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Looking Back at the Political ‘Experts’ Who Said Obama Would Lose Looking Back at the Political ‘Experts’ Who Said Obama Would Lose

Illustration by Gabby Bess

Looking Back at the Political ‘Experts’ Who Said Obama Would Lose

Eight years before political pundits failed to predict Trump's win, they completely discredited Obama and said he didn't stand a chance of beating Hillary Clinton.

This Week in 2007 is a weekly column looking back on Lindsay Lohan, the first iPhone, George W. Bush, and everything else we loved about the year 2007.

The year 2007 became a meme thanks to the criminal exploits of Lindsay Lohan and Paris Hilton, but the year also played backdrop to a host of historic political events. Ten years ago, for instance, then Illinois Senator Barack Obama announced his bid for president on the steps of Illinois's Old State Capitol building. "Each and every time, a new generation has risen up and done what's needed to be done," he said according to the New York Times. "Today we are called once more, and it is time for our generation to answer that call."

A decade later, Obama's hope and change platform looks like an obvious campaign strategy during the messy Bush years, which included everything from the ill-advised Iraq War to the government's incompetent handling of Hurricane Katrina. But in 2007, most cable news pundits and political experts disregarded Obama. He would, they claimed, obviously lose in the primary against obvious future president Hillary Clinton.

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"It was a bit of a whirlwind because a lot of people didn't anticipate that Senator Obama would pull the trigger and get into the race," recalls Ben LaBolt, who served as the campaign's deputy press secretary. "The establishment thinking was 'new, young, exciting,' but Clinton was going to be really hard to beat."

Former Ronald Reagan speechwriter and Wall Street Journal columnist Peggy Noonan foresaw an Obama victory, but most on the right and left rejected the senator's chances. Democratic strategist Mark Penn wrote in a memo that Obama was "unelectable except perhaps against Attila the Hun." Conservative radio host Rush Limbaugh predicted he would "lose big": "[Obama] has shown he cannot get the votes Democrats need to win—blue-collar, working class people. He can get effete snobs, he can get wealthy academics, he can get the young, and he can get the black vote, but Democrats do not win with that."

Even sworn Clinton enemy Christopher Hitchens dismissed Obama. "Sen. Obama cannot possibly believe, and doesn't even act as if he believes, that he can be elected president of the United States next year," he wrote in Slate. Mark Halperin and John F. Harris's book The Way to Win: Taking the White House in 2008 doesn't even acknowledge Obama as a contender. "It was a book about why we shouldn't have even gotten into the race," LaBolt says.

Photo by Master Sgt. Cecilio Ricardo, U.S. Air Force, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

In hindsight, it's obvious Obama posed a threat, considering columnists and authors felt the need to expunge hundreds of pages on Obama's dire chances. LaBolt sees numerous factors that pundits misinterpreted. "It was a change election," he explains. "Whether it was Iowa or other states, there had been a lot of cynicism about millennials." Strategists presumed millennials would fail to turn out on election date. Team Obama bet against those assumptions.

There was also, of course, a race element to political experts' analyses. "There was a group of people who were waiting to see if he could win over a substantial number of white voters, and Iowa was going to be that test," LaBolt says. "They were skeptical until they saw it from that perspective."

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On a policy level, Obama and President Donald Trump seem like polar opposites, but analysts' initial treatment of them are eerily similar. Obama ran, promising to restore American prosperity after the disastrous policies of the Bush administration, and Trump pledged to "drain the swamp" and "make America great again." Both were agents of change that so-called politicos underestimated.

"I think this past election cycle in particular better cast some level of reevaluation of [cable news predictions]," LaBolt says.

During the 2016 election, pundits turned on one cable news regular, Ann Coulter, for first predicting Trump would win the primary and then for forecasting Trump triumphing at the general election. Coulter laughed off the critiques, even writing a column called "Talking Head Twit of the Year Contest." (Contestants include Republican political consultant Alex Castellanos and CNBC talking head Sara Fagen.) When asked who was the commentator with the worst predictions, Coulter said, "All of them... You can't be interviewed on TV unless you are a complete moron, otherwise, you might outsmart the host."

Political "experts" have failed at their jobs in numerous elections, though, besides the change elections of 2008 and 2016. In a November 2011 New York Times magazine cover story, Nate Silver even gave Obama, an incumbent who history suggested would win, a 17 percent chance of beating Mitt Romney. Cable news' inaccurate predictions from 2007 stand out because of the revolution Obama started, but like much of the spectacle of the infamous year, it reflects something prevalent in American culture. As LaBolt says about pundits' inaccuracy, "This happens time and time again."

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