Some years back, when all the local TV stations were switching from a five-day weather forecast to a 10-day forecast, I asked someone from one of the stations how much confidence he had in the 10th day of the 10-day forecast. Hardly any, he said. So why do you broadcast it, I asked. He said: We all used to do five days, then one stations started doing 10, and we started getting complaints and questions about why we don’t do 10, so we all started doing 10. But don’t put any faith in the 10th day. Even the fifth day often turns out to be wrong.
I often think we spend too much time and effort trying to know what we can’t know, especially about the future and even more especially about political races and how they are going to turn out.
We don’t spend enough time trying to know the knowable. The knowable is mostly made up of things that have already happened, problems and challenges that we actually face, and maybe even the options for dealing with them, individually and collectively.
The unknowable is what will happen in the future. Yes, that’s right. I’m saying that I can’t see the future and I doubt you can either, and that includes the future of all the political races now being contested.
Today, four weeks out from Election Day, we political junkies are all slaves to the freshest batch of poll numbers and, no matter how we try to remind ourselves that that poll numbers are nothing but an out-of-focus snapshot of a not-really-knowable present (considering that the margin of error makes most of the key races technical toss-ups), we still scarf them down as if they were predictions, which they aren’t.
So I laughed out loud yesterday, when I saw headline on a column by Nate Cohn, the New York Times’ political number cruncher that read:
“Battle for the House Has a Wide Range of Possible Outcomes.”
I predict that millions of votes will be cast. I predict that almost all of the House and Senate races will be won by either a Republican or a Democrat. All of the self-appointed future-knowers believe that Democrats will make a net gain in the overall House races. None of them know what we all want to know, which is whether the Democratic pickups will be a net gain of 23 or more seats, which would flip control of the House.
Oh, and to be a total jerk about it, might I add that pretty much none of the future-knowers predicted that Donald Trump would beat Hillary Clinton two years ago?
According to the conventional wisdom a week or two ago, the political number-crunchers were issuing a percentage likelihood, and it was way above 50 percent according them, maybe even 80 percent likely, that the Dems would pick up enough seats to take over the U.S. House. And maybe they were right. We’ll never know, for at least two reasons.
Reason one is that the previous wisdom about the future was that Democrats were much more motivated to turn out on Election Day. But now Republican backlash against the Democratic treatment of Brett Kavanaugh has apparently injected enough new wind into Republican sails that those who said it was 70 or 80 percent likely that the House would flip are having a hold-on-a-minute moment. At least that was the reason for the rethink of the past few days.
But the result is that,“Battle for the House Has a Wide Range of Possible Outcomes.”
Poll results have been called “crack cocaine for political junkies.” The point is not that it gets you high. The point is that it gives you the momentary feeling that you can see the future of the political season. Then that feeling blows over and you need another hit. Wash, rinse, repeat.
I guess I’m a political junkie too. I consume great gobs of the latest news (even though I know it will soon be replaced by more news). One of the (many) reasons I like history is that, although it is likely to be subject to constant reinterpretation, at least the facts have already happened.