Looking back, could Mary Louise O’Brien see a moment when her addiction got out of control? Perhaps it was this summer, when instead of going to bed, she passed out on the couch night after night, listening to the comforting words of Rachel Maddow. Or when she caught herself sneaking election news on her smartphone so her husband wouldn’t see her doing it. Was it when she started checking the political polls every 10 minutes, just in case Donald Trump started surging?
“I am obsessed, just totally obsessed,” said O’Brien, 69, a retired military librarian and Hillary Clinton supporter in Norfolk who has never been so consumed by an election. She is constantly checking into election forecasting sites such as Nate Silver’s FiveThirtyEight. “Because, you know, Nate Silver updates every three minutes.”
What was the moment for all of us — when, whatever our politics, we crossed over from avid news consumers to something more rabid? Maybe scientists will someday study our brains and find this moment etched into the neurons, the way fire scars are preserved in the rings of a tree. Much has been said about the portion of the electorate disgusted with both choices, disengaged from the process — but there are also those so bullish on their candidates — or so frightened by the alternative — that they cannot bear to look away.
Even before the FBI announced, murkily, that it was looking at a new trove of maybe-relevant emails, Clinton supporters knew better than to count on all those landslide predictions. Trump supporters, meanwhile, know that the polls don’t look so great for them, but what about the “hidden vote?” We talk about wishing it was all over, but we can’t let it go. Like football fans superstitious about their “lucky” underwear, election obsessives can’t bear to miss a single tiny detail of this race, as if watching helps exert some measure of control.
“There’s a sense of foreboding for a lot of people, that there’s so much at stake this year that we have to make the right decision,” said Jay McConville, a business development consultant and former chairman of the Fairfax County Republican Committee, who checks social media and news sites for political nuggets first thing in the morning and last thing at night and “innumerable times a day.” Everyone around him is doing it; even his mother-in-law, who had never been involved, he said, is practically tethered to Fox News.
Election obsessives check Twitter, CNN, Reuters Polling, NBC, the BBC, Politico and RealClearPolitics hourly, in a compulsive loop. They use the word “vigilance.” They report having election dreams. They have bathroom speakers in the shower playing the “NPR Politics Podcast” and Vox’s “The Weeds.” They check PredictIt, the political prediction market where traders buy and sell shares on the political future, to see whether everyone is thinking what they’re thinking. People who normally geek out on baseball stats are delving into the methodology of the polls instead. Some rave about a squiggly electoral-vote chart on FiveThirtyEight known as “The Snake.”
“I love The Snake,” one person said. “It’s beautiful.”
Tom, a Department of Homeland Security contractor, had never worked the phones for a candidate, but this election he has made 2,312 calls on behalf of Trump. He didn’t want his last name used in this story because “Trump is rather unpopular in D.C.” and he feared his support could harm his reputation. Since the primaries, he has been placing money on various electoral outcomes at PredictIt, where he’s betting that Clinton will win fewer than 360 electoral votes. He said he woke up at 3:15 a.m. on five consecutive nights to eyeball the USC Dornsife-Los Angeles Times “Daybreak” poll as it was updated.
Wait — the USC Dornsife-Los Angeles Times “Daybreak” poll, you say?
“That poll tends to favor Trump,” Chris O’Brien said. The election-junkie son of Mary Louise O’Brien pointed to a recent story popular among election obsessives detailing how one 19-year-old African American man in Illinois might be skewing its results to the right.
The election obsessives are in deep, and it’s easy to see why. This is the rare “most important election of your lifetime” that truly feels like the most important election of your lifetime. Apocalyptic language runs thick on both sides. October has been chock-full of October surprises, and an election playing out on Twitter can’t help but feed what has been called the technology “compulsion loop.” When’s the next WikiLeaks dump? When’s the next Trump tape? The American Psychological Association says election stress has grown bigly this year; the mindfulness guru Sharon Salzberg is offering a specially tailored election meditation to help followers get through it. TV shows, books and movies are losing their share of attention, the Wall Street Journal recently reported, as election binge-watchers refuse to pay attention to anything else.
“It’s like this sick thing, from when I go to sleep to when I wake up before dawn, to see what Trump tweets await me,” said David Marcus, 56, of Port Washington, N.Y., who directs communications for a nonprofit.
“You know those experiments with rats, where they give them a little bit of sugar and they want to come back for more, more, more? That’s what I’ve become. I’m normally fairly interested in politics, but there’s something so gripping and so impossibly unbelievable about this election that I can’t stop checking every news feed from every legitimate newspaper and every blog and — everything.”
His girlfriend, he said, is eager to talk to him about something other than politics. His 17-year-old daughter approached him to discuss applying for college on the night of the final presidential debate, but “we were on debate lockdown,” he said. He set aside time for her the next night, vowing to himself to “try, try, try to not check Facebook, not check news.”
And then there’s the avid Twitter user @newsjunkie3355 who identified herself as Elizabeth Quigly, 48, of Miami. She said she got “addicted” to the election seven or eight months ago. Once upon a time, she said, she watched TV for about two hours a day — dramas such as “Law & Order” and “Vikings.” But since the stakes of the election became clear, she said, her TV goes on at 8 a.m., a roving circuit of CNN, Fox Business and Fox News. When she ends her days watching Sean Hannity at 10 p.m., she feels vindicated but uneasy, worrying about the bad news he may be leaving out. When she ends her days watching Don Lemon, she goes to bed mad.
As for Mary Louise O’Brien, her brain is occupied by an electoral map of the United States. She’s now following the U.S. Senate races, too, since a Democratic president could use a supportive Senate, and is gripped by a potential squeaker in Nevada.
“I’ve got it all memorized, the red and the blue, and how the states change, and I have my states that I’m watching all the time,” she said. The constant checking has cemented a cruel kind of operant conditioning, wherein she experiences anxiety about the state of the race, and the checking calms her down. This reinforces the habit, so that when she grows anxious again a few minutes later, she has to check again. With each minute that ticks by since she last checked, she worries more.
Tick. . .
“Right now, I’m not able to check because I’m talking to you,” O’Brien noted. “I’m going crazy.”
Tock. . .
“I’m kidding,” she added. “Sort of.”