“Betting analysis of top TV events”, says the tagline under our logo above. Does the US election count as a TV event?
We’re not a politics betting blog – that’s what politicalbetting.com is for (indeed, it was one of our models when we set up Sofabet). But we suspect we’re not alone in deriving a similar kind of enjoyment from watching elections as from watching Cowell shows, so we thought it might be fun to mark tonight’s Obama-Romney showdown by discussing 10 similarities with the X Factor.
1. Securing the base
In both the X Factor and presidential elections, there’s the thorny question of whether you prioritise securing your base or chasing the middle-of-the-road floating vote. This dilemma has exercised Mitt Romney this year. Having run as a “severely conservative” candidate to secure the Republican nomination, he was widely expected to take the time-honoured route of tacking to the centre once he’d done so. Indeed, a top advisor infamously compared switching from primary to general election campaign mode to shaking an etch-a-sketch.
Instead, Romney apparently felt the need to spend several further months securing his base, and chose the first presidential debate as his moment to shake the etch-a-sketch and present a more moderate face.
The X Factor equivalent? Think Misha B. Throughout last series, we tracked producers’ tricky dilemma about whether to play to her base (or “delight the demo“) with urban productions or soften her appeal to Middle England through performances like week 4’s ‘Proud Mary’. As both Misha and Mitt will be able to testify, simultaneously appealing to the floating voter without alienting your core support is a tough ask.
2. The art of negative campaigning
When it comes to bases, in both presidential elections and the X Factor there are two types of campaign that run in parallel – try to enthuse your (or, in the X Factor, favoured acts’) natural supporters to turn out and vote, and try to dampen the enthusiasm of the other guy’s (i.e. less-favoured acts’) natural supporters so they don’t bother.
Negative campaigning in particular has developed into a fascinating art form in the U.S., perhaps the most compelling example this season being Obama’s ‘My Job’ advert using Mitt Romney’s secretly-taped words that “my job is not to worry about” 47% of Americans. And of course, much of what we do on this site during X Factor is to analyse the art form which negative campaigning has become, ‘Sophie Habibis In The Pub‘ being perhaps our all-time favourite example.
3. The regional vote
Sometimes, though not always, a factor in vice-presidential picks. Romney’s choice of Paul Ryan was mostly a base-appeasing one but also, in part, an optimistic case of “I want everyone in Wisconsin to pick up the phone”.
It’s not uncommon for instant polls of voters taken immediately after a presidential debate to show a different winner to polls taken a couple of days later. As soon as the debate is finished, the spinning starts, with operatives for both sides setting out to tell voters what they just saw – something which may or may not bear any resemblance to what actually just happened.
In the X Factor, this is the role of judges’ comments. Viewers can’t be trusted to form their own impressions of performances – they need to be shown what to think. Thus we have mediocre vocals from favoured acts followed by effusive praise from the panel, and cutaway shots to a bored-looking Nicole Sherzinger to suggest how we should be reacting to Kye Sones.
Candidates for the X Factor and the U.S. presidency need ostensibly independent-minded surrogates to make their case. Members of the judging panel can play this role for acts being mentored by other judges – Bill Clinton’s much-lauded convention speech outlining the first-term achievements of Barack Obama was basically the equivalent of Louis Walsh yelling that One Direction are the “next big boyband”.
6. Celebrity endorsements
Did you notice how it seemed that every time a celebrity appeared on last year’s show and Dermot asked them who their favourite act was, they said Little Mix? Have you noticed how this year it seems to be James Arthur?
In presidential politics, the celebrity endorsement battle is also one-sided. From the 2008 cycle, will.i.am’s musical take on Obama’s ‘Yes We Can’ speech is a masterclass of celebrity endorsement. Republicans? Well, there’s always Clint Eastwood. Speaking of whom…
7. Getting overshadowed by a pointless argument
One of the tactics we often believe we observe producers using to depress an act’s vote is to stage an argument among judges about something entirely tangential – the song choice’s fidelity to the theme, say, or the backing dancers. The poor old act stands there on stage, utterly peripheral in what should be their big moment.
Mitt Romney’s campaign managed inadvertently to pull off something similar during the Republican convention when they allowed their man’s big speech to be preceded by the much-mocked spectacle of Clint Eastwood berating an empty chair.
8. The enduring power of early definition
If Obama wins, it may be because of one strategic decision – to spend significantly in the summer on advertising in swing states to define Mitt Romney negatively before Romney had a chance to define himself positively.
This is perhaps the most logical explanation for the curious discrepancy between national polls and swing state polls over the last few weeks. While national polls have shown a race that’s pretty much tied, state polls show that Obama has clung onto a stubborn lead of a couple of percentage points in the handful of battlegrounds that will decide the election. Viewers in safe red or blue states, for whom the first presidential debate is likely to have been their first impression of Romney, saw a plausible-looking moderate. Voters in the swing states had been pummelled with ads defining Romney as a vulture capitalist who neither knew nor cared for the concerns of ordinary Americans, and that image may have been much harder for Romney to shift.
The X Factor provides a fascinating equivalent in Janet Devlin. Having initially defined Janet as original and affecting, in week 3 producers slammed the gears into reverse and started to define her as boring and difficult. But the power of the original definition was such that it took six increasingly painful weeks to drag her into the bottom two, when X Factor kills usually take only a couple of weeks at most.
We may have seen a similar situation this year, in which producers inadvertently allowed Chris Maloney to be defined as the heartwarming public champion and then struggled more than they initially expected to redefine him as a cheesy, fake, cheesy, diva-ish, cheesy, rude, cheesy cruiseship singer.
9. Polling vs voting demographics
One big difference between the X Factor and presidential elections is the volume of polling that takes place. YouGov occasionally poll the X Factor – and if you missed our interview with YouGov’s Joe Twyman on how they do so, read it here. But usually we have to rely on metrics of popularity such as Toby’s Twitter analysis where the big and tricky question is trying to guess what is the overlap between the kind of people who tweet about acts and the kind of people who vote for them.
This question also dominates efforts to predict the U.S. election. There are vastly more polls, but the big unknown is how well those pollsters are predicting the composition of the electorate. The kind of people who answer pollsters’ phone calls are not necessarily the same kind of people who vote, so all polling firms have to adjust their models to try to translate from one demographic mix to another.
Polls have been showing Barack Obama with enough of a lead in enough battleground states to make him a strong favourite. But there is always the possibility that the pollsters are overestimating the extent to which Obama-leaning demographics will show up to the polls. Nate Silver explored this issue in a post at the weekend, explaining why the probability his model assigns to a Romney victory is essentially the probability of a systematic statistical bias in the polling.
Basically, it’s the same old conundrum we wrestle with on the X Factor. The youngsters may like boybands/Obama, but will they vote in sufficient numbers to outweigh the oldies’ preference for Romney/Maloney?
10. The danger of heart ruling head
Confusing what you’d like to happen with what you think will happen is an ever-present danger for reality show punters, as Daniel explored in one of his Eurovision top tips. But perhaps the danger is even more pronounced when it comes to elections, which tend to be more consequential – a couple of years on, One Direction’s subsequent record sales probably mean their fans don’t much care any more that they lost to Matt Cardle, but blockbusting sales for Barack Obama’s memoir would be unlikely to console his supporters when Mitt Romney is appointing justices to the Supreme Court.
Which is why your Sofabet team will be hoping that Nate Silver’s model is as accurate as it was in 2008, when he got 49 out of 50 states correct, but not putting any money on it. Your thoughts? As ever, do let us know below.