Misunderestimating Donald Trump: Why The Pundits Got Him Wrong

Matt K. Lewis Senior Contributor
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I’m quoted in a new Washington Post piece on “All the times the pundits declared Trump toast.” Like most of my colleagues, I “misunderestimated” The Donald’s lingering appeal. Looking back, I recently concluded that rather than assuming one of Trump’s early gaffes was the “beginning of the end” I should have said it was just the “end of the beginning.”

(Sadly, the Post has not yet contacted me for a profile piece on how I was the only commentator to suggest John Boehner might relinquish his speakership after Pope Francis addressed Congress — as I did here, here, and here. I’ll let you know if that changes.)

So how did we get Trump so wrong? Political pundits (the good ones) rely on wisdom and instinct derived from experience and knowledge. The problem is that sometimes the game changes, and experience and knowledge do more harm than good. A while back, I compared the challenge of handicapping Trump to the difficulty someone trained in the art of karate has when it comes to confronting a street fighter: “A fighter with a black belt might have superior technique, but he also played by a set of predictable rules. Much more dangerous was the ‘newbie,’ who was unorthodox and unpredictable.” I still think that’s an apt analogy.

I’m currently writing a book called Too Dumb to Fail: How the GOP Betrayed the Reagan Revolution to Win Elections (And How It Can Reclaim Its Conservative Roots). The book chronicles many of the trends that Trump is riding (including the rise of ‘no-experience-necessary’ candidates), but we can’t just blame the politicians for our woes. One of the groups of people I also come down very hard on in the book are the irresponsible pundits who have a perverse incentive to make bold and risky predictions.

Even the most conscientious commentators sometimes get things wrong, but the problem with irresponsible punditry — let’s say Dick Morris’ 2012 prediction that Mitt Romney would win in a landslide — is that there are consequences for the people who watch and believe — and then are stunned when Barack Obama is re-elected.

In some ways, we can blame the medium. I think Neil Postman was right when he observed, “When a television show is in process, it is very nearly impossible to say, ‘Let me think about that’ or ‘I don’t know’ or ‘What do you mean when you say that…?’…Thinking does not play well on television, a fact television directors discovered long ago.”

Back to Trump: He’s still unorthodox and that means the old rules still don’t always apply to him. The good news is that we’ve had a lot more time to study him. It’s hard for NFL commentators to make picks in week 1 or 2. The good news is that, usually prognosticators become more adept late in the season — after they’ve had a few chances to watch the teams play.

Political prognostication is surprisingly similar. I’m not foolish enough to write his political obituary, but I do think that something seemed to change during the CNN debate when Carly Fiorina dinged him. Maybe that was the end of the beginning?