US Elections: The Greatest Story A Spreadsheet Ever Told

CNN’s election studio from the 2004 election (courtesy of CNN).

My mum caught me. “I don’t know why you watch this crap every year,” she muttered as she wandered into the kitchen during an ad break to Taggart, which was on in the front room.

I nodded, not in agreement but as a trigger to finally speak to someone, anyone, about what was unfolding before me in Malmo, host to 1992’s Eurovision Song Contest. “Malta have dropped off Mum. Not sure it’s a hit outside of your Mediterranean sweep. You need to pick up points away from your traditional blocks, like Ireland have actually.  And it looks as though Ireland could win actually.” I thought this was good news which would be warmly welcomed.

“Dad will be pleased,” I concluded.

Dad is Irish. He is also tone-deaf. Mum had left the room.

Ireland did win and I’m not sure I have heard the winning number since. I love Eurovision not for the songs, camp or quips. No, I love Eurovision for the numbers. From nil point to douze.  The lego bricks of each vote cast in each country, slowly taking shape into a pattern, a trend, and then a result. I realised then and have embraced the fact ever since. I love statistics.

The pinnacle of this fascination is an US or UK election night – when these numbers carry so much weight of mass and meaning.


Election nights are an orgy of data – a Legoland Windsor of blocks stacked upon blocks. They are on a scale so large that you have no idea what is being built until a vague shape takes form before your very eyes and you have a result and a government. Or in the case of the UK election in 2010, neither.

For sheer scale, nothing beats an US election. Fox, CNN, Al-Jazeera, the BBC. All pore over every district turnout, every exit poll, every whisper from their sources in the key swing states. Scaling up to national trends, drilling down to street by street, like a strobe Google Earth. For a while  predispositions prevail and a Republican or Democrat perspective skews initial interpretations but before long, the evidence becomes irrefutable and the narrative takes shape. Coverage coalesces around a result. For the data alone and the naked result, there should be enough to hold the attention.

But there is more. There is the weight of meaning to add to the weight of data being assembled – the tingling  significance as to why election nights are so magnificent.  The rhetoric ceases. The policy positions freeze (if you have one, Mr Romney). The words stop. And that data silencing the politicians is us (or the US).

This silence is precious. Politicians abuse words like no other (no wait, Bruno Tonolli is worse). In between elections there is a slew of spin and triangulation and careful positioning. Key messages are cut bespoke in order to appeal to an amorphous middle ground of hard-working families in a nondescript suburbia – either the mythical middle classes in the US, or essentially the Dursleys in the UK.

During election campaigns, this vacuum becomes Dyson like. Key differences are dispensed with in favour of the words we want to hear. ‘We will not cut the NHS. There will be no top down reorganisation of the NHS.’ Romney has been especially ruthless in this regard. You might call it ‘grabbing the centre ground’, ‘becoming Presidential’. It is also known as lying.

Whereas before we might have reasonably expected politicians to explain difference and set out policies, now it is left to us to interpret. The dog whistles and code combine with either fairly well established prejudices or a whimsical gut feeling. ‘Who would we have a beer with?’ Votes are cast. Or increasingly not cast at all.

The manifestation of this political mendacity and public confusion is an election. For this one night, politicians no longer control the message. This concept, widely known as democracy I think, has become increasingly devalued as the quality and honesty of political rhetoric has diminished. However, for the actual results night itself, it has meant for greater entertainment. WTF has to be translated into a thing. Ambiguous becomes a graph.

The hired, rapid response attack guards of red and blue in the TV studios may attempt a gloss but their words are nothing to their faces. The barely contained smile. The disappointment in the slumped shoulders. If they were meaningless before an election, they are irrelevant now. They produce noise but it is us producing the numbers and facts and owning the narrative. Like with Eurovision, when the bleating finally stops, the fun really starts because it is when we take the stage.

The important characters are no longer a dead-eyed Special Advisor turned MP or coiffured, white teethed fool from the hill but places, constituencies, districts and states. Sunderland South, Basildon, Tatton; Ohio, Florida, Minnesota. State or regional variations emerge. Quirks jump out and break trends. What was established at 11 p.m. is debunked by 1 a.m. 2010’s UK exit poll was laughed off as wrong at 10 p.m. By 10 a.m., it was a triumph, a new peak of the form. For those who stayed up, it felt like 12 hours sleep had been lost needlessly.

The narrative can be overwhelmingly decisive (UK, 1997); groundbreaking (US, 2008); controversial (US, 2000); or a muddle (UK, 2010). Every one contains jeopardy (Romney) and if not heroes, the possibility of reigniting a flicker of hope and optimism.

And above all, they matter. An extra 1% in a few seats here and there and we could have had a Lib Lab coalition and the NHS would have remained true to its original concept. Had all voters who had wanted to vote in Florida been allowed to, Al Gore would have become President and George W. Bush would have been a footnote rather than the worst US President in history.

Democracy may be diminished but it is not defeated. Its relevance remains and its ability to entertain on election night is a rare thing; an extraordinary, necessary and noble ugliness allowed to take shape before our very eyes. Stay up on November 6th. Pop Lifer will.

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About PopLifer

bloggists at www.poplifer.com
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