Why good pundits go bad

The political pundits are well-trained in politics as usual.

They can read clearly, and analyze smartly, the ubiquitous polls. They can predict accordingly, then explain insightfully when the polls, as they almost always did until Tuesday, turn out to have been deadeye.

These pundits understand well the static situation, because its being static has permitted its extensive study. They fully recognize what's happening, and perhaps even empathize, as the politicians hone their messages and design and apply their tactics and strategies to the familiar and lingering models.

And these pundits, present company included, have been spectacularly wrong about the current presidential race.

John McCain has it in the bag. No, Mitt Romney does, No, it'll be Rudy Giuliani, of course. Mike Huckabee has no prayer. Hillary Clinton is a lock. No, Barack Obama will sweep.

But, wait: Exit polls in New Hampshire say Hillary has lost, yet those numbers rolling across the bottom of the screen, said to be representing actual vote counts, show her ahead. How could that be? Is this a typo? Is Dartmouth in yet? That ought to put her back down in second place where she was supposed to be. But how many votes could Dartmouth have, anyhow?

How bad are things for the pundit class? A man asked me the other day which were the bigger idiots, political pundits or the designers of the Bowl Championship Series.

This uncertainty in the punditocracy occurs because the American climate in 2008 represents politics not as usual, but politics as most unusual.

First, the Republican presidential race is always supposed to be settled by a person taking an obvious turn, like Bob Dole in 1996, or by the party elite pre-emptively anointing someone, like George W. Bush in 2000.

Second, the Republicans are always supposed to choose among acceptable conservatives, between the sane right and the insane right.

But this time there was no obvious person to take a turn. There was no obvious person to anoint pre-emptively. And there were aberrant ideologies infesting the dialogue.

There was a social liberal out of New York, meaning Giuliani.

And this might have been McCain's obvious turn, except he's such a maverick, especially with his tolerance on immigration.

And Huckabee turned out to be the best politician of the bunch, though his record as governor of Arkansas was economically moderate and uncommonly compassionate on immigration, and, anyway, the evangelicals were supposed to be losing muscle.

Now it looks as if the Republican establishment must pick between those three unacceptable alternatives.

And Republicans simply do not know what to do.

Democrats know exactly what to do: It's to make history by nominating the first woman or make history by nominating the first African-American. But that makes the race all about gender, race and generational change, meaning culture rather than politics as usual.

People have come out of the woodwork who've never voted before to go to the polls for Obama, who is a transcendent racial figure.

It used to be, in politics as usual, that black people voted for black candidates because they were black, and white people didn't because the black candidates -- Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton -- failed to offer any mainstream appeal. Now, in politics as unusual, two of our whitest states, Iowa and New Hampshire, have given big votes to this African-American.

Meantime, women identify and empathize with Hillary's providing a glimpse of her special gender-based burdens. So they take to the polls to lift her up and render the polls moot.

These next few weeks ought to be fascinating, especially to the pundits, since they don't already know what's going to happen.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@ arkansasnews.com.