The Washington Post’s Chris Cillizza deserves a lot of points for ‘fessing up: He wrongly predicted that Jeb Bush and Marco Rubio would not both run for president in 2016:
“That conclusion was based on the idea, explained to me by many Republicans seemingly in the know, that the duo were too close personally to ever go against one another in any sort of election.”
Cillizza had good sources and listened to them with an open mind. He drew the logical conclusion from what they told him. Why did it lead him astray?
His experience shows the limitations of inside analysis. Those who try to get as close to political actors as possible – reporters and pundits mainly – can only be as good as their sources, and these sources only sometimes have the relevant information. Or it isn’t about facts at all. It’s simply that no one can get into the heads of individual politicians to know how they are calculating the chances of winning, the costs of running and the risks they’re willing to accept.
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All humans, after all, are bad at gauging their own reactions to future events or understanding their motivations.
I’m an outsider. Literally. I’m in San Antonio, and I rarely speak with people inside campaigns or government offices. Political scientists like me are trained to take an outside view – even those of us who gather data by talking to people.
Ideally, this means we aren’t as easily misled by people who are misleading themselves, not to mention people who are deliberately misleading others. It’s easier for outsiders to be skeptical of what they hear because they aren’t talking to the people who believe it or they aren’t hanging out with the people they disagree with.
The inside perspective has its own advantages. People who approach analysis that way have access to tons of information, much of which the rest of us never hear. They are native speakers of the language they’re immersed in. Outside analysts can lose things when they try to translate. We couldn’t do our jobs without the data we get from the inside reporting and analysis.
So what does this mean to you, the consumer of reporting and punditry? Be aware if someone is giving you inside or outside analysis, and of the strengths and weaknesses of both. Or look out for something that is thought to be true just because everyone knows it’s true, or something that might be spin from self-interested sources.
The good news is that while there’s still plenty of (inside and outside) junk out there, readers are far more often getting the benefits of both perspectives today than they were a decade ago.
Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist covering U.S. politics.