Baseball wit Yogi Berra once famously quipped that it’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future. But this year, faced with one of the most closely fought and acrimonious presidential elections in U.S. history, we just couldn’t help ourselves, and predictions about who would win the White House for the next four years came thick and fast.
From opinion polls to psychic dogs, the election guesswork varied from the scientific to the downright whacky. But by the time all the stump speeches had been made and the bunting and flags were cleared away, President George W. Bush’s victory over Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry had debunked more than a few beloved election superstitions.
But while many of the so-called predictors were discredited, others showed an uncanny accuracy. Internet-based wagering, which saw millions of dollars change hands as gamblers laid odds on the presidential candidates and also on a handful of hotly-contested Senate races, emerged as a good predictor of the outcome of an election and proved it is much more accurate than the over-quoted opinion polls.
The difference was, quite simply, all about money, notes Leighton Vaughan Williams, director of the Betting Research Unit at Britain's Nottingham Trent University, who has studied how well betting markets predict outcomes of events such as elections.
People's responses to opinion polls depend on the questions they are asked, the sample of voters taken and whether those surveyed are eligible or likely to actually vote. But decisions made on betting Web sites, mostly based overseas, and U.S.-based electronic futures markets like the Iowa Electronic Markets, the only legal one based in America, are backed by punters’ hard-earned money, and so they are likely to be more carefully considered, Vaughan Williams argues.
“Betting Web sites did a better job of predicting the election results than I could have ever imagined,” he said.
The odds on Web-based betting outfits like Dublin-based Tradesports.com, where $16 million was wagered on the U.S. election, accurately predicted the Electoral College vote in every state and also the outcome in key Senate races in states like Colorado and South Dakota, Vaughan Williams said.
“And in many cases the stronger the betting odds for a particular candidate, the bigger the margin of victory that candidate saw.”
Betting Web sites saw their best election triumph in Florida. Even though polls put Kerry ahead in that state, or said the race was too close to call, odds offered on betting Web sites consistently showed Bush would win.
“If the Democrats had paid attention to these Web sites instead of the polls, the election result might have been different." Vaughan Williams said. "They could have written off Florida and focused their efforts in states like New Mexico, Iowa and Ohio and Wisconsin where betting sites showed the race was very close.”
Many pundits had a field day with pollsters’ accuracy in forecasting the vote, but all 16 major polls finalized in the last three days of the campaign got the election right within a margin of error — they all said the race was a dead heat. Bush’s final spread fell well within the margins of error for all.
Two outfits got the election’s outcome exactly right: the highly respected Pew Research Center and the Tarrance Group, one of two firms that conduct George Washington University’s closely watched Battleground Poll. The closest to blowing it was Newsweek, which found Bush leading by six points at the end. Newsweek got the president’s support about right, saying it was 50 percent, but it underestimated Kerry’s support.
Then there was John Zogby. The respected pollster's final poll showed the race dead even. But Zogby put himself on the line one day before the election when he wrote, “I have made a career of taking bungee jumps in my election calls. Sometimes I haven’t had a helmet and I have gotten a little scratched. But here is my jump for 2004: John Kerry will win the election.”
Thump. “I thought we captured a trend, but apparently that result didn’t materialize,” Zogby later said.
Zogby may have found it useful to arrange a consultation with Jacqueline Stallone, an astrologer and mother of movie star Sylvester. Her psychic dogs accurately predicted this summer that President Bush would win a second term in office. Stallone’s miniature pinschers have a history of correctly calling political races. In July 2000, they used their canine super powers to divine that Bush would defeat Al Gore by a narrow margin.
Stallone’s pooches even outsmarted India’s best astrologers. Four days before the election, the subcontinent’s venerable soothsayers argued that the planets governing President Bush were eclipsed and in an uncomfortable position, making his re-election unlikely, while Kerry’s planets were in the ascendant, ensuring him success in competitions.
Where cosmic illumination failed, American schoolchildren were more prophetic. A national student poll conducted by the Scholastic publishing company where children vote for their favorite presidential candidate showed Bush would win 52 percent of American votes; he eventually won about 51 percent of the popular vote.
The game of tying the outcome of elections to sporting events also proved erroneous. Democratic pulses ran high when Boston’s — and John Kerry’s — beloved Red Sox baseball team cast off the legendary “Curse of the Bambino,” said to have been inflicted when the team sold the legendary Babe Ruth to the Yankees. But this year, the Sox captured their first World Series victory in 86 years, just days before the election.
But even though the moon shone red over Boston as the Red Sox defeated the Saint Louis Cardinals in late October, it didn’t presage an election victory for the Massachusetts senator.
Another popular sporting omen was no touchdown for Kerry. Football lore has it that in every presidential election since 1936, the White House has changed hands if the Redskins lost their final home game before Election Day. The National Football League team lost to the Green Bay Packers by 28-14, at home, on Oct. 31.
Wall Street’s smartest number crunchers even miscalculated the outcome of the election. They held that when the Dow Jones industrial average stock index has risen 3.3 percent or more in the October before an election, the incumbent party has never lost. And they reckoned that when the index falls by 0.5 percent or more the incumbent party always loses. This year the Dow fell slightly more than 0.6 percent, but there was no change of guard at the White House.
To be fair, not every quirky election prediction missed the mark.
Legend has it that the candidate with the best-selling Halloween mask has triumphed in every election since 1980, and this year retailers said the Bush masks outsold the Kerry masks. And in the Family Circle election Cookie Cook-Off, 67 percent of about 17,000 voters chose first lady Laura Bush's oatmeal chocolate chunk recipe over Teresa Heinz Kerry's pumpkin spice cookie recipe. The magazine’s cookie poll has been right since it started in 1992.
As the esteemed Yankee catcher Yogi Berra might say, every election prediction stands true until it is broken.