Sunday, November 30, 2008

Film Review: The Wind Will Carry Us (1999)

Like many of the best foreign Directors, Iranian filmmaker Abbas Kiarostami apparently doesn't lose much sleep at night over the question of whether his films have too little plot. Far from the roar of pyro crews and the all-nighter hothouses of CG post-production that are modern Hollywood, Kiarostami is free to explore the question, not of how much eventfulness an audience may tolerate in a two hour sit-down in a darkened theater, but rather how little. Without exception his films are explorations into the subtlety of characterization--questions of morals and morale, decision vs. destiny--often hinging on a single event buried deep within the fourth reel and, in case we hadn't yet caught the premeditation in such choices, delivered off-camera anyway. Though perhaps an acquired taste for Western palettes, Kiarostami's introspective character pieces are always provocative, always moving, and in the end, always a treat to the senses to which few other filmmakers may aspire, and The Wind Will Carry Us is the apogee of his portfolio. It is a film so adroitly timed, so pitch-perfect in every tiniest detail, that its completion would surely have stranded a lesser individual with the crippling sensation that he would never be able to make another film again.

The film opens with a long take of the (unexpectedly?) beautiful Iranian countryside, in wide-shot--a tiny-looking International Scout making its way down a winding road only barely noticeable in an unremarkable corner of the scene, while the vehicle's four occupants, recorded in production sound instead of ADR, can be heard quietly bickering about whether or not they've misunderstood their driving directions. Even at this early juncture two things are inescapably apparent about the experience that this film will represent: First, our director sees no reason to explain himself--you know as much about who these people are and where they're going as anyone else, and no more than you're supposed to--and second, if you'll pardon the pun, this film is hardly in a hurry to get anywhere. Through a series of long takes shot at different angles along the route, this anti-scene of four guys gently squabbling about the proper turnoff continues for over five and a half minutes, long after the opening titles would have been over and done with, had there even been any.

Eventually the quartet finds their intended destination--a small village carved into a steep hillside and notable to our eyes as the sort of un-even-roofed hodgepodge that we'd be less surprised to find in desert Africa. Indeed after finding a young guide on the outskirts of town, our presumptive lead character (and the only one of the four whom we will ever see on camera throughout the film) makes his way literally across the tops of the earthen dwellings that will encompass his universe for the duration of the picture, hopping first up two feet to transit the next interval, and then down again.

Kiarostami devotes this opening reel of the film to establishing not just the film's tempo, but also its principal source of mystery--that these four obviously urban Tehranians have checked themselves into the closest local semblance of a guesthouse, apparently for the purposes of monitoring the health of an infirmed and elderly local, convalescing at the opposite end of the village. Throughout his long walk across the rooftops with the boy who will be his foil, our lead character--"The Engineer"--inquires repeatedly and with implied familiarity about the old woman's health, the boy's side-mouthed answers revealing either discretion or ignorance; we aren't supposed to know which.

I can think of no higher tribute to Kiarostami's achievement with this picture than that, by the time we actually discover what these four men are doing here and why they've taken so much interest in the health of an old woman, it no longer really matters to us anymore: Like the characters themselves, we've become immersed in the day-to-day rhythm of this at once surreally alien and improbably familiar little community. Its cranky restaurant matron, her semi-estranged and possibily philandering husband, the arrestingly pregnant and then arrestingly un-pregnant innkeeper, the hauntingly beautiful young woman who milks a cow in darkness so that their collective guests might enjoy just one more locally tricky little comfort from home.

The film is described by assorted critics as a mystery, and to that extent they're right: we are meant to wonder, of course, who these people are and how they came to find themselves in such a far-flung place with such a seemingly insignificant agenda (indeed at one point in the film the Engineer's three accomplices become so bored that they literally disappear, never to be seen again). But to describe the film with this single identifier is to entirely miss Kiarostami's point. There is mystery in life, of course, but it isn't the glamorous, maybe-they're-spies kind of mystery that we so often find ourselves escaping into at the movies; it is rather the mystery of mundanity--the strange shooting-script by which all of us on this homey little planet of ours seem to play out the same micro-dramas, the same rivalries, the same petty squabbles. The mystery in life is that it could contain so little real mystery, and yet seem so mysterious--so wondrous. So beautiful.

The Key Grip awards this film five bald heads, his highest rating. Highly, highly recommended.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Tuesday, November 25, 2008

Blue-State Economics

On one level, there's little shock-value to be derived from the near total absence of Republican mischief-making in the aftermath of November 4th: They did, after all, just get their watches wound in the national election. But taking a slightly longer view, it's not obvious exactly when this same measure of electoral defeat has stopped them before. Past Democratic transitions have been marred (to say the least) by a bull-headed intransigence on the part of the defeated, born of equal parts denial, ideological certitude, and base-whipping. Just ask Bill Clinton.

If all is quiet on the right flank in Washington these days, it may just be that the Republican agenda-makers, especially on the domestic side of the ledger, have awakened to the bankruptcy of their ideas--but probably that isn't it. The far more likely scenario is that the right is lying in wait for the sort of substantive policy shifts that Barack Obama has already promised and already (during the campaign) been assailed for. Once the assault on these shifts has agitated their own base into a frenzy of disdain, Republicans can renew their time-tested formula of overwhelming the national agenda with catch phrases and vitriol, inevitably casting the Democrats in a weak light, despite the power and snatching away the independents.

It is worth considering how things got this way.

