11/05/2013 11:49 am ET Updated Jan 23, 2014

A Drinking Game for Off-Year Election Coverage

It's election day in America, which is one of the great pageants of democracy. Everywhere people are streaming into polling places to express their opinions. Or not... because this is an off-year election, and that is only one of the problems that turn our elections into a muddle, where anybody can claim a mandate for just about anything by misinterpreting the results.

Muddle Number One: the low turnout election. The people will have spoken, but there might not have been that many of them. Too many races for governor, mayor, school board, and other local offices are scheduled in years where there is no federal election to bring people to the polls. Federal elections bring big money, big ad campaigns, big volunteer efforts, and bigger turnout. And here's the problem; without all that, only the most motivated, which often means only the most fanatical, will show up. This usually means the average voter will be a white guy over fifty. Yet watch the media draw conclusions no matter what the turnout rate happens to be.

Muddle Number Two: mayoral races in one-party towns. An increasing number of our largest cities are so dominated by one political party, that the race is over after the primary election. And in many places, Independent voters can't vote in them. And primary elections are, traditionally, low turnout elections even in one-party towns. The people have spoken, but they spoke months ago, and there may not have been that many of them then, either. In those places, election nights have less suspense than an episode of Dancing with the Stars.

Muddle Number Three: the lopsided incumbent-challenger race. If a particular incumbent is extremely popular, the opposite party will end up scraping the bottom of the barrel looking for a suitable challenger. This challenger will have very little experience, raise very little money, and will be burdened by the cloud of impending doom that will follow said challenger around like a Hell Hound. As the incumbent wins with a huge margin, the media will draw conclusions as if the election had been an actual race. Chris Christie's win margin shouldn't be mistaken for invincibility; Michael Dukakis also won reelection by a huge margin. Remember Michael Dukakis? Have I made my point?

Muddle Number Four: the "bellwether" election. Every off-year election season, the media gets all hot and bothered about one or two races that are deemed "bellwether races." These races are supposed to have predictive power over the coming political season. The problem is, there is no way of telling if these particular races are really indicators of anything other than particular local issues, or the strengths of particular candidates. And, once the media declares national winners and losers in these "bellwether" races, that in itself creates a media narrative that may influence voters, and the media meme may become a self-fulfilling prophecy. The Virginia Governor's race is Exhibit A here. Four years ago, a very attractive, personable, then scandal-free Republican, Bob McDonnell, won the governor's race. Bob McDonnell had a megawatt smile and looked like a more masculine version of Barbie's beau Ken. The current Republican nominee in Virginia, Ken Cuccinelli, couldn't get a date with Barbie if he bribed her with special interest money. He looks like the guy who sold you a defective used car, is about as likable as an undertaker, and carries the corpse of now scandal-ridden Bob McDonnell on his back.

So as you watch the election coverage, be aware of these muddles. Turn it into a drinking game, if that's your pleasure. Or Bingo. Either way, you'll be prepared for all the bullshit that will be slung tonight.