Theater of the Absurd


Theater of the Absurd

By R. Alan Clanton
Thursday Review Editor

‘Twas the night before Tuesday and all through the house
Every candidate’s visage was ceaseless and loud...

November 5, 2012: With the presidential horse race essentially deadlocked in most polls nationally, and with only a few hours remaining before polling places open on Tuesday, the candidates and their teams engage in blitzkrieg—a merciless saturation bombing of what remains of the theoretically undecided voters in places like Florida, Ohio, Colorado, Iowa and Virginia. CBS News reported tonight that by six a.m. tomorrow nearly two billion dollars will have been spent by the two major candidates and their proxies among the PACs.

Travelling in Florida, I spent the evening watching bits and pieces of the news on several Jacksonville television stations. In a two hour stretch from roughly 5 p.m. to 7 p.m. I may have seen or heard some 40 political ads, in most cases one after the other after the other in a kind of theater of absurdity. There were no commercials for accident attorneys, none for car dealers, not a single one for a restaurant or carpet cleaner or weight loss product. There was only the ceaseless political harangue of the presidential candidates in their (mostly negative) ads, and a smattering of spots on for Senator Bill Nelson or his GOP opponent Connie Mack.

Friends with landlines and cell phones report feelings of anxiety and fear when numbers they do not recognize appear on their caller IDs. For residents on Virginia, Wisconsin, Colorado, and, of course, Ohio the experience is much the same. Some analysts with a keen eye for numbers suggest that the entire election may come down to a handful of counties: Cuyahoga in Ohio, for example; Duval in Florida.

The candidates barnstormed so heavily—with the President hitting five states in one day and his challenger Mitt Romney landing in six states—that by evening their voices were strained and hoarse and their faces lined with the creases of exhaustion. Romney, speaking in Ohio, sounded as always enthusiastic, but one could detect in his dry rasp a desire for closure. Numbers wonks on both sides watch micro-changes in even the smallest swing counties in the fiercely contested swing states, and even tonight the Romney campaign is considering morning events in Ohio and Pennsylvania, a true indication if there ever was of the razor thin margin between the two candidates.

As usual, Florida presents itself to the nation as being unable to satisfactorily manage an election, though in fairness the early voting processes in the Sunshine State have clearly overwhelmed the system due to a much higher than expected demand. And New Yorkers may get an extra day of voting as well if proposals to extend balloting prove acceptable to courts. Still, the election—now approaching two billion in total cost—will come to a close, perhaps, by late tomorrow.

Ultimately, the outcome for most of the 50 states has already been predetermined. Other than the seven battleground states of Ohio, Florida, Colorado, Nevada, Iowa, Virginia and Wisconsin, the rest will fall into their widely predicted columns. President Obama has the advantage here, for he starts with sure wins in some of the biggest prize states for any Democrat—New York, California, Massachusetts, Illinois, Michigan and New Jersey, along with a second tier of equally reliable smaller states: Minnesota, Oregon, Washington, Hawaii and Maryland. This gives the President a solid pad upon which to build his lead in the Electoral College.

Romney also starts with a solid Red State base, beginning with what everyone agrees will be a sweep of the south—from Texas in the west across to South Carolina, from Kentucky down to the very border of Panhandle Florida. Romney will also sweep many western states—the Dakotas, Kansas, Nebraska, Oklahoma, Utah, Wyoming, Idaho, Montana, possibly Missouri—a huge windfall of land mass which overstates their relatively small electoral power. Romney desperately needs Florida in his column, and many polls show him with a slight lead in the Sunshine State. But there are contrarian polls which show just the opposite, and the Obama camp refuses to concede a single potential vote in the land of Jeb Bush and Rick Scott. Still, many analysts see Florida tilting inevitably into Romney’s favor, and most polls bear out that view.

The computer models frequently discussed on CNN, NBC and CBS all include the caveat that Romney’s numerical hurdles are greater than those the President must face on Election Day. To win re-election the President can simply win one or two of the remaining big prizes, and still give up the remaining battleground states; Romney, on the other hand, must draw a more statistically challenging hand of cards, winning most—not merely some—of the swing states.

But this ignores the deeper considerations of two oddly polar points—those who have already voted in early balloting states, as well as those who have not participated in early voting, ostensibly because they have some lingering level of indecision. It seems reasonable to suggest that the President must persuade only a couple of key states to go his way, but it is also more than reasonable to demonstrate in the math that Mitt Romney needs to merely attract one last surge of approval from a scant two percent of several of these states to win the election. In that sense, Romney, as challenger to the incumbent, has the slightly easier of the two Herculean tasks. Further, the fact that Republican analysts see Pennsylvania as now potentially in play demonstrates either foolishness on the part of the GOP brass, or confidence that Romney’s now increasingly resonating message is, in fact, converting Reagan Democrats back into the Republican fold.

In the meantime television viewers in those several crucial states can expect another four to seven hours of mind-numbing, deafening, carpet-bombing excess—an endless cycle of back-to-back ads meant to channel the last vestige of hope from even the most civically thick-skinned voter of the undecided stripe.

Those who survive the night will do so only because that turned off their television, unplugged their phones, and read a good book. My choice will be anything by Dickens. Or perhaps Beckett’s Waiting for Godot.