The modern discipline of economics is surprisingly neutral on questions of political discourse: Progressive income taxes may be defended on the principal of "diminishing marginal utility," by which a dollar taken from a wealthy person and given to a poor one has a net-beneficial effect on all of society's collective happiness, to pick one random but unusually topical example. Environmental regulations may be defended on the principal of "internalizing social costs," wherein the non-monetary repercussions of a firm's activities are converted into monetary ones through fines and regulations -- to pick another. Minimum wage laws may be defended as having negligible effects on the employment of unskilled labor, since the unskilled labor in question is already being used in its smallest possible quantities by the firms employing them, to pick a third.

And yet, as adaptable as the underlying principles of modern economic thought would seem to be to such progressive claims, the academy is at the same time populated by individuals so ubiquitously and inflexibly Conservative as to render them the frequent butt of both merriment and derision at the hands of their would-be colleagues in the other social sciences. "An economist engages someone else's ideas about the way the world works," wrote one columnist in a recent edition of The New Yorker, "the way a bulldozer engages a picket fence."

This phenomenon is largely attributable to the coincidental (and misguided) desire on the part of professional economists to be regarded as objective, physical scientists--more like chemists and biologists, and less like their messy-headed brethren down the hall in Psychology and Poly-Sci. If the practitioner has to be clean, then the practice has to be clean too--which in turn means that the rich (progressive) texture of policy debates must melt on contact with the paradigm, to prevent it from looking unresolved. The anguish of jobs lost to technological change, the qualitative detriment of polluted air, the elusive tabulation of the spoils of a war on poverty--all of these are matters dismissed with a smug wink and the back of a hand.

As the paradigm has polarized itself to the right, at the same moment in time and for the same reasons the rhetoric from Conservative Think Tanks has tailored itself to a world in which the cleanliness and simplicity of an answer is its highest virtue, existing in a perfect synergy with the rank-and-file's inability to regard a complex idea as anything but a threat. (Surely the good people at Americans for Tax Reform don't really intend for their government to be "drowned in the bathtub"? Surely Grover Norquist has been to enough school to know that bridges in the host city of the Republican National Convention will, absent a government that's just been drowned in someone's bathtub, fall unceremoniously down?) With such a de facto simple paradigm to claim as their own, the Norquists of the world have all the excuse they need to reduce a messy world to painfully simplistic causes that play perfectly with the low-information voters in swing districts, regardless of whether they genuinely believe anything they say, or not.

It would be tempting to presume a January 20th expiration date on such laments--to believe that some sort of corner has been turned. But the bitter reality of the matter is that Mr. Obama's performance was at its shakiest when he found himself confronted by a self-appointed Ohio foot soldier so perfect for the slick-sided provincialism of the modern conservative economics that he was drafted by the McCain campaign as its chief spokesman before the sun had set. It won't get any easier from there.

The Democrats will not win an economics argument in this country on the basis of raw numbers alone; they never do. Now that the battle has been won, the Democrats must take a big-picture approach to winning the larger war. Selling complex, messy ideas like progressive income taxes (to say nothing of the restoration of a modicum of governmental oversight) will require a fresh infusion of street-smart packaging to match such hate-button phrases as "death tax," a fire fought with fire, as it were. If the Obama Administration dismisses such efforts as quotidian (or, worse, elitist), or if it presumes victory before the fact on the strength of its mandate, they could surely suffer the same fate as wide-eyed Democratic Administrations in years past. The good news is that they're already winning this P/R battle with cool-headed, pragmatic appointments and centrist views. In other words, they're winning it the same way they won the election.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Sunday, November 23, 2008

Travel Reflections: Sarajevo

My innkeeper, Faraz, rubs an afternoon nap from his eyes as I apologize a second time for bothering him. He is of the best tradition in such things, not really an innkeeper at all—at least not a modestly paid desk clerk who can’t be trusted to know of which he speaks—but rather the eldest son of a man fortunate enough to own a home with a long row of bedrooms down a chilly hallway with a toilet and a basin at its end. He owns his advice to me as he owns his city: implicitly, unthinkingly, dispensing his thoughts across a threshold leading rearward to a strange-scented and chaotic living quarters, having opened the door just enough to lean through it in his sock feet. The pause he enters into when I ask him where I should have dinner is oblique, pointed away from me and at the floor—at once earnest with intent and casually offered, as though no one else had asked this question of him before.

Ten minutes later through a chilly nightfall across streets of gently sifting snow, I am at the eastern end of the central city, the Bascarsija, where Ottomans and Europeans once haggled over the staples of greed and power, and where today the scars of a fresher and bloodier form of haggling have been plastered over like stubborn memories: bullet holes and mortar craters primed and painted and left to show, as if what happened here could be displaced from one’s mind as easily as a passing windstorm in the American Midwest. That’s where we found Betty Johnson’s mailbox the next morning; this over here is where the Nesic family was blown to pieces in their beds by a rocket-propelled grenade.

At the time of the Bosnian independence declaration in 1991, more than a million people lived here—the Bosniaks—nestled together in a long, oval-shaped valley surrounded by the cupped hillsides of the Bosnian Serbs. Within weeks of the declaration the Serbs had effectively seceded from the secession; for three nightmarish years they hurled mortars and grenades down onto the streets of this once grand and prideful city from a range too near to miss. Tonight the few straggling shoppers with whom I share the pedestrian street seem not to notice the scarred facades—but this, I realize all at once, serves only to heighten the pathos. They don’t notice the bomb craters and the bullet holes because they’re used to it all, and just how could that be possible?

