Friday, October 19, 2012

The Presidential Race As A Sporting Event - Part 1

Anyone else getting tired of the sporting event treatment of the presidential election?

The political season, it seems, has less than a month to go and we're into the playoffs.  There are two basic themes I hear in the coverage:

1.  Who's up and who's down?  There's a sense of the multistage competition of gymnastics or diving.  Each event (from the primary elections to the debates) gives the candidate to gain or lose in relation to the other competitors.  The announcers discuss their strengths and weaknesses and what they are going to have to do to gain points and to avoid errors in each event. But there's also the one-to-one battle of boxing.  Other sports metaphors abound.   Some examples:

San Francisco Chronicle:

"Obama, Romney rematch could set TV ratings records"

"It’s almost kick off time to the second presidential debate. Before we begin, a few things to watch for—
. . . the key for Governor Romney will be to make a connection with the people in the audience who will be posing the questions. If Romney can make the people believe that he ‘feels their pain’, it will be difficult for Romney to be declared a loser tonight, no matter how well the President may perform. For President Obama, it is not just a matter of ‘showing up’, he is going to have to both defend the past four years and, more importantly, lay out a very clear vision for what he has in mind for the next four years. He will also need to find a way to be far more aggressive than his first debate performance without crossing the line into Joe Biden territory

From the Washington Post website:
More from PostPolitics

Second debate: Winners and losers

Second debate: Winners and losers
THE FIX | The second presidential debate is history. Who did the best? Who did the worst?

2.  Then there is the addition of fact checking this year.  It's been there in the past, but mostly it was done on blogs.  Now fact checking has gone mainstream.  This would seem to be a positive development.  Someone is paying attention to what people are actually saying, not just whether they look and sound presidential saying it.

But it's mostly "did he say X on this Tuesday and Y on Monday?"   Tuesday night I heard them checking whether Obama had used the word terrorism in his Rose Garden speech after the Benghazi consulate was attacked.  Yes, fact checking is important, and I applaud this addition to the scene.  But often it too becomes trivial.  What's missing are the bigger questions about policy and what it all means.

Generally,  the fact checking is just an extension of 1) - who is up and who is down?  We aren't checking facts in a quest for truth and understanding, but to get closer to determining who will win or lose.

For the media, it probably makes sense to treat elections the way they treat sporting events.  It reduces the election to a contest to determine the winners and losers, not to elevate everyone's understanding of the issues.  It raises suspense.  It doesn't require a lot of research or figuring out how to interpret complicated subjects like health care or the economy.   The hype brings in viewers.  More viewers mean more ad revenue.

And for most of us, it simply doesn't matter.

The candidates have figured out that most people already know how they will vote.  Because the winner is chosen by the electoral college vote and not the popular vote, most states aren't even in play.   Even if a candidate wins by a million votes in California, that extra million doesn't count for anything.

So, the candidates' focus is on the small group of undecideds in a few states.  270TOWin identifies eleven states.  (270 electoral votes are needed to win the election.)

The LA Times, in May, created a map that shows 8 "battleground" (sports announcers love war imagery) states.   Let's look at who the candidates are wooing. 

270 To win list
 % undecided LA Times List Total Reg Voters Number of Undecided
Colorado 5  2,300,000 115,000
Florida 5  8,000,000 400,000
Iowa 5 1,500,000 75,000
Michigan 6
5,000,000 300,000
Nevada 5
 1,000,000 50,000
New Hampshire 6 700,000 42,000
North Carolina 3 4,500,000 135,000
Ohio 4 5,600,000  224,000
Pennsylvania 4
 6,000,000 240,000
Virginia 9 3,500,000 315,000
Wisconsin 2 2,900,000 58,000
Total USA: 1.4%
137,000,000 1,954,000
According to this, all the media coverage we're getting is about  less than 2 million people, 1.4% of registered voters, who can't make up their minds.  Bill Maher's comment on this situation, summed up from this video, is:
"And that, in a nutshell, is America's celebrated, undecided voter: put on a pedestal by the media as if they were Hamlet in a think-tank, searching out every last bit of information, high-minded arbiters pouring over policy positions and matching them against their own philosophies. Please, they mostly fall into a category political scientists call 'low information voters,' otherwise known as 'dipsh*ts.'"
I imagine that people who can't make up their minds are NOT going to decide whom to vote for based on the issues.  It's going to be how they feel about the candidates.
So,  the candidates are pretty much ignoring the 135 million people who either have made up their minds already or are in states where the outcome is pretty certain and they're  pouring their campaign attention and dollars on the 1.9 million undecideds in the 'battleground' states.

The only thing the candidates want from the rest of us is money and labor to turn those undecideds  and to make sure their supporters vote.  I've heard of Anchorage political volunteers being used to call people in Colorado. 

The media, on the other hand, need all of us to watch or read or listen, so they are using the simplest and most successful story line they know:  a sports battle. 

This is politics as entertainment.  It's not politics as an opportunity for national discussion about our future.  It's not analysis of critical issues.  It's simple, black and white:  who's going to win and who's going to lose?  Foreign policy, the economy, the environment, education, war, and all the other burning issues we face are just tea leaves for pundits to ponder to predict who will win and and who will lose. 

And this probably isn't very different from every other election in our history. A little more divisive maybe, but just as simplistic. 

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