The “Picasso of election analysis” was stumped.1 One week prior to the 2004 election, the political zigs and zags made Charlie Cook admit, “I have no idea who is going to win this election. I really don’t.”2 It is telling that it took the Bush-Kerry race to baffle America’s Svengali of political handicapping.
The native Louisianan had lived and breathed politics since high school, working in political campaigns before attending Georgetown University as an undergraduate. While at Georgetown, Cook worked as an elevator operator in the U.S. Senate. Following this, he interned with his home state senator, Bennett Johnston, and at the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. After college, he labored on a presidential and House campaign, a polling firm and on the Senate Democratic Policy Committee. A political bellwether, the longer he worked in Reagan-era Washington, the staunch Democrat found himself “voting for Republicans almost half the time.”3 More importantly, he had learned Washington politics from the ground up.
By 1984, the self-described “swing voter,” no longer felt an affinity for partisan political work. Leveraging his retirement savings and a personal loan, he founded the “Cook Political Report.” This non-partisan newsletter featured Cook’s analysis of House, Senate, gubernatorial, and presidential races. Cook began rating every House, Senate and gubernatorial race with a rating for each race on a seven-point scale: Solid Democrat, Likely Democrat, Lean Democrat, Toss-Up, Lean Republican, Likely Republican, and Solid Republican.4
As a boutique product marketed to lobby groups, unions, political action committees and interest groups of all stripes and creeds, “The Cook Political Report” slowly built a following.5 In addition to his report, since 1986 Cook has penned a weekly column for the Capitol Hill newspaper, Roll Call. In 1998, he moved his column to the National Journal—the Beltway establishment’s magazine of record. From that august perch, Cook continued to publish his political report and established himself as one of the country’s top prognosticators.
By 2004, he had lived in the nation’s Capital for over three decades. Thus, he came of age steeped in contemporary Washington’s jaded and hyper-partisan atmosphere. Cook, nevertheless, remained a journalistic throwback. Sporting rumpled suits and oversized glasses, this psephologist also called himself a centrist. His appearance was scarcely the sole evidence of Cook’s old-fashioned ways. In an era of saber metrics and advanced analytics, Cook continued to rely heavily on “gut instinct [and] institutional knowledge” to bear on electoral forecasting.6
Although “old-fashioned” in many ways by 2004 standards, Cook remained a frequent guest on every major Sunday morning news show, and an unquestioned authority on modern electoral politicking. Sage that he was, he refrained from making any decisive predictions on the race’s outcome. Cook sensed President Bush’s primary vulnerability: undecided voters, who had historically swung against the incumbent. Thus, eleven weeks from the election, Cook proclaimed, “[Bush]must have a change in the dynamics and the fundamentals of this race if he is to [sway undecided voters and] win a second term.”7 During the following month, Cook’s prophetic call came to fruition. The GOP’s successful Convention and the “Swift Boat Veterans for Truth” commercial campaign both contributed significantly to the “change in dynamics” which helped Bush move forward to victory.
In addition to Cook’s wise forecast—he understood that the 2004 race amounted to a “big-issue election.”8 The war in Iraq would dominate the political landscape. He predicted the loss of manufacturing jobs in particular would loom large. Thus, he foresaw John Kerry’s use of “outsourcing” as a cudgel against Bush’s economic record. Hardly prescient in all things political, he failed to foresee that “gay marriage” and consequent state referenda on the issue would play a major role in driving voters to the polls in some battleground states.9
Despite this faux pas, Cook expertly understood the 2004 election’s underlying dynamics. He predicted that the closely contested election would result in a gridlocked Congress, which made the presidential race all the more important. Indeed, with Congress divided, gridlocked, and unable to act, the resulting “power vacuum” would make the president even more powerful.
After the election, Cook presciently divined the electoral return’s meaning. Claiming rural America had become more Republican and that many suburban women and upscale whites had moved to the Democrats, he predicted what would become Barack Obama’s nascent electoral coalition in 2008. Even more perceptive, he warned against White House overreach: “the most dangerous thing in the world is to think you got a bigger mandate than you did.”10 In this way, the 2004 election merely served to reemphasize Cook’s national standing.
1 Dana Milbank, “When It Comes to Politics, Charlie Cook Has the Prophecy Market Cornered,” Washington Post, October 25, 2006. 2 Charlie Cook, “One Week Out, and One Heap of Unanswered Questions,” 26 October 2004, http://cookpolitical.com/story/1733. 3 Brian Lamb interview of Charlie Cook, http://www.c-span.org/video/?314649-1/qa-charlie-cook. 4 Lamb interview of Cook; http://cookpolitical.com/about 5 Lamb interview of Cook. 6 Lamb interview of Cook.
7 Charlie Cook, “2004’s Undecided Voters Spell Trouble for Bush,” http://cookpolitical.com/story/1817. 8 “The 2004 Presidential Election: An Interview with Charles Cook,” http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/texttrans/2004/01/20040112162947nworbd0.3623468.html#axzz337cPwhLj. 9 Associated Press, “Kerry Rips Bush over Outsourcing,” http://www.nbcnews.com/id/5931049/ns/politics/t/kerry-rips-bush-over-outsourcing ; “The 2004 Presidential Election,” http://iipdigital.usembassy.gov/st/english/texttrans/2004/01/20040112162947nworbd0.3623468.html#axzz337cPwhLj. 10 “Overturning Roe v. Wade Would be ‘Devastating’ to Republican Part, Politcal Analyst Charlie Cook says as he Reviews Campaign 2004 and Looks Ahead,” 30 November 2004, http://www.depauw.edu/news-media/latest-news/details/14969/.