I am at the “wrong” end of the city, perhaps an hour’s walk from the Opera hall with scarcely twice that time at my disposal. At last I have found the restaurant: narrow, half lit, a soot-blackened front casting its shadows across my expectations. No, wait, the door is open, the air thick and comforting and warm. A young man beckons me through the entryway, and again I find myself presuming the company of a proprietor’s son—but how could I know? Is it simply his manner, there before me in his spattered apron: part over-eager sideshow huckster, part mafia-quiet surety of his circumstance? Do I disgrace him with the impudence of such ideas, or venerate him for their inherent tinge of envy? If either is apparent he betrays no sign as he leads me up the fractious pinewood stairs, past the scarred whitewash and muted steel of the kitchen and through a notch in the ceiling no bigger than an attic-hole, to the shoebox diorama that is his upstairs dining space: six tables long, one table wide, low-ceilinged, low-lit, empty.

It would take more than idle speculation to pique the young man’s temper, of this I have no doubt as I take my seat and requisition my beer. He has earned his mafia-quiet surety (if not his sideshow hucksterism) by the simple fact of his survival. I pour the beer slowly when it arrives; there is little room for fractious impatience in a place that has seen such stoicism, little room for inflexibility, little room for pettiness, here. And at last it is this, the true drama that I am so fortunate to have been spared in my so often comically melodramatic life, that brings me short: It could’ve been this way on so many other occasions, but wasn’t—absent the ghastly history of a place where people had, and continue to have, genuine problems. It could’ve been this way a thousand times; it could’ve been this way with parents; it could’ve been this way with bosses and professors; it could’ve been this way with friends.

It could’ve been this way with Rachel.

It could have been, she could have authored, a chapter in my life when nothing much mattered that was past or future: acceptance without pity, affection without context, a companionship without label, purpose or agenda. I could’ve ridden carelessly in the fickle currents of her interest, could’ve spent the rest of my entire life savoring our first, my first, the gray-green light of the bedroom, the curiously specific way that her expression had opened to me, just before her body—how it had seemed to me the way it might have seemed to lie down before God, blinking and mesmerized, beholden and terrified. I could’ve been grateful for that alone, instead of insisting that it mean anything, after.

The darkness outside the window is surprisingly opaque. Wood smoke trails up the stairs after me, suffusing the alcove. There are today about 700,000 people in Sarajevo, though the ramshackle trams and dreary hillscapes afford as much proof as the pock-marked facades downtown that this will never be a place of international communion again, never again a crossroads—never again host an Olympics. Sarajevo is a city whose back has been broken. Still its people carry on. They run restaurants. They answer the doors at guesthouses. They cope.

In a way it’s fitting that I should find myself cloistered this evening in a bistro such as this, its unselfconscious mishmash of checked tablecloths and Ottoman artwork and sad little Hapsburg-era flourishes in the architecture, pondering the destinies of my ambitious young applicants. It is fitting since, despite a coddled bourgeois existence in a country always so far from war (even war of its own doing), it is my own destiny that has seemed so often to elude my shrewdest efforts at direction. There are so many self-contained vignettes from a brusque and testy past, that should in recollection look just like this one—when I should have sensed the gift of spontaneity, the joy of missing some event across town. How much more rewarding, how much more textured could the archive of my past now be?

It could have been this way with Gerry.

There could have been joy in every cranky phone call, a treasured poignancy in every exasperating argument. In Ames, when he picked fights over matters neither of us could possibly have cared about for longer than the classroom lecture that had incited them, I could’ve nodded in his direction and chucked him on the shoulder and savored the very fact of his continued presence in my life. Later, when he began calling me socially, it could’ve struck me as the most natural thing in the world, instead of taking me repeated explanations to accept. In Las Vegas, when he first suggested that things might happen between us—things I could never have imagined until the very moment that he was speaking them—I could’ve responded with warmth and gratitude in the presence of such fearless friendship, so unconditional. So trusting. I could’ve needed less convincing.

It could have been this way with Gerry? Surely it must have been this way with Gerry—the stubborn, impulsive, short-tempered friend for whom the plan had always been to leave us all too young, drowning in a hospital bed in the unsympathetic clutches of cystic fibrosis. How could I have missed so many organic moments in the company of someone with so few of them to spare?

The sea bass arrives, now—conveyed to me up that same, almost comically narrow and fidgety flight of stairs. There is no music, no comment from the waiter, no bon appetit. This, I understand as I pass the first morsel of fish between my lips, tangy with the salty crust and lemony flesh beneath—this is Sarajevo. Not all of Sarajevo; not any Sarajevo. Not tomorrow’s Sarajevo or, more to the point, yesterday’s Sarajevo, either. But mine: A sheltered moment to understand the wisdom of adaptability, the folly of control—the envy one can feel for those who’ve improvised a path to happiness when all around them was destruction and despair. My Sarajevo: A battered little restaurant at the far end of the Bascarsija, a place hard to find and harder to choose. A missed ballet. A cold night, a falling snow, wood smoke—solitude. A plate of fish.

Dave O'Gorman
("The Key Grip")
Gainesville, Florida
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Wednesday, November 19, 2008

The Ten Myths of Election 2008

Most of us aren't thinking as much about the election anymore as we are about turkey, presents, and a certain presumptive nominee for Secretary of State. And that's too bad, because now that we have a little more distance from the thing, it's a lot easier to come to a few sober--if not necessarily popular--assessments of what really happened over the past year and a half. Here, then, are the Key Grip's assortment of the ten biggest misunderstandings, misapprehensions, misinterpretations, and outright misses of the 2008 Presidential election cycle. If I've done my job, at least one of these will make you mad; that is, after all, what I do best.

