The Fault, Dear Brutus, Lies Not in Our Polls But in Ourselves


On this day in 96 AD the most powerful man in the world, Ancient Rome’s Caesar Domitian, was assassinated at the exact hour predicted by the stars at his birth 44 years earlier.

Domitian himself was ambivalent about astrology, but he rightly feared the prophecy as a pretext for his enemies to fulfill it and thus spent most of his life wiping them out, real and perceived.

The irony, in the end, is that Domitian died not by the fickle finger of the Fates—such as one of the many lightning strikes in Rome recorded at the time—but at the hands of his Praetorian Guards, palace staff and even his own wife, all guided by the simple motivation to save themselves and Rome.

Times are different today, thankfully, and on November 6 Americans will cast ballots instead of daggers to choose the next president of the United States. Yet voters can be forgiven for wondering if the fate of this election has already been decided.

Our modern-day prognosticators—pollsters and media pundits—would have us believe so. But American voters have shown the ability to defy the polls and surprise us all when they believe the fate of the nation is at stake, as some do today.

We are told, for example, that in the race for 270 Electoral College votes the presidential contest has come down to seven states with a combined total of 85 electoral votes: Colorado, Florida, Iowa, Ohio, Nevada, New Hampshire and Virginia. As for the rest of the 43 states in the Union, the votes might as well already have been counted and chalked up a full seven weeks before election day. So why bother stepping into the voting booth?

Gerrymandering has only compounded the problem, further narrowing the outcomes in each of these seven key states to few swing districts now suffering under the relentless bombardment of political advertising as both candidates desperately try to “change their stars” as charted by the latest polls.

Polls, meanwhile, are no longer simple readings of voter opinion in modern politics. The ones that “work” for a presidential campaign and its media surrogates are used to create an “air of inevitability” around a candidate in order to demoralize and suppress voter turnout for the opposition.

And astrologers haven’t disappeared in politics, even to this day.

A recent convention of astrologers in New Orleans unanimously declared Obama is a lock to win. Interestingly, every one of them was a self-professed Democrat. But even free will, free-market Republicans have fallen under the spell of the dark arts. The most infamous example is the Reagan White House, which at the First Lady’s behest charted the president’s movements after an assassination attempt.

What politicos and prognosticator alike seem to forget, however, is that an “aura of inevitably” is a two-edged sword. Presumptions of easy victory are as likely to keep a voter at home on a rainy day as often as those of sure defeat.

Domitian experienced this boomerang effect the hard way after presumptuously declaring himself “Lord and God of the Universe.” Turning the tables on the astrologer Ascletario, who had prophesied an impending “change in government,” Domitian had him brought before his throne and asked him, “How will you die?”

“I shall be torn to pieces by dogs,” the astrologer from Germania replied.

Domitian immediately ordered that Ascletario be executed, his corpse burned on a pyre and his ashes buried, thereby discrediting the cosmic conspiracy and establishing his own invincibility.

But when Ascletario was set ablaze, a strong wind blew out the fire and a pack of wild dogs rushed down and tore his corpse to pieces as he predicted.

Domitian’s own demise shortly followed, and Rome soon enjoyed a long era of prosperity under the successive leadership of what historians call the Five Good Emperors.

Astrologers, pollsters and media pundits, take heed.

Voters, take heart.

Americans may not be able to change their stripes, but they most assuredly have the power to change their stars by casting their ballots on November 6.