And so it has come to this, our final dispatch before Election Day, and the nagging obligation to "sum it all up" and "bring it all back home." The 2012 presidential campaign, between President Barack Obama and former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney is the close race that the media "always expected it to be." But it has also evolved. For a long while, it was also the close race that the media coveted, with clear panting desire. And now, it is apparently the close race that is totally perplexing the media for being so close.
We really can offer no succor to those who have a desperate need for certainty they have no right to expect. In a few days, actual voters will render their final presidential tracking poll, and hopefully, that will be it. As Nate Silver has been saying all along, both Romney and Obama have a good chance of winning. Of the many billions of people on this planet, they are definitely in the top two, or so, in terms of the likelihood that they will be the "leader of the free world" come late January of next year.
If you want something you can be dead certain of, however, we'll offer you this: if there is one thing that both the Obama campaign and the Romney campaign have in common, is that both, right at this very moment, just cannot believe how it's come to pass that they aren't beating the other guy like a drum.
Mitt Romney came into this campaign looking at the sort of dreadful economic fundamentals that should all but guarantee his success. Yes, lots of people find Barack Obama to be a likeable guy. But at the time Romney officially became the GOP's nominee, the country was mired in the sort of high unemployment numbers, and the sort of anemic GDP figures, that have, historically, all but kneecapped the ambitions of incumbent presidents. The hard part, for Romney, was getting through his primary. And that wasn't all that hard! From there, the whole plan was to lie low, keep it vague, and use a titanic war chest to seal the deal in the end. And that's the plan they followed.
It didn't end up going anywhere in particular. The economy, for all its woes, managed to struggle upward, with incremental improvements. It shouldn't have been enough to capsize Romney's approach entirely, but for whatever reason, the Romney campaign simply kept suggesting that there were cracks in the foundation of the Obama recovery, without actually explaining to America where they were, and who was getting ground up in the fissures. Romney presented himself as a "turnaround artist" -- the guy with the quick fix for certain resuscitation -- but instead of laying out a mission, he kept his details hidden. And when pressed for details, Romney gave the sort of answers that led Henry Blodget to opine: "One of the most telltale signs that a company is about to blow up is when its CEO gets indignant at anyone who dares question his detail-free assertions that the numbers will work."
Part of Romney's problem is that the best argument to mobilize the populist masses to throw Obama out of office is to point out the numerous occasions that the Obama White House put Wall Street ahead of Main Street while managing the recovery -- an argument that Romney is congenitally and ideologically unable to make. Another part of the problem is that Romney, apparently had no other plan. In the late stages of the election, Romney's "plan B" became prosecuting the Obama administration for the Benghazi attacks. You saw how that went: he boldly stepped into the fray to politicize the incident, got caught out in the second debate whilst needlessly arguing semantics, and then dropped the matter nearly entirely in the third debate, opting instead for a sustained jag of agreeing up and down with Obama's foreign policy.
Meanwhile, over at Team Obama Re-Elect Headquarters, Romney's nomination felt like a boon to them as well, because he was precisely the sort of candidate they wanted to draw in order to turn the competition from a "referendum" election to a "choice" election. Romney, they quickly surmised, was a politician without a "core" -- utterly lacking in convictions, ready to alter his positions on a dime for the sake of political expedience. And this wasn't something they had to spin from cotton. There was already a substantial body of work available that firmly confirmed this supposition -- a body of work that was being added to by the very Republicans Romney was competing against in the primaries. Plus, as a bonus, there was Romney's Massachusetts health care reform initiative, which begat Obamacare. And every time Romney vowed to repeal Obamacare, as he was obligated to do by his party, it was going to add to his soulessness.
Then, to the eyeball-popping astonishment of nearly everyone who watched, Barack Obama came to the first debate and was utterly, hopelessly flummoxed when the very Mitt Romney they'd spent all summer warning America about -- the guy who shifts his positions on a dime, the guy without a core -- actually showed up for the debate.
There he was! In the living flesh! Exactly as advertised. And yet somehow, Obama was completely unprepared to contend with Romney's suddenly moderate posturings, despite the fact that Romney's own consigliere, Eric Fehrnstrom, said months in advance that Romney was going to take all of the hard-right positions he'd adopted to win the primaries and shake the Etch A Sketch. At the first debate, Mitt shook and shook, and Obama didn't realize until the following morning what was happening. Obama's mistake allowed Romney to do the one thing he hadn't been able to do on his own -- clear the bar of plausibility.
With this in mind, it shouldn't be surprising that the election has retreated to its initial fundamentals. The economy is bad, but Romney is strange, and so the popular vote is a wash while Obama enjoys a firewall in the battleground he conquered in the first place. The sugar rush of Obama's convention wore off. Mitt's post-first debate momentum ended when he failed to build upon it. Each man has a decent shot of prevailing on Election Day. You don't need a complicated explanation for why the race is as close as it is.
Besides, there is a more interesting question to be asked. What was this presidential campaign about, exactly? Was it really, in the end, about anything at all? America is still enduring one of the most persistent economic calamities in recent memory, with a hurricane's devastation now piling on additional misery. Obama says we can't afford to go back. Romney says we can't afford to go "Forward," to use the Obama campaign slogan.