10. It was John McCain's money disadvantage that sank him in close states. The shame of this one is that it sounds the death-knell for public financing of election campaigns, but the truth of the matter is significantly more complicated and has a great deal more to do with McCain's inability to take the ground war seriously. The intrepid young (?) journalists at spent a significant amount of time and personal treasure criss-crossing the country in the final four months of the campaign, and in stop after stop--battleground after battleground--they found Obama field offices in the least likely of places, bursting at the seams and open well after dinner, while the McCain field operation in the same places was either empty of volunteers or entirely non-existent.

McCain lost Indiana by a hair's breadth and Nevada by an eye-popping twelve points, and both of those results were largely attributable to the massive turnout advantage brought to bear on the situation by Team Blue. If recent election cycles have proven anything, you can't win toss-up states without a solid ground operation, and the McCain people (like the Clinton people before them) seemed pathologically incapable of taking the Obama organization seriously enough to answer it--despite the fact that most of the hardest work could've been carried out by volunteers.

9. A Republican couldn't possibly win in 2008. This country has a long and storied history of holding its nose and electing people that it either doesn't want, or who come from a party that it doesn't want. The most recent example is George H. W. Bush in 1988 -- whom absolutely nobody in this country was thrilled to have as our forty-first President but who, owing to the swift and precipitous collapse of the Dukakis campaign, found himself backing into the top job on account of being the last man standing. The better example, though somewhat less modern, is the time-worn story of Harry Truman (a man whose disapproval ratings were for a time even higher than Nixon's were in August of '74) coming from nowhere to beat Thomas Dewey for a full term in the Oval Office in November of 1948. To suggest that, post Bush, post Katrina, post Iraq, there was no way any Republican could've carried 270 votes is to ignore whole swathes of America's singularly peculiar political history. McCain--or possibly someone else--most assuredly could have won.

8. Mr. Obama's agenda will prove difficult to secure in such a center-right country. America is not a center-right country. What America is, rather, is a country that wants a Head of State as much as or more than it wants a Head of Government--and thus it routinely elects people who talk in short sentences, press the same hot-buttons all day, and aren't quite up to the messy job of governance (Reagan, Bush I, Bush II) if those people can also manage to run an entire campaign without looking weak, indecisive, palpably dishonest, or unable to hit big-league pitching (Dukakis, Kerry, Gore, McGovern). The fact that most of the people who've passed this metric in recent times have been Republicans is a semi-accident of the Republican party's far deeper stable of individuals willing to be stupid about governance in favor of a carefully crafted leadership image. When Democrats advance people who are in fact capable of looking the part of a strong leader, it doesn't even matter if they are Catholic, a philanderer, talk with a funny Massachusetts accent, and their father was a war profiteer with borderline antisemitic German sympathies and contacts.

7. Barack Obama was inevitable. This is partly a reprise of number 9, above, but the specific question of Mr. Obama's supposed cult of personality bears an independent thought or two, precisely because it so willfully disregards the facts surrounding his ascendancy. In early 2004, Mr. Obama was, at best, the second-most popular candidate in the Illinois Democratic primary for U.S. Senate. Then the Democratic frontrunner, Blair Hull, was forced to withdraw when he became embroiled in a domestic abuse scandal and Obama raced in to fill the vacuum. Obama's presumptive opponent in the general election for the seat, Jack Ryan, was also forced to withdraw after damaging information about his child custody battle with an ex-wife in California was released to the press. With no one else to run, the Illinois Republican party turned to Alan Keyes, a man so extremist in his conservatism that he no longer even considers himself a member of the Republican party because it's--wait for this one--too moderate.

With his inevitable trouncing of Keyes (and the stirring keynote address he'd given at that summer's Democratic National Convention), Obama became a national figure overnight and shortly thereafter he began to organize himself toward a run for the Presidency. But fate had one more blessing to bestow on the supposedly methodical-genius Obama, and this particular blessing would come from the least likely of sources: The Republican-controlled state legislatures of Michigan and Florida, both of whom ignored national agreements to schedule their primaries after the "first four" of Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, and Nevada. Instead those two delegate-rich states scheduled their primaries "too early," and in consequence were (temporarily) disenfranchised by the Democratic Party.

Had these two states held primaries on Super Tuesday, the President-elect wouldn't necessarily be Hillary Clinton right now, but it certainly wouldn't have been Barack Obama, because Clinton would've clobbered him so forcefully in the Super Tuesday primaries that he'd never have been able to recover. Take nothing away from David Plouffe's brilliant general election campaign, please, but the cold hard fact is that it took an unusual haul of artfully timed serendipity just to get Mr. Obama into that position in the first place.

Moreover, on the day the Lehman failure precipitated the first big crash on Wall Street (and John McCain uttered his now infamous gaffe about the fundamentals of our economy being strong), Mr. Obama wasn't ahead by six or eight points, he was trailing by three. Much of that was convention bounce, but still: The notion that Obama and his people deserve the credit, the whole credit, and nothing but the credit for their victory two weeks ago is about as far from the reality of the election we've just had as anything I've yet heard. Would Mr. Obama still have won without this enormous assist from the Citigroups and Lehmans of the world? Perhaps. But it certainly wouldn't have been a 365-electoral-vote wave, the way it was.

6. Obama's decision to pick Joe Biden was designed to bolster his foreign policy credential. Rightly or otherwise, Barack Obama and his campaign never much worried about the prospect of a foreign policy debate in the general election campaign. If the Republicans had tried to turn this into another referendum on security, Mr. Obama (as the fall cycle has proven) was capable of pivoting the discussion to his advantage in a variety of ways, without the help of Joe Biden.

