For political nerds, election nights are seductive. After weeks of tracking polls and assessing campaign ads, it can be both frustrating and nerve-racking to watch results slowly trickle in. Each new batch of results from another 5 percent of precincts and, hey! Your candidate is only down by 5 points!
By now, watching returns on election night has gotten more sophisticated with a bevy of tools that provide more detailed analysis of where the election is likely to end up. But often that’s not what’s conveyed to casual observers, particularly those watching on cable news. Invariably, some new cache of votes will be logged and there will be CNN’s Wolf Blitzer, marveling at how so-and-so has just taken the lead.
It’s a visceral sensation, like that of watching a football game. It’s impossible not to see a narrowing between the candidates as the race is getting close, the drama increasing. Like the New England Patriots scoring a touchdown to take the lead in the fourth quarter of the Super Bowl. Things are starting to get good.
But this isn’t how vote-counting works. There’s no real drama at play; the candidates aren’t actually getting closer or further apart as votes are counted. The proper analogy is not of scoring points in the Super Bowl. It’s as though all of the points were scored in the Super Bowl and they were just slowly unveiled to the viewing audience.
For example. We took all of the scoring in the most recent Super Bowl and made a tool that adds each touchdown, extra point and field goal to either team’s total at random. Click the button below.
Every second, more points are added. Sometimes, the Patriots run up the score quickly. Sometimes, the Eagles do. Sometimes, the scoring goes back and forth, just as it did in the actual game. But either way, the result is the same: The Eagles win. The drama of who scores when neither changes that outcome nor reflects any actual drama in the game itself. It’s just an artifact of how the results are displayed.
What’s more, the tool above reinforces how silly it is to announce loudly what the score is when only 20 percent of the scoring plays have been tallied. Maybe all of those are Eagles’ points! That doesn’t mean that the Patriots are about to get shut out. Once you start seeing 80, 90 percent of the scoring plays counted toward the total, you have a much better sense of what the eventual outcome is going to be.
Again: If you want to know who’s likely to actually win as results come in, visit a site like the New York Times’ Upshot, which shows where votes are still outstanding and uses those to predict how the night is likely to flow. If you simply want the thrill of watching numbers jockey back-and-forth next to one another, feel free to track minute-by-minute results and tune in to Mr. Blitzer.
Just don’t expect it’s going to tell you much.