In one of the most memorable episodes of the classic 1990s kids’ TV program “Pete and Pete,” a mysterious stranger comes to town. Known only as Inspector 34, he works as a quality control officer at an underwear manufacturing plant by day, and lets his obsession for efficiency and perfection drive the rest of his life.
Shortly after his arrival, Inspector 34’s prescriptions for an efficient existence are adopted by the rest of the townsfolk. The Petes’ father begins researching the perfect way to stack freshly eaten barbecued-rib bones. The local parking police officer employs a ruler to ensure cars are the exact right distance from the curb. And instead of actually playing freeze tag anymore, kids in the neighborhood simply use calculators to predict the most likely winner of each round.
That final illustration was the most disturbingly portentous to me — kids sitting in front of calculators to divine the odds behind any particular game instead of actually playing. This episode aired long before the fire hose of personal data opened up thanks to the Internet and sites like Facebook. Imagine how precisely those kids could compute the statistics of any game today.
From the start of this presidential campaign I’ve often thought of those number-crunching kids in “Pete and Pete.” We are buried in more predictive political data than ever before. Brilliant folks like Nate Silver at the New York Times’ 538 blog are getting better at predicting the outcomes of elections than your local meteorologist is at predicting the weather. Political campaigns know with eerie certainty exactly how demographics and socio-economics predict voter behavior. And it’s supposed to be near impossible for an incumbent president to win with high unemployment, no matter what the causes.
Conventional wisdom kept moving
Early this summer, this was the conventional wisdom among much of the chattering class. By the time we got to the debates, Romney would be ahead in all the national polls and have already put several swing states like North Carolina and Virginia squarely in his column. The unemployment rate couldn’t possible fall below 8 percent by Election Day and voters would make up their minds based on economic numbers from long before then anyway.
But polls over the summer and into October showed Obama maintaining and even building a lead. Romney’s awkward performance overseas, the comparative quality of the two national conventions, and the infamous 47 percent video helped frame the election as a contest between two flawed men instead of a referendum on one or the other.
By the time of the first debate, many were ready to write Mitt Romney off. The numbers across the swing states were just too daunting for him to beat Obama. Furthermore, debates had rarely moved polling numbers very far in elections past.
We know now that Romney’s forceful performance and Obama’s lackluster showing in that debate did in fact alter the race’s dynamics. It became clear that this wasn’t simply a matter of throwing out an incumbent who hasn’t delivered results quickly enough. Neither was it a runaway race for Obama thanks to a flawed Republican challenger.
A real choice, to be made by real people
The presidential campaign is a real contest between two very different people with two very different prescriptions for the country. It’s a choice in which voters will actively weigh one against the other, and not simply fulfill their statistical destinies.
In a world where we venerate statistics and their prognosticative powers, it’s important to remember there are people at the base of each of those data points — fickle, unpredictable, constantly evolving people. We still make decisions based on ephemeral questions and gut impressions, for better or worse. A moving speech or a moment of human connection can still change our opinions of a candidate, even if the data all point us in another direction.
Just as the kids in “Pete and Pete” figured out, we’d do well to remember there’s more to any contest than what can ever be captured by data and statistics.
Tane S. Danger is a principal of Danger Boat Productions and the co-founder of The Theater of Public Policy, a Minneapolis-based live theater show which uses improv comedy to examine and engage old political debates.