#4. Myth: Campaign Spending Is Out of Control
Now here's one that seems impossible to argue. The numbers are freaking astronomical. President Obama and Governor Romney raised $769 million and $642 million, respectively (as of September 30, 2012) -- that's $1.4 billion total, for a freaking political campaign. And that's not even counting the tens of millions poured into political action committees.
The Washington Post / Getty
And wicked awesome campaign buses.
How can something this important be decided by a billion dollars' worth of ads that spam the commercial breaks of Two and a Half Men?
But Actually ...
Well ... that's kind of the point. It's really important. Yet when it comes to spending, most industries put politics to shame.
Michael J. Minardi / Getty
Somehow, giant zeppelins filled with booze just seem like less of a waste.
For example, in 2011, General Motors spent $1.78 billion in advertising to be the No. 1 car company in America, which is a fraction of the nearly $14 billion spent by the entire auto industry. Between the two of them, Verizon and AT&T spent $3.5 billion to be the top two companies in their sector. And $1.34 billion was spent on makeup ads just by L'Oreal.
Political campaigns are just marketing campaigns, and they have to buy their ad time just like Toyota does (forcing TV stations to give the time away would bankrupt them, since it would be pushing aside paid advertisers for unpaid political ads). And that means that they feel the impact of increasing communications expenses the same as everyone else, regardless of industry: new technology platforms and media outlets, a growing population, inflation, etc.
We'd be shocked if mobile billboards broke 10 miles to the gallon.
Yes, the $1.4 billion price tag for 2012 seems like a lot compared to previous elections, like 1996, when Clinton and Bob Dole spent just $90 million combined. That's quite a bit, but only about one-third of what Americans spent that year on potato chips, as one Federal Elections Commission member found. The 2000 campaign cost George W. Bush and Al Gore about $143 million total ... which was less than one-tenth of the amount spent on fast food advertising the next year. Again, it's all relative.
So while it is an objectively insane amount of money, doesn't it make sense for a society to spend more money figuring out who should become the most powerful person in the world than it does letting everyone know that there is now a Cool Ranch Doritos taco at Taco Bell?
Locos Tacos do have more of an impact on our daily lives than any politician.
#3. Myth: We Judge Candidates Based on Silly "Gaffes" Instead of Real Issues
Obama was caught saying that rural voters cling to guns and Bibles! Romney was taped admitting that he doesn't care about half the country! Ron Paul ate Lincoln's bones on live television and then shouted "Do something about it!" to a stunned public!
New York Times Co. / Getty
Judging by the amount of media coverage they receive, you'd assume that political gaffes are the only things that matter in an election cycle. Any time a politician accidentally slips and says something stupid, condescending or offensive, you better believe that all of the armchair political scientists you work with will show up the next day saying, "Well, Biden just made a gaffe and called all women lazy; this race is as good as done."
But Actually ...
The truth is, Biden could accidentally fart out of his mouth and it wouldn't move the needle an inch. Gaffes get a ton of play in the media, and while it's true that candidates in a primary can lose their shot at the big job if a brain fart stains their mouth-undies too much (Rick Perry, we're talking about you), the same rules don't seem to apply to the actual election. Michael Tessler, an associate professor at Brown University, set out earlier this year to see if he could discern any significant impact from a particularly nasty Obama gaffe: his claim that the private sector was "doing fine" amid one of the worst economic crises in history.
Jewel Samad / Getty
"I mean they are doing fine ... ancially. Poor."
Tessler polled a thousand people -- those who'd heard about the gaffe, those who hadn't and (presumably) those who were so sick of hearing the word "gaffe" that they punched the interviewer right in his damn face. In the end, there was no substantial difference in political preference between the groups that were and weren't aware of Obama's highly publicized slip-up. A gaffe that had dominated the news cycle for days didn't change the outcome of the election one jot.
But what about other, bigger gaffes? Like the aforementioned line about bitter people clinging to guns and Bibles? Can we see a chart about that? Maybe one with more than just four measly dots?
The Monkey Cage
More Dots = More Science
Wow! According to the series of dots splattered all over the above chart, Obama's comments meant nothing.
Obama's numbers remained stable (until they actually rose a little bit several days later), and the various misspeaks of the current election haven't been any more significant. John Sides, a political science professor at Washington University, put together this lovely graph of gaffes in the 2012 election:
The Monkey Cage
Either candidate could be taped riding a hobo's disemboweled carcass like a toboggan without breaking the margin of error.
