Sooner or later, America’s pundits may be right about Donald Trump’s presidential prospects. But from the moment Trump announced he was running for the Republican nomination in June, they’ve been swinging and missing like those cartoon baseball players hacking away at a slow pitch across the plate.
To a degree perhaps unusual in national politics, the talking-head class has been consistently wrong in its predictions about the direction of Trump’s campaign. After each of his many feuds, flaps and alleged blunders, they’ve declared his candidacy dead or mortally wounded.
Instead, Trump has maintained his leading position in opinion polls — or risen further.
The bad calls demonstrate either Trump’s surprising political resilience or the punditocracy’s poor prognosticating skills. (We’ll leave it to the pundits to decide which.)
Let’s start with Trump’s campaign kickoff, when he said Mexican immigrants are “bringing crime, they’re rapists” (though some, “I assume, are good people.”)
NPR’s Mara Liasson, among others, declared Trump’s campaign a non-starter: “I think this is Donald Trump’s biggest day,” Liasson said on Fox News, hours after Trump’s press conference. “And he will be ignored from henceforth. Actually, I hope he will. I think the Republican field is big and serious. It just has a kind of bottom feeder-type tier to it, and he’s in it.”
Within days, Trump went from ninth-place also-ran to front-runner. To her credit, Liasson has repeatedly acknowledged her blown call. “Many people got this wrong,” she says now. “First and foremost, me.”
Remember the time when Trump took a shot at 2008 Republican nominee John McCain? “He’s not a war hero,” Trump scoffed in mid-July. “He’s a war hero because he was captured. I like people that weren’t captured.”
“Don Voyage!” declared the New York Post, with a cover photo illustration of Trump on a raft with a shark circling. The inside headline said, “He’s Done-ald! Trump implodes with wild jab at McCain.”
Trump — who loves to cite his poll numbers as evidence of his credibility — soon expanded his lead.
But then came Trump’s run-ins with Fox News host Megyn Kelly, both at the GOP debate in early August where she challenged him over his history of sexist remarks and in his post-debate comments and tweets lashing out at her. In a CNN interview, Trump maintained that Kelly had it in for him: “You can see there was blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever . . .”
The comment — which Trump denied was a reference to menstruation — so offended conservative pundit Erick Erickson that he disinvited Trump to a candidate forum he’d organized that weekend. Erickson predicted the episode would be “the beginning of the end” of Trump’s campaign.
Trump continued to dominate media coverage and opinion polls throughout the summer.
Thereafter, Trump served up still more reasons for commentators to question his future: a mini-flap over the firing or resignation of campaign adviser Roger Stone; Trump’s apparent confusion over various Middle Eastern factions in an early September radio interview with Hugh Hewitt; the uproar over Trump’s comments about rival Carly Fiorina in a Rolling Stone interview (“Look at that face! Would anyone vote for that?”) a week later.
With the possible exception of Liasson, Trump’s pundit-defying rise has prompted little self-examination, and fewer apologies, from the people who’ve gotten him wrong, says Jack Shafer, Politico’s senior media writer.
“There should be some journalistic law that states that when a pundit’s prediction goes wrong he should acknowledge it in print or on TV,” Shafer says in an e-mail. “And be pilloried for 24 hours so we can throw rotten fruit at them.”
In a column last month, Shafer analyzed the pundit stumbles this way: “The press can’t get Trump right because they have so little experience reporting on demagogues. Reporters believe that if they lay out a demagogue’s contradictions, quote people who cringe at what he has said or compile lists of his despicable utterance, that the demagogue will sink under his own weight.
“Nuh-uh. . . If anything, establishment attacks on a demagogue only stiffen the loyalties of his subjects, proving to them that he is telling truth to power.”
Trump’s seemingly punchless performance in the second debate on Sept. 16 ignited a fresh round of doomsaying. A number of pundits revived Erickson’s formulation, suggesting it could spell “the beginning of the end” for Trump — the Chicago Sun-Times’ Lynn Sweet, Slate’s Jamelle Bouie, “Meet the Press” moderator Chuck Todd, CNN political commentator David Axelrod, the Daily Caller’s Matt K. Lewis and The Washington Post’s Dana Milbank.
Sweet notes now that her comments about Trump on CNN included a bit of a hedge — “It could be the beginning of the end,” was her exact phrasing at the time. It’s risky for pundits to stick their necks out too far, she said. “This is a political year like no other and it is hard to make predictions.”
Lewis acknowledged prematurely writing off Trump after the McCain episode but stood by his Sept. 20 column in the Telegraph newspaper in which he wrote that “something feels different this time” about Trump. “In regards to Trump, he’s utterly unorthodox,” Lewis said via e-mail. “The old rules don’t apply to him. . . In my lifetime, at least, we’ve never seen someone like Donald Trump. That makes him incredibly unpredictable.”
For his part, Milbank said he wasn’t predicting when Trump would fall in his Sept. 17 column, which began, “Could this be the beginning of the end of Donald Trump?” He said in an interview that he’s “quite confident Trump will not be the nominee, because I think voters are smarter than that. But I don’t claim to know when they will arrive at that decision.”
Milbank points to polls showing Trump’s support softening since the debate to back up his non-prediction prediction. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released Sunday, for example, showed Trump’s at 21 percent compared to 20 percent for runner-up Ben Carson.
Except: A poll released Wednesday by USA Today and Suffolk University showed Trump with a much wider lead, 10 points. Trump gained six points since the last USA Today/Suffolk survey in July.
The beginning of the end? Here’s some punditry about the pundits: Opinions about Trump are easy; seeing the future isn’t.