Worry Beads and Stability in Politics

October 31, 2012

If you care a lot about who wins the presidential election, you’re probably behaving like people have for thousands of years – checking signs and omens, engaging in superstitious rituals, praying to the God or gods you think might have influence. This also works for football games, college admissions, and barley harvests.

There is a correlation, of course, between how much we care about something and how much attention we pay to it. How many times you check your e-mail for a message from your date last night will be directly related to how much you enjoyed it. But there is not necessarily a connection between how often you look for information and how much knowledge you get. In other words, just because you check the polls every day doesn't mean you’re learning more about the likely outcome of the election. In fact, it could be the opposite.

Yesterday, Nate Silver of the New York Times election blog FiveThirtyEight compared his computer model projections of the lead in each state in June with his current projection. After both conventions, three debates, and nearly a billion dollars in advertising, he found: “Our projected leader in all 50 states is the same as it was at our launch of the forecast in June.” In other words, things are a lot more stable than the day-to-day reporting suggests.

Reporters covering the campaign need to report news, and pollsters serve their own purposes by issuing regular polls, but that churn shouldn't be confused with real changes in the race. And, if you think about it, it makes sense that there is little change. Most people have pretty firm ideologies, partisan leanings, and opinions on major issues. Six months is a long time in a presidential campaign, but who do you know who has changed their opinion about abortion, taxes, or health care reform since the summer? Are there many people who watched President Obama in office for three and half years and had not formed a firm opinion about him one way or the other?

None of that means campaigns don’t matter, particularly in an election this close. And there are people who haven’t paid much attention before now, or who are easily moved. But all of that is at the margins. Politics is more stable and predictable than it seems.

Check here for regular observations on the 2012 presidential campaign and political history, as well as new clips from The Bigger Hammer. Follow @TheBiggerHammer on Twitter to find out when new excerpts are released and where you’ll be able to see the whole film.


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