Friday, December 17, 2004

Was It Really Close?

I have more than a few liberal friends and colleagues out here and I get along with all of them for the most part. The election this year has actually strained some of the relationships, I'm sad to say. I keep getting the impression that they're expecting me to pull out a huge crucifix from my jacket and repeatedly beat the nearest gay person over the head with it. While that topic of conversation has already been explored, the one that finally got out of my mouth this week was the insistant claim from one of these folks that the President's second term isn't really going to be legitimate because the results were so close.

Now I've been putting up with that one for over a month and I finally turned to him and asked him to explain himself. The defining factor in winning an election being that you get more votes than anyone else running, how can the winner's presidency be illegitimate even though he won the election? His reply to me was that the vote had been so razor-close that Bush - and anyone who supported him - should recognize that for almost every person who voted for him, there's one who voted against him. After all, it was "51 to 49" in the end. (His words.)

Well, let's address something right away: According to the results posted from the popular vote counts, there were 118,304,480 votes cast between Bush, Kerry and Nader. Bush took 60,608,582 (51.2%), Kerry took 57,288,974 (48.4%), and Nader took 406,924 (0.3%). So even if you're going to use the simple, rounded percentages, it's "51 to 48", not 49. But I have a problem with using the percentages like this at all to describe how close the vote was. My friend is using the numbers and saying it's so close as though we're talking about 100 people. Now if we're talking about 100 people and only 3 need to change their minds, then that's close. How many individuals need to move from supporting 1 candidate to another in this case? Three. Not terribly difficult to see 3 people change their minds.

But we're not talking about 100 people. We're talking about 118 million people. That's a bit over 3.3 million voters, half of whom would need to have changed their minds and that's not close. The percentages are what's misleading about the closeness of the race. Want an example of what I mean? Thow a dart at a target. Let's say you're aiming dead center of the bullseye but throw it just 3% to the side of your intended target. If you're standing 20 feet away, that 3% means you strike 7.2 inches to the side of the center target. At 200 feet, that's 72 inches , or 6 feet. Still 3%, but now you've not only missed a regulation target, you'd have skipped over the one directly beside it, too. Ask someone from NASA or anyone involved in long-distance navigation what they think about a 3% difference in their intended course versus their actual course. The Cassini probe left from Earth to Saturn. A 3% off-course condition even assuming a straight line at the closest approach between these two planets, would cause you to be off by 406,020,000 km on arrival. That's over 3 times the diameter of Saturn. That ain't close.

The problem comes when you use the percentages alone as a guage. As I said, it's misleading.

Now the argument my friend hasn't used - and one that would be far more compelling - is that you'd only need half of the difference in Ohio to do the same job, about 60,000 voters. While that's still no small deal to convince that many people, it's a great deal more possible than converting 1.6 million voters . But if this is your approach, why are we not calling any of Kerry's State wins into question? Oregon, for example, where there was only 67,000 vote difference. You'd only have needed to change 34,000 voters' minds. Or Hawaii, showing a difference of 47,000. You'd only need 24,000 voters. How about Wisconsin where there was only an 11,000 voter difference? Only 6000 needed to go for Bush over Kerry to change that State. Or New Hampshire, where the difference was just under 10,000? Curiously absent in any debate on the topic are these "squeakers" for Kerry.

The bottom line is that voters of all stripes are independently thinking items, not random beans for the counting. Talk about the closeness of the matter as a method of determining how to govern is a non-issue in any case. The men ran on platforms to do certain things and work toward certain ends. That the winner seems willing to stick to his word on the subject and do what he claimed he'd do should be something to be encouraged of all our political electee's.