This myth is particularly frustrating to me because it's such an insult to Joe Biden: The idea that Obama would never have "risked" picking such a rambunctious and talkity partner if his own weak resume on foreign policy hadn't forced his hand, completely misses the point of the Joe Biden selection. Biden is middle-class through and through, and just the sort of public figure against whom charges of Massachusetts elitism were just never going to stick. He raised Obama's stature not so much with foreign policy voters (is there any such thing?) as with Catholics, working-class voters in Ohio, the Jewish vote in Florida, and anybody who worried that an Obama Administration would be distant and aloof. Say what you will about Joe Biden, he's not distant and aloof.

5. John McCain's biggest mistake was choosing Sarah Palin. This one is actually half-right: It was a huge mistake to pick Sarah Palin, and this very column said so at the time. With the combination of her youth, inexperience, and manifest unreadiness, Palin's selection to be McCain's running-mate opened the door to renewed consideration of McCain's age, judgment and temperament. But as poor a choice as she was--and in the end she certainly damaged her benefactor more than she helped--the question that such analysis begs is, who else? Mr. McCain's very strength as a candidate, his very appeal in the first place, was that he could pitch himself as the country's premier independent: a politician without a brand. It's a marketing strategy that makes for great theater (even when it's mostly a bald-faced lie), but it does raise some serious problems when it comes to picking someone to balance the ticket.

Had McCain chosen, say, Joe Lieberman, then the evangelical right--without whom McCain couldn't possibly prevail--would've stayed home. Had McCain chosen one of his prominent opponents in the primary campaign (say, Mitt Romney), the evangelical right would've revolted against that choice, too, with the added drawback that Mr. McCain himself didn't like any of his prominent opponents in the primary campaign. Had he picked a candidate who was suitable to the evangelical right and also not Sarah Palin (say, Haley Barbour), he would've alienated the swing voters in the middle even faster than Palin herself ultimately did. What Mr. McCain needed was a devout culture warrior, pro-life to the extreme, who liked to hunt and fish and generally kill other living things while talking about being pro-life, and yet who still carried at least the longshot prospect of consolidating his claim on the persuadable independents-- especially women. In 2008, there was exactly one person who came even close to fitting that description, and he picked her.

4. The PUMAs were McCain's best path to victory. File this one as a counterpoint to (5), perhaps, but the idea that there were legions of disaffected Hillary voters out there, prepared to cross over and vote McCain, was even at the time so fanciful as to seem downright comic. PUMAs were never going to cross over in force and vote for McCain, and there's more than one pretty good reason why.

To begin with there is the small problem that a great many of those supposed PUMAs were actually Republicans who'd been recruited by the hate-wing radio crowd to pretend they were Hillary supporters, in the hope of sowing dissension in the Democratic party. The more these people did exactly what Rush Limbaugh and Laura Ingraham and Ann Coulter were telling them to, by logging in to comment fields in the blogosphere and droning on and on about how pissed they were that Hillary was getting such a raw deal, the harder it became for the senior McCain campaign staff to discern that they were, in point of fact, liars from within their own party who never had any intention of voting for Hillary in the first place. If there is one great untold story left among the debris of the losing side in this great contest, it is the as-yet unspoken admission that the campaign literally head-faked itself on this question, picking a woman to appeal to a constituency that they themselves had conjured out of nothing.

Add to this the small problem that there wasn't a Democrat left on Planet Earth who was prepared to commit the same sort of ritual seppuku in the voting booth that had denied a clean win to Al Gore in Florida back in 2000. Mr. Bush saw to that. By the time of the Lehman meltdown, the Democratic party was as united behind its own brand as it has been in my lifetime by a margin too wide to measure, and no woman on earth would have made any difference in partisan-base support for the Democratic ticket--not even Hillary Clinton herself.

3. Defeating Barack Obama would've resulted only from making him look scary and different. The Lee Atwater / Karl Rove / Steve Schmidt playbook is to convince persuadable voters that the guy they wish they could vote for is unacceptable on sweeping character grounds, then move in for the kill on a specific question of policy. You show your opponent riding in a tank, and then you follow that up with the Willie Horton ad. You stand passive while a 527 accuses him of lying about his purple hearts, and then you hit him on his right flank over his voting record about Iraq. This technique is referred to as "stripping the bark off" the opposition, but the most important aspect of it is the timing of the two approaches: You can't call someone a tank-riding, unpatriotic, weak-kneed liberal if you've already endeavored to engage him on policy grounds, and you certainly can't do it if the general public has already gotten to know the other guy and come to respect him.

It's no accident that the McCain candidacy enjoyed its strongest polling during the weeks immediately following the Paris Hilton ad--the tactic was pure Atwater and it worked. Many people were still making up their minds about Barack Obama, and here was a concise, not entirely groundless, almost funny TV commercial to assist in making the final judgment on character.

The problem wasn't so much with the ad itself (though of course anyone reading these words would rather live in a country where such tactics didn't work), as with the fact that the attack was leveled immediately prior to the conventions. Mr. Obama neutralized the effects of that commercial by winning back the persuadable character voters at his own convention, after which news of Mr. McCain's choice of running-mate had the unintended effect of blotting out any consideration of anyone else's suitability for high office for the weeks afterward. By the time Sarah Palin herself was standing on an airport runway before a microphone, saying "The American people have a right to know who the real Barack Obama is," the American people already felt they knew who the real Barack Obama is--he had passed the "living-room test" and become someone we were used to thinking of as one of our own. In consequence, instead of asking the question Ms. Palin wanted us to ask, we turned their attentions to the question of just who this interloping stranger was, leveling such nasty innuendo.

