Wednesday, September 12, 2012

The Other Thing Late-Breaking Undecideds Do

I had an amazing encounter yesterday evening at my garbage can. And no, I'm not talking about an encounter with any of the half-dozen previously unknown life forms I might have found building complex civilizations on the inside lid, either. This was both an amazing encounter and, despite taking place at my garbage can, not totally disgusting.

It happens that my next-door neighbor on one side is a young graduate student in engineering, steadily working his way through the laborious process of completing his Ph.D. Let's call him Keith. He's a good kid insofar as he doesn't set couches on fire in his front yard, but his parents--a husband-and-wife team of contractor/landlord/developers in Melbourne--are two of the most unhinged Tea-Party-moron lunatics you are ever likely to encounter in your life. Keith's dad once told me that money is made from gold and that the shavings of gold are sometimes irradiated by the government to diminish our capacity to resist its efforts to control us*, while Keith's mom recently self-published a 360-page book in which she laid out a blueprint for fixing the public school system, of which the entire text seems to have consisted of the words "fire all the teachers and replace them with people I agree with" written over and over again**.

They are in other words the embodiment of precisely those attributes one imagines when one thinks of Tea Party / Constitution Party advocates who also happen to be wealthy enough to be landed contractor/developers: Loud, blinkered, counterfactual, selfish, scary, and, above all, wrong. I need not elaborate to the point of describing what they think of the current occupant of the White House. It isn't good. And no, the apple doesn't fall terribly far from the tree. But bear with me because there's more to this story than meets the eye.

Keith himself steers a much less outspoken course in such matters, if not actually a saner one. This is partly because he's got bigger fish to fry, partly because he's more sensitive to the lost art of being a good neighbor, and partly because, having spent his entire life being bullied by these people, he can't actually muster the backbone necessary to assert much of anything.

Despite being big-boned, doughy, and entitled to all the unfair advantages of the coddled American white male, he asserts himself boorishly about a grand-total of nothing. He speaks in a constant (and perhaps  chemically aided) monotone, roughly at the same volume level as the thrumming of a hummingbird's wings. He says "yeah," at least first, in response to whatever you say to him. Then he pauses for a long moment before saying anything in return. Often what he does say in return is a non-sequitur, many times it's incomprehensible, and a good portion of the time he follows the word "yeah" with a total nullification of whatever it is he's just agreed with. But he never lets the other guy see him sweat. He smiles oddly and lets his mouth slack open, salting his side of the conversation with awkward pauses and klutzy self-disclosure, but I never get the sense that anything coming from his mouth or anyone else's is anything he'd be prepared to step outside over, even though we're always outside when I'm talking to him in the first place. Call me nutty but I actually kinda like the guy.

Still, none of this is to say that he doesn't share at least some of his parents' views--but neither is he a stepford-wife parrot, either (this may be what inspires my affection). Instead, in what passes for admirable behavior among the political right in this country, he's managed to take the opinions of his conspiracy-addled father and his seethingly anti-intellectual mother, and customize them through the lens of his own experiences and slightly different agendas. What he's come up with is a sort of post-modern bouillabaisse of Ayn Rand and Dada--as if Robert Taft and William Jennings Bryan had conceived a bastard child in a Minneapolis Airport restroom and then left the kid there to be raised by an engineer who lost his job by cutting corners on a safety regulation. He'd be a Republican if he voted, which I seem to suspect he doesn't--if only to avoid popping-up on that particular version of the grid.

Suffice it to say that when such a person encounters you at your garbage can in the mid-September of a Presidential election year, good-neighborly affection is not a bad thing to have at your disposal. Thus it was, last night at the curb, that I found myself saying a hale and hearty hello to my favorite person among all those persons utterly convinced that the country went straight to hell at about the time when the U.S. Post Office started delivering the fucking mail.

