Christopher Beam at Slate has written a deservedly-praised piece called “What if political scientists covered the news?” In it, he imagines what news stories would be like if they were based on the premise that only big-picture, macro factors have much impact on elections. So instead of “how will the oil spill affect the midterm elections,” you’d get:
Obama now faces some of the most difficult challenges of his young presidency: the ongoing oil spill, the Gaza flotilla disaster, and revelations about possibly inappropriate conversations between the White House and candidates for federal office. But while these narratives may affect fleeting public perceptions, Americans will ultimately judge Obama on the crude economic fundamentals of jobs numbers and GDP.
Like so much else in life, these two competing views of political results — as driven by the collective impact of small events, or the over-arching impact of a few big things — remind me of two schools of baseball analysis. On the one hand you’ve got your sportswriters analyzing a baseball season based on day-to-day issues: who’s injured, who’s in a slump, who’s got the momentum. And then on the other hand you have your sabermetricians who argue that slumps and streaks are basically random, and that the results of the season are basically a predictable outcome of how good a team is at a) Getting men on base and b) Keeping the other team from getting men on base.
In this analogy, maybe a close election is a bit like the baseball playoffs: most of the results are driven by big factors, but when it’s close (in an election) or when it comes down to a few games (in baseball), all the other little factors — the small shifts in public perception, the little mistakes — become significant, since any one of them actually has the power to make a difference.
Well, at least nobody’s proposing that all news shows make themselves more relevant and issue-oriented by using a list of pre-screened questions and answers, a la that Bob and Ray sketch. Not yet, anyway.