2. The Obama campaign won by widening the playing field. Again, this is certainly at least half-true: You weren't going to win an election for President in 2008 by defending all the states that John Kerry had won, and not winning any others. But just below the surface of this inescapable reality lies a Machiavellian bait-and-switch so deft and so brilliant that I find it personally frustrating to have seen so little written about it: Barack Obama and Joe Biden never seriously contested the states in which the Democratic party had always been believed to make or break its fortunes every four years. From Arkansas to West Virginia, along a roughly arrow-shaped swathe of the country on the south side of the Ohio river basin, Messrs. Obama and Biden never spent serious ad money, never made serious campaign appearances, never hedged their electoral bets, and in consequence never stood a chance.

The brilliance of this wasn't in the money that it saved--heaven knows there was plenty of money--but in the agenda that it allowed them to ignore. Democrats and independents in Arkansas and Louisiana and Tennessee and Kentucky and West Virginia had for a generation been thought of as the ideological key to victory for Team Blue (think of a certain Governor from Arkansas or, more recently, a certain first-term senator from North Carolina).

By attempting to build a coalition around the voters in these states, the Democratic party consistently presented itself as a "donkey designed by committee," with no clear sense of what its priorities were or how best to respond to the venomous attacks that were being launched from within its own power band. By running on a platform that carried broad appeal in other parts of the country--one might even say, a platform that carried broad appeal only in other parts of the country--the Democratic ticket of 2008 accomplished something that the Democratic tickets of 1988 and 2000 and 2004 could not: They cabined-off the influence of the upland South. Make no mistake, it was a brilliant campaign on so many levels as to leave them too numerous to count here, but a fifty-state strategy it manifestly was not.

1. Elections are won and lost using time-tested formulas. Here at last we come to what I believe is the core lesson from this campaign season: Successful election campaigns aren't one-size-fits-all. In 2004 if you were a Republican who wanted a (second?) term as President, you ran a security-conscious, character-assassinating, slash-and-burn election campaign designed to paint your opponent as a mealy-mouthed fumbler who can't be trusted to stick to his word in a pinch, and you won. In 2008, you try the same set of tactics, orchestrated by many of the same senior campaign staff, and you lose.

Now, on one level this observation is a tautology. People realize that each election presents both candidates with a different set of challenges and a different set of opportunities. (Imagine a Bush v. Gore election in the middle of the sort of financial crisis we've just had, and you've pretty well proved this point to yourself on a sample of one.) But electoral strategies also succeed or fail owing in large measure to the personality of the candidate him- or herself, too--and this would seem to be far less obvious to at least the people who were running John McCain's campaign, if not Hillary Clinton's.

Mrs. Clinton, lest we forget, ran the bulk of her primary campaign on the platform that Mr. Obama couldn't grasp the bitter realities of a permanent Democratic minority on the electoral map-- offering herself as the only candidate who knew to play for John Kerry's 252 plus one or the other of Ohio and Florida. This strategy would've served Clinton better than it served Kerry, for sure, but it also would have freed McCain from the majority of the downside consequences of his funding disadvantage. The 527's would've descended on Ohio and Florida with a gusto that makes the Swift Boat campaign look vague and indecisive by comparison, after which Clinton would've had a very difficult time defining herself in the eyes of the blue-collar Ohio independents as anything other than the gal with her fingerprints all over the Whitewater billing records.

Meanwhile, the same John McCain who once decried the polarizing influence of the evangelical opinion leaders in his own party could be heard approving television commercials in which Barack Obama was accused of trying to teach sex education to kindergarteners and fighting to prevent post-natal care for the surviving babies of botched abortions. Not only did these attacks ring hollow with an electorate that had already come to know and respect Obama, but the backlash of such a character reversal redounded mercilessly to McCain's own detriment. McCain -- perceived until this election as a principled centrist who would tell it like it is, regardless of hiw it was -- had been coached by Steve Schmidt and Rick Davis into campaigning like just another Bush, at the one time in history when presenting one's self as just another Bush would prove singularly devastating for one's electoral fortunes.

Much will be written and said about this election for years to come. It may, indeed, become the sort of watershed that people have already suggested, thus heaping even more expectation onto the shoulders of a certain skinny kid from Chicago. But out of the shadows of all these crazy and surprisingly durable myths about how the race was run and why it turned out the way it did, the one inescapable truth that has already crystallized is that John McCain lost this thing every bit as much as Barack Obama won it. ...And that McCain lost it, in the end, when he lost himself.

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

Mark Begich Wins!

After waiting more than two weeks for the early votes to be properly counted (and entirely by the way, can we just pause to savor the irony in that little sentence-fragment?), Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich has been declared the winner of the United States Senate seat currently occupied by convicted felon Ted Stevens. Mr. Begich becomes the fifty-eighth member of the Democratic caucus in the Senate (now that we can all go back to thinking about everything else besides the fate of Joe Lieberman) and the only Senator who does not possess a college degree. One other interesting tidbit: Alaska's house race was also just conceded within the past day or so, securing a nineteenth term for Republican Don Young--whose first victory in 1972 was won when the airplane in which the Democratic incumbent was traveling, disappeared. The Democrat in that race? It was Mark Begich's father, Nick.

Many major news outlets have not yet called the race, despite the fact that the number of remaining uncounted absentee ballots is smaller than Begich's current margin. There's actually a pretty good (if somewhat tortuous) explanation for the media reticence, if only in this case: Should the absentee ballots close Begich's margin to within 0.5%, the state must automatically hold a recount. Trouble is, recounts always favor democrats, and with so few ballots actually cast the likelihood of making up a 0.5% margin is considerably smaller than it would be if Stevens could hang his hat on the prospect of 50,000 presumably staunch supporters showing up as undervotes in suburban Minneapolis. Stevens can also pay for a recount out of his own pocket if the margin is larger than 0.5%, but with senior members of his own party calling for his expulsion from their caucus, it seems more likely that Mr. Stevens will take a page from the George Allen playbook, letting the sting of defeat die down a little before quietly conceding.

