Number theory

>> Saturday, September 13, 2008

A type of news item that I'm sick and tired of hearing about at this point is the story about who's up or down in the polls. Senator Obama's bounce, Senator McCain's bounce, the effect of Governor Palin (Governor Palin's bounce being a topic perhaps better suited for those "VPILF" sites that have sprung up). The big news in the past week is that Senator McCain, having trailed Senator Obama for months, has finally caught up. Which is exciting, supposedly.

The only problem, and everyone in the United States ought to know it, is that the popular vote counts for exactly two things under our Constitution. The first is jack. The second, yes, is shit.

We have--and you know this if you're reading this, I'm not even sure why I'm having to say it--a system in which a body of delegates votes for the President for us. (Despite the fact that I'm constantly saying obvious things around here, I really don't take any special pleasure in stating the obvious. In fact, in this instance it's downright irritating.) I'd be more than happy to see the Electoral College replaced by something shiny and modern--an instant runoff system, for instance, but then I have a thing about wanting third parties and a more parliamentary-styled legislative system; it's not going to happen, probably ever, and we have what we have: you vote, and your vote is lumped in with the majority or minority, and then someone else votes for President for you (hopefully and traditionally taking the majority into account, but nobody is sure really have to). It's a proxy system, is what it is.

The media keeps reporting the wrong thing. They have these national polls they look at and they announce to everyone that someone is up by five and somebody else is down by ten, and thousands of blanks are rallying behind or rebelling against so-and-so because he (or she) spoke out or against or slighted or praised blanks-in-general, and it's all supposed to be very exciting. Like a horserace, a metaphor that you see everywhere in American politics in spite of the fact that it's a wholly inappropriate metaphor, our system of picking leaders actually having practically nothing in common with racing anything. (Except, possibly, NASCAR, considering that the phrase "car wreck" has all sorts of applicability to American politics.) You see these articles about polling trends, and they almost never tell you what's important. If Alaskans surge to support their Governor's bid for Vice-President, it makes as much difference to the likely allocation of Alaskan electoral votes that a major surge for the Democrats makes in Massachusetts. Not even one fucking scrap of an iota. (A "fucking scrap of an iota" being an official unit in the metric system.)

That's not to say polls and surges aren't relevant if you're talking about the ones that are, in fact, relevant. Thousands of Republican women deciding to vote Republican would not be news, but Senator McCain's apparent twenty-point surge in North Carolina earlier this week, is, for instance. Because those thousands of Republicans voting Republican might well be concentrated in South Carolina, a state in which it's well-known that Democrats are Communists. (This statement is based, it's true, on a single conversation overheard several years ago in a fast-food restaurant during a trip into that heart of darkness whose claim-to-fame is a still-celebrated act of treason, but the statement itself is no exaggeration: a group of middle-aged, managerial-looking people at a nearby table took it for granted that electing a Democrat President was the first step towards nationalizing not just health care, but everything else, too.) But North Carolina was, up until this past week, a state that was marginally "in play"--very likely to go "red," but just close enough to justify the Democrats' spending just enough money to make the Republicans fight for it. A twenty-point Republican surge in North Carolina makes my home state a fairly safe bet for the Republicans, and an unlikely Obama win here would rightly be considered an upset at this point. (Sigh.)

Were the mass media to report where these likely voters were solidifying support or defecting en masse, it would be legitimate news. But that would, you know, involve a bit of thought and work; not to mention that it would dial down the adrenaline rush the media is trying to sell. Horserace, remember? Exciting? You know, the exact opposite of a news report that Wyoming, yes, is still going to give all three of its electoral votes to whoever is running for President as a Republican. (If the Republicans switched up the ticket just to mess with our minds--made it the Palin/Giuliani ticket, let's say--do you think Wyomingans would even care? At all?)

As I write this, the relevant numbers aren't looking too good for the Democrats. Whether it's Governor Palin's shininess or backlash against Senator Obama's gaffe/calculated provocation (depending on who you get your punditry from) or something else, projections of the electoral college results have pulled even, with relevant polls shifting battleground states like Ohio and Virginia towards the Republicans. There's still just under two months for the Obama campaign to do something about it, or for the McCain campaign to relapse. But that's where we're at.

So please, national news media, if you're listening (and I know you aren't, but what the hell): please, please, please stop telling me what national polls are telling you about women voters and small-business-owning voters and voters who are one-legged ice cream truck drivers. I don't care. Not unless all those one-legged purveyors of frozen dairy and sherbet-on-a-stick are in Nevada, or are emerging in such overwhelming numbers for Senator McCain in New York they threaten to reverse decades of consistently "blue" voting patterns. I don't care if polls are running neck-and-neck in all fifty states--I really only care about whether they're running neck-and-neck in less than a dozen (and I could narrow it down to two or three for you, really--hello Ohio, Virginia and Florida). I'm sick of your national trends and stupidly inapt metaphors. Do you know how many votes count, national news media? Hello, I'm talking to you--do you know how many votes count, o you credulous reporters and smug pundits? Do you know what the magic number is? I'm thinking of a number between one and five-hundred thirty-eight--can you guess the number, you giddy talking heads, you?

You can?

Then shut the hell up and tell me something useful for a change.


4 comments:

Jim Wright Saturday, September 13, 2008 at 12:03:00 PM EDT  

VPILF? What? Seriously? uggghhh, I'm going back to bed and pull the covers over my head. Silly bastards.

Eric Saturday, September 13, 2008 at 12:12:00 PM EDT  

Yes, Jim, I'm afraid it's true. At least I had the courtesy not to link to any of them.

Unfortunately, the worse news (if you're concerned that McCain/Palin would look a lot like the past eight years and think Obama has at least a shot at ushering in some good legislation) is that the "VPILF mentality," if you want to call it that, seems to be driving a McCain surge in battleground states--men want to be with her, women want to be like her (or think they already are), and the fact she may be aggressively hostile to the kinds of policy they'd favor (and/or horribly unprepared to lead a nation on the world stage) is taking a back seat. Sort of the same mentality that led people who weren't particularly in favor of Bush's policies to vote for him because he was the kind of guy they'd want to have a beer with.

Sam Saturday, September 13, 2008 at 1:52:00 PM EDT  

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Leanright,  Monday, September 15, 2008 at 7:50:00 PM EDT  

She really has just a small edge on Biden for VPILF, I'm sure. He does lead in "comb-over" polls; slightly ahead of John McCain.

I do agree with the argument you've stated against polls. Since I live in California, and being a republican, my vote, although I will make it, will be a small drop in the bucket in this state.

Here, a sizeable majority of counties vote republican, the smaller, more concentrated areas vote Democrat, except for here in Orange County. It seems this is the case across the country.

Since my vote means little in California, other than making me "feel good", I truly only have an interest in the states that could swing either way.

I guess the press just does this for a "my guy is beating your guy", mentality.

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