Kathleen Parker: In the end of this eating contest, the winner just gets more pie
WASHINGTON — Between daily tracking polls, punditry, Intrade gambles, Nate Silver predictions, RealClearPolitics averages — and hurricanes — heads are spinning with anticipation and angst.
Who's going to be the next president?
Maybe Barack Obama; maybe Mitt Romney. It could be a landslide! For either one. Or not.
Such are the discussions along sidewalks, over cocktails, in corridors and in checkout lines. What the heck is going on? It's anybody's guess.
One thing going on is information saturation that reflects but also shapes reality. To what extent may not be knowable, but it can't be denied that the constant barrage of analysis, projection and prediction influences the very thing — human behavior — that the quantifiers attempt to capture.
As of Friday, Romney and Obama were within a decimal point of one another — 47.4 Obama to 47.3 Romney — in the national polling average posted by RealClearPolitics. Over at Intrade, the prediction market, odds favored the president 66.6 percent to Romney's 33.5 percent. RealClear put Romney's favorability rating at 6.3 to Obama's 3.7.
Then there's political polling guru Silver, who consistently shows Obama in the lead for the Electoral College and puts his chances of winning at 86 percent.
Combining all the above in some sort of meta-analysis, facing East while balancing on one foot and slicing carrots on the diagonal, you have to figure Obama will be our president for another four years.
Then again, people are unpredictable. Things happen. Weather happens. Ball teams win and lose. Moods swing. Humans fib. Babies cry.
One thing we know without a study or a poll is that people tend to like winners. Thus, when one individual seems to be leading, people don't want to identify with the loser and so align themselves with the top dog. The perception of loser-ness lends momentum to the apparent winner.
But what if the sentiment is only toward winning-ness and not a true preference? Ever been surprised to find yourself hesitating in the voting booth? In the moment of truth, we don't so much change our mind as recognize it.
Doing the right thing is easier when you're alone with your thoughts than when someone is in your face or ear, probing your innermost thoughts. Humans don't always want their private feelings known and may respond in ways they think will cause them the least discomfort.
Even though most people's votes may indeed be predictable owing to party affiliation, ideology or some other reason, other more-nebulous factors also come into play.
As Paul Farhi reported in Friday's Washington Post, studies show that emotional events related to a variety of things — even a favorite team's recent performance — can influence voting patterns to a small but measurable extent. Researchers found, for example, that when a hometown team wins, so does the incumbent.
Basically, when people feel good, they go with the status quo.
One study cited found that in every election between 1964 and 2008, on average, a hometown victory meant a 1.61 percentage point margin for the incumbent in the team's county. That's not a huge number, obviously, but when the difference between candidates is a single decimal point, it can be significant.
Thus, Farhi proffers that should Obama win a second term, he may owe a thank you note to Ohio State's football team.
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