Every presidential election brings noise, strife, passion and energy. Those who ride herd over the process, the candidates, face Election Day with a frizzled, manic fatigue. And they are the lucky ones.
The most insufferable moment for campaign strategists is Election Day. Not because they fear the verdict. Oftentimes, they know the verdict. But even then, the campaign headquarters is a tomb of twitchy, incoherent idleness. Nothing can be done. All the switches have been flipped. The machine is in control. The voters are rendering their verdict and strategists are no longer in control.
If they ever were.
At a weekend stop in Bristow, Va., President Obama sheepishly referred to himself as little more than a "prop" in the campaign's dying hours. He knows that's baloney. Props cannot launch nuclear missiles or send C-130s to hurricane-damaged New York and New Jersey. But Obama struck a chord of truth when he said his senior White House adviser David Plouffe, who has no equal in the Obama reelection hierarchy (excepting first lady Michelle Obama), is also little more than a bauble. "He's just bothering a bunch of folks," Obama said of Plouffe. "Calling [and] asking, 'What's going on?' "
Indeed. This is the rendering. This is the sickeningly lonely task left for top-flight political masters.
After nearly two years and hundreds of millions spent, tens of thousands of words spoken, hundreds of polls and focus groups taken, dozens upon dozens of conference calls yawned through and untold snarling arguments over travel, messaging, ideology, and ad scripts, the vast, ego-soaked behemoth of a presidential campaign offers its top strategists the task of calling other people asking about what it is they cannot control.
This is why strategists are a lower form of political life than candidates. Strategists struggle with the illusion of control and are made manic walking its knife's edge. On the night in 2006 when Democrats regained control of the House and only the magnitude of its victory was in doubt, the central force behind the strategy, then-Rep. Rahm Emanuel, stalked about Democratic headquarters, a frayed, sparking wire of doubt, vulgarity and anxiety.
Candidates know they aren't in control. In fact, one of the cruelties of success in American politics is that the farther you rise, the less of yourself you control, the less of your original self you recognize. The best candidates and the best leaders retain an irreducible core of ideas and beliefs that strategists and stratagems cannot touch or dislodge. It is a place where character resides—the character to accept victory and defeat; to remain steady when few others can; to summon strength when every fiber of your being feels weak.
Every politician on a ballot knows something about summoning these strengths or finding them unreachable. That is the discovery that comes with the "arena" Teddy Roosevelt talked about.
This Election Day is no different. Except it looks and feels too damn close to call. At such times, those of us who fancy ourselves educated about politics like to fall back on what we call The Fundamentals.
It's not a rock band or a group of superheroes—though, honestly, I could use the diversionary entertainment of both.
The Fundamentals are a set of loosely understood truths that have predictive power ... until they don't. A classic example is The Fundamental that a president seeking a second term would not be reelected if his favorability rating dropped below 50 percent. George W. Bush defied that when he beat John Kerry in 2000 with a preelection Gallup favorability rating of 48 percent—the new bleeding edge of endangered incumbency.
The Fundamental that no president has been reelected since the Great Depression with an unemployment rate higher than 7.2 percent (Ronald Reagan's in 1984) is in obvious jeopardy now because Obama is—according to Stan Greenberg and James Carville—on the cusp of victory with a jobless rate of 7.9 percent.
I don't know if Obama will win. But I know he's turned one of the The Fundamentals on its ear by being this damn close to victory.
So, which of The Fundamentals matter and how much?
This is the sanity-lacerating game that's gone on in Chicago and Boston since Sunday.
For the Romney campaign, these Fundamentals stand out:
1. In six of the last 10 national polls, Mitt Romney is tied with Obama or ahead by 1 percentage point. As a practical matter, all 10 polls are tied because they are within the margin of error. Romney advisers don't see how they can lose running this close to an incumbent president in times of economic distress.
2. Romney is running ahead of where Kerry was as Bush's challenger. Romney's RealClearPolitics.com average is 48.1 percent to Obama's 48.5 percent. When Bush beat Kerry in 2000, his election-eve RCP average was 48.9 percent to Kerry's 47.4 percent. Bush won 50.7 percent to 48.3 percent. In victory, Bush added roughly 10 million voters to his 2000 total. No one expects Obama to add 10 million vote to his 69.4 million total in 2008. In a smaller universe with less space between the challenger and incumbent, Team Romney smells victory.