As the Alsaka race fades from prominence, along comes the beginning of the much-anticipated Minnesota recount, to captivate our attentions for the next few news cycles. As your intrepid columnist has stated with rather foolish confidence on several occasions before, the fact that Mr. Coleman is presently ahead by about 200 votes is utterly irrelevant to the relative prospects of victory for each of the two candidates in that race: Recounts always favor Democrats, and with this many undervotes in profoundly pro-Democratic areas of the state, I should think it a stunning upset if Mr. Franken does not prevail. (At all events, he's in Washington attending freshman orientation, presumably under the same set of assumptions.)

Which leaves only Georgia--where early voting is already underway in the runoff between Republican incumbent Saxbe Chambliss and his Democratic challenger, Jim Martin. Martin's runoff strategy has been considerably more aggressive at highlighting Mr. Chambliss' shortcomings on domestic policy (which are manifold), and with some big Democratic guns fanning the Atlanta base, anything is possible. The Key Grip remains, however, less than persuaded by the media's portrayal of an ultimate, Alamo-style showdown for the life and death of the Republican party.

As the friend of a man who owns vacation property in North Carolina, I've criss-crossed the State of Adventure more often in the past two years than Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton combined, and I can tell you that outside of a handful of royal-blue enclaves scattered around the state, Georgia is exactly the sort of place that Ricahrd Pryor had in mind when he said, of the south, "They've got white folks down there that scare white folks." Surely if the polarizing and suddenly dated-seeming Atwater playbook is going to work anywhere, it's in Georgia. Besides, the Georgia Republican base won't mind the extra attention as the bearers of such grim responsibility, and will happily turn out in massive numbers to stop those icky Democrats from making their decidedly un-magic "magic number" of 60 Senate seats. For all of these reasons, smart money is still on Chambliss.

With the election and its associated after-dramas winding down, your columnist lightly turns his attentions to thoughts of travel, and of movies--a promise he's made more than once before, if you're keeping score at home, and hasn't yet quite managed the courage to try out on an audience of five hard-boiled political junkies. Will Cinema Democratica survive its transition to a three-topic column? Will the comment field be peppered with angry feedback from jilted news hounds? Will the vote to chew up bandwidth with non-political posts come down to a razor-thin margin and, most importantly, who will pay for the manual recount, and who gets the money when they do?

Hey, we've gotta have some drama in our lives, now, don't we.

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

Monday, November 17, 2008

Eyes on the Senate (but not how you think!)

With his (surprisingly re-energizing) maiden voyage to the Miami Book Fair now successfully concluded, the Key Grip turns his attentions to the unfolding drama in the United States Senate--in 2010.

First, the column you might have been forgiven for expecting, redux: The Alaska Senate race will now almost certainly go for Mr. Begich. The remaining votes to be counted in the state are from the most significantly pro-Begich areas, and not even Mr. Stevens' own party wants him to win a protracted after-battle in the courts. With respect to Minnesota, your intrepid columnist might be whistling past the raw count by anticipating a Franken victory, but my memories of logging on to the Florida Secretary of State's website and watching Mr. Gore's numbers creep closer and closer to Bush's in 2000 are just too vivid not to expect a +204 vote pickup for the Democrats in the Gopher state. My guess is that Franken defeats Coleman in both the recount and the courts, but that it will take several more weeks before that prediction is vindicated.

Georgia, in my opinion, will come down to both sides GOTV efforts, though the funnybusiness we've already seen there leaves me even less optimistic than Mr. Martin's deficit in the original contest would suggest, so I'll classify that one as "likely GOP" until convinced otherwise. As I've noted before, nobody who knows anything about these processes really gives a damn about whether the Democrats make it to 60 seats or not; my guess is that they make it to 59 including Lieberman (which, the way things are going, would suggest a final tally of 58, at least for now).

While I'm at it, a word or two about Hillary Clinton becoming Secretary of State: It's a move that makes some sense--for Brack Obama. He takes Clinton out of the Senate, where any difference of legislative opinion or agenda would be amplified by a Jennifer-v-Angelina style of feeding frenzy. Besides, such an appointment would get John Kerry off Obama's back about the same job, which just might be enough political embarrassment to get Mr. Kerry off the rest of our backs, too. As for Clinton playing nice, the last Democrat to occupy the White House certainly had a strong and independently minded woman for his Secretary of State, and the experience of that relationship might have shown the rest of us that competing internal agendas are significantly less embarrassing to a President on the foreign policy side of the ledger.

What Mrs. Clinton gains from the proposition is, as others have written far more eloquently than I, significantly less clear. If the Obama Administration is unpopular in 2012, it wouldn't actually matter because a sitting Secretary of State can't run against her own boss. By 2016, if Obama were unable to rescue his popularity, Clinton would find herself in exactly the same position most recently experienced by Senator McCain: that of convincing an exhausted American electorate that she is different enough from the incumbent to merit a third installment of rule by the same party. If, by contrast, Mr. Obama's popularity is high, Clinton will face the difficult task of either extricating herself from a popular government without seeming overly opportunistic, or campaigning for her boss' job while serving as the sitting Secretary of State--a job not well-suited to justifications for criss-crossing the state of Iowa, given that it's been rather a long time since we last needed a treaty there.

