08/07/2012 10:28 pm ET Updated Oct 07, 2012

The Teddy White Rule: Expect the Unexpected

Even before Mitt Romney nailed down the Republican presidential nomination, many of my friends and acquaintances, mostly of the Democratic persuasion, were asking me about Barack Obama's re-election prospects and whether I think he'll have a Democratic Congress to work with if re-elected.

Maybe it's because they know I began covering national politics nearly a half century ago, and have reported on, or been involved in, every congressional and presidential election since 1966, that they think I have some special insight into an election now less than three months away.

I'm flattered, but I have to admit I don't have a crystal ball. Nor does anybody else. The only thing I can tell them is something I learned long ago about the futility of predicting what American voters will do when they enter a polling booth.

It was shortly after I came to Washington in 1965 as a correspondent for the St. Paul Dispatch and Pioneer Press and other Knight-Ridder newspapers, and Theodore H. White, who practically invented the art of political reporting, invited me for a drink in his Upper East Side Manhattan townhouse.

He did so as a favor to his friend Walter Ridder, who was my bureau chief. Eyeing me through his owlish spectacles as he poured both of us a generous portion of good bourbon, the venerable Time/Life reporter and author of the "The Making of the President" volumes, offered some invaluable advice to an attentive rookie reporter.

There are two cardinal rules political reporters should never forget, explained White, who died in 1986 at the age of 71. The first is to always resist the thinking of people you see every day, and to report what you know is happening and never predict what you think will happen. "To go against the dominant thinking of your friends, of the people you see every day, is perhaps the most difficult thing you can do," he said.

The other cardinal rule for political reporters -- and everybody else, I would add -- said White, is to always expect that unexpected and unpredictable events will turn the course of presidential elections, and history. He was soon proven right in 1968 when President Johnson declined to run for reelection; in 1972 when George McGovern was forced to dump Tom Eagleton as his running mate,; in 1976 when President Ford said there was no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe, etc. etc.

Never has White's sage advice been more relevant for those who work in today's brave new world of journalism. This includes Jurassic journalists like me; expert political observers like the Washington Post's Dan Balz, the New York Times' Tom Friedman, NBC's Chuck Todd and Commonweal columnist E. J. Dionne; as well as the legion of let-me-tell-you-what-just-happened bloggers, Twitterers, Facebookers, and assorted other political commentators and poll watchers.

Just think, for a minute, of the long list of "unpredictables" and "unexpecteds" that could, and probably will, affect the outcome of the 2012 election.

Start with the obvious, which is the economy, stupid. President Obama and Mitt Romney stress the relative merits of job creation, tax cuts, economic stimulus, the federal deficit, cutting federal spending, etc., but the fact is the U.S. is at the mercy of forces beyond our control in an increasingly globalized economy. The fate of the tottering Euro, growing trade imbalances with China and India and other low wage countries, the ever-rising cost of imported oil and gas, -- all will help determine the strength or weakness of the U.S. economy between now and November.

Then there's the Supreme Court decision upholding -- barely -- Obama's signature domestic achievement, the Affordable Care Act, a.k.a. Obamacare. If the high court, with its five Republican appointed justices, had overturned the law or key parts of it, as was widely expected, Obama would have been put in a defensive crouch, given his impolitic comment that it would be "unprecedented" for the court to strike down a law passed by Congress. This, even against an opponent who produced the model for Obamacare as governor of Massachusetts.

There are other equally unpredictable domestic issues ranging from illegal immigration to affirmative action to energy independence to global warming to taxpayer funding of abortions to extending unemployment compensation. And now, in the wake of the Trayvon Martin tragedy and the mass killings in Colorado and Wisconsin, add the explosive issues of racial tension and gun control.

But all these are no less unpredictable than the political impact of the Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that lifted the limits on union and corporate contributions to candidates for public office. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, the 2012 election will be the most expensive ever, almost certain to exceed $6 billion, or at least a billion dollars more than was spent in the 2008 election. Already, both Obama and Romney are the targets of harshly negative campaigns by so-called Super PACs via traditional media and social media.

Thanks also to the toxic political atmosphere, Congress and state legislatures from Sacramento to St. Paul, Baton Rouge to Boston and Tallahassee to Topeka remain stalled in partisan gridlock as compromise becomes a dirty word, and elected officials like Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker are threatened with recall campaigns for promoting anti-union and budget policies that reflect the national GOP's hardline approach to government spending. In short, the 2012 election is already shaping up as the nastiest, meanest and most expensive quadrennial election since, well, since the last one.

Then there's always the possibility -- no, make that the probability -- of a self-inflicted verbal gaffe or political blunder by Obama or Romney in their presidential debates or on the campaign trail. Remember Gerald Ford's damaging denial of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe in 1976, Walter Mondale's too-candid admission in 1984 that he'd have to raise taxes if elected, Michael Dukakis's ill-fated ride in a tank in 1988 and John Kerry's equally ill-fated wind surfing excursion in 2004?

And it also doesn't include the effect of Romney's choice of a running mate. (I'm putting my money on Ohio Sen. Rob Portman since no Republican has ever been elected without carrying Ohio.) While most people don't vote for a president because of who is chosen to be a heartbeat away from the presidency, many voters are turned off by what they perceive as a poor choice of a running mate. I offer John McCain and Sarah Palin, Kerry and John Edwards, George H.W. Bush and Dan Quayle, and, going back a bit, Barry Goldwater and William Miller as proof.

And even while Congress and the White House battle tooth and nail over domestic issues, there are always unpleasant surprises lurking on the international horizon. Remember the takeover of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran that helped send Jimmy Carter back to Georgia in 1981? Will the two wars winding down in Iraq and Afghanistan go as smoothly as Obama hopes? Will the death of Osama bin Laden reduce the threat of another terrorist attack on the U.S.? Will Israel resort to military force to prevent Iran from achieving nuclear weaponry?

Finally, the specter of violence still haunts the electoral landscape as our first black president seeks reelection. God forbid, an assassination attempt could change history in an instant. Fortunately, that hasn't happened this year, but would-be assassins threatened the lives of Presidents Ford -- twice -- and Reagan, while airplane crashes like that which killed Sen. Paul Wellstone of Minnesota two weeks before he hoped to be reelected are always a possibility. Ironically, when Kerry ran for president in 2004, his wife was the widow of another air crash victim, Sen. John Heinz of Pennsylvania.

So the next time somebody asks you who's going to win the 2012 election, remind them of the Teddy White Rule, which is to always expect the unexpected and unpredictable. You can't go wrong with that.