Film Studies: Never mind the polls... it's the cellphone that's going to decide this election

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The Independent Culture

Now that the Boston Red Sox have won the World Series, the evening of Tuesday 2 November (and Wednesday morning) will be one of the great concentrated occasions in the history of American television.

Now that the Boston Red Sox have won the World Series, the evening of Tuesday 2 November (and Wednesday morning) will be one of the great concentrated occasions in the history of American television. Just as a fantastically high turn-out is being predicted, so the fierce level of interest (with people talking of leaving the country, whatever the result) guarantees an enormous living-room audience as the various news networks play the delicate game of declaring the results and predicting a winner. (It will be delicate because they made such fools of themselves last time. And because they are now afraid of alienating Bush.) The point about baseball is in order. The fans of that game rejoice in the fact that there must be a result - cricket, in contrast, strikes most Americans as effete in not insisting on a result. So baseball plays extra innings until a winner emerges. Network television has the same spirit: it would cheerfully carry the poll returns for a couple of days, but then, please, a result. Whereas, of course, last time round we were into December before the Supreme Court pulled stumps - a step that now strikes many as the sinister start of the new fascist state (soft or not), and which could be affected this time by the illness of Chief Justice Rehnquist.

In communications theory, American elections are now believed to be television events - old-fashioned campaigning is on the way out, TV advertising and the critical debates are what matter. Only a few days ago, however, in Philadelphia, John Kerry with his October surprise (Bill Clinton - creaky in voice, bright white in hair, but still ready to eat any collection of human beings) had a crowd of over 80,000. The candidates do travel. They do talk to small and large groups. They shake hands and kiss babies. And they do this for about a year, a kind of trial by exhaustion that some might say hardly equips them for being president.

But the advertising? If you live in California (as I do) we've seen none of it. The campaign has been ruthlessly practical: California will vote for the Democrat, as will New York. In the same way, Texas and many states in the South are "certain" to vote for the Republican. So the parties elect not to waste advertising money there. The full load - and it is immense - goes to the famous "battleground" states, of which there are about a dozen (look for the early results in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Iowa, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Michigan, New Mexico, Nevada and New Hampshire).

In some ways, it's been a throwback election in that documentary films have meant so much. It's almost like being alive in the 1930s again! Michael Moore's Fahrenheit 9/11 set that pattern, of course, and its box-office coup in theatres was followed by a video release only a few weeks before polling day. In retaliation, there were movies about Kerry's war service, and so on. Just because one agrees with Michael Moore's sentiments is no reason for liking his methods - and any film-person has to swallow deeply before calling these movies "documentaries". They are propaganda; they are loaded, they are lies, and most of them are limp. What distinguishes Moore is the contrast between his shabby, folksy persona and his demagogic cunning. And the ultimate logic of that is, God help us if Moore ever decides to run (what else does he have to do now?).

For those film purists left in America, the televised debates were meat and drink. Yes, they were dull, repetitive and fearfully controlled - the fear was all on the part of the two parties terrified of making a gross mistake. But the debates are live, they fill real time, and they put the two candidates up against unexpected questions in a situation where they have to think on their feet. And, once again, the humanist tradition and its faith in character were vindicated. John Kerry showed himself to be serious, decent, articulate - if you asked him the way you'd expect a reliable answer or a fair admission of ignorance. And George Bush looked vexed, flustered, mean-spirited and fake.

Yes, I'm biased going in, but my life has been founded on trying to judge what I see, and I think the debates began to give Kerry a chance, by establishing that he is electable and sane, and by beginning to expose the spiteful frailties in Bush.

You wouldn't ask Bush the way: he has that cocky, know-all manner of the carpetbagger. The debates also showed something that may be profound weariness. George Bush has led a life not much acquainted with hard work. I don't like his presidency but I can believe that - whether he likes it or not - he has had to work far beyond his normal level. His eyes have that puzzled look of a man unused to reading but ordered to get through Proust. I think he is very tired, and even if a part of him trusts that God is on his side, there are other parts that want to slack off and even take a drink. I think that showed, just as this vital, but ordinary, principle was renewed: show us anyone for 90 minutes talking about things that matter and they cannot help but reveal themselves.

The debates also helped focus the degree to which this Bush administration has covered up, has withheld information, has lied. A great many stories are breaking nowadays - all of them bad for Bush - and it's tempting to think that they are coming from Democrats. I doubt it. I suspect they are coming from disaffected Republicans, people disgusted by this Bush administration. Remember that, almost certainly, Bob Woodward's Deep Throat was such a man. And they still exist.

The polls say it will be very very close - again. That's the chief impetus for "everyone" watching television on Tuesday night. But I have a hunch that the polls are not much more reliable than the ads are effective.

Advertising has corrupted America, to be sure, but the public has responded. It laughs at ads. Especially at political ads where the calculation is not just naked but skeletal. Equally, we are weary of being polled. Many people I know tease polling calls (just to waste the pollster's time). They, we, lie to polls - it is our only defence.

More than that, in the run-up to this election, a very large number (maybe 50 million) of new voters have been registered - these are young people who have never voted before; they are racial minorities; they are the underclass that had dropped out of so many steady habits. These people are not easily polled - so many of them do not have listed phone numbers. No poll knows how to reach cellphone-people. And that leads to my prediction. I daresay the sober, well-informed political pages in this and other papers will say that the election is desperately close. And it is desperate if Bush has a chance of coming back. But you read it here - I think Kerry is going to win by a lot. And my reasons have to do with character, with the helpless revelation of factual film, and the culture of the cellphone.