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Wednesday, September 15, 2004

The coin flip

Probably the most common metaphor for the US presidential election is "the horse race." The media, all-too-often, focus on which candidate has the lead, the size of that lead, and the likelihood that a challenger will overtake the leader. The rise of extensive use of public opinion polling by media since 1976 has fostered this approach to covering campaigns. Over the same period, television has devoted less-and-less time to covering the content of candidate speeches.

Bottom line: Segments are shorter and they tend to focus on the horse race.

Some horse race coverage is inevitable, given the way competitive political races are run (see how the metaphor is so deeply embedded?), but the persistence of this kind of coverage strongly suggests that the media has forgotten that elections are supposed to be about political ideas, not merely winning and losing races.

One reason I launched this blog was to discuss ideas. Presumably, the proliferation of blogs, whether left or right, has something to do with the desire by a lot of smart people to discuss ideas.

Granted, some blogs focus a great deal on political strategy, which means they are like bull sessions for wannabe election jockeys. I'm guilty of some of that myself.

Anyone who reads even a handful of political blogs already likely knows that even the best bloggers often grant lots of attention to the horse race. It is happening in 2004, even though the two major candidates are just barely out of the starting gate -- at least as measured by the traditional post-Labor Day beginning to the campaigns, after the party conventions.

On the left lately, there's been a great deal of concern about the large lead George W. Bush has apparently opened up in this campaign -- at least as measured by some polls. Functional Ambivalent, for example, says it is time to give up:
Kerry's now 11 points back in the polls....John Kerry is going to lose to a President that has botched things so badly it's going to take a generation to straighten it out.

I think this is far too pessimistic, however, and the alleged 11% lead in the polls doesn't really exist. As has been widely discussed in the blogosphere, at least two polls that gave Bush large leads asked uncertain respondents ("leaners") to make a choice. They were "pushed" not to select "undecided" or "no opinion." There are some other good reasons relating to sampling errors that cause one to believe that the reported 11 point lead is baloney.

John Kerry faces only one meaningful poll in 2004: the one conducted nationally on the first Tuesday in November. Meanwhile, plenty of polls have this as a 1 or 2 point race. Personally, I check the Rasmussen daily tracking Poll....well, daily. Right now, as of yesterday's polling, the race is Bush 47.3%, Kerry 46.4%.

From the "horse race" perspective, plenty of good and bad things could happen to either candidate from this point forward. There are still going to be 2 or 3 debates and a swing of a few points after a debate is nothing.

At best, the current odds of Bush winning are probably something like 52-48. They may be more like 51-49. It may be even.

Given that this race is virtually tied, the horse race metaphor really doesn't work too well, especially as we head "down the stretch."

I suggest a new metaphor: the coin flip. Given what happened in 2000, and what seems to be happening in 2004, this is likely the appropriate way to look at the election.

It is a tossup.

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