The Separate Realities of a '50-50 Race'

As a reminder of the state of play four days before the election, boiling down two previous long posts (first and second):

  • All publicly available polling information, especially swing-state polls, suggests now as it has through this entire year that President Obama has an edge for re-election.
  • Nonetheless many Republicans seem sure that victory -- and a big one -- is just in sight.
  • Some are obviously saying this for tactical effect, no matter what they actually "believe." Karl Rove is predicting a Republican victory, but that is what he predicts before every race, win or lose. Dick Morris -- who knows?
  • But a significant number seem genuinely convinced that their own "worst president in history" opinion of Obama is so widely shared than an anti-incumbent landslide is imminent.
  • Thus we have what is unjustly known as the "Pauline Kael problem." If Mitt Romney wins, especially given his electoral-college handicap, many Democrats will wonder about voter suppression, given everything they've heard about the problem. If Barack Obama wins, many Republicans will be sure that something fraudulent has gone on. How could it be otherwise, given that, like the apocryphal Kael in 1972, they didn't know anyone who could have voted to keep the horrible incumbent in office?

What happens then? Readers weigh in. First, from a reader in Kentucky, about the familiar but important echo-chamber phenomenon:

Your recent posts have again put me in mind of a fact I find myself coming face to face with on a regular basis in my very red state, but which seems to often be overlooked in political discussions: to wit, that is is now possible for a person to never hear an opposing point of view.  A person can go from watching Fox News, to listening to talk radio, to reading conservative blogs, and get the same message every time.  The left is gradually building its own structure (CurrentTV, MSNBC, etc) but thankfully lacks the right's incredible gift for message clarity.  The effect of this is that at least on the right the tail now wags the dog of the Republican party.  Growing Republican extremism is probably not the Fox News business plan, but it is the inevitable effect of having parts of the country where 60 and 70 percent of households use a single, politically biased news source as their only source for outside information.
 
The result is pretty unpleasant to witness.  I love my adopted Commonwealth of Kentucky, but it is impossible to have a political conversation here.  Every conversation I have risks a descent into Republican talking point hell.   When I try to refute those points with facts, it falls on deaf ears.
 
So, when you are discussing, for example, Republican's attempting to delegitimize an Obama presidency by making an argument which implies that Obama could only win by fraud, I have no doubt it is true -- many of the people I talk with already have gone there.  It is the certitude that comes from never having your assumptions and data challenged.  Its as if a third of the country joined one of those hippie soccer leagues where they play every week and nobody keeps score.  Of course they don't know how to accept adverse information -- they've never had to. 
 
The same can be said about climate change.  Once all but the wingnuts believed that we needed to do something -- the question was what (cap and trade, tax carbon directly, etc).  Now, we can't even agree that there is a problem.    Obama proposed what was essentially John McCain's climate plan, and was widely denounced as a 'socialist."
 
I don't know what the solution is, but the phenomenon is one which shakes my faith in the First Amendment.  It's something we need to talk about more, especially after we have the data from this election to look at.

From another reader, whose experience is like my own with some of my childhood friends:

I have one "friend" on Facebook who was a high school classmate and is now an evangelical Christian, sure the end times are coming (and that Obama is a sure sign of that).  She has a series of news sources that I would never have heard of except for her, such as nowtheendbegins, pakalertpress, and so on.  She post things that are outrageous from these sites, and if I counter with anything factual, she is offended.  No evidence from outside can change her beliefs.  Now she has started to talk about how once Romney wins, they will have to hold his feet to the fire too.  These posts alternate with posts about how Democrats will try to steal the election.

My hypothesis is that her belief in the inerrancy of the Bible has primed her for these other beliefs.  Evolution is a lie to her, the age of the universe is a lie, and even the founding fathers to her are all Christians and the US is intended by the founders to be a Christian nation, explicitly blessed by God.  Nothing that comes from outside of the Bible, or websites/news sources that to her tie in with that viewpoint, is trustworthy.

Her belief about the nature of God's relationship with the United States also helps explain why it is so important to her that we not have gay marriage and abortion.  God will withdraw his blessing from us, or will punish us for deviating from following his law, and this judgment falls on the whole country, not on the individuals who are failing to follow God's teachings.  This is why appeals to follow her own religion and let others follow their own beliefs fall on deaf ears.  We ALL have to follow her beliefs in order for God to bless this country.  Do you think it's a coincidence that Sandy hit a sinful area (New York City)?  I think my classmate is probably disappointed that Washington didn't get hit harder, because she predicted that it would.

It's very sad to read this, and yet it gives me an insight that Pauline Kael never had access to.  Unfortunately, I wish that access to my views would have some influence on my classmate, but that is not the case.  She just keeps telling me how my views prove that I don't understand God, and I'll suffer for it in the afterlife.  There's no good answer to that!

On the other hand, from a reader in the Midwest:

I sent a quick 'political science' question to 6 relatives who are voting for Romney, "Who do you think will win next week's election?"  Two are former liberals, now neocons in early '90s, and four are younger voters who came of age in late 90s and adopted conservative/ neocon positions, especially on Iraq and government spending.  So far, two said the election was too close to call.  One said Obama will win.

These people do not work for or donate to campaigns, although they support Romney.  But if engaged in a discussion of budget deficits, Iraq, 'apology tour', taxes, etc., they will fiercely defend the neocon/House Republican views.

While first surprised at the results of my personal survey, I now have an unscientific idea of what may be going on .You quoted mostly commentators whose intent is to portray Romney as a 'winning' candidate or are 'true believers' who ignore reality.  True, but I think all this hype is more directed at keeping the field organizers and 'faithful' excited and hopeful through the rest of the campaign, as turn-out will be a major factor this year.  The campaign may pick up a few 'independents' or 'undecideds' by pushing a momentum message.

But if three out of six ideologically committed conservative/neocons, all of whom are more informed than the average voter and certainly read polls, including conservative ones, aren't fooled, the Romney momentum drive is too late to draw uncommitted voters to its side.  They need to further consolidate their base or election day.

In regards to this message, it is worth remembering that through the primary season it was the likes of Newt Gingrich, Rick Santorum, Rick Perry, and even Ron Paul who emphasized that Mitt Romney would be the weakest possible candidate the party could field against Barack Obama. They were the ones who spent time and money on the "vulture capitalist" ads, the flip-flopper and "out of touch" themes, and "ObamneyCare."

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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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