Tea leaf reading, big time

From World Series champs to cookies to candidates' heights, trying to guess Tuesday's winner

October 29, 2004|By Jonathan Pitts | Jonathan Pitts,SUN STAFF

Bill Whalen is a fellow at Stanford's Hoover Institution on War, Revolution and Peace, an oft-cited scholar on the presidency, and so highly regarded as a pundit that a periodical once called him more valuable than any six political reporters from The New York Times.

So when the Washington, D.C., native, who writes political commentary for the Weekly Standard, is asked to forecast next week's Bush-Kerry square-off, what clues does he examine?

"Well, we talk about the obvious stuff," says Whalen, a former speechwriter for the first President Bush who now lives in Palo Alto, Calif. "The president's approval rating, say, or the economy, or momentum in the last week. But when the polls get exasperating, and you want something a little more on the fun side, you could do a lot worse than checking out who won the World Series."

Whalen, who once held Orioles season tickets at Memorial Stadium, has become an unofficial spokesman for Americans who've made a sport of finding oddball methods for predicting the winner of presidential elections.

Over the years, diviners have scrutinized clues - a candidate's height, the number of letters in his last name, the quality of the grape harvest - that might seem more suited to the Old Farmer's Almanac than a political primer, and in an election so close that the slightest twist could affect the outcome, those factors loom even larger.

For his part, Whalen likes looking to sports, poring over results in baseball, football and basketball. Pundits have known that when the American League's team in a World Series wins, so does the Republican nominee - a rule that has held in nine of the past 14 elections.

This might appear to create a conflict for Massachusetts Sen. John Kerry, the Democratic nominee whose beloved Boston Red Sox just won the title. But Whalen sees "internals" that might offer Kerry some hope.

Last century, he says, a Democrat replaced a Republican in the White House five times. In each of those years (1912, 1932, 1960, 1976 and 1992), the winning Democrat carried the home states of both Series teams. If Kerry could take the home turf of the defeated St. Louis Cardinals, then, along with his home state, it would gibe with Missouri's status as the nation's most reliable bellwether state. (Missouri has failed to vote for the winning candidate only once in the last 100 years - in 1956, when Adlai Stevenson was its choice.)

Over the years, stranger factors than baseball and geography have proved accurate.

Since 1956, the Weekly Reader, a magazine for school children, has polled its readers each election year; they've picked the winner every time.

A costume retailer, www.Buy Costumes.com, noticed after the 2000 election that it had sold more George Bush than Al Gore Halloween masks, and its researchers found that since 1980, the winning candidate's visage had always sold more masks.

For a dozen years, Family Circle magazine has invited the wife of each candidate to submit her favorite cookie recipe for its "Election Cookie Cook-Off." The more popular recipe - from Hillary Rodham Clinton's oatmeal chocolate chips to Laura Bush's "Texas Governor's Mansion Chocolate Cowboy Cookies"-has always been submitted by the eventual first lady.

Be they harbinger or happenstance, the tests portend success for Bush this year. He won this year's Weekly Reader survey in a landslide, claiming 60 percent of the vote and every grade between kindergarten and 12th (other than the 10th). Dubya masks were outselling Kerry masks 54 percent to 46 percent as of last week, and the current first lady's oatmeal chocolate chunks have trounced Teresa Heinz Kerry's pumpkin spice confections this year. (Heinz Kerry later said an aide had submitted the entry.)

But in an election year that is already extraordinarily close, Whalen says, don't place any bets just yet. Recent elections have already given the lie to many time-tested predictors. Between 1904 and 1984, the taller of the two candidates won 80 percent of the time, but 5-foot-9 Jimmy Carter topped 6-foot Gerald Ford in 1976, and the current president followed suit with his 2000 win over Gore. And when the first George Bush drubbed Michael Dukakis in 1988, he disproved the thesis that the candidate with the longer surname wins.

Some of this year's trends suggest a muddle. One is in fashion: Democrats usually prevail in years when hemlines rise, Republicans when they stay the same or fall. In 2004, though, while miniskirts have been hot, fall styles have been longer.

For a surer indicator, Whalen suggests forecasters should look to something more reliable - like, say, the passing arm of football quarterback Brett Favre.

Since 1937, you see, when the NFL's Redskins moved to D.C., one factor has been as sure a thing as an extra point. Each time the Redskins win their final home game before a presidential election, the candidate from the incumbent party wins.

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