My favorite newspaper correction of all time—or at very least, the only newspaper correction that’s framed and hanging up in my apartment—is one that followed a Washington Post profile about a Johns Hopkins course based on HBO’s The Wire. It seems David Simon, the series’ irascible creator, visited the class last Fall and answered questions posed by the students. The correction reads: Simon “responded to a student’s question about hopeful signs for her generation by saying, ‘There is nothing that makes me optimistic about the future of the country.’ The [Post] incorrectly included the word ‘more’ before ‘optimistic.’”
That’s pretty funny, but who can blame them? Most people assume a general idealism, what’s known as “optimism bias,” ignoring lousy statistics on everything from divorce to disease in their own lives. But when it comes to collective experiences, optimism in both the short- and long-term can be tough to come by. Though many who work within the Obama administration are relatively confident about the president’s re-election, I myself can’t escape this itchy nervousness. On the day this column is published, it will be exactly 100 days before the election—and this thing is about to get worse. The infinite money pouring in thanks to Citizens United means the nadir is just down the road. Take a look at recent New Mexico polling. In April, reliable Public Policy Polling found Obama leading Romney by 14 points, all but confirming the state’s lock in the blue column. But two weeks ago, PPP found Obama only up five points despite neither campaign spending much if any time there. So what happened? It could be an anomaly—or it could be the fact that Romney’s SuperPAC blanketed New Mexico’s airwaves with anti-Obama messaging. The Republicans will be able to make up ground like this with bottomless cash—unlike in 2008, when McCain was forced to triage states—and it’s going to keep this election close to the bitter end.
More depressing are reports reminding us of this campaign’s unpredictable awfulness. Slate recently observed auto workers in swing states attributing newly steady work not to Obama’s industry rescue but to their community’s heart and can-do spirit. The New York Times Magazine reported this month that the pro-Obama SuperPAC has learned from focus groups that they can’t run ads on Romney’s support of Rep. Paul Ryan’s budget plan, because cutting Medicare to make room for tax cuts for the rich seemed too implausible to the respondents who, the Times writes, “simply refused to believe any politician would do such a thing.” And, just to prove that there’s no ceiling to election-season lunacy, the Washington Post last week dug up a 2004 academic paper suggesting that this summer’s brutal heat could actually hurt Obama (upshot: “voters do indeed punish the incumbent party at the polls for presiding over bad weather”). The absurdity of it all is enough to make me consider turning in my badge and gun, going back to school and becoming a dentist. The sad fact about where we stand today is that 96 percent of the likely electorate has already decided, so instead we’ve got 100 days of chasing around the most insane four percent.
So let’s try to think productively. With the distinct possibility of being the first presidential incumbent to be out-spent, Obama will have to rely on his unrivaled “get out the vote” effort to pull out the win. Unfortunately, recent polling from both the Pew Research Center and Gallup/USA Today finds Romney backers more excited than the president’s supporters. In fact, Gallup showed 51 percent of Republicans were “more enthusiastic about voting than usual” for president, with only 39 percent of Democrats feeling the same way—a lower degree of excitement than Republicans felt voting to re-elect George W. Bush in 2004. Still, Obama has done good work energizing his coalition: young voters with student loans, Hispanic communities calling for immigration reforms, women concerned about reproductive rights and social liberals pleased with greater acceptance of gay marriage. All the same, putting our hopes on getting the under-35 crowd and poorer minority groups out to vote on Nov. 6 can be a dicey proposition.
Republicans know this too. This is why we’re seeing a cheat code being punched into this election in the form of new, restrictive voter ID laws that will disenfranchise more than enough eligible voters to swing the difference in this neck-and-neck campaign. These laws suppress non-white, poor, young and elderly voters, only the last of whom don’t lean Democratic. What’s more, the requirement for a birth certificate is an annoyance to the many women who don’t have one with their current legal name on it, putting up another irksome hurdle for a key Obama constituency. On the whole, requiring specific state-issued IDs poses all sorts of access problems for already-iffy voters: restricted office hours for government buildings, lack of transportation to get to those places, issues getting necessary documentation and all the various fees. Voting is a right, and requiring poor Americans to pay a $35 fee for a copy of their birth certificate to cast a ballot is quite simply a poll tax dressed up for a modern age.
There are also efforts like Florida Gov. Rick Scott’s to purge voters from the state’s databases. Lawsuits from civil-rights groups may prevent Scott’s attempts to throw roadblocks in front of voters, but it remains possible that the confusion will make some folks stay home to avoid the apparent hassle anyway. This spastic and misprioritized world of stopping Americans from voting has its epicenter in Pennsylvania, where 1.6 million voters (20 percent of the state!) might not have the ID they’ll need under a new law, according to the Philadelphia City Paper. In just Philadelphia, that would be more than 437,000, or 43 percent of city voters, disenfranchised – and enough to turn this reliably blue state over to Romney. The GOP’s grotesque anti-values have even lacked the expected disingenuous subtlety, with Pennsylvania’s Republican House Majority Leader slipping into the role of the supervillain and openly discussing his plan by boasting that the voter-ID law “is gonna allow Gov. Romney to win the state of Pennsylvania.” But at least this is attacking a totally real problem, right? Wrong. The state acknowledged in court documents filed as part of the ensuing lawsuits that it has no knowledge of investigations, prosecutions or any evidence of voter fraud in Pennsylvania or elsewhere and that the state won’t even argue that voter fraud is likely to occur in November. Hey, why bother? Bullshit is bullshit.
All of this is to say I’m nervous, and I’m not alone. This campaign and its relentlessly scummy vibe give off the feeling of the whole thing being somehow overdetermined, like some badly plotted movie in which the gun isn’t just put on the table in the first act but surrounded by neon lights and sung about. The truth about working in D.C. is that when you’re so close to the dirty processes and rusted institutions, it can be hard to just sit tight and hope for the best. We may pour ourselves into worship of the power of politics, but it’s a devotion tinted with dread. Campaigns are generally good about not showing the tension felt by small-fry obsessives, but Obama for America’s deluge of aggressive and frantic fundraising emails certainly suggests something akin to nervousness. And this seems to stand in contrast to Team Romney’s confidence, as indicated by their contribution offer of $50,000 to get preferred status at Romney’s “Presidential Inaugural retreat”—which is sure to be the Valhalla of creepo Abramoffian nightmares and slick sociopath boardroom-types toasting the end of their fever-dreamt War on American Success.
Anyway, it’s best to ignore these visuals, even while solid blocks of lingering fear clamp down like teeth. I may be biased toward the narrative allure of disastrous collapse, but the unholy regulatory catastrophe that would hit America if this redoubled, entrenched Republican Party took the reins is enough to tax anyone’s powers of restraint. These are tense fucking times, and perhaps wringing our hands can’t be helped. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself. After all, presidential elections are fundamental things, things worthy of our anguish. We can’t help but feast on the unease, concern-trolling ourselves amid a sustained sense of crisis, persisting on a real-life example of the punch line grumbled by Jeff Goldblum in The Big Chill—the Lost Hope Diet. Still, despite disillusionment with Obama from some of our frustrated liberal friends, this remains a fight to be fought. It seems clear that over the next 100 days, we are going to be madly digging to prevent the tunnel from collapsing. But we’re not digging for fortune—we’re digging for air.
Of course, it may be worth noting that this isn’t unanimous. There was an attribution last week from Buzzfeed—that combo meal of hard political news-gathering and cute pet lists—in which a quote was ascribed to “one of the many extremely confident staffers in Chicago.” Extremely confident!
I mean this sincerely, anonymous staffer: God bless you.