'How Can That Be?' More on the 'They Can't Both Be Right' Saga

Here at blog HQ the Internet is up and running again, so time to work through some overdue items. First, the choice America will make on November 6.

It is natural to have deep divisions within the country on how the presidential election should turn out. It's unusual to have such contradictory assumptions about what is going to happen just over 100 hours from now. Long ago, the film critic Pauline Kael was ridiculed for reportedly having said, after Richard Nixon's 49-state win over George McGovern in 1972, "How can that be? No one I know voted for Nixon." Apparently she never said it, but the quote lives on, in a boiled-frog-like twilight zone, as shorthand for people who are grossly out of touch with majority American opinion, and don't realize it.

One group or another is going to be in that position fairly soon. I don't mean to get back into the "quants-versus-'experts' " debate I mentioned last month and that has been raging recently. What I mean is that any recent exposure to Republican media shows a faith not just that Mitt Romney should win but that he will. For instance, yesterday from the Boston Herald:


Today from the WSJ:


Last night, when our TV came back on after a long post-hurricane hiatus, I decided to stick it out with Fox News. Such airtime as they didn't give to "the mounting scandal in Benghazi" was instead devoted to speculation by Newt Gingrich and others about just how big the Romney landslide was going to be. Newt thought it would be 300 electoral votes at least. The email I get from friends in the Republican campaign infrastructure -- yes, I have some! -- is, without exception, in the same mode: We're going to win. We can feel it coming. The president is getting desperate. A lot of people are in for a big surprise .... Here's a sample, from a mailing list rather than a personal email, that just appeared and illustrates the tone:


I don't think it matters whether Rover or Gingrich actually "believe" their optimistic forecasts; Projecting a winner's aura is part of either campaign's plan right now. (Rove had a similar upbeat tone in public statements before the 2006 mid-term bloodbath for his party; Gingrich was confident about his chances throughout the primary cycle.) And some forecasts, like the ones at UnSkewed (as I see that Ta-Nehisi Coates has just mentioned) are in the pure wish-fulfillment category:


But the evidence convinces me that, beyond the spin and the lunacy and the media's interest in keeping any race "close," a lot of Republicans really believe that Romney is about to win.

Meanwhile, in the "it's not just FiveThirtyEight" category, you have a large succession of models that combine and average state-by-state polls, and all of which show that things actually look tough for Romney/Ryan.

For completeness, here is the FiveThirtyEight probability-of-win chance right now.


And Votamatic:


Or, from Electoral-Vote.com:


Or, from the Princeton Election Consortium:


Or even the not-left-leaning-in-anyone's-book RealClearPolitics, with its current "no toss-up states" map:


Someone is out of touch with reality here, and in a more fundamental way than I can recall.

The point is not that an Obama win would "prove" Rove and Gingrich wrong, or a Romney win would "disprove" the state-poll models. We're talking about probabilities, not certainty. (To spell it out: A tossed coin has a 50 percent probability of coming up heads. The fact that it comes up tails doesn't "disprove" that probability.) But this is not like the normal closely-run election, in which both sides are saying, "It will be close, but I think it will turn out our way." Nor is it like the normal impending landslide, in which one side maintains a brave face but knows how things are headed.

Still, the up-versus-down difference on how things are trending and who holds the lead seems to be a case of the "separate fact universes" problem that affects other parts of our policy extending to our grasp of electoral reality. Some fraction of the population is going to have the "How can that be? No one I know... " reaction on election day. Reid Wilson our sister publication NJ Hotline goes into that likelihood here.

Why does this matter? A reader's note last month makes a case:

There is an additional, more pernicious aspect to the Fox News-Crossroads-GOP fostering of a Romney-is-winning narrative: de-legitimizing an Obama win.  Time and again, the right's narrative toward Obama (and earlier, toward Clinton) has been that his very presidency is illegitimate.  (He's not American, he's Kenyan; the unemployment numbers aren't real, they're cooked; Obamacare isn't Romneycare, it's Soviet communism; and on and on.)

It is clear that should Obama win in a couple of weeks, the right will need to portray that not as the American people choosing the other guy and his priorities/worldview, but as something fishy, possibly corrupt, and certainly illegitimate.  That job will be all the easier if a foundation has been built in the political narrative that Romney was winning all along.  (How might 2000 have been different if Fox hadn't declared W. the winner on election night, and all the other networks followed along, creating an artificial inevitability?  And isn't there an excellent chance that this year's election winds up in a similarly litigious environment?)

This view takes nothing away from the ideas that a) the "experts" are confused and b) that a momentum narrative could be self-fulfilling.  But it requires an underestimation of Rovian thought to dismiss the possibility that delegitimization is a conscious strategy of the right, and that the momentum narrative is a part of it.

More on this later in the day and tomorrow. For now the point is: The perceptions of separate reality have reached a new level.

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James Fallows is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and has written for the magazine since the late 1970s. He has reported extensively from outside the United States and once worked as President Carter's chief speechwriter. His latest book is China Airborne. More

James Fallows is based in Washington as a national correspondent for The Atlantic. He has worked for the magazine for nearly 30 years and in that time has also lived in Seattle, Berkeley, Austin, Tokyo, Kuala Lumpur, Shanghai, and Beijing. He was raised in Redlands, California, received his undergraduate degree in American history and literature from Harvard, and received a graduate degree in economics from Oxford as a Rhodes scholar. In addition to working for The Atlantic, he has spent two years as chief White House speechwriter for Jimmy Carter, two years as the editor of US News & World Report, and six months as a program designer at Microsoft. He is an instrument-rated private pilot. He is also now the chair in U.S. media at the U.S. Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, in Australia.

Fallows has been a finalist for the National Magazine Award five times and has won once; he has also won the American Book Award for nonfiction and a N.Y. Emmy award for the documentary series Doing Business in China. He was the founding chairman of the New America Foundation. His recent books Blind Into Baghdad (2006) and Postcards From Tomorrow Square (2009) are based on his writings for The Atlantic. His latest book is China Airborne. He is married to Deborah Fallows, author of the recent book Dreaming in Chinese. They have two married sons.

Fallows welcomes and frequently quotes from reader mail sent via the "Email" button below. Unless you specify otherwise, we consider any incoming mail available for possible quotation -- but not with the sender's real name unless you explicitly state that it may be used. If you are wondering why Fallows does not use a "Comments" field below his posts, please see previous explanations here and here.


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