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Friday, August 01, 2008
Obama v. MacCain: No one is leading because the game has not started yet

The line between politics and sports frequently is blurred, but rarely more so than in the "horse-race" coverage of political campaigns, which treats the campaign as an ongoing game. Thus, the constant story, besides criticism of the MSM, is the narrative, based on polls, that Obama is "winning" and McCain is "losing" and the question is by how much and whether Obama should be leading by more and who is gaining or losing ground. McCain played into this a few weeks ago by insisting that he was going to make a big comeback and pull the election out forty-eight hours before Election Day.

My thought when I read that was "No, you're going to pull it out (or not pull it out) on Election Day." Prior to that, you are not leading or trailing or coming back or blowing a lead. There is nothing to lead or trail in until the polls open at 7 a.m. on Election Day and people actually begin casting votes; prior to that point, "the game" has not started. Compare it to the Super Bowl. There are two weeks of wall-to-wall coverage leading up to the game, talking about who has advantages over whom and why and how the game likely would play out, one team is installed as a "favorite" over the other (sometimes, as in this past game, a prohibitive favorite), and pundits predict who is going to win when the game finally is played. But for all that noise, at kick-off the score is 0-0. The Giants can claim a lot from their win in the last Super Bowl; "coming from behind" because all the stories prior to kick-off predicted a New England victory is not one of them. Nor would we say the Patriots "blew" a big lead because they were early favorites.

So why is that any less true of elections? Why do people still speak about Michael Dukakis (whom polls projected as winning by 20 points in mid-summer) as having lost a big lead to Papa Bush? One reason might be that the pre-Election-Day noise influences what happens on Election Day, creating something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. If the narrative is "Obama is leading," that might fix what some people do when they vote. The pre-Super Bowl hype has no direct effect on what happens on the field, except perhaps as it affects the expectations and mental preparation and attitudes of the players and coaches and those attitudes affect physical performance (probably only minimally). Another is that polls are a rough preview of the precise actions that will matter come Election Day (casting of votes); the discussion of how Tom Brady or Eli Manning will play on game day are merely predictions (really just wild guesses) of what might happen based on past performance, but do not really affect how they, in fact, perform. But are those differences so meaningful that we can say the "game" of the election is going on when no one is actually casting votes and the numbers are just projections of what we expect to happen?

The snarky line from sportscasters is "X looks like the better team on paper, but that's why they don't play the games on paper." Similarly, what representative segments of the public think on the telephone prior to Election Day may make one candidate seem better than the other, but the election is not decided by representative segments of the public on the telephone.


MacCain? Wonder who you are voting for.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/01/2008 7:55 AM  

Well, I don't think you can tell anything from this post. Besides, it does not matter; I would make the same point regardless. But if your suggestion is that I tipped my hand because I did not spell the nominee's name the way you did, go here:

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 8/01/2008 9:21 AM  

I have a question that may or may not fall in the scope of your post.

Unlike the Super Bowl, where despite the predictions and overanalysis (as a freelancer, I admit to fault of that in my small circle), people don't seem to be burned out to the point that they don't watch the game. Do you see that could be the case with the election, despite the historic build-up?

Blogger Jason Clinkscales -- 8/01/2008 10:12 AM  

I mean, I appreciate your thoughts that the election hasn't really started, but despite the reference to sports, I feel this is quite far from any issue that can be considered sports law and the opinions and issues that are the reasons I visit your blog. Fine point, but I really feel the wrong venue.

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/01/2008 12:08 PM  

I mean, COME ON! This is definitely appropriate. It's about sports metaphors and their powerful grip even over things that really matter. Thanks Howard!

Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/01/2008 2:14 PM  


Anonymous Anonymous -- 8/01/2008 5:15 PM  

Anon 5:15:

Fair point and probably a better way of framing what I was trying to say. The point remains that, regardless of what polls have been saying from June until the day before election day, there is no score.

Blogger Howard Wasserman -- 8/01/2008 8:06 PM  

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Anonymous Casino -- 8/02/2008 3:29 AM  

It's a difficult difference to draw because all the actions of the "players" who matter in an election take place before the 'kickoff'.

In my football (soccer) parlance I'd probably say that when Obama and McCain debate, or clash in the media over an issue, and one wins out, that's equivalent to 'shooting at goal'.

While the score isn't being kept, the game has in fact begun, has it not? Because the meaningful portion of the contest is ongoing.

Of course if we get into the tricky area of polls and their accurace/significance, that's a whole other matter.

Interesting, thought provoking article though - nice one.

Blogger unfire -- 8/02/2008 8:09 AM  

An election is more akin to Olympic figure skating than the Super Bowl. The competition is going on now. Election day is merely akin to the judges returning their scorecards.

Blogger Joshua -- 8/05/2008 6:10 PM  

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