I’m speaking to journalists here.
I thought I’d make that clear because a few days ago, in reaction to a headline that said, “Why early-voting data is an awful election predictor,” I tweeted, “Which is fine, because no one needs such a thing. No one needs to ‘predict’ elections. Discuss the relative merits of the candidates, let the voters vote, then report what HAPPENED…”
When someone who has commented on this blog off and on for years responded, “…A lot of us, for some reason, think that who wins this election may be kind of important,” I had to add, “You do understand that I’m speaking to journalists here, right?”
Well, maybe he didn’t, and maybe that’s my fault. So here, I’m making it clear up front.
You want to know what’s going to happen tomorrow (or rather, in the process that ends tomorrow, since so many of us vote early now)?
Well, I can’t tell you. I can tell you that generally, the party of the president of the United States loses ground in the elections that occur in years when the president isn’t running. Although not always. And even that generality should probably be set aside, since the careful balance between two rational, roughly centrist parties came to an end in 2016. One of the parties basically doesn’t exist any more, and the other is in some disarray.
That’s as far as I’ll go with predictions.
Now, let’s talk about how stupid it is to try to predict these things that are widely and erroneously called “midterm elections.” (Not one position being considered is in the middle of a term. They’re all at the ends of their terms, which is why we’re having elections. The person for whom this is “midterm” is the current POTUS, and in case you haven’t noticed, he isn’t running.)
These prediction stories you see are pretty much always written from a national perspective — as is most of the news you read, since papers that covered — I mean really covered — state and local elections are gone or moribund, and nothing has taken their places. By “national perspective,” I mean they are trying to predict which of those two parties will hold a majority in each of the two chambers of Congress when the elections are over.
Which is insane. That cannot be reliably predicted. Some elections can be reliably predicted. I can predict that Joe Wilson will win re-election. (I would, of course, be thrilled to be proven wrong on that.) I can with even greater confidence predict that Jim Clyburn will be re-elected. But that’s because voters’ choices have been removed from the equation, through the process of gerrymandering.
What you cannot do is reliably, dependably predict what will happen with control of Congress. First of all, you’ll notice I keep saying “elections,” not “election.” There is not one person in America who is voting for one party or the other to have control of Congress. Oh, they might think they are, and tell you they are, thanks to the fact that so many Americans have been trained (largely by what remains of the media) to think that way, in ones-and-zeroes partisan terms.
But they aren’t, because they can’t. Not one person in America can vote for more than one member of the House of Representatives, or more than two (and usually, just one at a time) senator. The rest of the equation — the extremely, mind-blowingly complex equation — depends on what millions of other people do. Each contest for each seat depends on thousands, if not millions, of such separate decisions. And the end result, in terms of which party has control? That depends on an exponentially greater number of separate decisions.
Not only that, but I remain unconvinced that most people can coherently explain, even to themselves, exactly what caused them to vote as they did. It’s complicated. Despite all the progress the ones-and-zeroes folks have had in training people to vote like robots, it remains complicated.
But enough about voters and what they do. Back to the journalists.
Y’all have all heard grandpa tell stories about how he covered elections, back when the country was young and men were men, yadda-yadda. I’m not going to do that in this post. But I am going to complain about the “coverage” we do see in elections.
Practically every story written, every question asked by a journalist of a source, seems in large part to be an attempt to answer the question, “Who is going to win?’ I can practically see those words stamped onto the foreheads of the reporters.
What do the polls say? How much money have you raised? How many more times will that TV ad be aired by Election Day? How are you connecting with this or that demographic group? How strong is your campaign organization? Can you avoid uttering “gaffes” in the upcoming “debate,” and when you almost inevitably fail in that task, can you recover from them?
Folks, the reason we have a First Amendment is so that we will have a free press to, among other things, help voters decide which candidates will represent them. To do that, your job is to report on what each candidate offers to voters, and how well he or she is likely to perform if elected. You start with two things: the candidates’ observable records, and what the candidates say about themselves and the kinds of officeholders they intend to be.
Your goal should NOT be to tell the voters who WILL win. You should give them information that will help them, the voters, make that decision. If you try to tell them who WILL win, the most likely result is that you will convince some supporters of the other candidate not to vote. (Which to many of you might sound like a GOOD thing, because it means your stupid predictions are slightly more likely to come true — but it isn’t.)
Oh, and if you’re an opinion writer, your goal is to present rational arguments as to who SHOULD win. It is not to predict who will win. So, you know, I should not be seeing “opinion” headlines like some of the ones below…