So where are we going? No one can tell us. Obama wants to press ahead with his "plan A," but can't explain how he'll overcome the structural impediments thrown in his way by a hostile Congress. Romney wants to switch tracks to his "plan B." Maybe it's Paul Ryan's plan! Maybe it's not. No one is saying for sure. And no one wants to explain how the un-mathable math of his phantom plans actually adds up.
And neither candidate is exactly dazzling the electorate with a vivid picture of what the future might look like, or enlisting the electorate in a national mission to bring about those ends. Obama's got Michael Bloomberg endorsing him on the grounds that he's the candidate of sound climate science -- a topic he's not even broached on the campaign trail. Romney's got the "clear eyes, full hearts, can't lose" line from "Friday Night Lights" -- which if his base had watched in the first place, might have been a more successful television series.
Somewhere, between one candidate's warnings about returning to the past, and the other candidate's fears of persisting on the current path to the future, is a here and now filled -- like a binder -- full of people, who have not figured into the campaign conversation at all. For these people, Romney offers a bunch of vague plans and a sack full of wild lies, while Obama counters with a bunch of vague plans and a passel of Internet-ready meme-zingers. (Of course, in fairness, there is actual political science that suggests that vagueness and deception have a decent amount of utility. The jury is still out on whether Binders Full Of Big Bird's Bayonets move voters to the polls.)
And bless them all, but the political media doesn't get out of this election clean, either. If you've been wondering why a universe of political reporters and pundits seem to be blissfully unaware of the problems that ordinary people are facing -- almost as if they are content to reduce huge calamities like the pervasive unemployment crisis to mere obstacles that block the ambitions of affluent, celebrity politicians -- you should know that the media gave up on covering the lives of Americans in the Crisis Years a long, long time ago. They had their reasons, as they'll readily admit: all of the powerful political figures they had "access" to stopped talking about it, so what were they supposed to do? Talk to some poors? No one covets access to poor people.
And so we arrive at the end to this campaign about nothing at all. An electoral season that is somehow simultaneously incomprehensible and yet exactly as expected. Full of sound and fury, yada yada. It was supposed to be "The Most Important Election In Our Lifetime," but it's become "The Election That Has Horrified Children Into Sadness And Tears."
Lord only knows if next week's election night will finally put this campaign to bed, or if fate has some more terrible nonsense in store. As they say, if it were done when 'tis done, then 'twere well it were done quickly. It has overstayed its welcome.
THE SINGLE DUMBEST THING WRITTEN ABOUT POLITICS, 2012 EDITION: It was a hotly contested race this year. After all, David Brooks alone wrote thousands and thousands of words. And we had to nominate ourselves for saying, "Rick Santorum is the candidate in the race that every conservative likes, but no one wants to particularly vote for." Or something along those lines. Hey, we're admitting it, trust us, we wrote it! [Ed. note: You wrote it, anyway. --Elyse Siegel] Sorry, Rick!
But in the end, there's Politico, and this: "Pundits and reporters are naturally wary of picking a winner in a tight election, because getting it wrong is a nightmare scenario."
No, there isn't. There is no nightmare scenario, at all. That is just blitheringly stupid. As Alex Pareene says: "There are no penalties in American punditry for being disastrously wrong. You can be wrong all day long, on matters as minor as running mate choices or matters as consequential as whether it is a good idea to invade and occupy a nation that poses no threat to the United States, and even if you end up ousted from your current position, there is always another network, another newspaper, another magazine, or, if you’re in truly dire straits, a prominent think tank, that will cheerfully take you in."
We're all just peddling thought-farts, here, folks. And that's okay. But no one who does so should be pretending that they are in some high-stakes reputational game, courting terrifying consequences at every turn. They aren't, they never are, they never will be.
TEN THINGS WE NEVER WANT TO HEAR AGAIN, AFTER THE 2012 ELECTION IS OVER: You know, every election year is filled with important discussions of the issues that affect the American people. Ha, just kidding! Actually, what most people remember from elections are the new ways we manage to drive our political culture ever further into the future depicted in the film "Idiocracy." Remember how we spent a whole day in 2008 pretending that the phrase "lipstick on a pig" was sexist? When stupid fires the starters' pistol, it's a headlong sprint down the steeplechase of inanity. So let's nip some stuff in the bud, and agree to never speak of these things again.
1. 'DOUBLING DOWN': We get it, political writers. Some guy went out and said something, and you were all like, "Did you really say that?" and then they come back and say it even harder. But "doubling down" is a term from blackjack, and it is pretty clear that you do not actually know what it means. Unlike successful political writers, successful blackjack players have impressive mental acuity and nerves of steel, so let's defame their great works no longer. There are perfectly good words -- amplify, escalate, expand, extend, intensify -- just waiting around, hoping you will use them.
