Rethinking Local Democracy
ON THE EVENING of November 4, 2008, America putatively held its breath as it awaited the results of the presidential election. The major news networks offered a dramatic spin to the otherwise banal exercise of tabulating results, with state-of-the-art computer technology, scores of political experts offering up-t o-t he-minute commentary, maps and charts of all sizes and colors, and, in the case of CNN, even a holographic image of one of its reporters. Yet, for all the theatrics, the outcome of this election was already well known. As early as August, over two months before the election and even when John McCain was ahead in the polls, political scientists offered forecasts of an Obama victory that were remarkably close to the actual results. So while the networks were fueling America’s collective suspense, the outcome was a foregone conclusion, at least to experts on voting behavior.
The irony was that while the networks were handwringing over an election whose results were foretold, they paid almost no attention to most of the races whose outcomes were actually unclear. Among the thousands of local elections that were also taking place on November 4, there were hundreds for which no prognostications could be made and whose outcomes were truly suspenseful. Although the discrepancy in media coverage is understandable (after all, why should people in Georgia care about local elections in Montana?), the discrepancy in our predictive capacity between the two types of different elections is more surprising. If we can predict how most Americans are going to vote for president months before an election, then why can’t we predict who is likely to win in the average American city’s election for mayor or city council?