It's Game Time

By John F. Harris
Sunday, November 5, 2006

Mary Matalin, a Republican who has been at this game for years, is obviously very smart when it comes to elections. So, too, is Paul Kirk, a Democrat who has been at it even longer.

It is a bit odd, then, that when asked for their most coldly objective expertise on the question of who will control the House after Tuesday's voting they would differ by 34 seats. What would we make of doctors who differed so wildly in their perceptions? Cancer, says Kirk. The flu, says Matalin.

Though distressing to contemplate, it could be that Outlook's famous pre-election Crystal Ball contest has been corrupted by sentimentality. Perhaps Kirk, who predicts that Democrats will win 250 districts, is letting his judgment be clouded by wishful thinking. Maybe Matalin, who forecasts that her party will win 218 districts and hold on to the majority by a two-seat margin, has a secret prediction stashed away somewhere but is afraid to confront her former White House colleagues publicly with the unpleasant truth.

There are those who would argue not simply that the Crystal Ball has been corrupted but that it is itself corrupt. It celebrates a conventional wisdom that at best is vaguely right and at worst is a powerful distraction. The United States is in the midst of a sullen, grinding war. According to polls, most Americans think the country is on the wrong track. In just two days, citizens will get to decide what they wish to do about these problems when they take part in democracy's most sacred ritual. But to Outlook and its exclusive club of insider-prognosticators, the elections are also a form of entertainment. Isn't that part of what's wrong with politics?

Hardly. Yes, these are serious times. But there could be no political operative, analyst or journalist with a pulse who is not having a blast during these final hours of anticipation. Politics is not just sport -- but it is partly sport. Handicapping the likely outcome of races is a particular subspecialty of the game.

I write as someone who once played myself (though never as one of Outlook's team of predictors). I used to think I was good at forecasting, and over time was forced by a steady stream of surprises and bad bets to admit that I was not. Now, for the most part, I have dropped out of predicting but follow those who are still willing to put their reputations as sages and seers on the line.

So it's with a mix of admiration and skepticism that I contemplate this year's Tournament of Champions in the 13th biennial Outlook Crystal Ball competition, bringing together winners from as far back as 1982.

The admiration is simple: Running the table with accurate predictions, as you pretty much have to do to win this contest, is impressive.

The skepticism is a little more complicated: This august group of predictors has demonstrated a talent that has no real value. It's not as though they pick stocks. What's more, it's debatable whether they have any more skill than a blindfolded kindergartner who manages to hit the piƱata.

To be blunt, the Crystal Ball contest itself may be a bunch of bull.

Start with the sports analogy. A demonstrably good athlete -- say Tiger Woods -- shows his superiority week in, week out, winning tournaments over a number of years. In the 12 contests that Outlook has held since 1982, there has been only one repeat winner. That was Chris Matthews, and his back-to-back victories were in 1988 and 1990. Since then, he has not stopped making predictions, as anyone who watches his show "Hardball" knows, but it's not clear that his are any better than yours or mine.

On the other hand, there's a case to be made that the predictions featured in the Crystal Ball contest are more rigorous than simply a random walk down K Street. For one thing, despite the occasional odd variances, the experts do tend to stick together in their predictions. Nine out of 10 contestants this year project that Republicans will keep control of the Senate. Eight out of 10 say that the GOP will lose control of the House. This consensus suggests that there may be at least some method to the exercise, not just voodoo.

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