Conventional wisdom in April rarely pans out in November

Don't ask me to tell you who's going to win the next election. I don't know. Can Cathy Cox defeat Mark Taylor in the Democratic primary for governor? I don't know the answer to that either. I also cannot tell you whether Republicans will manage to hold their majority in Congress in November - or whether Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee for president in 2008.

I have been covering politics off and on for 50 years. I know only one thing for certain: An awful lot of people will ask me in the coming weeks to tell them who's going to win the election. Many will seem to believe or at least give credence to whatever pronouncement I make. They assume that I have so much experience covering politics that I know what's going to happen next.

My experience tells me this: Whatever seems reasonable in April is not likely to happen in November. Polls may be fun to read, but in close races they are about as reliable as TV psychics. Conventional wisdom is nearly always wrong.

Consider the following:

•Conventional wisdom in 2002 held that Gov. Roy Barnes, with the backing of most business leaders and the top tier of politicians, would win a second term. Didn't happen. Barnes, who had been mentioned as a possible comer in national politics, was retired by a virtual nobody, a state senator from middle Georgia. Adherents of conventional-wisdom politics never saw the upset coming.

•Incumbent Sen. David Gambrell was the conventional wisdom choice to retain his Senate seat in 1972. Sam Nunn won.

•Who would have believed that a noncharismatic policy wonk like Paul Coverdell could defeat bright and popular Wyche Fowler for the Senate? Conventional wisdom held that Coverdell was a nonstarter, but he won the seat.

The list of conventional-wisdom misfires is too long to print here, but here are a few more to refresh your memories. Mack "the Unknown Republican" Mattingly beat entrenched Sen. Herman Talmadge. Peanut farmer Jimmy Carter defeated former Gov. Carl Sanders. TV newsman Hal Suit whipped veteran politician Jimmy Bentley. Underdog lawmaker George Busbee bested noted banker/civic leader Bert Lance for governor. And on and on. In each case, most "experts" bet on the wrong guy.

With that list of boo-boos in mind, let's look at "The Conventional Wisdom Book of 2006":

•Conventional wisdom says Gov. Sonny Perdue is a shoo-in for re-election. Big business loves him. He has avoided making any daring decisions or creating any innovative initiatives. He has shied so clear of controversy that it's hard to see how he will be beaten. Still, one gets the sense that parts of rural Georgia, which gave him victory four years ago, are a little fed up. He's too cozy with corporate Atlanta. The anticipated Kia auto factory notwithstanding, too many good-paying jobs have moved out of non-metro Georgia. At the same time, the voter-rich ring around Atlanta also may have had enough of Bubba. Wearing circus ringmaster costumes and castrating dogs, even for a good cause, haven't solved many suburban problems. Don't be shocked if a Democratic candidate upsets the conventional-wisdom applecart.

•Democrats are a disappearing minority, soon to be replaced entirely by Republicans. Conventional wisdom tells us such is certainly the case. Demographics suggest a different scenario. Populous south Cobb and south Gwinnett counties are again becoming Democratic strongholds, along with south metro counties such as Clayton and Henry. In addition, the Republican pledge to maintain fiscal conservatism is laughable.

The GOP-controlled state government has set new records for borrowing and spending - without much visible improvement in services. Some Republicans would have us believe that party differences turn exclusively on race. Maybe they are right, but watch what happens the moment a loyal white Republican suspects Mama's Medicaid benefits are threatened.

•Finally, many pundits and seers predict that Democratic constitutional officers are in trouble. How can black Democratic candidates such as Attorney General Thurbert Baker and Labor Commissioner Michael Thurmond win in a Republican state, they ask. How can long-term partisan Democrats such as Agriculture Commissioner Tommy Irvin survive in a state gone Republican? If you subscribe to conventional wisdom, you would conclude that all these candidates are going down in defeat. In truth, each has a good, perhaps a better-than-even, chance to win in November.

•Of course, sometimes conventional wisdom turns out to be right. You can never be certain when that might happen. So today's political science lessons are these: 1) Herding cats is easier than charting the destinies of politicians, and 2) don't count on anything but surprises on Election Day.

Syndicated columnist Bill Shipp writes on Georgia politics. Write him at P.O. Box 440755, Kennesaw, GA 30160, or e-mail bshipp@bellsouth.net. His Web site is www.billshipp.com. His column appears on Wednesday and Sunday.