Saturday, March 19, 2005

Some Can Predict Elections, Not Me Particularly

When I was Southern correspondent of the L.A. Times in 1970, there was the dramatic Wallace-Brewer race for governor of Alabama, settled in the Democratic primary, but only after a runoff. We found out later that the Nixon Administration aided the Brewer campaign substantially, trying to knock Wallace out of the 1972 presidential race.

It was a tight election. Brewer led by a few thousand in the first round,
Wallace won by a few thousand more in the runoff. I spent weeks in Alabama that spring and found three political experts who were able to predict both rounds of voting correctly and with precision. They were Donald Strong, professor of politics at the University of Alabama, Bill Jones, Wallace's press secretary, and Ray Jenkins, editorial page editor of the Alabama Journal. I shamelessly piggybacked on the expertise of all three men.

In California elections, there were some able predictors too. Jess Unruh was one. His friend, State Controller Ken Cory, was another, and Lu Haas, aide to Senator Alan Cranston, was a third. They did not allow their Democratic affiliation to prejudice them. I could always rely on them to express their real views as long as I quoted them only as "insiders." Alas, all three are now dead. I miss them.

At the L.A. Times, none of us political writers when I was one were particularly good at predicting elections, and most of the time we didn't even try. I was right about Reagan winning the Presidency in 1980, but that was an easy guess.

The best people at The Times predicting elections were usually the editor, Bill Thomas, and the managing editors, first Frank Haven and then George Cotliar. The national editor, Edwin Guthman, was also quite good very often. Guthman knew, still knows for that matter, a lot about politics. He was the first man who told me when I was covering the Carter campaign for President that Carter would not be a strong president. He would use too many of his Georgia aides in the White House, he correctly surmised. Thomas, incidentally, told me in 1968 there was no such thing as a new Nixon. He was right and I was wrong. But Thomas was wrong later when he told me Gorbachev would change little in the Soviet Union.

There was a Miami Herald political writer, who I shall leave nameless, who was unfailingly wrong about elections. If he said one candidate would win, I could always safely predict the other.

Mark Barabak at The Times correctly predicted Gray Davis would not fare well in his campaign for a second term. He was right; Davis won by only five points, setting himself up for the recall. And although he is not my favorite political Writer, Ron Brownstein strongly hinted in print the night before the last election, he thought George W. Bush would win. That commanded my respect.


Anonymous Ed Cray said...

When it comes to predicting elections, in my experience, there was no one near the equal of Steve Murdock, the _People's World_ political (and track and field) reporter. If his political affiliation marked him as an outsider, his gregarious nature and hollow leg made him a great after-hours companion of pols and reporters alike. From 1961 when I met him until he turned in his party card sometime in the '70s (memory serving), he correctly predicted presidential, gubernatorial and, frequently enough, Assembly and state Senate outcomes, seat by seat.

I recall Dick Bergholz of the Times and Squire Behrens of the Chron huddling with Murdock at the bar of the Senator Hotel (or was it Frank Fat's), trading notes -- while a young reporter for Frontier magazine
eavesdropped on the conversation of the great men.

3/20/2005 12:09 AM  
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