Friday, November 6, 2009

Why Election Coverage Sucks, Vol. 1

The World Series ended this week, with the New York Yankees defeating the Philadelphia Phillies four games to two. The Yankees are officially the best baseball team in America. There is no way that the Phillies, or any other baseball team, can claim that they somehow won, or benefitted at all, from the World Series. That's the beautiful unambiguity of sports--when the game ends, it ends. A winner is declared, a loser is left to accept the fact of the loss, and we all go home.

Elections may sometimes be covered like horse races, but politics are not so wonderfully clear-cut. Several elections were held this week, and the three major ones--Governors' races in Virginia and New Jersey, a messy Congressional race in New York's 23rd District--have been analyzed again and again for meaning, for national significance. The worst offender is NY-23--after the Conservative Republican lost, this headline appeared on Politico: "Conservatives on NY-23: We Didn't Lose." Such behavior would shame even Phillies fans, but in the world of 24-hour news networks and political blogs, losers claiming they didn't lose is as common as videos of angry white people at rallies.

If you don't live in New Jersey, Virginia, or NY-23 (which has less than 700,000 residents), there was almost no reason to care about these races. But all those new outlets devoted to the coverage of politics have to pay attention to every election, and the only way to make local races compelling to people with no interest whatsoever in them was to turn the elections into microcosms of the nationwide elections 12 months away.

So the Governors' races became "referendums on Obama," who isn't up for election for three more years. The NY-23 race went from something that no one cared about to a "battle for the soul of the Republican party." This gave the blogs something to chew on, and allowed the cable news networks to provide 24 hours of programming a day without resorting to showing YouTube videos of adorable kittens napping.

Now, after the election, the importance of these isolated local races is being emphasized again. Republican National Committee chairman Michael Steele, the only black person in America to vote for John McCain, crowed over the "national implications" of the elections his party won. He ignored NY-23, where the candidate his party nominated ended up withdrawing from the race and endorsing the Democrat, who won the elections thanks to Republican blunders, and he ignored the fact that a diseased goat with mob ties could have beaten Jersey incumbent Chris Conzine, who oversaw a big increase in the state's deficit and unemployment rate.

Democrats, meanwhile, are fretting over the midterm elections. What lessons can be learned from the 2009 elections? Is the country coming out against Obama's policies? Should they de-emphasize health care? Is the country swinging back toward the right already? Were the "surge voters" who came out in support of Obama in 2008 a one-time phenomenon? How will Afghanistan affect all of this?

Baseball has ended, but fans can thankfully turn to football and basketball for their sports fix. I say "thankfully," because without these other sports, ESPN would have nothing to do but obsess over batting averages and off-season trades and contracts. The political news machine doesn't have another sport to move on to, so we can expect commentary and arguments over the relative relevance of NY-23 and the resounding GOP victory in Virginia for the rest of the year, before we head out on the campaign trail for the 2010 midterms, at which point the media will whip itself into an orgiastic frenzy of liveblogging and last-second polling, and then the midterms will be over, and we'll be treated to another round of, "What do these results really mean?"

Ahead of time, I'll hazard a guess as to what the 2010 elections will end up meaning: they'll mean more news, more analysis, and more people yelling at one another on television until 2012, when the whole beautiful cycle will start all over again. My only hope is that by 2012, the Yankees won't be in the playoffs.

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