Susan J. Demas: Confessions of a failed pundit on Iowa caucus day

February 3, 2020 8:50 am

Sen. Elizabeth Warren, from left, Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, and Pete Buttigieg, former mayor of South Bend, stand on stage ahead of the Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines, Iowa, U.S., on Tuesday, Jan. 14, 2020. | Daniel Acker/Bloomberg via Getty Images

For the last dozen years or so, I’ve made the same joke about being a pundit: “I’m paid to be wrong.”

I’ve used it on Michigan Public Television’s “Off the Record” several times and in countless interviews with national and international media when I’m asked to comment on Michigan elections — especially to predict results.

It’s pretty much a guaranteed laugh line for nerds.

Since I began my journalism career in Iowa almost 20 years ago, I always knew I wanted to cover politics and policy for the simple reason that it’s important, dammit. Decisions, big and small, that are made in Washington and state capitols impact everyone, whether you like politics or not.

We need as many journalists covering these issues as possible, because most people don’t have time to trek to D.C. or Lansing to see the process themselves or spend hours trying to comb through legislative websites.

Living in the state with the first-in-the-nation presidential caucuses provided plenty of opportunity. And yes, I was the annoying cub reporter who begged my editors to let me fill in for veteran political scribes. I’ll never forget one of my first assignments when I was hugely pregnant. I was jostled by TV cameras in a scrum for then-Gov. (and future presidential hopeful) Tom Vilsack, who I suspect called on me simply because he felt a pang of sympathy.

I definitely didn’t expect that when I would move to Michigan in 2004 (and convince more skeptical editors to give me the politics beat) that one of my side gigs would be playing political analyst. I’ve always been a writer and the idea of appearing on radio or TV was a foreign one. But if it made my bosses happy, so be it.

After I bought my own publication, Inside Michigan Politics, in 2013, answering media calls became an even bigger part of the job. (One of the awkward side effects is sitting in press conferences alongside dozens of reporters for whom you’re a source).

That hit a fever pitch in March 2016, first with the GOP and Democratic primaries. Donald Trump won the former, which was somewhat expected, but still critical for his campaign at a point when establishment Republicans were still wary.

Bernie Sanders’ narrow win over Hillary Clinton on the Democratic side — after one poll showed the former secretary of state up by more than 30 points — sent shockwaves across the country (even though it ultimately didn’t make much difference).

Like most analysts, I relied on polling, interviews with voters and tips from party and campaign staff, and predicted a Clinton win. I admitted I was wrong in a column and subsequent media interviews, because, well, I was. And let’s face it, there’s not much accountability in the punditry game. (As “OTR” host Tim Skubick has been known to joke after he asks journalists to give election predictions, “We’ll just burn the the tape if we’re wrong.”)

Michigan emerged as a key state in the ’16 general election and I was asked to peer into my crystal ball. Again, all signs pointed to a close Clinton victory and that’s what I predicted. But my radar was admittedly off, in part because I didn’t want Trump to win. (This is not exactly a news flash; as a longtime progressive columnist, I made that point abundantly clear).

But part of the pundit two-step, even if you’re a known liberal or conservative, is pretending you’re above politics and candidate preferences. There are some truly gifted analysts out there, who bring wit and insight to their work, like Walter Shapiro. But in reality, most punditry is based on whether someone simply likes or doesn’t like a certain politician and yes, in some cases, their policies. It’s fairly easy to dress that up by pointing to voters you’ve talked to or polling. But a lot of times pundits are building their case from a premise.

Consider that there are millions of voters out there. You can find someone to prove the point you want to make — and even toss in a hackneyed setting like a Midwest diner or gas station — if that’s what you want to do.

In the months after the 2016 election, it became clear to me that playing pundit was something I just didn’t want to do anymore. Predicting election results was always the most boring part of my job — and I believe it had the least value. Writing about issues crucial to people’s lives, breaking down complex policy, talking to people who don’t show up to political rallies — that’s the important stuff political writers can do.

And there was a personal side to my decision. The day after the 2016 election, my then-14-year-old daughter brought a sign she made into her high school celebrating women’s rights, civil rights and LGBTQ rights with the message, “We will fight for America.” She was surrounded in the hallway by a group of older boys, who shouted the message Trump used for Clinton, “Lock her up!”

I decided that I would rather spend my life writing about the world and policies I’d like to see for my kids — and all children — instead of trying to predict who was going to prevail in the next election. In early 2018, I sold my publication and never looked back.

Later that year, I was tapped to start up the Michigan Advance, which has been an incredible opportunity to do political journalism in a different way. It’s not for everyone — if you crave horserace coverage, endless polls and pontificating pundits, the Advance probably isn’t your go-to read in the morning.

Our goal is for readers to hear from different voices, not just the same lawmakers, CEOs and lobbyists quoted in every publication. We strive to cover political and policy issues that too often are ignored. We don’t always succeed, of course, but we have a damn fine team of journalists dedicated to telling stories that matter.

And in the end, I think that’s much more important than trying to divine the results of the Iowa caucuses for you.

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Susan J. Demas

Susan J. Demas is a 23-year journalism veteran and one of the state’s foremost experts on Michigan politics, appearing on C-SPAN, MSNBC, CNN, NPR and WKAR-TV’s “Off the Record.” In addition to serving as Editor-in-Chief, she is the Advance’s chief columnist, writing on women, LGBTQ people, the state budget, the economy and more. For almost five years, Susan was the Editor and Publisher of Inside Michigan Politics, the most-cited political newsletter in the state. Susan’s award-winning political analysis has run in more than 100 national, international and regional media outlets, including the Guardian U.K., NBC News, the New York Times, the Detroit News and MLive.