2. ALTITUDE SICKNESS AS AN EXCUSE FOR POOR PERFORMANCE: Politicians are not members of the defensive backfield facing the Denver Broncos. They are well taken care of members of the privileged elite who talk for a living. Barack Obama did a whole speech in the stadium named ... well, it was named "Invesco" at the time, but he did a whole speech near the area where the former stadium named for being a mile-high once stood. So, if Obama was terrible in Denver at the debate this year, it was because of something else, making him terrible.
3. THE UNSEEN POWER OF LADY HORMONES: Given the fact that CNN spiked that weird story about how the hormonal condition of women shaped voter preferences, we can officially put that matter to bed. And I hope we can all agree that "If it’s a legitimate rape, the female body has ways to try to shut that whole thing down."
4. SPEAKING OF RAPE ...: Stop speaking of rape, politicians, unless you're on board with the simple concept that rape is when anyone is coerced, in any fashion, into a sex act of any kind. The key consideration is always, always whether enthusiastic consent is obtained. There are no varying degrees of significance or legitimacy or seriousness. Even if you believe otherwise, it would seem to be well and nigh proven that opening your pie-hole and opining about it is unwise for your careers.
5. HILLARY CLINTON IS GOING TO REPLACE JOE BIDEN ON THE TICKET: Actually, temporal reality and the inevitabilty of the coming election result should put paid to this little bit of high-toned nonsense. Let's just say that this is a stirring example of the kind of cocktail-circuit crap that reporters should not be putting out there. Let's also say that the fact that so many idiots promulgated this idiotic rumor should firmly establish the veracity of Alex Pareene's earlier point -- "There are no penalties in American punditry for being disastrously wrong."
6. THE LINCOLN-DOUGLAS DEBATES: They aren't coming back, and they weren't all they were cracked up to be, anyway. Let's stop remembering these so fondly. (This is also an urgent request to just jettison Newt Gingrich from the world of political roundtable discussions entirely.)
7. 'I WILL CHANGE THE TONE IN WASHINGTON': Obama made this stupid promise as a candidate, and boy howdy, has the media ever filleted him for failing to deliver on this impossible pledge. Of course, we're not stupid, and we know that "changing the tone" doesn't happen when one whole faction of American politics greet your hopes with howling bloodthirst and intractable obstruction. But that's why you should never make this promise. If you really want to "change the tone in Washington," don't send us a president, send us a trio of agile serial killers with a thirst for the flesh of legislators and lobbyists.
8. 'AMERICANS ELECT': The notion that America craves a non-specific third party movement that has no platform or candidates and is funded by a bunch of hedge-fund managers under the direction of Thomas Friedman is something that we can cover in six cubic feet of graveyard dirt. So, when it comes back in 2016, recognize it for what it is -- a zombie -- and aim for the head.
9. 'AS SARAH PALIN SAID ON FACEBOOK ...': Come on, now. Surely we are all grownups.
10. 'WHAT ABOUT YOUR GAFFES?': Come on, now. See above, and "double down." (There, that's the last time.)
ELECTORAL PROJECTION: It's time once again for your Speculatroners to end the week with our trademarked Electoral College projection, which is -- as always -- a mix of careful poll study, analysis of prevailing economic trends, pundit speculation, and the knowledge that if we get this wrong, we will probably be put to death, immediately.
As we've been saying, the 2012 race has certain inescapable economic fundamentals that have sapped some of the vitality that an incumbent president might otherwise enjoy. We do not deviate from the consensus that the popular vote is likely to be close, nor do we dismiss the notion that Obama enjoys a still-sturdy electoral college firewall. Which, we know, implies something, but we do not preclude the possibility that Romney might win. Indeed, he has a relatively easy lift, compared to many challengers, going into election night. If he manages a higher turnout, if the polling has this wrong, if there are unseen or uncalculable factors in this election that will be built in to the statistical models of the future, he'll earn his inauguration.
To our minds, the shaky states right now are Ohio, Nevada, and Iowa. We actually think there's more reason to be uncertain about Iowa than there is about Ohio, but we can all remember how badly the Buckeye State has undone the hopes of presidential aspirants. Nevertheless, our hunch is our hunch, and so we're going to lay the map like this.
FINAL NOTE: Barring some unforseen disaster, like an Electoral College tie, this will be the final weekly roundup of the 2012 Election season. We hope that we have delivered what we promised -- some relief from the blather and an furtive effort made to demystify the political process, so that ordinary readers, tired of elite pronouncements, can get a sense of what is going on during the election year. If we've failed at this, we hope you at least found our horsecrap to be relatively enjoyable.
Part of the code that bloggers live by is that if you stop by our place, we have to send you somewhere else. So we hope that during this journey, you've followed our links to other sources of great political writing. If we've done that, please continue to give those folks your custom.
Everyone should go vote! No matter who you are or what you believe, we hope that you make it out to your polling place and make your choice, if you haven't already done so. Participatory democracy neither begins nor ends on Election Day, but on this one day, your country really needs you to do this one thing, to keep this nation of ours going. Go, then, with our gladdest thoughts.
And finally, your Speculatroners would like to thank the honorary third member of this team, Paige Lea Lavender, who has labored behind the scenes to make this little project of ours an enticing destination on the web, and who -- as her name implies -- matriculated at Hogwarts (Ravenclaw House).