Saturday, March 08, 2008

But whom does it resemble kissing?'s political gabfest has solicited sports metaphors for the current state of the race for the Democratic Presidential nomination. I propose that it's like the old college football bowl system and that the analogy has a lot to tell us about how we perceive close contests.

As a method of ranking teams, the old college football bowl system worked well. It worked for exactly the reason everybody else the world says it didn't work: it was messy and indecisive--and therefore accurate. At the end of a season, sometimes you had two or even three or four teams who could make credible claims to be the best in the country. Perhaps one team finished the strongest but lost a game early, another went undefeated against a weaker schedule, another lost two games while its best player was hurt. If these teams did not play one another in bowl games, analysts and fans could build different narratives supporting the claims of different teams to be the true national champions; the official rankings never settled the arguments. Leaving those arguments unsettles was the great strength of the bowl system as an evaluative tool. It was also the great weakness of the system as a mechanism of producing drama. The NCAA basketball tournaments, by contrast, create situations where, say, one referee's decision at the end of a game creates a durable consensus about the relative merits of the two teams playing the game. Tournament play takes contests that are essentially tied and forces them to a decisive result; tournaments produce wonderful drama by denying the messiness of rankings.

The race for the Democratic Presidential nomination will ultimately be a tournament: either Hillary Clinton or Barack Obama will become the nominee, and the narrative of both candidates success or failure will be shaped dramatically by the result. But for now, we have a process, like the old bowl system, that is driving analysts crazy by failing to impose false decisiveness on the contest. Obama does better in caucuses, Clinton in primaries. Obama does better with some demographics and Clinton with others, but most of these differences are relatively small and shift in magnitude from state to state. By awarding delegates proportionally and gradually, the system has done an admirable job of reflecting these uncertainties.

Of course, the nomination process is unlike the college football season in that the Democratic party, for all sorts of structural reasons, really does have to settle on a winner. But the drive for creating narratives of decisive wins--the narratives that produce drama at the expense of accurately messy judgment--has controlled media coverage of the race throughout. Consider the weight placed on Clinton winning the popular vote in New Hampshire, or Obama in Missouri, or Clinton in Texas. But come on: they basically tied. And the gloriously messy, generally proportional methods of delegate allocation have admirably reflected those ties, creating a calm and quiet story of ties and narrow victories while the campaigns and the media shout about decisiveness.

A Presidential nominating process, like the NCAA basketball tournaments, must eventually produce one winner, and the name of that winner will forever distort the narrative of the contest. Our memories will select the facts that make the result seem inevitable.

For the moment, however, let us give thanks for delegate allocations that muck things up, that let similar performances accrue similar benefits without forcing one referee's whistle, or one butterfly ballot design, to take on the force of destiny.