David Rees,  March 30, 2016

Delegate Math Doesn’t Have Feelings

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Politics is hard, so The Baffler has employed expert comic mind David Rees to give us a visual rendering of the day’s signature political controversies. The only problem is that David can’t draw, so his cartoons are word pictures—which is to say, words.

This week’s cartoon is about numbers—more specifically, the most-discussed bunch of numbers of this political season. I’m talking about Delegate Math, which is the most thrilling use of mathematics since some old Greek fellow developed an equation to calculate the music of the spheres while displacing the water in his bathtub. (I think I’m remembering that correctly.)

Cable news needs the pretense of intelligent analysis in order to thrive—otherwise we’d never stop feeling guilty for watching it all day and all night. You know how TSA airport checkpoints are sometimes called “security theater”? Crunching delegate numbers on cable news counts as “analysis theater.” Tabulating delegate numbers produces the spectacle of political insight without offering much in the way of its actual substance. In the middle of a bottom-feeding, billion-dollar popularity contest, where actual policy proposals are as welcome as a bloody Band-Aid in a swimming pool, talking about actual quantified delegate counts lends a patina of gravitas. (Here I’m assuming it is technically possible for patina to achieve gravitas; maybe a better analogy would be to dress a bunch of racehorses in powdered wigs and Shakespearean tights so that coverage of said horserace can pass as high literary analysis.)

“Look,” say the Wolf Blitzers and the Chuck Todds, “we’re not simply grown men covering a debased carnival of incoherence that would embarrass most children—it’s more sophisticated than that; we’ve got numbers! We’ve got interactive maps conjuring delegate numbers and men standing in front of those maps pointing at those numbers, and then at the bottom of the screen we’ve got some poll numbers scrolling by. And look over there: a campaign spokesperson just mentioned some very favorable numbers, so let’s hear from the rival campaign, who is pushing a different set of numbers, and that’s not to mention that we’ve just received the latest numbers showing how many numbers the candidates need in order to win the number of delegates required to go to the convention with the right amount of numbers! We’re a real news organization that analyzes important data and you’re a savvy consumer who can interpret and discuss all these numbers! Let’s all roll around in bed with the numbers and have disgusting filthy sex with the numbers!” Okay maybe they don’t actually say that last part, but the subtext is quite clear.

A big meat grinder-looking thing labeled “NUMBER CRUNCHER” is grabbing data and turning them into number sausages that everyone is sucking on.

The point is, I know ten times more about Trump’s delegate count, and the numerological path that leads to his nomination, than I know about anything regarding his economic plan. And before you say, “That’s because he doesn’t have an economic plan,” I should emphasize that the same sad state of affairs applies to all the candidates: Ted Cruz? I know he needs 80 percent of all remaining delegates to win the nomination. I don’t know what his tax plan is, or what he wants to do to the budget, numbers-wise. The only actual number I can pin to Ted Cruz is that dumb number about delegates. I know Bernie Sanders has some numbers, somewhere, about marginal tax rates, and I’d probably like those numbers more than Ted Cruz’s numbers—but the numbers I really associate with Sanders are the numbers of committed delegates he needs to win in the remaining states in order to get enough numbers to beat Hillary’s numbers.

We know elections are important. We know policy proposals are helpful in gauging a candidate’s priorities. We know policy proposals often involve numbers. We also know that if we knew as much about the candidates’ actual policies vis-à-vis numbers as we know about their electoral chances vis-à-vis numbers, we could have a useful, numbers-based debate about policy. Our friends in cable know something else, though: that a lot of those policy-related numbers are hard to parse and somewhat less than visceral. So they give us different numbers: delegate numbers, which are basically exciting numbers to make us feel smart, even though those numbers are dumb. But at least we get to feast on some numbers.

Now, it may sound like I’m mad at the numbers, but I’m not. I respect all numbers. The delegate-count numbers are doing their job. So are the poll numbers. That’s what’s crazy (and weirdly admirable) about numbers: They just identify quantities. They don’t offer judgments. They don’t prefer some quantities over others. In fact, if we’re really being frank about the numbers? They probably don’t form any opinion whatsoever about whatever it is they’re being called on to quantify. And that’s because, even though numbers can provoke an emotional reaction, they have no emotions, no personalities, and no brains.

So here’s this week’s cartoon: All the remaining candidates (except John Kasich, because really: c’mon, bro) are throwing numbers at each other, and the people on cable news are throwing numbers at their viewers, and those viewers are hitting each other over the head with numbers, and everyone is yelling about their numbers. Meanwhile, a crowd of delegates is worrying about numbers, and everyone is ignoring some delegate numbers (the delegate numbers they don’t like) while crowing to high heaven about other delegate numbers (the delegate numbers they do like), and basically everyone is just going crazy about the numbers! And a calculator is giving birth to more numbers, and as soon as they come out of the calculator, people grab them up in enormous baskets like a harvest of numbers, and in addition to that fecund calculator, there’s a big meat grinder-looking thing labeled “NUMBER CRUNCHER” that’s grabbing herds of data and turning them into number sausages that everyone is sucking on because they love the taste of fresh numbers, and at the top of the cartoon, the title says: “EVERYBODY LOVES THE NUMBERS” and then when you look closely you realize the cartoon is actually made entirely out of numbers and that’s when you realize your hands are made out of numbers and that the numbers have driven you insane, and you are just another number.

David Rees is the author of Get Your War On and How to Sharpen Pencils. He co-hosts the Election Profit Makers podcast. 

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