Recently I had dinner with three very informed, intelligent, politically savvy friends, all of whom — just for the record — happen to be Democrats. Naturally the conversation drifted toward Election Day, and the same question that I have been asked thousands of times this year, and thousands of times in each of the preceding election years, was again asked of me.
“So, what do you think is going to happen?”
I answered, of course. Everyone else at the table answered too, but what those answers sounded like was incredibly varied. Indeed, on several questions, we had four people with four different opinions of how things would go.
“Alright,” someone began, “who do you think wins the gubernatorial race?”
“Janet Mills, but only by a little.”
“I think Janet wins walking away. Blowout.”
“I legitimately don’t have the slightest idea.”
This same back and forth continued as we laid out our predictions in Maine’s 1st and 2nd Congressional Districts, the Maine Senate, the Maine House, Question 1 and races with national significance. The amount of agreement varied with the subject.
But no matter the answers we gave, each and every one of us had a lack of confidence in that opinion. We all agreed, despite what we were each predicting, that we wouldn’t be surprised if we ended up wrong.
Political prognosticators like to pretend like they have secret knowledge that allows them unique understanding of political trends, which makes them worthy of listening to as they predict outcomes.
Most of the time, they are blowhards who sit comfortably in their ivory towers of punditry, disconnected entirely from the voting public, regurgitating a stale and uninteresting version of conventional wisdom. When they get things right, it is because that conventional wisdom happened to be accidentally correct that year.
In the coming days, you’ll hear a lot of predictions about what will happen, and you should take none of them very seriously.
To explain why, indulge me as I recount for you the parable of the blind men and the elephant.
The story recounts how a group of blind men heard tale of a strange animal that had come to town, called an elephant. None knew what an elephant was or what it looked like, so the men sought out the elephant, and demanded to inspect it by touch.
The first man touched the trunk. The second man touched its ear. The third touched its leg. The fourth touched its side. The fifth, its tusk.
When asked, the first man described the elephant as snake-like. The second man believed it to be like a fan. The third thought it was similar to a tree. The fourth believed it was like a wall. The fifth believed it was like a spear.
The point to the story, of course, is that our own limited exposure to the totality of something shows us only part of the whole. We do not get the entire picture, and fill the gaps in our knowledge with assumptions based on our own limited experience.
Those of us who follow and talk about politics are no different. We live in the bubbles of our own limited experience.
When I ask my Democratic friends, I hear of internal poll numbers showing a double-digit wipeout of this candidate or that. When I ask my Republican friends I hear optimism about everything, with internal poll numbers showing a small lead in a number of close races.
Both say the same thing, “when we are out there talking to voters, we feel real momentum and enthusiasm, and I am really optimistic.” Both are being entirely truthful, because both are blind, touching only one part of the elephant.
Sometimes, some of them end up right. Sometimes some of them end up wrong. However right or wrong they are, it is more coincidence than anything else, which makes the actual value of predictions quite low.
So what should we expect on Election Day? Your guess is as good as mine.