My post-election essay in the Boston Phoenix discusses the impact of focus groups, polls, and statistical models of voter behavior upon American politics -- and the liklihood of more elections in which the winner hangs on a handful of disputed ballots. An excerpt:
It's no wonder that the Bush campaign reacted with such outrage when the networks projected a solid Gore win in Florida early on Election Night. Bush strategists had the numbers — not votes, mind you, but their own polls — to prove this was impossible. And everybody already suspected that Florida would decide it all, because the pundits had said so the day before, just as they'd predicted the closest election since 1960.
After months of campaigning and millions of dollars in television commercials, Bush and Gore spent the final weekend before the election fighting over a few thousand votes in a handful of states. We've come a long way from the days when an underdog like Harry Truman could spend Election Day praying for several million votes to swing into his column. The newspapers in 1948 were wrong because of bad polls; the television networks this year were wrong because of too many polls. Neither candidate could sneak past the other — it's now impossible to pull ahead in a state, or even a county, when the other guy isn't paying attention — and so they ended up in a total stalemate. The presidential campaign resembled an NBA game between two evenly matched teams, where the lead can always be wiped out with a three-pointer.
Professional athletes have been drowning in statistics for a long time, but now it seems that every aspect of life is dictated by data. In Hollywood, movie endings are decided by focus groups, and the result is pretty much the same as in politics: box-office winners that most people can tolerate but that few of us really like. (Future correct answer on the Miller Analogy Test: Al Gore is to John F. Kennedy as Meet the Parents is to Bringing Up Baby. And George W. Bush is to Richard Nixon as the 1998 remake is to the original Godzilla.) Marketing research can make or break a neighborhood: everyone knows that a business district has gone upscale when a Starbucks moves in. Whatever people think about the coffee, they don't dispute the infallibility of the chain's polling data.