Two cents on the polls and the noise

Following all of the threads and commentary to our great national contest, I needed to read something centering.

Here’s 1988 Joan Didion on the presidential campaign:

When we talk about the process, then, we are talking, increasingly, not about “the democratic process,” or the general mechanism affording the citizens of a state a voice in its affairs, but the reverse: a mechanism seen as so specialized that access to it is correctly limited to its own professionals, to those who manage policy and those who report on it, to those who run the polls and those who quote them, to those who ask and those who answer the questions on the Sunday shows, to the media consultants, to the columnists, to the issues advisers, to those who give the off-the-record breakfasts and to those who attend them; to that handful of insiders who invent, year in and year out, the narrative of public life. “I didn’t realize you were a political junkie,” Marty Kaplan, the former Washington Post reporter and Mondale speechwriter who is now married to Susan Estrich, the manager of the Dukakis campaign, said when I mentioned that I planned to write about the campaign; the assumption here, that the narrative should be not just written only by its own specialists but also legible only to its own specialists, is why, finally, an American presidential campaign raises questions that go so vertiginously to the heart of the structure.

The emphasis is mine. Didion’s observation about our ‘process’ is oddly an accurate rendering of our process now in the 21st. After spending a day watching cable news coverage to pre-game for last Wednesday’s debate, then following the coverage after it  (digesting the Pew poll, Nate Silver’s analysis, Andrew Sullivan’s histrionics), I’m admittedly dizzy from all the numbers – 99%, 47%, 1%, 30%- margins of errors +/- 1%,3.5%, statistical dead heat. Yadda. Yadda. Yadda. I’m no statistician. I’m just a voter. A voter who is only 4 generations removed from people who paid poll taxes to vote in the 1940 election, so paranoid that my voter registration confirmation hadn’t been sent yet (after I was registered in person with a ‘volunteer’ more than a month ago) that I ran to the post office last Tuesday to make sure my form was in prior to NY deadline of October 16th. Do not take your voter registration for granted. Seriously.

I recognize that some of us are part of a hyperspecific grouping of the electorate, well connected and aware of the issues we face in deciding what kind leadership and agenda we want to see the country move in, yet, we are in a bubble. NY Review of Books Michael Massing highlights (and echoes Didion) in his observation of reportage in a recent NYT magazine feature about Ohio. Where are the ordinary people in the narrative of the election? asks Massing:

Looking over a recent week of coverage in the Times (September 19-26), for instance, I found plenty of stories on PACs, campaign strategy, political operatives, Romney’s tax returns, and the polling data in Ohio and other battleground states. Only one—“Underemployed and Overlooked, Struggling Young Adults Are a Question Mark”—featured extensive interviews with ordinary Americans, and, while helpful, it provided little more than a snapshot.

If I, and you, focus exclusively on the news and noise of poll numbers 28 days before the election, the sports banter-y language of it all, then we’re distracted from delving into the meat, the substance of the whole affair. And the meat are the clearly defined policy and vision for the country. Romney did an exquisite job presenting his 2007 digital version of himself against an exhausted Obama (part rope a dope, part tired of months of attacks/blocks on most initiatives compounded by assaults on the very fact of his existence), with Obama leaving Romney wide open to do something he had failed to do for months, define himself as a moderate (who gives nonefucks about 47% of the electorate). Yet, underneath all the statistics, I still can’t tell you the heart of the reasoning behind undecided voters because I don’t know their story. I don’t know how they view the policies presented to them by either candidate, I don’t know what their concerns are. The undecided voter has the face of the ubiquitous ‘they’ according to the reportage I’m exposed to.

Perhaps ‘they’ may develop into a complete picture by next Tuesday’s town hall debate. It’ll be the first time in a long while the undecided they get prime speaking time and engagement beyond a meter reading below a split screen.

SYREETA MCFADDEN is a Brooklyn based writer, photographer and adjunct professor of English. Her writing has appeared in the New York Times, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, The Huffington Post, Religion Dispatches and Storyscape Journal. She is the managing editor of the online literary magazine, Union Station, and a co-curator of Poets in Unexpected Places. You can follow her on Twitter @reetamac.

Syreeta McFadden is a contributing opinion writer for The Guardian US and an editor of Union Station Magazine.

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