I’ve read a bunch of think pieces lately that warn against the abundance of poll coverage in this election. There’s a lot of talk about how unreliable various polling methods are, how confusing it can be for voters to have so much conflicting data flying about and how political journalism suffers when it becomes obsessed with numbers. The consensus seems to be that we shouldn’t turn an election into a horse race.
Who are these joykillers?
You know why people go to horse races? Because they’re exciting. When you put a couple bucks down on Foggy Before Breakfast to show, all that matters for the next half hour is whether or not that mare can beat those eight-to-one odds. And when I rise in the morning, call up threehundredeight.com in my browser and track where all the various lines and graphs are sitting, it turns the election into a Kentucky Derby in my head.
No, fuck that. Better: goddamn Mario Kart. With power ups, Koopa shells and banana peels. The election becomes a brightly coloured, pixellated thrillfest. And it’s about the only thing in a day that can set my calcified heart to beating.
I think where most of this poll animosity comes from is some people worry that by having so much information available — much of it of dubious value — it will distort voting patterns across the nation.
They imagine some lost Platonic state of democracy where voters made their decisions based solely upon which local candidate demonstrates they best represent their values and where journalists restricted their duties to providing a dry enumeration of each political party’s policy planks, devoid of any commentary, critique or opinion.
That utopian state never existed. Voters have always been obsessed with trying to figure out which candidate has the best chance of beating the shit out of the guy they hate. Journalists have always spun campaigns into unfolding narratives of triumphs, defeats, one-upmanship and tactical gambits.
Can all that impact how people vote? Sure. Is it kind of garbage? Yeah, maybe.
But at least nowadays we don’t have voting patterns distorted by roving gangs of drunken Clear Grits, Tories and Orangemen beating random passersby about the head with shillelaghs until they cast one or more ballots for their guy.
Daily Youtube videos from Nik Nanos and Eric Grenier seem a major improvement.
But pointing that out won’t mollify the priggish poll-hating pundits in our midst. They’ll still keep railing on about how a democratic campaign should be a clash of ideas and declare their annoyance in newspapers and political panels as every single election — surprise! — turns out to be the exact opposite of that.
Policies? Platforms? These are not the weapons political parties wield in an election. Those are the clothes political hopefuls wear. They define the personalities of the contestants. They’re the pixeled skins that overlay each blank politician sprite. This guy here is the angry Bowser who’s scary and likes to blow things up but at least he’ll cut your taxes. Here’s the cheerful Princess Peach who’s kind and generous, but oh, her naivete is going to get her into trouble. And look! Over there it’s Yoshi! He’s a dinosaur! He’s green! And he has a sticky tongue! How can you not vote for him?
In other words, you root for the guy in the costume you like best.
All that stuff that the activists and academics and huffy old columnists dismiss as political theatre is the actual election.
Is most of that morass of petty conflicts, dirty tricks, flubbed press conferences and debate shenanigans nothing more than random noise? Hellz ya. But humans are storytelling creatures and taking a chaotic pile of stupid nonsense and constructing a narrative from it is one of our brains’ favourite things to do.
And polls are just one more expression of our storytelling natures. They gather up a bunch of people’s opinions, quantify them, put them on graphs. Then everybody makes guesses about what it all means and what’s going to happen next.
Polls take the noise of a real life election and turn it into a game involving little racing red and blue and orange and green avatars in exactly the same way that a Nintendo machine takes a bunch of random numbers and the inputs from your controller and turns them into Super Mario Kart.
I don’t know, man. I just think people should settle down and enjoy the ride.