Skip to main content
ABC News
Our Smartest and Dumbest Columns of 2011

Some of my favorite columnists and bloggers have started something called a prediction audit, which looks back at their year of writing and evaluates which of their articles seem to have been the most and the least prescient.

I’m a little reluctant to apply the term “prediction” in this context since we’re pretty careful about what we call a prediction around here, and usually try to couch any forecasts or predictions in the language of probability and uncertainty. Nevertheless, I like the accountability that this exercise implies. So I’ve gone back through a year’s worth of blog posts and identified 10 pieces of analysis or commentary that look pretty smart in retrospect — and another 10 that look completely dumb.

Let’s start with the dumb ones:

1. The very day that my article entitled “Derek Jeter and the Curse of Age” was published in The Week in Review, Jeter hit two home runs. Overcoming a slow start, Jeter hit better than .300 for the balance of the season after the article was published.

2. Speaking of bad timing, I wrote an article critiquing pundits for dismissing Herman Cain’s campaign — just four days before his sexual harassment scandal broke.

3. I wrote on Aug. 4 that the crash in the stock market that day should not be a major concern for President Obama. But it was associated with a period during which his approval ratings declined materially. (More broadly, my subsequent research suggests that one should take a broad view of the economy rather than fetishizing or dismissing particular economic indicators.)

4. Our NCAA tournament projections thought Connecticut was overrated and dismissed their late-season momentum. They won the National Championship.

5. With occasional exception, this blog was much too bullish on Rick Perry’s candidacy, skeptical of his initial decline in the polls and then anticipating a rebound that has not yet occurred.

6. We highlighted that the endorsement of The Union Leader of Manchester, N.H., which backed Newt Gingrich, has historically had some power to predict the winner of the New Hampshire primary. Mr. Gingrich’s chances of winning the primary now appear remote.

7. Likewise, we touted the predictive power of the Ames Straw Poll, which was won by Michele Bachmann, but her fortunes have been on a long decline in Iowa.

8. This piece noting how poorly Democrats performed in the special elections of Sept. 13 looks a bit overwrought in retrospect. On the other hand, this article from August seems to have overreacted to a shift in Gallup’s generic ballot polling toward the Democrats. The forecast for control of Congress remains highly ambiguous and uncertain and I’m not sure we’ve learned very much about it over the course of this year.

9. I thought that liberal Democrats in Congress had leverage in influencing the outcome of the debt ceiling debate. It was certainly not apparent in the deal that resulted.

10. In January, we called the Seattle Seahawks the worst playoff team ever. A few days later, they upset the heavily favored New Orleans Saints.

On the other hand, some things that I wrote held up quite well:

1. This blog was quite bullish on Mitt Romney’s campaign early on, on the basis of both polling and strategic factors. We also recommended on repeated occasions that Mr. Romney’s campaign make a strong play for Iowa, something his campaign has chosen to do.

2. Although we were never tempted to take Donald Trump seriously, we did point out that his rise in the polls signaled tension between the Republican establishment and base voters, something that would play out through the primary season.

3. I’ll take some credit for pointing out that the Boston Red Sox’ pitchers really did seem to be choking before they culminated one of the most remarkable collapses in baseball history.

4. I correctly guessed in both May and June that the conditions were very favorable for Rick Perry to enter the presidential race, but unfavorable for Sarah Palin.

5. We were early skeptics about Jon M. Huntsman Jr.’s path to the nomination. The same goes for Tim Pawlenty.

6. I mentioned some problems earlier with this blog’s coverage of Herman Cain. But I did anticipate back in May that Mr. Cain could have a real presence in the race given that his polling was strong relative to initially poor name recognition. I also jumped off the bandwagon quickly once the scandal broke, noting that the sexual harassment accusations against him were almost certain to undermine his campaign.

7. We were quick to anticipate Newt Gingrich’s polling surge, while at the same time warning that it could be transient; we were also quick to identify Mr. Gingrich’s decline. However, I cannot take as much credit as other analysts who said the whole time that he had no chance of winning the nomination.

8. I anticipated that the debt ceiling negotiations were coming to a resolution several days before they actually did, somewhat in contrast to the conventional wisdom at that time.

9. We noted that “The King’s Speech,” and not “The Social Network,” was likely to win the Academy Award for Best Picture. (I would have voted for “True Grit.”)

10. This is frankly a case of making the right prediction for some of the wrong reasons, since the storm produced most of its damage throughout New England and upstate New York rather than in New York City itself, but I looked at past data to project that Hurricane Irene could cause a large amount of financial damage relative to its wind speed, as it did.

Thank you for spending your time reading this blog in 2011, and we look forward to a very busy 2012.

Nate Silver is the founder and editor in chief of FiveThirtyEight.