If you are like me and you check Nate Silver’s blog a few times a day to see the state of the most current election polling, you will have noticed that the “polling” narrative has not just taken over the election, here in the closing period, but has invaded each our minds. emotional well-being. So, with just a few days left, I wanted to consider why “polling”–not in terms of mathematics (I will leave that to Nate), but as a narrative component of the race. Why is polling talk so, well, everywhere right now?
I think the answer can be summed up in one word: certainty.
The 2012 election takes place at a time where there are so many simultaneous and conflicting representations of what’s “real” swirling around the average American, that the challenge for voters is no longer just to make a decision on the facts, but to distinguish between things that which simply appear to be real and that which is really real.
I find myself using this distinction all the time as I sift through the media: Is this real? This article looks real, but most of it is not really real, etc.
It is a maddening process and, I believe, it is in large part why even the most partisan of supporters in this election find themselves exhausted by this hunt.
There was a time not too long ago, in other words, where a net savvy voter could simply cast her net into the big Google sea, pull back a boatload of information, and head back to shore confident of being informed.
That is no longer the case.
To extend the fishing analogy: there are many things that we pull back, now, that appear to be fish, but are not fish at all. Instead, they are carefully crafted products of new and old media, crafted by experts in such a way so as to look like fish to the unsuspecting.
What give us certainty in this environment? What gives us a sense that the information we are seeing and hearing about the election is really real?
Nate Silver would argue that it is the science in his numbers. And to a certain extent, I agree. His model is an aggregate approach to polling. When we look at his charts, we are looking at all polling, so to speak, not just one. The reward in such an aggregate approach is that we are able to glean slow-moving trends that become more and more convincing over time. And, similar to looking at a chart of the Dow Jones Industrial index, the longer the line extends up or down, the more we are convinced that the trend we see is really real.
But there is more to why we trust Nate Silver than just his math.
The other reason is because in uncertain times, we trust people with whom we share a common connection–and in this case that means: people we see as part of our community, however that may be construed.
For those of us who were part of the DailyKos community during its initial rise to prominence, we feel a connection to Nate Silver that manifests itself as trust in his mathematical model–even if we know nothing about statistical analysis at a technical level.
Since then, the core community once simply known as the “netroots,” has split into various components and grown into prominent parts of the mainstream journalism, the Democratic Party and various corners of social media. Still, the sense f connection persists.
This is not to say that Nate’s numbers are only seen as really real because we feel a connection to the person and the site–just that, in this election, our sense of certainty and our sense of community are more intertwined than ever.
And so we talk about the latest polls, not just to take stock of where the race stands between Obama and Romney, but to feel a connection with others.
At the moment, feeling that connection also gives Obama supporters positive feeling resulting from a sense of certainty about the outcome of the election. And yet, feeling positive and feeling certain do not always go hand in hand.
Even if the polling on Nate Silver’s blog had dire news for Obama voters, the sense of certainty would still be there.
Still, I cannot help but believe that there is a connection between the accuracy of Nate Silver’s model and the democratic nature of the community out of which he has risen to his current perch in the media.
Nate’s model is not just a product of good science. It is also the product of the democratic vetting system that characterized the large group blogs with open commenting systems.
Every point I have made here, of course, could be refuted by antagonistic partisan arguments. In the end, though, we must all decide what is really real. Come Tuesday, I suspect the accuracy of Nate Silver’s numbers will be established as the gold standard far beyond the core community I describe.
Until then, we must each find our own sense of certainty.