Thus Ate Zarathustra

By DAVID BROOKS

New York Times

October 26, 2004

Deep at the end of every election campaign, after all the issues have been beaten to death, when only the blowhards are still thundering, attention turns to the outcome. Who is going to win this thing already?

It is only now that the dinner party lion emerges to stake his claim to greatness. While others quiver with pre-election anxiety, their mood rising and collapsing with the merest flicker of the polls, he alone radiates certainty. He alone can read the internals, cross-tabs and trends, can parse Gallup and Zogby and emerge with clear answers. He alone can captivate a gathering, while men hang eagerly on his words and women undress him with their eyes.

He begins his dinner party performance with a combination of impressive name-dropping and crushing banality: "I was talking to Karl the other day - Karl Rove - and he mentioned that winning the most electoral votes is the key to winning the election. And when I bumped into Tim - Tim Russert - at Colin and Alma's place, he agreed."

Having established his place among the pantheon of Those Who Know, he unfurls a series of impressive, counterintuitive but probably meaningless factoids: "You know, historically, polls conducted during the third week in September have proved to be more accurate in predicting the final result than ones conducted closer to Election Day."

By this point soup will be cooling in the bowls. His dinner companions will be waiting for him to validate their highest hopes or underline their fears. The lion must be careful not to utter a final prediction too quickly.

Instead the suspense must build gradually but relentlessly. He runs through the bogus subdemographic groups that could swing the vote: cellphone-using creationists (undersampled by current survey methods) or African-American gun-owning deacons, who have been so intriguingly cross-pressured for several months.

This is followed by a bout of ostentatious historical parallelism - the pundit will remark upon astounding similarities between this election and that of 1884. At this point another person in the group, driven vicious with envy, may retort that actually, he would have thought the better comparison was to the 1916 election. The pundit should allow a forgiving smile to play upon his lips before riposting, "Yes, I can see why you would have thought that, but the campaigns' private polling suggests otherwise."

References to the private polling are like the neutron bombs of political discourse - quiet but devastating.

Now dominating the table, the pundit should indulge in the sort of storytelling beloved by swing-state-travel braggarts. He should speak in counties, about his trips through Cuyahoga, Macomb, Muscatine and Broward. If somebody mentions she has an aunt living in Ridgeville just south of Dayton, he should fondly recall the exceptional Waffle House there.

Donning the false modesty worn by Those Who Talk to Voters, he should describe how he humbly listens to the volk, while making it clear that only someone as brilliant as himself could discern national trends from 13 conversations.

Having studied the classic bildungsroman "How to Make Love Like a Pundit" (Universitat de Gemeinschaft, 1989), he should pretend the campaigns actually know what they are doing, and aren't dominated by sleep-deprived spinmeisters with attention spans like a potato grub's.

He must give broad hints of the hidden structures that shape the electorate. He must make sure his listeners do not recall that most voters have only the foggiest notions of what they are voting on. As a Cato Institute study reminds us, 70 percent of voters do not know about the new prescription drug benefit, 60 percent know little about the Patriot Act, and during the cold war, only 38 percent of voters knew that the Soviet Union was not a member of NATO.

These facts suggest that in close elections, the results are a crapshoot, which would undermine the pundit's claim to expertise. So he should conclude his peroration with mendacious specificity, about the remarkable shift in Lithuanian voters in northwest Pennsylvania, or the way the missing Iraqi munitions story is having a devastating effect on Bush leaners near Kenosha.

Then, having filled the air with 45 minutes of bogus pontification and pretentious gibberish, he should sagely declare that this election is just too close to call and that it would be irresponsible to make a prediction.

When his companions start throwing steak knives, he should retire for the evening.