Mary Elizabeth Williams: Screw the polls, voters are putting candidates where their mouths are

Thursday, October 30, 2008 - 03:32 PM

In these last few days before the election, many of us are furiously surfing the Web looking for the clues to the outcome. We We 538. We Gallup. Maybe we check out some goat entrails. But we're American. We vote with our wallets — especially when there's a delectable sweet or a meat lover's pie thrown in the deal.

And so it goes to reason that some of the most telling indicators of how the race will shake out are coming from the most seemingly fanciful sources.

For the last several weeks, the Retail Bakers of America have been conducting their Cookie Poll, letting the people put their votes where their mouths are and choose Obama- or McCain-themed confections. Last time around, the poll accurately called the race for President George W. Bush, and this year, the Democratic contender is leading 58 percent to 42 percent. In the Domino's online poll, as of yesterday 53 percent of respondents said they were going with Obama, compared with 34 percent for McCain. This morning, however, McCain has pulled ahead with 47 percent of today's vote so far. In other news, Domino's customers also name the Philly cheese steak their favorite sandwich. Yes, we can... vote for melted cheese.

Even the virtual community is getting in the act. Earlier this fall, Second Life conducted a poll of 1,000 residents, and again, Obama emerged the victor, with more than double the votes of his opponent.

But what's going on out there in the real world? If imitation is the sincerest form of flattery, Barack Obama should be feeling pretty good this Halloween. At Party City, both Obama and McCain masks are flying off the shelves almost faster than they can stay in stock. Reps for the costume superstore say they're the most popular masks they've ever run. (That THAT, Nixon!)

And over at 7-Eleven, java junkies can express their presidential preferences by getting their coffee in a blue Obama or red McCain cup. And although it's just the same spout but different vessels, bean lovers clearly vote blue — Obama has a commanding twenty-point lead over McCain in the 7-Election. It's notable that the race isn't being run in every state — the redder areas of the northwest and southeast aren't represented. Nevertheless, 7-Eleven, which sells over a million cups of coffee a day, came within mere fractions of the final popular vote in 2004. But the change consumers seem to prefer most is 'economy of scale' — I saw several coffee drinkers eschew both candidates' 20-ounce cups in favor of the smaller, plain ones.

The most telling prognosticator of all, however, may be one featuring people who don't even vote. Scholastic has run its own poll every presidential election since 1940, and it's only been wrong twice: in the tightly contested Truman-Dewey and Kennedy-Nixon races. The poll, which ran in the publisher's magazines in September and October, tallies the votes of kids from kindergarten to 12th grade. The polls are closed, and Senator Obama has won 57 percent to 39 percent.

What does all of this say about how we, the coffee-drinking, cookie-eating, pizza-loving, avatar-being, costume-wearing American people feel about the two men who would be our leader? Maybe nothing at all. Maybe everything. What I know for certain is that we care, passionately, about this race. We care about it with the signs we put on our lawns, in the buttons we pin on our lapels. On Tuesday, the predicting will be over and real deciding will be measured. Until then, though, can anyone tell me what these tea leaves mean?


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