With Election Day 2012 finally in sight, national attention is riveted on the possible electoral outcomes of the presidential vote. A useful interactive on the New York Times website makes it easier to envision the implications of losses and victories in various swing states. Click on the image to go to the site, then use the “next” button to take advantage of its interactive features.
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Voters pinning their hopes on Mitt Romney’s purported momentum may find that a visit to Nate Silver‘s blog, FiveThirtyEight, puts them in a sour mood. Silver, a youngish statistician whose 2008 predictions were highly accurate, has consistently assigned President Obama favorable odds of victory. Even as isolated polls show his challenger pulling even with Obama in several key states, the margin by which Silver’s quantitative model favors Obama has been increasing. (Silver assigned Obama a 77% chance of winning with 299 electoral votes, as of my site visit earlier in the day.)
Not surprisingly, Silver has come under attack from the right and finds himself the center of eleventh-hour controversy. The key charges, defenses, and countercharges are contained in the various links below. The weirdest charge is that of Dean Chambers, who insinuates that Silver is too effeminate to be a competent predictor of the presidential odds. Also discernible is an anti-intellectual discomfort with hard numbers.
Brace yourselves for one of the weirdest days of analysis we’ve seen in this election cycle, as pundits and pollsters parse the political effects and meanings of Hurricane Sandy. A major natural disaster one week before the election is the one thing the campaign season lacked to make it truly harrowing.
The fact that high winds, driving rains, and surging seas are even now imperiling lives and physically rending the fabric of the nation isn’t going to deter anyone from spinning the storm. On the contrary, the timing of this freakish event, coinciding as it does with Halloween and a full moon, seems intended to arouse our interpretative instincts, sending an unnerved body politic on a quest for cosmic meaning.
Don’t be too surprised if the lines of analysis fall mainly along party lines.
My own first reaction was essentially a pro-federal one. Disasters, whether natural or man-made, bring out our natural sympathies, heightening our sense of interconnectedness and reminding us of the bonds that have long knit us up into one political body. Disasters arouse patriotic and charitable feelings, prompting us to value customs and institutions that protect us collectively while enabling us to repel threats from outside. I imagine President Obama benefiting from the gratitude and relief that a threatened and vulnerable populace feels, when it rediscovers the national government as a source of safety and strength. Yes, Sandy could really benefit the Democrats—as long as all those East Coast voters can get to the polls.
Yet the historian in me can readily envision how Sandy could be spun from the other side, by the more religious, evangelical side of America that has a tendency to see natural disasters as divine judgments, expressing God’s displeasure with wayward man. Are there, in some far reaches of our country, fundamentalist voters unaffected by the storm, rejoicing in an event so perfectly designed to cast Democratic strongholds into confusion and deliver an electoral victory to the other side? At the end of a hard-fought campaign in which Republican forces have seldom been confident of a preponderating victory, is it possible that this massive storm, crippling the northeastern corridor and its media, has given them the lucky break that they so desperately need? Between professions of sympathy, Republican operatives will be doubling down in the hope of churning meteorological chaos into political victory.
At the end of this long campaign season, when every American is being called on to get involved and work to secure partisan victory, the storm is at the very least a reminder of vast impersonal forces at work, and of the maelstrom that American democracy is today. Sandy may have passed over, but sit tight: we may be in for more stormy weather next week.
Image: Hurricane Sandy over the eastern US, from this source.
Excitement is general as we head into the final weeks of the long campaign. With the presidential race in a dead heat, it’s anyone’s guess who the victor will be. The candidates receive ever closer scrutiny, waves of analysis rolling in over airwaves and Internet incessantly. Stalwarts gear up for the final push.
The uncertainty of the race is drawing huge audiences to the presidential debates. Last night’s debate between President Obama and challenger Mitt Romney is estimated to have drawn some 65 million viewers. According to Bloomberg, the viewership for the debates has been roughly double what it was for the nominating conventions this summer.
The spontaneity of the response to the debates is unprecedented, too. Last night during the debate, Twitter recorded over 7 million new tweets, with more than 109,000 recorded during a single minute when the candidates were discussing immigration. Romney’s peculiar remark about ‘binders full of women’ prompted an immediate outpouring and a new hashtag. Within minutes, satirical takes on his remarks were available for view on this Tumblr page.
Every age has its own political customs. The ones we’re using today are making history, too.
Image: Crowds gathered for the presidential inauguration in 1921, from this source. Click image to enlarge.
