Well, as we enter the final days of the campaign, there are no more vox pops to be done, no more speeches to watch. Everyone’s been interviewed, every speech is identical, nothing to do now but to surrender to the televisual oxycontin of the three 24-hour news networks. Memories of an actual high are now distant — now, it’s just about keeping withdrawal symptoms at bay.

Give me Hannity and Colmes, give me Keith Olbermann, give me pundits, David Gergen, Donna Brazile, Nancy Pfotenhauer, give me soundbites, and cheap shots, angles and magic maps, just keep talking.

Tuesday night, it may be all over by 8.30pm, i.e. lunchtime in eastern Oz, (and for Western Australians, when the big hand is on the six and the little hand is on the ten, unless some weird daylight saving cr-p I don’t know about is going on).

Indiana is the first state to close at 6pm, and if McCain is in trouble here, then it may be a short night. But aha, here’s the trap. Parts of Indiana have polls closing at 7pm (daylight saving bollox too) and those parts include the city of Gary — or Gaz to its friends — which will go for Obama by about 75%.

So Indiana’s initial results from exit polls etc may well be skewed to McCain, away from what the eventual result will be. Of course, if the 6pm, largely rural and mid-size town, results show McCain in trouble, then old Kamikaze McCain is double toast.

From 7pm to 8pm is when it really gets interesting, because 7pm is when polls close in Virginia, Florida, and Georgia (and a couple of others). If Virginia and Florida both go to Obama, then it’s all over. McCain would have to then take Pennsylvania, hold all other red states, and take another blue state or two — New Hampshire, say, and (and this is how desperate McCain is) something like Oregon or Washington.

Should McCain retain both Virginia and Florida, then settle in, cos it’ll be a long day/night. Such a result would tell us that the polls had been screwy, and that there was a hidden 5-8%(!) supporting McCain and not registered in the stats.

That wouldn’t save McCain alone. He then has to hold every red state, or take Pennsylvania over the next couple of hours, giving him room to lose — as he almost certainly will — Iowa and New Mexico, at the very least. Or swap Ohio for Pennsylvania.

As m’esteemed colleagues have noted here, the myth of a tight race is being spruiked to sell newspapers and TV ads and have something to say. But there is of course another reason for that sort of push, and that is the supreme importance of a sense of possibility to get the vote out.

For Australia, with compulsory voting, the ideal position is to be actually in the lead, but to give the appearance of being the underdog. There’s some of that too in the US, but what you desperately don’t want to do is let expectations dip below a certain level. Why? Because at some point, for true believers, the prospect of defeat gets too much, and you switch off the TV, black out the windows, and get drunk on advokaat or moonshine, the two dominant tipples of hardcore Republicans. Then you get the weird effect whereby you lose not because MOR voters don’t turn out for you, but because your base doesn’t.

The sense of being still in the game is far more important than putting yourself in the underdog slot.

That explains the relentless upbeat spruik of the Republican operatives — the magical thinking of conservative heartlands, such as the National Review‘s “Corner” rolling blog, much less so. Last week they battened on to a one-day Zogby result, which had McCain leading by 1%, which had yet to be added in to Zogby’s three-day rolling poll. When the full Zogby poll came out, it was within the range of all other polls, which have Obama leading by 5-7%.

“What happened to the Zogby lead?” Katherine Jean Lopez wailed on the site. “I hate to be paranoid but …”

Well, uh, what happened is that the Zogby one-day result got folded in to the three day average and the lead disappeared.

Are these people stupid?

Yes, sadly, a lot of them are. The Republicans and conservative thinktanks etc in general have suffered from the fact that so many of their footsoldiers are not only children of conservatives, but come through elite universities of a conservative mien — Dartmouth is the supreme example — straight into an easy master’s degree on a friendly topic, and then slide into a research position in a think-tank or similar.

They know all the talking points, the received idea of American exceptionalism, neoclassical economics etc etc, but nothing deeper. When stuff like the financial crisis etc comes along they’re all at sea.

Indeed one great moment in the McCain campaign was an ad featuring a stormy ocean and stuff about Obama’s inexperience in tough times, etc. The ad ran in New Mexico, a landlocked desert state. Thirty per cent of its residents have never seen the ocean.

Wouldn’t you run an ad in New Mexico which played more on local fears — rockslides, rattlesnakes, mirages etc etc, rather than something alien to local experience? Not if you spent summers on the New England coast. Stormy weather occurs to you as a great metaphor for sudden hazard if your CV includes, under the hobbies list, YACHTING. You dummies.

Conservatives long ago trapped themselves in a circular logic which goes like this:

  1. America is a centre-right country;
  2. Barack Obama, an unashamed liberal is doing better than previous Democrats;
  3. The media is giving him a soft run because otherwise America, a centre-right country, would never vote for him.

The possibility that the country that gave us May Day, four FDR victories, the 60s and the civil rights movement, is not a centre-right country but, to oversimplify it somewhat, a populist-oriented place, where right and left compete for “ownership” of that populist impulse, is genuinely not acknowledged.

Though some strands of conservatism have a critique of the market and its effect on social life, American conservatism, partly for political coalition reasons, has so long seen the market as morally neutral and uninvolved in the shaping of character and culture, that they’ve sold themselves the idea that most Americans still believe that there is some real relationship between effort and reward.

Whatever illusions many had on that score, the last eight years have beaten it out of them. The Bush tax cuts, the radical rise in inequality, the free kicks given to health insurers, credit card companies, union-busting corporations etc etc, have given tens of millions a feeling that they are simply prey to force beyond their control. Their lives are thus not exercises in the expression of virtue, but simply matters of survival.

To get into the position is to be something less than human, so many people will simply be voting for the opportunity to emerge from the tunnels once again. There is a great cultural studies to be not-written around how the rise of monster and creepy creature movies (Cloverfield etc) are expressions of these anxieties in mythologised form, a sense of being crushed and hunted.

In the final days of a campaign you do what you do of course. But a lot of conservative outlets — FOX News among them — have been running this story for months if not years. What happened in Australia in the last years of the Howard government — that false assumption that Howard somehow mystically represented the general will of the Australian people — has been repeated times umpteen here, and it has sapped the ability of the right to understand the nature of a changing nation and a changing world. Hence they never spotted the way in which hitherto solid states like Virginia and Colorado were sliding from underneath them.

Much of this goes back, of course to Murdoch, and his late-stage strategy of staffing his outlets with people who are less flexible, and more psychologically cracked, than the bejowled one. The theory is that the people best placed to wage a phony culture war are those who believe it’s a real one, so FOX News — which has lost 60% of its market share to left-leaning MSNBC over the past two years — is stuffed with the same sort of people as The Australian, that wall-padded redoubt of old groupers, ultramontane Catholics and ex-Maoists.

Such people are no more capable of flexibilty than a toaster could suddenly flip you an omelette. They do what they do, which is why they could never start the conversation conservatism needed to have a couple of years ago, about what it needed to become in order to preserve its viability as a movement.

So, after Tuesday … oh hang on here comes the disclaimer are you ready for it? McCain can still win this. This vote could be a “black swan” — an unknown unknown — whereby the most important result is less the election of a President than the revelation that polling decisively, utterly, completely, does not work, even when results are aggregated, averaged, weighted, woo hoo blablabla flflflflflfl.

But that’s what it needs.

That or a stolen election.

Why does McCain have such an eerie smile? Even, on his recent, very funny, SNL appearance. An air of insouciance? Because he’s pretty sure he’s lost? Or because he’s utterly certain he hasn’t?

Peter Fray

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