Press Box

Fun With Numbers

A 49-49 tie in a presidential election is irresistibly symbolic. The question is: symbolic of what? Page-one news analyses in this morning’s New York Times and Washington Post are in striking agreement. Times headline: “Voters Remain Divided, to the Very End.”Post headline: “Voters’ views sharply divided.” Both pieces proffer other evidence, but the close vote is the occasion and dramatic centerpiece of the analysis. “[T]he country … found it immensely difficult to make up its mind,” said the Times. “It was as if two nations went to vote yesterday,” said the Post, and those two nations “agreed only to disagree.”

Everyone predicted an election result like this, but no one really believed it would happen. So we’re all a bit short of Meaning at the moment, and sympathy is in order for anyone who had to dredge some up on deadline in the wee hours. It might even be true that the nation is divided–or more divided than usual. But the close race is not evidence one way or the other.

Here’s an amazing fact worth keeping in mind during the next few days of punditry: Every voter in America, without exception, voted 100 percent for one candidate or another. Not a single voter split his or her vote 49-49 or any other ratio. Nor did any single voter or group of voters cast their votes with the intention of causing a 49-49 tie. Nor did any voter cast his or her vote in a way that communicated ambivalence or difficulty of deciding–because there is no such way.

Here’s another amazing fact: A vote cast for Bush by someone who would never vote for Gore in a million years is indistinguishable from a Bush vote by someone who thinks it is a close call. And yet another amazing fact follows from that one: The size of a collection of votes compared with another collection of votes tells you nothing about the intensity of disagreement reflected by either of these piles of votes. A 49-49 split could signify mild disagreement, a deep divide, anything in between, or (most likely) a wide spectrum of views held with no consistent pattern of intensity.

Which leads us to the question of a “mandate.” Pressbox isn’t sure what a mandate is, exactly, but is fairly sure that the pundits are wrong in saying that you don’t get one in a 49-49 squeaker. Why not? Winning by, say, 54-46 is considered a solid victory, with a mandate included as standard equipment. If turnout is a typical half of the eligible citizenry, this means your hunger for power has been ratified by 27 percent. Winning with 49 percent of a similar turnout (and last night’s turnout was higher than normal) gives you the backing of 24.5 percent of the citizenry. The difference: 2.5 percent or one voter in 40. Can that possibly be the difference between having authority for bold imposition of your views about how affairs of state should be conducted and being granted permission for no more than amiable accommodation of all sides in a vast centrist love fest of compromise?

Now, getting fewer votes than your opponent does raise some fuzzy mandate issues. But that’s a different story.

Illustration by Robert Neubecker.