Why does this happen? Well, the bottom line is that the kind of people who would be swayed by an offensive gaffe -- that is, the people who haven't followed politics closely enough to have made up their minds on a candidate -- are precisely the kind of people who aren't even aware when a gaffe happens, because they simply aren't paying attention to all of the political talk shows, blogs, etc. that endlessly discuss them. Meanwhile, the kind of people who do pay close enough attention to political races to actually notice these gaffes are, statistically speaking, more well-informed to begin with and have already made up their minds, so they won't be swayed by just one gaffe.
Which might explain why Romney was able to tell off half the country without seeing his presidential hopes collapse (and in fact took the lead not long after).
#2. Myth: Voter Turnout Is Plummeting, and Voter Apathy Is at an All-Time High
One story that news stations always pick up during an election year is the voter turnout, or to be more precise, the lack thereof. After the Nixon/Humphrey election of 1968, a year that also saw the assassinations of two major political figures, the U.S. was just plain tired, and Americans decided that they'd rather stay home and nap for the next election in 1972. Turnout dropped like a rock, going from around 61 percent to 55 percent, and it just kept going downhill from there. At its lowest, 1996, only around 48 percent of voters got in on the action, and according to the numbers, we're only now returning to the same voter levels as 1972, the Year of the Great Big Who Gives a Fuck. So we're not exactly doing great.
Hulton Archive / Getty
The number of Nixons in office has dropped dramatically since then.
Clearly, election seasons of mudslinging, boasting, endless spending and virgin sacrifices have disillusioned voters.
But Actually ...
It's not that we're bad at motivating voters; it's that we're bad at math.
People have been trying to figure out why turnout dropped for some time now. Part of the reason for the initial 1972 drop is the ratification of the 26th Amendment, which made 18-year-olds eligible to vote, and we all know how much we can count on them to do something important.
"I'm just here to sell weed. Can I, like, wait in the corner or something?"
But the other problem is just the way we calculate it. Voter turnout is generally measured by taking the total number of voters in an election and dividing it by the total over-18 population of the United States. The problem is, not everyone is eligible to vote; as Futurama reminded us, anyone who has been convicted of a felony is ineligible to vote. There are also numerous immigrants who aren't quite eligible to vote yet, along with overseas Americans who still retain the right to vote in our elections. If you measure the total eligible population, even though there are some dips and rises from year to year, the numbers look much better.
In fact, as of 2008, turnout was as good as it was in 1968, which is great. Our ability to properly calculate and talk about voter turnout? Not so much.
Jessica Kourkounis / Getty
"If you guys want to grab a few more ballots each, that's totally cool with us."
#1. Myth: It All Just Comes Down to a Few "Swing" Voters Anyway
You've no doubt been told before that swing voters completely determine elections. Lifelong Democrats will vote for Democrats, Republicans will vote for Republicans, but a candidate lives and dies by his ability to persuade the elusive third group -- the swing demographic.
These "soccer moms," "NASCAR dads" and "jai alai uncles" don't make up their minds until the last possible minute. We view these people as electoral cheat codes: If a candidate can mash the right number of their buttons, he'll unlock a major power-up and convince all of the swingers to swing his way. But how many of you have ever actually met a swing voter? That is, someone who honestly could go either way this election, and also actually plans to vote?
"Perhaps once I enter the booth, I'll somehow magically make an informed decision ..."
Well, if you find one, shake his hand -- his vote is apparently the only one that matters.
But Actually ...
While those people certainly exist, they don't fall into any large categorized groups, and there's no evidence that they make up a meaningful chunk of the electorate or decide the outcome. National elections don't hinge on swaying a few undecideds; they hinge on activating unmotivated party members.
Barack Obama isn't out there to persuade Republicans. He's out there to remind Democrats. Winning is all about convincing the mass of apathetic people who agree with you to stop masturbating long enough to wait in a line full of old people.
"Does anyone else smell death and Cracker Barrel?"
It truly is the worst and most difficult job in the whole world.
Special thanks to Wynn for their help in researching this. Jared Whitley is a communications professional in Washington, D.C. His blog is at Whitleypedia. You can find more from Kristi on Twitter and Tumblr. Robert Evans writes a travel column for Vagabondish and can be contacted here. Jim Avery occasionally writes for NintendoGal.com and ABC News Sacramento.
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