My First And Last Directly U.S. Election-Related Comment

Last night I went into two stores and in both of them, the clerks were talking to each other about the U.S. election. That’s all anybody can think about, including me.

I admit that for various reasons, I really don’t want McCain to win (which is different from wanting Obama to win; I’m still not all that impressed by him, and haven’t been ever since his deservedly-infamous CYA vote on an important issue). But that’s nothing new. What I wanted to note, before getting back to the entertaining stuff, is that the coverage of the election has been irritating because it presumes that the election is sewn up, when it clearly is not. This post from last week, from a guy who’s been supporting Obama for President for years, gives a good explanation of what’s going on: while Obama is more likely to win than McCain, his overall national lead is not all that big, and is getting smaller as the election approaches. (This always happens, but in 1996, Clinton’s lead in the daily polls was much bigger than Obama’s, meaning that when the “tightening” arrived, it still wasn’t close.) State polling usually catches up with national polling eventually, so if the national polls shrink further, it’s not inconceivable that McCain could squeak out victories in enough of the states that Bush won in 2004*. That’s hard, of course, which is why Obama is more likely to win than McCain — but it’s not impossible. A good comparison for this election is 1976, Gerald Ford vs. Jimmy Carter; all the fundamentals favoured the Democrats that year, but the election wound up being quite close. Carter won, just as Obama will likely win, but the outcome was in doubt right up until the end.

Also, in the modern media environment, polls can become a self-fulfilling prophecy. In the 24-hour news cycle, there just isn’t enough real news to fill the campaign coverage (especially since the candidates make the same speeches over and over), so polls, and speculation on what they mean, take up a lot of the coverage. A “McCain pulls closer” or (if a poll comes out showing that) “McCain pulls ahead” narrative would be very helpful to him at this point, if only because it would reduce the risk that undecided voters would decide to break toward the person they think is the sure winner.

It’s not news that TV news coverage relies too heavily on prognostication, polling, etc. It’s an unavoidable part of campaign coverage; you’re covering something that hasn’t happened yet, so what can you do but predict? But the coverage seems to be creating a note of certainty that worries me. Not because I don’t want McCain to win, though I don’t (but if he does, the coverage will be a minor influence on that one way or the other), but because if the race winds up being very close, the anger and recriminations could be like 2000 only worse.

And that said, I will try to suck it in, stop watching polls and go back to watching the only kind of TV that tells us the truth — procedurals, sitcoms, soap operas, game shows, reality TV and possibly (but not always) Quincy, M.E.

*The best counter-argument to this, of course, is that McCain doesn’t actually seem to be acting like he expects to hold onto the Bush 2004 states, and is instead trying to win Pennsylvania, where he’s way behind. So he sure seems to be acting like he’s Gerald Ford circa 1976. But the point is, he’s certainly not Mondale circa 1984 either or Bob Dole circa 1996, either; it’s closer than that.

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