That Walker would be a top-tier candidate
After Gov. Scott Walker became a conservative darling for going toe-to-toe with public sector unions in Wisconsin, he immediately started crisscrossing the country to kiss major donors’ rings in preparation for a White House bid.
The governor’s momentum was enough for scores of politicos to put good odds on his chances, with some going so far as to declare he would be the GOP nominee, while The Hill ranked Walker second on its list of the top 10 most likely GOP nominees.
But amid dismal poll numbers and dwindling cash, Walker dropped out of the race in September. He’s still asking donors to help pay off his campaign debt, a cause Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX) also called on his supporters to cover.
That Trump would flame out early
Conservative pundit Bill Kristol, who has a long, hackish history of being patently wrong, took on new relevance in 2016 as a reliable engine for pumping out fantastically bad predictions about Donald Trump and the Republican race.
On Twitter, Kristol’s habit of constantly declaring something "#PeakTrump" became a running joke, particularly when it became clear Trump was nowhere near peaking:
I'm thinking I was a tad early in my #PeakTrump predictions.
— Bill Kristol (@BillKristol) February 10, 2016
Kristol was far from the only one.
After the first Republican presidential debate in August, Fox News contributor Charles Krauthammer said Trump was clearly “out of place” and his opponents “left him out in the cold.”
The Huffington Post infamously announced plans last summer to cover Trump only in its entertainment vertical, calling the billionaire’s campaign “a sideshow.” They torpedoed the stunt only after months of Trump polling at the front of the GOP pack, but the Republican frontrunner still draws the site's ire. HuffPost splashed the oversized headline “NH GOES RACIST SEXIST XENOPHOBIC” across its front page after Trump won the New Hampshire primary.
Ezra Klein, the politics wunderkind and founder of Vox Media, is still on board with Trump losing, and compared his candidacy to Howard Dean’s failed 2004 run: “Trump could just...not win.”
Chris Cillizza, editor of The Fix politics blog at The Washington Post, jumped on the Trump-as-gag-candidate bandwagon early. In a February 2015 piece with the already-back-pedaling headline “Donald Trump might be serious about running for president. He’s still irrelevant,” Cillizza declared: “So, let's assume – gulp – that Trump is serious this time around. Heck, while we're at it, let's assume he actually runs. IT. DOESN'T. MATTER."
When Cilizza ranked the GOP's top 10 prospects in May, Trump didn’t make the cut (and only four of those 10 are still in the race at all). In a piece published the day before the New Hampshire primary, Cillizza observed Trump has campaigned “masterfully” but still demurred on the question of whether the real estate mogul was “built for the long haul” of securing the party’s nomination.
Discounting Sanders as a political curiosity
Serving as the compliment to the conventional wisdom that Hillary Clinton would be the inevitable Democratic presidential nominee, Sen. Ben Sanders’ (I-VT) viability as a candidate also was seriously underestimated.
The political predictions site Sabato’s Crystal Ball classifed Sanders as a “gadfly” third tier candidate in its May horse race, grouping him in with ex-Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley, ex-Sen. Jim Webb (D-VA), and ex-Rhode Island Gov. Lincoln Chafee, all of whom have since dropped out of the race.
The site reasoned: “Few expect him to win so will voters take him seriously?”
NBC’s Kasie Hunt reported on the Democrats’ underestimation of Sanders in January in a segment that included a montage of pundits calling the Vermont senator “a loon” and “a little crusty,” and saying “he looks like he’s 91."
— Morning Joe (@Morning_Joe) January 29, 2016
But for Clinton, a coronation this is not. She managed to eke out a victory in the Iowa caucuses earlier this month but lost to Sanders in New Hampshire by more than 20 points – a disappointing margin even in a state where a Sanders victory was expected.
Bloomberg’s Mark Halperin, the “Game Change” co-author who recently parlayed a much-maligned politics TV show into a Showtime deal, wrote in October that Clinton could have the nomination locked up by Feb. 8. That ruling was obliterated by Sanders' monster victory in New Hampshire.
And Sanders’ momentum shows few signs of stopping now, with the campaign reporting that it raised $5.2 million in donations since the senator’s New Hampshire primary victory.
Jeb! will be the GOP nominee. Period.
It’s difficult to know where to start with the legions of pundits who trafficked in the prevailing wisdom that former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush would dominate the GOP field and enjoy smooth sailing en route to the party’s nomination.
Feverish reporting around Bush’s early fundraising numbers, paired with a spate of big-ticket campaign hires, was enough for many commentators to suggest that no other upstart Republican could stop the Bush machine from rolling to November.
How far the mighty fall. While Bush managed a fourth place finish in New Hampshire, he garnered a bleak 3 percent in the Iowa caucuses, an honor for which he reportedly spent nearly $3,000 per vote.
Political watchers haven’t totally turned their backs on Bush’s presidency, however, as pundits have began to speculate that some of the donors who jumped ship for Sen. Marco Rubio (R-FL) are coming back after the senator’s recent missteps.
Paul as savior of the Republican Party
Despite torrents of media coverage around Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) as the party’s great libertarian hope—the man able to unite the far-right tea party factions and the pierced and tattooed millennials—the candidate's largely obscure campaign failed to get traction in 2016.
Time magazine called the freshman senator “the most interesting man in politics” in 2011 and the liberal New Republic called the months after the revelations about mass National Security Agency surveillance “a moment tailored for Rand Paul,” more than any other potential 2016 candidate.
In a 2013 episode of “Hardball,” MSNBC’s Chris Matthews predicted in no uncertain terms that Paul would be the GOP’s man in 2016.
“I predict the hard right is going to take over the Republican party in 2016, and the nomination is going to Rand Paul,” Matthews told viewers. “You watch, I do this for a living.”
It would’ve been a monumental challenge for any candidate to live up to that kind of hype, but Paul certainly did not.
Paul was accused of sidelining the libertarian causes that swept him into the spotlight, and after months of tense interactions with reporters and the campaign itself, the senator dropped out of the race after the Iowa caucuses.