We had the Olympics this past summer (where people seemed more focused on how NBC was ill-equipped to handle broadcasting time-delayed events in the digital age), but the real games begin this fall. Baseball playoffs are about to begin (go Braves!), football is in full swing (go Falcons!), and we’re about to have the Presidential debates (go America!).
If you don’t think politics is a game, you haven’t been paying attention. Policy is serious, but politics—particularly the way it’s covered—is a game. It’s a game that has far-reaching implications for the future of our country, but we hear about it in terms of a game. Who’s up? Who’s down? Who’s gaining? Who’s losing? Did Candidate X hit a home run with his speech? Did Candidate Y fumble the response to the question?
And tonight, the first of three Presidential debates begin. I hesitate to put the word “debates” into question marks because it seems too cynical. The candidates are responding to each other in real time, but the time is so short. Everything is condensed. Points and counter-points have to be rapidly delivered. But do these debates really tell us anything? The candidates are simply reiterating points they’ve been making for months. The format has changed, but the messages are the same.
But the debates matter for the small sliver of the population that somehow, for reasons that defy understanding, haven’t made up their minds. We’re not talking about Jack Johnson and John Jackson. Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have fundamental disagreements on the direction for our government. If you believe that government has an obligation to help its people, then vote Democrat. If you believe that unregulated businesses benefit the country, then vote Republican. The differences regarding social issues couldn’t be clearer: Pro-choice or pro-life? Gay rights or discrimination? Expansion of health care or go broke and die? And on the issues where there’s no daylight between the candidates—war on drugs, prosecuting financial crimes—they’re not going to change their positions.
Nevertheless, the debates will dominate our media landscape for the next couple of weeks because that’s where the game is played. For those who couldn’t be bothered to do research into the candidates, they’ll now get the biggest political ad possible. And at the end, the punditry will squabble over who won. Who was the most eloquent, who stumbled over a question, and who now has the edge.
Except there will be no edge. Strangely enough, even though they’re designed to convince independent voters, debates don’t seriously sway presidential elections in the modern age. The candidates enter at their current popularity and they leave at about the same level. This is entertainment, and no one becomes a Texans fan simply because they played well on Sunday.
Looking at where the candidates currently stand, Obama wins the election. The chattering class can go on about how close it is, but they’re looking at the nationwide poll, which would be important if Presidents were elected by popular vote. But we use the Electoral College, and as you’ll see, Obama is almost at 270 electoral votes. On election night, Obama may not have dominated the popular vote, but according to polling guru Nate Silver, Obama is likely to win the election. Republicans will harp on the popular vote all day, but it won’t matter as long as Obama wins it by at least 50.1%.
So when you tune in for the debates, remember that we’re watching condensed stump speeches, and unnecessary ones at that. The best thing that could happen is if Obama’s opening statement was “I killed Bin Laden, and Mitt Romney hates 47% of America,” drops the mic and walks away. I’d vote for that.
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