What ails me and multitudes like me isn't in the DSM, but it should be. It's elective compulsive disorder -- a relentless obsession about this election.
Nothing's too minor to obsess over. You learn that Nebraska and Maine allot electoral votes by congressional district instead of winner-take-all, and off you go on a Google-quest for voter registration stats in Omaha and Bangor. You sign up for alerts about election-day weather forecasts in Ohio. You don't give a hang about who wins the World Series, except that they're both swing-state teams and how would that affect voters' moods?
I caught a mild case of ECD in the 1992 election, when I dreamed that Dick Darman -- George H.W. Bush's budget director -- was dressed like a ninja and chasing me around my own house. People I confided in figured I'd gone off the rails. This year, they're all derailing with me.
Does this campaign actually move people? To use social science jargon, duh.
Lynn Vavreck is asking that question professionally. She teaches political science at UCLA and, with her research partner at Stanford, has questioned 20,000 registered voters nationwide many times in the past year.
At last check, 61% of those people had gone Internet cruising for political info in the previous week, and 50% had swapped political e-mails with someone. Within the previous 24 hours, 53% of the 20,000 had talked to someone about a candidate. And in the same time, 6% of Vavreck's 20,000 voters had pinned on a candidate's button.
"This is better than Christmas for me," she says. Still, she didn't need 20,000 people to give her a gut check on how much we're consumed by this election -- just a single phone call.
On Feb. 12, a lifelong friend was waiting in line to vote in the Virginia primary when she called Vavreck. They'd never before talked about politics. A couple of women also waiting in the Virginia line were wondering about the differences between the Clinton and Obama healthcare plans, and Vavreck's friend volunteered to phone up her political scientist pal to find out -- "just like phone a friend!" Vavreck told me.
Some obsessions are salutary, like Mozart's for music, and some just go bad, bad, bad. The Protect Marriage folks are keeping tabs on road rage directed at those driving cars with "Yes on 8" bumper stickers. Friends of a friend of mine had their Obama signs stolen by some 60-ish Republicans they caught in the act. The purloiners' excuse? "They said they had to, because the country was in danger from a terrorist's buddy like Obama."
We're so overwrought, it wouldn't surprise me if Zoloft prescriptions are going through the roof. A company that makes devices to stop bruxism, the onomatopoeic name for teeth-grinding, sent out a release saying its "dramatic" sales increase "is largely based on increased anxiety about the economy as well as the pending presidential election." And I just got an e-mail PR pitch for a book launch with the enticement, "Need to get away from CNN? Don't think you can bear another Measure R robo-call?"
Why are we so wrapped up in this? It's not like we've never had a presidential election before. They're like buses: If you wait long enough, another one will come along.
Brian Rathbun teaches and studies political psychology at USC, and he thinks he has an explanation. He's found that people don't, as it's assumed, vote their pocketbooks, they vote "socio-tropically" -- for the collective good, what they think is best for the country. "We see that on steroids in this election -- the feeling that the nation's future is really at stake."
I'm just glad I'm not the only obsessive. The Associated Press delivered some advice for the likes of me from Lisa Miller at Columbia University Teachers College. "Turn to those things which are more eternal and more important, such as nature and family," she says helpfully. "It's a great time to go into nature. Go camping."
Camping? Like some guy who sees sex in every Rorschach blot, everything makes me think of politics. Miller's advice sent me back 20 years, when vice presidential hopeful Dan Quayle allegedly told voters in American Samoa, "You all look like happy campers to me."
See? What can I do?
A 12-step program? How about we try three steps? I haven't checked fivethirtyeight.com in at least a half-hour.