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What I Got Wrong In 2014

Thanksgiving is a time to look back on the year and remember what we are thankful for. New Year’s, on the other hand, is a time to look back and realize what we screwed up (so we can better ourselves — or something).

That’s why at my former gig I started a tradition of listing my worst columns of the past year. By worst, I mean those that contained predictions or explanations that look silly or downright inaccurate in retrospect. So, here we go.

A failure of skepticism

In the aftermath of the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, civil rights groups in the area made an effort to register people to vote. The St. Louis County Board of Elections initially reported that 3,287 new voters were added to the rolls in Ferguson — a huge number for such a small town in such a short time.

The warning sirens should have been blaring in my head. But who was I to challenge the board? It had the numbers. I should have done more digging. By merely looking at the census, I would have seen that the board’s claim was probably mathematically impossible; there were probably fewer than 3,287 unregistered citizens 18 or older in Ferguson before the protests.

Sure enough, the Election Board released a statement saying it had made a mistake: Only 128 people had signed up to vote in Ferguson from the time of the protests through early October.

A failure of modesty

In most political science circles, congressional approval ratings are thought to explain very little in terms of election results for the House of Representatives. Instead, the driving factor is thought to be presidential approval. I decided, however, to build a simple model that looked at both congressional and presidential approval ratings.

The fact that Congress’s approval rating was so low in 2014 led me to predict that Republicans would win the national House vote by only about 2 percentage points. Had I relied on only the president’s low approval rating to forecast the House elections, I would have foreseen a Republican win closer to 7 points.

Republicans went on to win the national House vote by a little less than 6 percentage points. It would be a mistake to abandon the idea that congressional approval ratings matter simply because they didn’t appear to in one election. But 2014 was much more about the president than the unpopularity of Congress.

Two failures of ‘if history is any guide’

After Eric Holder announced he was stepping down as attorney general, I demonstrated that attorney general nominees tend to accumulate many more “no” votes in Senate confirmation battles than nominees for other Cabinet positions. That led me to predict Holder’s replacement would have, at a minimum, a contentious nomination hearing.

Then Loretta Lynch happened. Since being nominated by President Obama for attorney general, Lynch has received high praise from almost everyone she has met. Three Republicans have already said they plan to vote for her.

Lynch may yet make some statement during her confirmation hearing to lead to a lot of Republicans to oppose her nomination. However, she looks like she is going to sail, and I look very wrong.

Another person who is flying high these days is Obama (relatively speaking). His approval rating reached 48 percent Tuesday, its highest point since August 2013, according to Gallup. In the first few days of December, Obama’s approval rating was stuck around 42 percent.

History showed that a second-term president’s approval rating in the December after the midterm elections tends not to improve much during his remaining days in office. I wrote that article Dec. 11. I should have waited through the end of the month.

It’s quite possible the 48 percent will prove to be a fluke. Maybe the president’s getting a Christmas bump. For now, I look more like Dick Morris than Nate Silver.

Hopefully I’ll make fewer mistakes in 2015. Happy New Year!

Harry Enten is a senior political writer and analyst for FiveThirtyEight.

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