Thursday, August 11, 2011

How Pundits Fail Us

I recently chatted with a reporter for a mainstream, D.C.-based publication. A personable and sincere fellow, and a skillful writer. His assignment from now until the November 2012 elections is to cover half of the U.S. Senate and House races. That's 217 House races and 16 Senate races, each of which will have at least one and often several candidates. He is supposed to report on several hundred candidates, many of whom he may never meet. Obviously, he has an impossible job.

What could he or any of the other reporters with similarly overly-broad assignments, know about any of the districts? Without spending significant time in a district like the 10th, would they understand the social, political, economic, racial, educational, religious, and other differences to be found among towns like Libertyville, Waukegan, and Buffalo Grove? Would they know the difference between Lake Forest and Lake Bluff? Will they know the history of factionalization among Democrats in one part of the district, or the personalities who influence opinion in another? Will they understand the suasion that some religious leaders have on the voters in their congregations, and the duplicity of others? No, nope, no way. These out-of-town instant experts will know almost nothing about the races they are expounding upon.

So, what will they write? They will write about how much money each of the candidates raises, because it is one of the only things they can write about and seem informed without really knowing much about the races they are reporting on. From a distance of a thousand or more miles, based solely on numbers in the Federal Election Commission's online disclosure database, they can pass judgment on which candidates are strong and which weak, which are ahead and which behind, which likely to prevail and which to fail; in political terms, who shall live and who shall die.

We who live in the districts from one end of this vast country to another know much more. But amazingly, many of us read these pundits and give them credence. Some candidates will drop out of races because the analysts, looking only at fundraising numbers, tell them they can't win. Some potential candidates will decide to not even enter races once the number crunchers tell them they are running behind financially. Some people who would otherwise have contributed to candidates will decide not to, because some columnist, who probably can't pronounce the names of the candidates he is writing about and hasn't set foot in their districts, convinces them that they would be wasting their money on doomed campaigns.

If we accept the notion that all a pundit needs to know in order to predict an election is the fundraising numbers, we don't need elections at all, and we certainly don't need pundits. We could all just count the money and declare a winner, without a single person needing to cast a ballot. It seems that is what the U.S. Supreme Court wants to happen, and I am sure that is what certain bankers and hedge-fund managers and financiers want. They believe that money makes the world go round, and they are the ones with the money. But they don't know that Round Lake isn't entirely round, that North Chicago is miles away from Chicago, and that there aren't many deer in the field or buffalo in the grove anymore. And they don't know nearly as much as the voters do about which candidates are campaigning hard and which are just posing for photos to put in a brochure, which candidates answer questions and which duck them, which seem to enjoy being with people and which seem ill-at-ease, which have a passion and which simply have a stump speech, and which candidates have been working in their districts on local issues and which candidates appeared on the scene just in time to declare their candidacies.

We could let the pundits make our decisions for us. They'd be happy to do it, writing from faraway. But they don't have to live with the results of our elections. We do.

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