Midterms 2006: Wisdom of the crowds, or something else?

The Democrats did it. Those crazy sons of bitches actually did it. Right now, the Democrats look to have gained control of the Senate in addition to their victory in the House. Wow. I really can’t get over just how stunning a victory it is – this seemed beyond impossible not all that long ago.

Like many others, I’m thrilled about it – not because I’m a great fan of the Democrats (I’m not), but because I hope it will bring back some semblance of balance and accountability to the federal government.

The results are almost enough to restore my faith in this country and democracy itself. Almost. Because while it’s easy to look at this and say “democracy finally worked”, I look at these results and wonder if that’s really what happened.

Just take a look at the Senate races in Virginia and Montana – the Democrats barely squeaked by in both (and a recount may yet happen in Virginia). They won by less than a third of a percent in both states – in absolute terms, that’s just a few thousand votes.

What would it have taken to sway either of those elections? It’s not difficult to imagine that bad weather in a heavily Democratic district that would have suppressed turnout (or conversely, there’s no way of knowing that that didn’t happen to a Republican district). Or any combination of other factors that could have led to a difference of 8,000 votes that have nothing to do with politics – heavy traffic, e-voting glitches, variations in either voter suppression tactics or get out the vote efforts.

In other words, it seems to me that chance had as much to do with the final result as anything else. It was a coin flip.

I’m usually a big proponent of using network effects and the wisdom of the crowds to discern signal from noise, but I don’t think that our electoral process has precision down to a fraction of a percent. The crowds didn’t speak clearly at all this past election, certainly not in Virginia.

On the other hand, it’s notable that almost every close race broke for the Democrats, which does point to something more than chance going on, so maybe I’m completely off base here.

But then again, if the crowds were really wise they’d have booted both these parties out, in their entirety, a long long time ago.


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