Momentous “Momentum”

In less than two weeks, this country will be blessedly free of political ads. Ever try to watch Wheel of Fortune or Jeopardy during election season? It’s a minefield of attack ads and misinformation during commercial breaks. I get it — the targeted demographic of voters (read: elderly) tend to watch the nightly antics of Pat and Alex. Nonetheless, I will be greatly relieved when I can again enjoy commercials about car insurance and questionable food chains in peace.

Unfortunately, I live in a state next to the (surprisingly) contentious state of Virginia. I live so close to that state, in fact, that most of the information relayed through political commercials is related to Virginia. There is a close race there for the presidency, of that there can be no doubt, but is it worth the drama? The utter inundation?

It’s a thorny issue. You see, the race is not as close as the media wants you to think it is. While the popular vote (in the end) will be close, the electoral college has another outcome in mind.

Nate Silver runs a mindbogglingly complex blog here that painstakingly calculates the potential outcome of the election based on all of the reputable polls in the country, economic indicators, senate/presidential approval ratings, and historical trends. While the calculations involved are beyond my admittedly meager grasp of the field of statistics, I can at least appreciate the level of effort involved in the formulation of such a model.

According to Silver (as of October 25th), President Obama has a 71% chance of winning a second term. 71% is quite a larger number than the number represented by the constant stream of polling that declares this race to be nothing more than a “horse race” now. Do I put all of my cards with Silver? Of course not. While I agree with his methods, I cannot speak to his level of prescience. But I do think that his model is a better indicator of what will happen in November than what is provided to the public through the media.

Here’s why: Ohio and Virginia (along with one or two others) will absolutely determine who the next president is. You live in a state that is not one of those two? Too bad. Although your vote is still important for the base of the voting block for your party, it is not important enough to have a direct outcome on this election. Why is this?

From Wikipedia:

The Electoral College is an example of an indirect election, consisting of 538 electors who officially elect the President and Vice President of the United States. The number of electors is equal to the total voting membership of the United States Congress, 435 Representatives and 100 Senators, plus three electors from the District of Columbia.[1]Article II, Section 1, Clause 2 of the Constitution specifies the number of electors to which each state is entitled and state legislatures decide how they are chosen.

Voters in each state and the District of Columbia cast ballots selecting electors pledged to presidential and vice presidential candidates. In nearly all states, electors are awarded on a winner-take-all basis to the candidate who wins the most votes in that state. Although electors are not required by federal law to honor a pledge, in the overwhelming majority of cases they vote for the candidate to whom they are pledged.[2][3] The Twelfth Amendment provides for each elector to cast one vote for President and one vote for Vice President. It also specifies how a President and Vice President are elected. The Twenty-third Amendment specifies how many electors the District of Columbia is entitled to have.

Critics argue that the Electoral College is inherently undemocratic and gives swing states disproportionate influence in electing the President and Vice President. Proponents argue that the Electoral College is an important, distinguishing feature offederalism in the United States and that it protects the rights of smaller states. Numerous constitutional amendments have been introduced in the Congress seeking to alter the Electoral College or replace it with a direct popular vote.

It is a confusing system that places far too much weight on individual “swing” states. This creates unhealthy political atmospheres in those states, granting them with special legislative attention before and after election season while simultaneously flooding them with insulting levels of political propaganda during the heat of the season. Remember Florida in 2000? Nothing more really needs to be said.

President Obama stands at a 71% with Silver’s model precisely because of a simultaneous rise in general polling from Obama coupled with a constant and appreciable lead in Ohio. But have you heard about this probability on the news or radio? Of course not. Silver attempts to break down the cognitive dissonance:

Some of the polls, especially the Time magazine poll which had Mr. Obama five points ahead in Ohio, seemed to set off a lot of discussion on Twitter, as though people were surprised that Mr. Obama still held the lead there.

But these polls are really nothing new. Since the Denver debate, Mr. Obama has held the lead in 16 Ohio polls against 6 for Mr. Romney. In Nevada, Mr. Obama has had the lead in 11 polls, to Mr. Romney’s 1. Mr. Obama has led in all polls of Wisconsin since the Denver debate, and he has had five poll leads in Iowa to one for Mr. Romney.

Part of the confusion (and part of the reason behind the perception that Mr. Romney is still gaining ground in the race) may be because of the headlines that accompany polls.

Conspiracy Theory Time: The media wants to portray the race as a close one. Close contests beget higher ratings for those broadcasting them. Who wants to watch a moderate victory unfold? It isn’t very exciting. So — in order to get ratings — the media actively promotes the misleading notion that the popular vote numbers are the numbers that will decide this election.

Naturally, these predictions of who will or will not win any given state are only as good as any other predictions — which is to say that they should all be taken with a heaping spoonful of salt.

It is important to remember, however, that the system through which our president is elected is not as cut-and-dry as a simple up and down vote. That would make too much sense! That said, it should still be emphasized that your vote absolutely matters — it just matters more if you live in one of the “chosen” lands.

My prediction?

I think that President Obama will win. He will probably win Ohio .. and that will be enough for victory, assuming that he picks up a few of the so-called swing states out West.

Mitt Romney could win as well, though his path to victory is decidedly more difficult. He requires almost all of the swing states in order to collect a victory. Obama requires a mere few.

All of that aside (after election day), ask yourself: Do you like the way in which we elect a president? Does it seem fair to you? If it does, keep rolling.

If not … make some noise.

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