my more egregious mistakes, so here goes:
1. I paid attention to national polling months and months before the primaries began. The Romney team was right here and I was wrong: the 2007 national polling proved to be meaningless. The temptation to respond to pollsters and media hype about the latest poll proved irresistible but misguided.
2. During the bulk of 2007, I assumed that social conservative support for Giuliani reflected a sign that they might accept his candidacy. More likely, the polling reflected a deep and abiding respect for the 9/11 hero and his very high name recognition. Given their druthers, many religious right voters eventually chose a candidate, Huckabee, more aligned with their values and policy positions.
3. I overestimated the influence of national pundits and underestimated the importance of local media. I did not appreciate how influential the Union Leader would be in New Hampshire and the potential for McCain to use its words as a shield and a sword against Romney. I assumed that the 24/7 drumbeat of attacks by mainstream media and national conservative opinion makers against Huckabee would doom him in Iowa; it may have simply emboldened his followers.
4. I assumed that illegal immigration would be a determining factor in the GOP primary. It became the subject of thousands of e-mail blasts, web and TV ads, new terms of art (“sanctuary mansion”), and testy debate exchanges. However, McCain has prevailed in multiples race (including Florida, with the help of Hispanic voters) and not a single state’s primary’s outcome turned on this issue. For all the contentiousness surrounding immigration, the GOP candidates reached a simple consensus: border security first.
5. I could not imagine that Bill Clinton would descend to the lowly status of race baiter and junk yard attack dog. I wrongly assumed he would be a tremendous asset to his wife and that he cared about his historical legacy, not just the chance to return to power. His behavior entirely surprised, indeed stunned me.
6. I vastly underestimated the appeal of Barack Obama and the Democratic primary electorate’s yearning for an idealistic, pure liberal. Sullied by the ethical and political compromises of the Clinton years, they seem to have suddenly realized they could do better. I underestimated both the degree to which “experience” would prove irrelevant in their calculation and the degree to which Obama would improve and toughen as a candidate.
In reviewing this list of errors and miscalculations, the only thing I can say in my own defense is, I had plenty of company.