We have become so "niche-i-fied" that any wedge will do when a politician needs another way to exploit a difference between me and you.
What used to seem like a statistician's insight has morphed into a cheerleading strategy that helps to frame sound bites in stadiums and pot shots in debates. Throwaway tags like "Joe the Plumber" are used to mobilize disposable interest groups that just might become swing votes in swing states if persuaded they had the power.
It is not the people driving the polls; it is the pols prodding us in to convenient cattle pens.
Call me naive, but I used to think it worked the opposite way when perhaps it never did.
Memories of a Soccer Mom
I still remember when "Soccer Moms" emerged as the Swing Vote of the Season. I was one at the time, and I was somewhat surprised to hear it put that way.
They made it sound as if some statistician sifting bushels of data had said "aha!" one day, just having discovered how often the mothers of sporting youth appeared to be polling in similar ways.
It annoyed me to see my views supposedly pre-ordained by the projected beliefs of hordes of soccer- watching mothers. But what surprised me the most was the notion this niche was also large enough and sufficiently well-aligned to tip outcomes at the ballot box.
Not Statistics, but Seduction
In every nation-wide election since, a different niche or two has been paraded on stage as if it is they who will suddenly make or break the day. But it wasn't untl this season when the pivotal niche seemed to change each week that I finally grasped the rest of the story.
It's no longer some statistician finding an interesting cluster in numbers, such as soccer moms who had not been seen to be voting together before.
Now it is just as often an arbitrary
pigeonhole or a predictive postulate. Today niches are tagged to manipulate
in advance as much as reflect in retrospect. The tagging says in effect, "if
you all voted together, here's how to protect your
interests." As we saw with the deeply cynical Palin pick,
niche-picking can also be used to magnetize fragments of the electorate
with a coded call to action.
In short, it is them seducing us into seeing ourselves in ways that serve their own needs.
Follow the Bouncing Ball
But even if the more cynical pols increasingly anticipate and exploit our divisions today, some sources still work the old fashioned way. They ask the statisticians to show us what really took place.
Time magazine just issued a "Special Report" datelined 10/20/08, which means it should still be on the newsstands next week. It has an interesting red and blue bubble chart (p.66) that shows how all sorts of niches have voted every four years since 1956. It then invites readers to "follow the bounces" in who gained momentum (or didn't) among different interest groups. (Link to online version below.)
Even more on target this instant is the chart on the page before. It gives another set of quickly informative visuals. They show (without predicting) which niches could prove pivotal in 2008.
Shifting subsets with bounces in prominence, winking in and out of existence in different frames of reference. Complexity theorists might note that this is exactly how Mother Nature arranges things in the cosmos, whether out in the stars or down in our cells.
The difference today is that we are decoding complexity with increasing clarity down on the ground and watching such forces unfold in real time between ourselves.
One can only hope that this could someday also mean less successful manipulating.