Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Popular Vote

One of the oft-repeated lines in the wake of John Kerry's 2004 election defeat was that no other presidential candidate in history had received more votes than John Kerry, of course, save for one man, of whom it was said had finally won his first presidential popular vote.

We can mess with these numbers and joke about the popular vote because the Electoral College doesn't mind (a good thing, actually, but more on that another time). Though it does boggle the mind a little that the biggest, most basic approval rating we have isn't really the end-all, be-all of things, not because it offends our sense of popular democracy but because it offends our sense of popular culture.

Voting for the Stars: Can Lance Bass count on your support?

American Idol, The Oscars, baseball's All-Star Game, a new character on Heroes--you get the most votes, you win (the biggest exception being perhaps college football's BCS system, but, again, more on that another time). Not so when it comes to presidential politics. The numbers don't matter as much as a whole as they do in bits and pieces. Kind of like America, one might say.

But as we take measure of Barak Obama's uber-historic victory, it's worth taking one more look at those numbers. We've all heard the pundits celebrating the fact that more people voted this year than in any other, followed by more pundits replying: but there are more people in America this year than in any other, so, duh, more people voted.

As the numbers rolled in last Tuesday night this wasn't entirely clear--the immediate returns had Obama and McCain with fewer total votes than Bush and Kerry four years ago. But not anymore.

The outstanding ballots have continued to be counted and, as of this morning, Obama is just shy of 66 million popular votes, four million above Bush's 2004 total. Of course, the pundits would say it doesn't matter: more people, more votes. But look at McCain's total: just shy of 58 million. That's a million fewer votes that Kerry's 2004 total.

What does it mean? If you're a cynic, it might mean that despite the fattening of the voter rolls a larger part of the population bought the argument that John McCain was George W. Bush's twin brother. If you have, say, the audacity of hope, it might mean that America is not as divided and static in its beliefs as some would have you believe.

Which is more likely? I'd say we have 66 million reasons to hope it's the latter.

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