You know what I mean — when a butterfly flaps its wings in one part of the world, it can ultimately cause a hurricane in another.
I thought I was familiar with that notion — and had always dismissed it as some sort of fanciful parable — until I looked it up. It’s to do with chaos theory, and was originally named by a scientist called Lorenz. He was trying to find a metaphor for the kind of changes that can happen in utterly unpredictable areas (like how weather develops, for instance) from tiny beginnings. In fact, the first time Lorenz wrote about the phenomenon, he talked about the flapping of a seagull’s wings rather than a butterfly’s.
In a world that’s as interconnected as ours is now, butterflies and seagulls alike can have a huge impact. Things that mightn’t have been significant once — or whose significance might have been locally contained — can have worldwide repercussions now.
An American bank — Lehman Brothers — is allowed to collapse, and it nearly brings the world economy down with it. A small Irish bank, Anglo-Irish, is saved from collapse, and it has repercussions not just for Ireland but throughout Europe lasting for years.
You can see it all the time, in all sorts of little and big ways. And it makes us much more sensitive to change. I imagine, for example, that we’ve all seen how Ireland’s fortunes have been affected by the fact that a man called Sarkozy was replaced by a man called Hollande in a powerful neighbouring country.
So now I’m wondering could Fema be the next butterfly’s wing? Fema is the United State’s Federal Emergency Management Agency. As Hurricane Sandy batters the east coast of the US, Fema is the agency charged with leading and coordinating the country’s response. And all over the US, television and the internet is replaying a clip of Mitt Romney, back during the Republican primaries, calling for Fema to be closed down. In fact he calls for the resources invested in Fema to be given to the private sector — because that’s the best way to protect people from natural disasters! It’s possible, just possible, that Romney’s views on how government should respond to a great natural disaster might swing a few votes against him. If the hurricane turns out to be a damp squib (and you’ll know the answer to that as you read this), or if Fema is seen to make a hames of its response, it might even swing a few votes his way. In this case, it mightn’t be the butterfly’s wing that affects the hurricane. It might be the hurricane that affects the presidency.
That’s how close this election is. And of course what happens in the US matters. The difference between Bush and Obama, in so far as the rest of the world was concerned, was profound. Most people outside the US would have developed a great deal of respect for the much more even-handed way in which the Obama administration addressed the entire range of foreign policy issues. The fact that he is being attacked by the Republicans as weak precisely for that reason is enough to make the rest of the world uncertain about the Republican’s standard bearer.
But if I’m being honest, the US presidential election is also political anorak heaven. Because of the way the entire thing is constructed, there are hours of harmless fun to be got from poring over opinion polls, dissecting what’s happening within each state, following every inch of the commentary and the different debates. The more you get caught up in the election, the more you’ll even find yourself watching the normally appalling Fox News.
Incidentally, that’s not a news station at all. It should just be called Fox Spin, because that’s all they do. For two days after the second presidential debate, when Obama finally woke up and whipped Romney’s behind, Fox News ran bulletin after bulletin complaining about bias on the part of the woman journalist who chaired the debate.
If you do become addicted to following the election, the first thing you have to do is take a crash course in how the president is elected. Ever since 1804, each state chooses what the constitution calls electors. The number of electors is determined by the state’s population. After the people have voted in the election, the electors cast their votes for the candidate chosen by the people of the state. The total number of electors is called the electoral college, and there are 538 electors in it altogether. So the candidate who gets 270 electoral votes are higher will be the next president.
New York has 29 electors. They will each vote whatever way the people of New York tell them to vote. According to all the opinion polls, that will be 29 certain votes for Obama. And the same thing will happen state by state — California’s 55 will go to Obama, Texas’s 38 to Romney. In fact, if you look at any electoral college map of the US, you’ll find that Republicans “own” far more states than the Democrats do. But the Democrats own most of the densely populated states.
So now, all the fascination is in the states the opinion pollsters can’t predict, because they’re just too tight. If you’re interested, there are several websites where this analysis goes on all the time. Ignore the party affiliated ones and get on to the websites that are much more objective — realclearpolitics.com is one of them, or fivethirtyeight, a blog run by the New York Times.
That’s where I go most days to find out what’s happening in the race, and especially in the states that are too close to call — the toss-up states as they’re known. Last Friday, for instance, Romney was ahead in the “known” electoral college by 206 to 201 for Obama. But if you went through the toss-up states one by one — Iowa, Michigan, Nevada, New Hampshire, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Colorado, Florida and Virginia — you’d discover that Obama still has a slight lead in seven of them (accounting for 80 votes) and Romney led in three, accounting for 51 votes.
That analysis, if it pans out on the day, will give Obama the Presidency, by 281 to 257 — even though Romney could still get more votes. And the only thing that happened since then (apart from the hurricane) is that the websites are reporting that now, North Carolina (15 votes) has moved from being likely for Romney to being a toss-up, because Romney’s opinion poll lead has been halved in the last few days.
In short, Romney’s momentum has stopped. American voters will worry about their own well-being over the next few days as Hurricane sandy sweeps over them, and then, this day week, they’ll go to elect their president. And right now, the outcome of that election is finally becoming clear. After the bitterest campaign ever, it’s possible to breathe easier, and to say the one thing we thought we mightn’t be able to say. Congratulations again, President Obama.