I FIGURED JUNE was a good time to go on a trip because, honestly, my practical role in politics is over until November. Like many millions of Americans who are political, I grapple daily with the fact that as a citizen I am increasingly unnecessary. No matter what my wishes, I must admit that, with the primary election in my state long over, there’s little left for me to do.
This is partly because I live in “a captive state” (and in a heavily Democratic city) that, come November, can be counted on to go a certain way. If I want to see a negative campaign ad or some old-time campaign-trail mud-slinging, I’ve got to visit Unedited Politics (a fine online repository of contemporary political video, by the way). It’s sad when watching second-hand commercials is what political involvement comes down to.
Don’t get me wrong: I always volunteer for candidates and give money, too. My husband and I purchase gobs of campaign buttons to give away, because this basic currency of political attachment no longer circulates as freely as it used to.
Voters still want to be involved as much as ever, but campaigning—which once depended on face-to-face social relationships—has become much more impersonal and scientific. Yes, we still rely on social networks to some extent, but this reliance is increasingly mediated by the commercial and technological tools campaigns love to use. Campaigns no longer build social relationships—they just want to use mine.
This, and the fact that only a human can “pull the lever” in a voting booth, are the only things saving me from political extinction.
Otherwise, ordinary citizens are problematic in a political system where cash procures and arranges everything else. Money comes into political coffers from the checkbooks of large entities and individuals; it goes out to consultants, mass-mailing experts, ad agencies, staffers, and media companies. It all gets spent trying to connect the untouched and the untouchables: apathetic voters and their potential leaders.
This heavily capitalized and bureaucratic system overlays original democratic rituals that are still practiced, but with greater care, today: stumping, pressing the flesh, baby-kissing, even treating. The messy, ribald rituals immortalized in works like George Caleb Bingham’s 1852 painting The County Election (below) would horrify us today, but the personal and social pleasures once part of politics were exactly what used to keep voters engaged.
Besides the déclassé (and male-dominated) nature of this scene, it is striking for its openness and communality. Candidates today are too worried about inefficiency and terrorism to contemplate taking part in anything so ordinary. Ironically, the very success of our political model is killing off participatory democracy. The last time I volunteered to work on a presidential campaign, I was encouraged to use the Internet and work remotely from home—an efficient arrangement that connected everyone but me.
Voters clamor for greater “say,” but power moves farther up the ladder, anyway. As entire freeways close for the safe passage of official motorcades, and staffers orchestrate campaigns from within closed compounds, the disconnect in our body politic is likely to continue.
Images: George Caleb Bingham’s The Verdict of the People (1854-55, top)
and The County Election (1852, bottom),
both owned by the St. Louis Art Museum, from this source and this.
A piece of high-end junk mail appeared in my P.O. box the other day. An invitation to an upcoming Romney fundraiser, it is a perfect souvenir of this campaign season. For just $75,800, I can become a “Romney Victory Max Out Contributor,” and perhaps sit next to someone powerful in the old Pump Room.
Now that the suspense has gone out of the primaries, a superficial calm has fallen over the presidential campaign. Tune out the perfunctory stump speeches and ramped-up media campaigns, and you will hear the ching-ching! of aggressive fund-raising, as both Romney and the president crisscross the country desperately scrounging up cash, now taken as a proxy for popular support.
Have you been reading about the changing style of presidential fundraising? Whereas in 2008 Obama made securing small contributions a priority, his style of fund-raising is now virtually indistinguishable from that of Mitt Romney. Both rely mainly on high-end fundraisers, hosted by celebrities or other ultra-wealthy Americans and typically kept at a distance from the public eye. “Few Witnesses to Obama, Romney, As They Raise $1.5 Billion,” read a recent Bloomberg headline.
In many ways, this cozy relationship between leading politicians and the wealthy merely mirrors the relationship the two groups have enjoyed historically. Go back to the Revolutionary Era or the early republic, and you will find that wealthy Americans led the colonies and states, wrote the Constitution, and dominated high office. All throughout the nineteenth century, the line between public interest and private remained suspiciously murky. In fact, that a politician represented his own financial interest and that of his friends was taken more or less for granted; it was rarely viewed as criminal, certainly.
At present, however, the candidates’ attentiveness to wealth smacks of a politics of avoidance that is gripping the country. For the people, indeed. The candidates offer platitudes to a populace who are suffering, disillusioned, and angry, but it’s probably more fun to dine with the wealthy and promise to supply the things that they need. Yet as long as the nation’s leading classes remain locked in this romantic tango, behind closed doors, a true economic recovery is unlikely to occur.