Last night, I woke up in a sweat. I’d had a very bizarre dream . . .
NOVEMBER 5 — There was Wilson over Hughes. And, of course, Truman over Dewey. But there’s never been a surprise in presidential politics like the one that awaited Americans this morning, who woke up to discover that, somehow, John McCain had been elected president over Barack Obama.
Not a single poll, tracking or otherwise, had McCain ahead. The articles had all been written: Michael Scherer of Time, “McCain’s Struggles: Four Ways He Went Wrong”; Jonathan Alter of Newsweek, “We’re Heading Left Once Again”; and Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe, “That’s It for McCain.” To be fair to them, it was hard to find a single major pundit anywhere who predicted McCain would win — though the astute Michael Barone, author of The Almanac of American Politics, did pen a column 17 days before the vote warning that a surprise was possible. Given Barone’s credentials, someone should have listened.
Of course, Wednesday-morning quarterbacking is ridiculously easy, but in retrospect, what happened should have been crystal clear: Obama’s lead was never as great as the media hype that accompanied it — he only led by two to six points in some major tracking polls. In several of them, Obama tellingly never cleared 50 percent. (There was a larger-than-usual undecided vote.) And whether it was the so-called “Bradley effect” (suggesting a racial element to the vote) or something else, Obama performed last night exactly as he often had in the spring against Hillary Clinton: he ran below expectations.
Meanwhile, the tsunami of youth support for Obama never materialized. Instead, it was the over-65 crowd who turned out as if the election were a five-o’clock dinner special, and who voted in record numbers for their fellow senior citizen.
“It was fear of the known versus fear of the unknown — and fear won out,” quipped one McCain aide.
In the campaign’s final days, as the financial crisis that had boosted Obama in mid September seemed to fade somewhat, McCain found his voice, constantly challenging Obama on taxes. In contrast, Obama essentially took victory laps, promising to “change the world” and drawing huge crowds. He outspent his rival exponentially; even General Colin Powell endorsed him. Meanwhile, his supporters freely gave self-congratulatory interviews to a willing media. The press reported his transition team was already meeting. Cabinet lists were drawn up. Newsweek wondered how “President Obama” would govern. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and other Capitol Hill leaders announced their ambitious plans for the first 100 days; Jesse Jackson promised that the country’s policies toward Israel would soon change.
It was the “Feiler Faster Thesis,” popularized by Slate blogger Mickey Kaus (and credited to author Bruce Feiler, who wrote Walking the Bible), in action. In an era of short memories and even shorter attention spans, it almost appeared as if Obama was already the incumbent. So, in a time of unrest, voters kicked that incumbent out — after all of a month.
The ugly surprise
At first, it wasn’t evident that something extraordinary was brewing last evening. The polls in Virginia closed at 7 pm Eastern time, and that race was too close to call (no surprise there) since, even though Obama was favored in the Old Dominion State, George W. Bush had carried it by eight points both elections.