Sure I had other, more pleasant things to do--and far more interesting things on which to spend my subsequent frustration, which I assumed would be gobbled up by the PacMan of his Fawkesian nonsense even before he'd crossed the street, but there were also the considerations that, first, I hadn't caught up with him in a neighborly way in quite a while and, second, he'd already seen me. It could've been no surprise that the election was foremost in his mind as a potential common-ground subject for us to chat about. What was a surprise, was what he said about it. Keith, as it happens, doesn't like Mitt Romney.

I don't know what his father or mother think about Mitt Romney, but Keith really, really, really doesn't like Mitt Romney. Keith doesn't like Mitt Romney to an extent that, to my stunned amazement, flirted with the profane--right out there on the street, where I'd never before heard him so much as utter the word 'dang,' even when the two of us were using my piddly electric chainsaw to cut a small tree from above his carport and a large branch unceremoniously fell on him.

"This election is between an incumbent President, who hates me as a person," he said, "and a challenger who hates me because he hasn't yet figured out how to steal all the rest of my crap." (And mind you, that's verbatim.)

It was at this moment that I realized just how much trouble the Republicans are in, this time around, and how badly they misplayed their field of candidates during the primary campaign. And yes, I'm repeating the theme of my immediately-previous column to say so again but you'll forgive me because I hadn't counted on receiving such a glaring confirmation of my gut premise so soon, even on a sample of one. In a bad economy, you don't run a message (see previous column) or, it turns out, a candidate, either, whose overarching present to an alienated electorate is to gloat about Republican success.

Over the course of my political life I have come to believe that most right-wing ideologues find their way to that status through one of two paths: either they suffer a stinging embarrassment in college (as a result of being a little too slow to adapt intellectually vetted truths into their own paradigms), and decide to spend the rest of their lives trying to kill the messenger, or they perceive the progress of their own middling financial success as artificially checked by the intervention of some large, bureaucratic "other," in whose absence they'd surely be golfing with Donald Trump by now.

Most of the remaining votes to be had in this election should be found in this second cohort of should-be Republicans, it seems to me. And for those people, a candidate who rose to economic supremacy by firing other people is just, simply, not, the, way, to, go. Especially in an economy as tough as this one. Keith hates government because he thinks of it as one big thief. So what did the Republicans do to try to secure the vote of people just like him? They nominated a thief. Smooth move, fellas.

This, I now believe, is why we've seen such an improbably stable electorate on the macro scale: It's not that there are the usual pool of persuadable voters ebbing and flowing between the two candidates, at all. If it were, then the various things Mitt Romney has tried to do to win them over (a nomination acceptance speech expressing disappointment at the President instead of vilification, fudging about Obamacare on national TV) would've shown better signs of working by now. No, the few unaffiliated voters remaining in this election are undecided because they know in their hearts that they absolutely, positively, unequivocally, cannot support Mr. Romney under any circumstances. If there were any other explanation, they'd have all moved into Romney's camp already: The President's economic numbers are just not good enough for someone who hasn't already committed to him, to still be considering doing so.

The Romney camp has been saying for weeks now that they are not as far behind as the polls show--and they've been advancing this argument largely around the usual frame that late-deciding voters break 2:1 for the challenger, and that therefore the persons residing in the gap between Obama's 49% of survey respondents and Romney's 45% will end up casting their ballots in large measure for Team Boathouse in November. But in applying that old familiar metric in this election, it seems to me, the Romney campaign is attempting to deceive either the viewing public, or itself. In this election, if Keith's comments are anything to go on the way I think they are, most of the uncommitted voters are locked on a path that will see them ultimately doing the other thing that uncommitted voters do on election day:

Staying home.

And without them, Mr. Romney is in a much deeper deficit in this election than the raw survey data would suggest. Because it would mean that he's already gotten all the votes he's going to get--and they already aren't enough to win.    

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida

*This isn't what he actually said, but on the occasion of my last conversation with him I was so petrified with terror at the idea of continuing to share his company that I tuned-out whatever it was he really was saying, and this is a lot closer than you might think.

**On the other hand, to a first approximation this is true.

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