Watching the Numbers

When I was a kid, I loved watching presidential election returns. Every four years I’d get to rush home and sit in front of the TV and watch as the tote boards toted and the commentators commentated and eventually the winner emerged and we all went to sleep. I remember taking the el home from Cooper Union in ’68 and hoping Humphrey would win. Not that I particularly liked him, but everyone knew Nixon was a bad guy. (These days, his views would probably make him a moderate Democrat.) In ’72 I worked for George McGovern. It was the only time I’ve actually volunteered for a campaign, going door-to-door in the small, conservative upstate New York town. I ended up volunteering when I only got one job offer after college. Somehow McGovern’s message penetrated my thick political skin. I hung out with the people who got sent to organize our area, who were named, no lie, Adam and Eve. I knew McGovern’s candidacy was doomed to defeat, but I convinced myself we might actually win a majority in the town. We did not. But just to show you what a numbskull I was: I voted for Gerald Ford in 1976. Carter irritated the hell out of me, and I’d actually seen Ford at the Texas State Fairgrounds, where I’d gone to see the Oklahoma-Texas game, and those seemed reasons enough to vote the way I did. Issues? What were they? Then I moved to California. And my brain kicked in. And when I realized Carter was going to lose to Ronald Reagan, I began to realize just how little it took to sway the majority of the American public, and usually in the wrong direction. I remained fascinated by Election Night. In 1992 I set up three TVs in the living room and kept one tuned to ABC, one to CBS, and one to NBC (Cable? Huh?) so I could know the exact second someone I could relate to was elected president. In 2000 I stayed up into the wee hours, only turning off the TV when the networks declared Florida for Bush. At five in the morning I got up to do my daily dose of mystery writing — life must go on — visited MSNBC, shrieked, went flying in to wake my wife. Florida, it seemed, was still in play. The Supreme Court saw to that. Perhaps I give this Election Night mania too much focus. I am, by degree, an engineer, and I enjoy seeing how things are put together. So what I really ought to say is that Election Night is the finale of a process of construction of an electoral majority. It starts with the primaries, as one candidate from each party creeps toward his or her respective magic number, and it moves into the general election, where the electoral votes flip and flop and change color (a small percentage of them, anyway) and we peer into margins of error and rolling totals and the like. The 2000 election was the first where I found the Internet a useful tool in this numerical mania. I used to sit at my desk at the bank, where I was purportedly a computer tech guy, and bounce back and forth between MSNBC and CNN and Reuters, returning over and over for any little smidgen of new information that might indicate that the smart guy was going to defeat the idiot. The process provided a lot of enjoyment, but it was horribly inefficient. In 2004, I discovered electoral-vote.com. The guy who runs it, The Votemaster, must be a lot like me. He’s got a background in computers. He’s written books. He’s a leftie (though I think he’s remarkably fair). And he seems to be fascinated by the endless stream of numbers that arise when you’ve got too many wonks with too much time on their hands. Each day in ’04 I’d return to the site and see what the latest was. What was Ohio up to? Any chance we’d take New Mexico? Was that uptick for Bush in New Hampshire an aberration? Then the election came. I watched as first Florida and then Ohio went the wrong way, and I wondered just how low my fellow Americans could go. After a few days of watching things get kicked around, I deleted my shortcut to electoral-vote.com. But it never went away. And now I’m watching it again. And enjoying it more than ever. Because I’ve realized that it’s not only a digit source for the analytical half of my brain; it’s also got some of the best political commentary around. I don’t read most commentary. Because most of the people writing it take too frikkin’ long to get around to what they want to say. I’m a get-to-the-point guy. Give me the info, spare me the background, leave out the stories about how one family in Tennessee has been affected. (Note: This policy does not serve one well in one’s marital relationship. Be warned. I’m talking to you, gentlemen.) The Votemaster’s output fits me perfectly. Over the last couple of days he’s been going over literally dozens of possibilities for the Republican vice-presidential nomination. A couple of sentences for each. Which is really all I need to see. Though sometimes even that is too much. Sometimes all I really want to see is the electoral map. Which, at the moment, shows Obama ahead in states with 317 electoral votes (Virginia! Colorado!), McCain ahead in states with 194, and 27 statistically even (including Florida, so let’s not give it up just yet). The countdown has begun.

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Nathan Walpow is the editor of FourStory.org, an affordable housing advocacy site concentrating on Southern California housing, transportation, and sustainability. He’s also the author of four Joe Portugal mystery novels, with the fifth, Bad Developments, currently appearing on FourStory as a weekly serial.

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