Beware of those who predict

Hillary, Jeb and a nasty GOP primary

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Story highlights

  • Donna Brazile: We like to predict future because uncertainty makes us uncomfortable
  • Brazile: In politics, we have to be careful to distinguish between analysis and prediction
  • Brazile: An angry electorate is a voting electorate

I suppose we like to predict the future because uncertainty makes us uncomfortable. Or maybe we just like the game of analysis.

Before a baseball season starts, for example, you'll find experts predicting who will win the pennant races and the World Series. Indeed, it's not even a month after the Super Bowl and you can find confident assurances of who will be in the big game next year.

Politics is no different, of course, although the prediction business has more important consequences. I think we -- and by "we" I mean all of us in the news and commentary business -- have to be careful to distinguish between analysis and prediction.

True, the predictive powers of polls has improved since Thomas Dewey "defeated" Harry Truman in 1948, but as any meteorologist will tell you, the farther away the weather system, the more difficult it is to predict its behavior on a given day.

Analysis, on the other hand, can give us a better understanding of issues, effects of policies, and the all-important "mood of the electorate," even though those can change as quickly as the path of a tornado.

Donna Brazile

What brings all this to mind is a recent article by Sahil Kapur for the online Talking Points Memo, "Four Reasons the GOP Has a Huge Advantage in the 2014 Elections."

The article argues that, "For all their internal divisions and long-term worries as a party, political scientists and historical trends give Republicans a clear advantage in the upcoming 2014 congressional elections."

I'm not refuting the Four Reasons (good thing they're not Four Horseman). I just question if they are so predictively absolute. I see other factors at play.

The first factor Kapur writes about is "the six-year curse for presidents." He notes, "Since the ratification of White House term limits, five of the six two-term presidents have lost seats after re-election." What intrigues me is the exception: Bill Clinton in 1998, because of a strong economy and voter backlash against the Republican-led impeachment. Democrats that year fought back hard by recruiting good quality candidates who gained the trust of the people.

Speaking of President Clinton, he's campaigning for Alison Grimes in Kentucky. Despite all the recent attacks, the Clintons' popularity remains sky high across the country, including in the South. Democratic candidates are hopeful they will be able to campaign for them across the country. See Gov. Terry McAuliffe.

So that's X-factor one. Midterm elections are only partly a referendum on the president. With the Clintons campaigning, the equation changes.

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The second reason is "Democratic voters don't turn out in midterms." The historical trend shows that age is a factor: "Older voters disproportionately turn out in midterms, and they've moved to the Republican Party in recent decades," argues Kapur.

And yet, the Republican attempts at voter suppression may well backfire. Perhaps the GOP's current campaign to block attempts to extend unemployment insurance, block a raise in the minimum wage and take away health care will motivate some voters to turn out because it's in their self interest.

We all know that an angry electorate is a voting electorate. I expect young people and minorities to surprise the pundits. I expect women to organize and vote in surprising numbers. A threatened electorate is also a voting electorate.

Voter turnout comes down to organizing, educating, activating. From what I've seen in my travels around the country, there's a grass-roots groundswell that may very well resemble the 1998 "backlash."

The third factor Kapur cites is that "Republicans have a mathematical advantage in the Senate." They need to pick up a net of six seats. Democrats are defending 21 seats, many in conservative states such as Arkansas, North Carolina and Louisiana.

Here's the thing: In the 12 states that Mitt Romney won that also had a Senate race, Democrats won five of them: North Dakota, Montana, Missouri, Indiana and West Virginia. These states are at least as conservative as the Southern states above.

Generally, Senate races are not a referendum on the president or on any one issue, but a choice between the two candidates on the ballot.

Thus Democrat Mary Landrieu remains strong in Louisiana, while in Kentucky, Republican Mitch McConnell, the minority leader, is in trouble.

As Tip O'Neill observed, "All politics is local."

In each competitive Senate race there's a clear contrast between a Democratic candidate -- focused on creating opportunity for the middle class and willing to disagree with the party leadership -- and a Republican candidate beholden to the tea party, the Koch brothers and a small group of right-wing billionaires who support an agenda that will not enable the middle class or working families to prosper.

While some Democratic senators and a handful of congressional candidates may disagree with the President on specific economic priorities for their state, they all support his efforts to provide better wages for workers, fairness for women in the workplace and affordable opportunities to go to college and prepare for high-skilled jobs.

Despite an influx of negative ads underwritten by the Koch brothers and their allies, Democrats must find a way to stay on message and reach people where they live, work, eat and pray.

Finally, Kapur mentions that "the House map is skewed toward the GOP." There's no disputing this, just as there's no disputing the fact that Republican obstructionism in the House has prevented the country from moving forward.

How much did Republican gerrymandering after 2010 lockjaw the House? Political scientists may debate that, but House majorities do change, and sometimes unexpectedly.

My point is that the "season" hasn't started. We can analyze strengths and weaknesses, but let's see how the teams play over the long haul, starting now with the upcoming primary elections.

Once the primary season has ended, we can start keeping score. Until then, the sideshow is simply a distraction.

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