THE BLOG
10/18/2012 04:53 pm ET Updated Dec 18, 2012

So You Think You Can Be President: The U.S. Election as a Talent Search Show

Everybody wants to get into the act. -- Frequent catch-phrase of U.S. entertainer Jimmy Durante (1893-1980)

There has been an inversion in the shape of television variety entertainment over the last quarter-century. The shows used to feature professional entertainers offering the product, and the studio and home audiences consuming it. Then, in 2001 , with English music producer Simon Fuller's Pop Idol, the first "talent search show," the game was turned inside-out.

Now, our screens are full of variety programs that consist of nothing but auditions, where the audience is invited in on the backstage process. We sit in as the hopefuls prepare, we stand with them as they perform, we are in the wings for the debriefing afterwards.

This inversion of the narrative -- backstage strategizing, put forward as onscreen entertainment -- has now worked its way into coverage of the current U.S. presidential election. Of course, major political events have always been subject to extensive morning-after analysis. And the recent increase in the sheer amount of discussion is a product of the 24-hour news cycle: after all, they have to fill all that time with something.

But this year, it's gone a little nuts. Both parties' conventions, and all the debates -- the epic tournament for the Republican leadership (in its ruthless attrition so reminiscent of the Idol shows), and then the one-on-ones between the candidates -- have been surrounded with assessments by teams of experts who sound like, and in many cases are, personal advisers to the performers. There are predictions and discussions of strategy before the events, and astonishingly detailed parsings of the competitors' performances afterwards.

The endless analysis this year has been providing a disorienting feeling of the tail wagging both donkey and elephant. All of the viewing and tweeting public is involved in an extended critique of the most minute details of each bit of carefully-scripted improv. Each candidate's every slip of the tongue is deconstructed with an intensity seldom seen outside of Biblical or Shakespearean exegesis. And it is central to the narrative that all this performance is aimed at a tiny, prestigious audience called the Undecided Voter.

In this election, the undecided vote is estimated at between 5 percent and 7 percent of the electorate (it was 20 percent in 2008). Matt Latimer, in The Daily Beast on Oct. 16, argued that the Undecided Voter doesn't actually exist, and the ones who showed up onscreen in that evening's Town Hall debate were fakes:

I don't know how you were picked for this forum, but there's no way on earth you truly do not know who you are voting for in November. ... maybe you just wanted to get on TV and mimic that "oh so concerned" look ... Usually we can tell from your question if you are secretly for Obama or Romney. You are not fooling anyone.

It does seem strange that any American citizen capable of voting could not know by now which of these two to vote for. This is an extraordinarily divisive election. Also, unlike the first televised presidential debate, in 1960, when most viewers had never before seen a moving image of John F. Kennedy, these debates feature two men whose moves, gestures and voices, their policies and their rhetoric, their missteps, misstatements and mistakes, are all too well known to us. The night of the Town Hall debate, Jon Stewart of The Daily Show gave a new title to his coverage of the election: "For the Love of God, Make it Stop."

But let's say Matt Latimer and I are wrong, and there are undecided voters, comprising 5 to 7 percent of the electorate. Andrew Kohut of the Pew Research Center has predicted a voter turnout of about 60 percent. So the undecided voters make up between 3 percent and 4.2 percent of all eligible voters. That's still more than the tiny difference in popularity between the two candidates, which is what gives them the power to sway the election, and makes it look as though 95.8 percent of eligible voters are busy advising on how to sway that precious 4.2 percent.

Everybody is in on the act, and it seems to be more and more about performance. In their first debate, Romney put on a lively show while Obama appeared weary, and the world decided Romney had won. In the second debate, Obama bounced back and Romney stumbled, and we all informed each other that it was Obama's election again. And meanwhile, those mysterious undecided voters -- who either have not been following the election, and are therefore unworthy of the power being conferred upon them, or who have, and are therefore aware of how they are being manipulated -- continue to hold all those undecided cards.