X marks the…what?

Why it appears so difficult to predict the presidential victor.

Alex Gourevitch

Topics Politics

This is a bit of random text from Kyle to test the new global option to add a message at the top of every article. This bit is linked somewhere.

If single moms come out in droves in the forthcoming US presidential elections, that is good for Kerry. But not if single dads come out in larger numbers, unless, of course, if the Latinos show up, balancing out the possible Nader factor, which could also be overtaken by the cell-phone voters who, along with black voters, are much more likely to vote for Kerry.

Except for the fact that black voters seem to be not quite as Democratic this year as the last time around, although youth voters are leaning Kerry-side, even in battleground states, where Kerry seems to be doing slightly better. That is, if all the votes are counted, and if the turnout drives really accomplish what they say they will, and if the independent voters really are a little more anti-incumbent than committed voters, so that they balance out Bush’s religious vote.…

One newspaper put it like this: ‘Will there be a surge of young voters, a spike in participation by social conservatives, an outpouring of Republicans loyal to Bush, an energised cadre of sporadic voters hostile to the president, an invigorated black or Latino vote – or will all of the above occur?’ (1)

Apparently, Bush might even win, then end up tying Kerry if Colorado passes a special election law that would reallocate votes based on districts, forcing the election to the Republican House of Representatives. Other things to watch for on 2 November are: faulty voting machines, first-time voters versus independent voters, the felon (non-)vote, bad weather in key states, legal battles, mail-in votes, early votes, party base turnout compared swing votes, and the gaming odds on Kerry a week before the election.

That, anyhow, is what can be gathered from recent ‘election analyses’ on offer. Polls have swung wildly, giving rise to a number of bemused articles wondering why we bother (2) and to at least one weblog devoted entirely to debunking, demystifying and otherwise clarifying polls (3). Indeed, the last month of election frenzy has focused on so many diverse factors and so many different ways of dividing up and analysing the public that one could be excused for thinking the population of the USA were around 800 million, and that we’ll never really know who won the election.

One major daily simply threw its hands in the air and announced: ‘But just which new voters will show up on election day? No one knows for sure, and until election day, any projections will be little more than guesswork.’ (4) Another newspaper started looking for phantom electors: ‘Is there an invisible army of voters out there – and if there is, will it tip the balance toward the incumbent or the challenger?’ (5)

Yet in a way, the projections have been about more than guesswork. Much of the attention over the past month, and even before, has focused on the base question of ‘who will win?’. Of course, all elections are about who wins and who loses. The concern with fraud, turnout, and public opinion has been a constant feature of US electoral politics from the get-go. Each side has always had a special interest in even the smallest details that might influence the course of an election. Parties and their sympathisers have always obsessed about what seem to be trivialities compared to the ideas and interests that are supposed to shape political life.

But the current obsession with who will win is not merely due to petty partisanship – it is also an attempt to find meaning in what has been an election without substance. Where the two candidates have affirmed so many of the same basic principles, the campaigns stand revealed as two opportunistic individuals competing to win high office. In fact, among friends, both sides admit that their candidate is pretty weak, that they wish there was something better on offer, and that they don’t understand why their candidate doesn’t perform better against the obvious weaknesses of the opponent.

The parties’ inability to inspire the public has been made painfully clear by both sides’ vain attempts to label this election ‘historic’. If you have to be told an election is historic, it clearly isn’t. The ‘upsurge’ in voter registration is commonly read as evidence for how momentous this election is, but increases of five per cent here, eight per cent there, three per cent elsewhere are not so large. Historic elections are ones where whole new classes of voters appear, or when nations hold elections for the first time, or when a massive shift in public opinion is registered.

For the most part, elections are not even meant to be historic. Rather, their purpose is to be routine. The original meaning of the modern mass election was to pacify domestic political conflict, and channel potentially explosive confrontations into formalised and legalised processes. The German Marxist Frederick Engels described voting as the casting of paper stones – it was a substitute for civil war and direct confrontation. It was the background of political struggle both inside and outside electoral procedures that gave elections some kind of meaning and vitality. (It was also what led many to criticise the electoral process itself.)

Yet now, without this broader political conflict, there is no obvious need for elections – except to serve the very minimal legitimating function of choosing a leader and providing some procedure for institutional renewal. At least elections force the lumbering state and party machinery periodically to struggle with the idea that there should be some kind of contact with the public. But far from surmounting political apathy and disenchantment, elections have become a kind of automatic mechanism, a wind-up toy still running long after the spring was wound.

In such an environment, it becomes convenient and even necessary to focus on the most instrumental and procedural aspects of the election. The election’s meaning seems to lie not in ‘what it is about’, but ‘how it happens’. But this emphasis on process only heightens the pointlessness of the whole exercise. It ends up drawing attention to those aspects of elections that seem arbitrary, unknown, or beyond anyone’s control. Will the machines work? Where will rain suppress turnout? Who will turn out? How will the courts decide? Which courts will decide? When will we know? Will the Nader factor matter? Are the polls misleading people? What will swing voters do?

The new president, it seems, will be elected by random and contingent forces. We do not even know how to conceive of the voter. Is the crucial segment the black single mom? The independent, white single dad? The base or the swing voter?

In the end, we will have no idea who voted for whom. Exit polls will tell us various demographic characteristics, but what matters is the person’s public, political identity, not his or her sociological make-up. It is the reason a person gives for voting that matters. Without a clear set of reasons for voting, it becomes extremely difficult to predict which identities and issues will form the basis for political action.

The emphasis on slicing and dicing demographics every which way only brings out more clearly the fact that neither campaign has produced a good reason to vote. Reasons are what give an election meaning, not procedural routines and blind outcome. Without reasons, we’re left wondering whether ‘invisible armies’ of voters, faulty machines, or legal experts will decide who leads the USA for the next four years.

Alex Gourevitch is a PhD candidate in political science at Columbia University, New York.

Read on:

spiked-issue: US election 2004

(1) Electorate is a key unknown, Dan Balz, Washington Post, 24 October 2004

(2) Poll shows tie; concerns cited on both rivals, Adam Nagourney and Janet Elder, New York Times, 19 October 2004; ‘Bush leads. Make that Kerry. Why can’t the pollsters agree?’, Jim Rutenberg, New York Times, 19 October 2004; Pollsters can’t just phone it in, Philip J Trounstine, Los Angeles Times, 18 October 2004; New voters’ impact debated, James Rainey, Los Angeles Times, 24 October 2004; Electorate is a key unknown, Dan Balz, Washington Post, 24 October 2004

(3) Mystery Pollster website

(4) New voters’ impact debated, James Rainey, Los Angeles Times, 24 October 2004

(5) Electorate is a key unknown, Dan Balz, Washington Post, 24 October 2004

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Topics Politics


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