Thursday, 17 January 2008

The Vote-o-Matic!

Who are you voting for in the U.S. presidential election? Well if you live in England, I'm assuming your answer is "None of the above." You're not allowed to vote, are you? But we Yanks have to make a decision. But how?

I once proposed that the religion page at The Washington Post print a big chart comparing all the world's faiths in various categories (views on sex before marriage, policy on sin, who gets into heaven, etc.). Readers could then run their fingers down the page and decide if they wanted to convert. ("Hmmm. These Zoroastrians have something going for them.")

This sort of thing is now easy on the Web and it's being applied to the presidential campaign. My friend and former Post colleague Craig Stoltz created a very cool online tool that compares the candidates' viewpoints on various healthcare-related topics. Tiny little candidate heads (echoes of Spy Magazine, Craig?) are arranged on two axes depending on how important the issue is to them and whether they see the solution as being, say, something for the market or for government. When you change issues--from stem cell research to heathcare reform--the heads obediently rearrange themselves. It's a nifty way of visualizing information.

The Washington Post has a few cool things, too. "The Front Runners" is a collection of Post coverage, including interviews, stump speeches and a neat feature called "Free Association." It creates a tag cloud of words voters use when describing a particular candidate. Thus John McCain's cloud includes "veteran," "old" and "hero" while Hillary Clinton's includes "Bill," "woman" and "b----."

"Choose Your Candidate" is a bit like my religion-o-matic. You answer a series of questions on various issues to help decide whose opinion most matches your own--though how helpful a statement such as "Yes. I propose a specific plan to guarantee truly universal health care for every man, woman and child in America" is is open to debate.

The Post's "Issues Tracker" shows what's being written about the candidates--in news stories, in op-eds, on blogs--on various subjects, from the abortion to the Iraq war. You can see that Hillary Clinton and "education" has garnered 22 mentions, while Hillary Clinton and "health care" gets 497. You can then click through to read the stories.

The Post has some other online political tools but I couldn't find them. That's one of the drawbacks of the Web: stuff just gets subsumed and lost so quickly. (Shades of the attention deficit Anthony Lilley spoke about.)

The New York Times has an interesting thing called "Candidate Schedules". It shows where the candidates have been campaigning. Light purple circles of various sizes are arranged on a map of the U.S. depending on where a candidate and how often he or she went there. When you press "play" violet circles bloom across the map. It looks as if Ebola is raging through Iowa and New Hampshire. (Which may be exactly what voters in those states thought.)

It's a bit easier to find the flashy (and Flash-y) campaign features on the Times's Web site, since there's a tab that calls up interactive offerings. That's how I found the debate analyzer, which shows how much each candidate spoke during a debate and allows you to mouse over a graphical representation of the debate, calling up their utterances.

None of these multimedia tools are a substitute for a sober , thoughtful analysis of the issues and the candidates. Oh, who am I kidding? They might be a perfect substitute. Or, rather, if the choice is between doing no research on a candidate and clicking around on a nifty Web tool, the latter is probably better. I doubt that any of them will replace that age-old deciding factor, however: How the candidate strikes you in the gut.


suburbancorrespondent said...

You're right, of course. When it comes right down to it, the vast majority of voters vote for the person they feel most comfortable with, personality-wise. They may dress up their decision with talk of health care or taxes or the war in Iraq, but it all comes down to who they feel is their friend. My father, a lifelong liberal East-coast Jewish Democrat, is voting for McCain, I assume because McCain is the only one who is like him - veteran, older, male...And every single woman 50 or older who managed to develop a career for herself at the beginning of the woman's movement? Hillary, of course. Those who didn't? Anyone but.

And this may not be a bad way to pick a candidate, really. You can't count on anything a candidate says to get elected, and even if he/she is sincere, it doesn't mean their preferred policies will be enacted into law. But you know that if they are somewhat similar to you, their interests and motivations will be somewhat similar also.

The win goes to the candidate who convinces the most people (truthfully or not) that he/she is the most like them. This explains why Bush is still sitting in the Oval Office...and the reason Kerry lost is because he didn't convince enough people, and a lot of his votes weren't for him, but against Bush.

That's as political as I get. I wish we could get this d*mn election over with already.

mark from alexandria said...

This really goes to the last blog entry from John. People will vote for all kinds of reasons. The more truthful information out there, the better. I think its going to be very interesting to see where voters go, as the major party candidacies firm up. I wonder of "Father of Suburban Correspondent" would consider voting for "Mike the Money" (aka da mayor of the big apple)should he declare? Who will get the "Hucklebuck" evangelical vote when he fades? I am seeing some fairly strong lines being drawn between the Hillarites and the Obamians. Will they hold their noses and vote for the other if
(s)he is the candidate.

Candadai Tirumalai said...

One of the interesting things about the election so far is that three different Republicans have each won a state, and that Hillary and Barack have each claimed a state. Two nominees may emerge by February 5, when more than 20 states vote, or the process could go all the way to the party conventions. The longer the process is delayed, the greater will be the media and online coverage of the candidates, perhaps even a surfeit of it.

Anonymous said...

Snow Alert! It is snowing in DC. At the moment it is snowing pretty hard. But hopefully it will turn to rain. Rush hour will be a nightmare.

mark from alexandria said...

Hope everybody at home has toilet paper and milk. I am so glad that I am not in DC today


Gosh! If "Mark from Alexandria" isn't enjoying D.C's lovely snow fall today, makes one wonder exactly where "he" is, doesn't it?