3. GOP voters are consistently more enthusiastic than Democrats. No national poll suggests otherwise and Democratic anxiety is currently confined to this variable. If GOP voters and GOP-leaning independents swamp current Democratic turnout/modeling, Romney could prevail. Enthusiasm is fundamental to victory and defeat. Plenty of savvy GOP operatives, namely Karl Rove in 2006, predicted that ground-game superiority would blunt voter enthusiasm. It didn't. The GOP got rolled and lost the House and the Senate. Presidential campaigns are different, but enthusiasm is the most treasured commodity down the stretch.
4. Independents appear to be leaning to Romney. The latest CNN/ORC poll showed Romney ahead 59 percent to 37 percent. Romney led by 4 points (46 percent to 42 percent) in the most recent Pew survey. One cautionary note for Romney: Gallup's last preelection survey had him effectively tied with Obama among independents. A close race with what appears to be a sustained preference among independents for the challenger is a Fundamental that Team Romney not only clings to but believes in.
In Chicago, The Fundamentals are these:
1. State polls favor Obama and always have. Team Obama said it in 2008 and repeats it like a mantra now: Don't ask about national polls, ask about state polls. Romney's electoral vote path to 270 would never be determined by national polls, but by state-by-state vote tallies. Obama's persistent lead in Ohio gives Chicago confidence that it can hold those 18 electoral votes and, similarly, ward off a late Romney charge in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The predictive power of state polls is telling, as can be seen here.
2. Women will vote in large and geographically significant numbers for Obama. He runs 8 points ahead of Romney in the CNN/ORC poll and he's running 11 points ahead in Gallup's most recent data set. The proportion of women voting has exceeded the proportion of men voting in every election since 1980, and since 1996, that trend has been systematically widening—rising to a gap of nearly 5 points in 2008.
3. Middle class/middle income connectivity. This might be The Fundamental that Chicago cares about most. It has assiduously gauged voter sentiment on Obama's attachment to middle-class values and sought to preemptively disqualify Romney as a putative friend of middle-class families. The ABC News/Washington Post poll showed Obama leading Romney 50 percent to 44 percent on the question of who best understands the nation's economic problems. That gap is larger in some polls, but no Romney adviser can or will contend that Romney has ever led or even been remotely competitive on this question.
4. Hispanics. Team Obama got very wobbly-kneed about Florida two weeks ago. The campaign wasn't going to pull out, but Democrats close to the effort suggested sending staff and money elsewhere—like Ohio. Nevertheless, Obama stayed, and Hispanic voters in Dade County are a microcosm of the Hispanic influence that may prove vital. Florida Democratic hands now openly wonder if Dade and neighboring Broward County could produce a net Obama gain of between 450,000 and 500,000 votes (he won both counties by 394,191 in '08). If that happens, Obama could carry Florida narrowly even if GOP turnout, as expected, surges in Jacksonville, Panama City and Pensacola and even if Romney edges ahead with independents. In Monday's ABC News/Washington Post poll, Obama led Romney 66 percent to 31 percent among Hispanics.
5. Proximity. This is the only intangible that Chicago relies upon, one rooted in Obama's misty-eyed remembrances of his time as a community organizer. Campaign manager Jim Messina never tires of reminding reporters that the Obama campaign never left battleground Iowa or battleground New Hampshire or Colorado, Florida, Ohio, Pennsylvania, or Virginia. The campaign is centralized locally first and grows back toward Chicago. The central metaphor is a snowflake—a core team leader surrounded by layers of attending volunteers who have, in many cases, been working Obama reelection tasks for years. Some of them for five years. Yes, collective Obama enthusiasm is down. But Team Obama enthusiasm has remained stout and immovable. If Obama wins reelection, this devotion to bottom-up organizing and grassroots autonomy (local team leaders can and do tell Chicago what to do) will become the new standard for presidential politics. Successful presidential politics.
Those are The Fundamentals.
Voters will decide which matter most. And strategists will go on pretending they control more than they do. Because, in the end, voters always matter more than fundamentals.
CORRECTED: An earlier version of this story incorrectly said when Bush beat Kerry in the presidential race, it was in 2000.