Clinton no doubt believes that a foreign policy appointment would round-out her resume, but the problems with that calculation may well outweigh its benefits: Most people think her neither an expert on, nor particularly interested in, foreign policy, and so--left to scratch their heads about why she would accept such a position, they inevitably come to the conclusion that she's trying to round-out her resume, and thus already running for President in 2016. And given that Mrs. Clinton has just finished a rather protracted round of self-inflicted bruising for her unwillingness to cede the spotlight to Obama, a pre-candidacy for his replacement just isn't the sort of recovery that Mrs. Clinton needs, just at the moment.

One other consideration merits at least a word or two, here: Hillary Rodham Clinton was born on October 27th of 1947, which would make her, on election day of 2016, sixty-nine years old. This would tie her (in years) for the title of oldest person ever to win the Presidency, should she manage to do so. Now, maybe the American public will have forgotten that the "torch has been passed" by the time that distant day rolls around--goodness knows they've done so before--but this time the job of winning back the reins from the young turks will be complicated by the fact that there are numerous other, younger faces in Clinton's own party, many of whom are perceived as significantly more capable at the messy job of reaching bipartisan consensus to actually govern. At all events, hold all your cards, folks: eight years is a long time.

Two years, by contrast, is not.

And while it's typically the case that the party in power loses seats, a quick survey of the races that will be contested in the Senate in 2010 reveals the early makings of what could be yet another long and improbably rocky election night for the Republicans: Of all the Democratic senators who are up for reelection in 2010, only two--Byron Dorgan in North Dakota and Blanche Lincoln in Arkansas--represent states that voted for McCain in the election just concluded, and the Republican Party was unable even to find a candidate to run for Senate from the state of Arkansas this time, leaving Mark Pryor to win unopposed. Dorgan could be perceived as a (lone?) pickup opportunity for the Republicans, but for the small problem that North Dakotans like him--a lot--and by the time the question is put to them, they will have had two years of an Obama Administration's commitment to alternative energy like ethanol, through which to gauge just how committed to the culture wars they still really want to be. The Democrats from states that voted Obama, meanwhile, are nearly all completely safe, barring a totally unforeseen meltdown in Mr. Obama's popularity. Only Ken Salazar in Colorado and Barbara Boxer in California will face truly contested races, and that's assuming that either one finds him- or herself opposite a formidable Republican opponent.

The Republicans, by contrast, will face uphill battles to hold in a variety of races, chief among them in New Hampshire, where Judd Gregg must be looking around this morning and wondering what happened to his cushy victory in 2004. Indeed there was a time--not all that long ago, really--when New Hampshire was considered a relatively safe Republican state (owing to a quirky New England geography which managed to pile most of the Granite state's population into affluent Boston suburbs), but not anymore. Both houses of the state legislature are now controlled by comfortable Democratic majorities, and a Republican hasn't won a statewide race for office there since Mr. Gregg himself.

Arlan Specter has been for a long time now a (mostly) popular Republican Senator in an increasingly blue state, but the Democratic party in Pennsylvania is a well-oiled machine that knows how to win Senate races, and if Governor Ed Rendell were to run against Mr. Specter, the seat would be a very, very difficult one for Mr. Specter to hold. John McCain himself, whose most likely opponent in 2010 is the runaway-popular Governor there, Janet Napolitano, will have to work fast to burnish his independent image if he hopes to cling to what little Washington influence he has left. Mel Martinez of Florida will need a lot more than just a formula consisting of one part anti-Castro saber rattling, two parts security-mom fear mongering, and three parts good fortune to face a weak and ineffectual candidate who could never quite convince even some Democrats that her tenure policies at the University of South Florida hadn't amounted to a goal of harboring terrorists. Martinez, like the others, will face much stiffer opposition this time around, and the Cuban-American vote (as I just saw, first-hand) is far from reliably Republican these days. The state has several competent Democrats to offer, chief among them Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, and if Mr. Obama is anything like as popular in south Florida in two years as he is right now, the Martinez campaign will have to sweat every single vote to carry the day, and indeed probably won't.

Ditto George Voinovich in Ohio, a Republican in a state that seems, even a precious few days after the election, a lot less like a battleground than it has in previous cycles. If the electoral fortunes of the two parties don't change significantly on a national scale in the intervening months, Voinovich will face a challenge from a top-tier Ohio Democrat and, I think, probably lose.

And these, you understand, are just the first flight of potential Democratic pickups. There are numerous other Republican Senators--John Thune (SD), Richard Burr (NC), Jim Bunning (KY), David Vitter (LA), Lisa Murkowski (AK), Kit Bond (MO), Johnny Isakson (GA), Sam Brownback (KS), and Chuck Grassly (IA), could all conceivably lose their seats--owing to a variety of anemic popularity at home, the potential for a strong opponent, and a track-record of previous victories on a platform that suddenly seems dated and petty even to some Republicans. Grassly is popular but Tom Vilsack is even more so and would surely remind Iowa voters of how hungry they were for change this time around, while Sam Brownback should take nothing for granted in a rock-ribbed Republican state with a spectacularly popular Democratic Governor and recent short-lister for Vice President.

Any candidate for Senate in Kentucky should be safe, as Mitch McConnell just proved, except that Mr. Bunning was so infirmed by age and incoherence that he would only agree to debate his most recent opponent if he could do so via closed-circuit and know the questions ahead of time. Burr represents a blue-trending state, Bond will face a highly energized state Democratic party with many recent victories under its belt, Thune is yesterday's news in a state exasperated with culture wars, Vitter and Murkowski will face ugly primary challenges, and Isakson may have to run against a man who's run twice for Senate in three weeks and gotten better at it both times.

If the Obama Administration is run with anything like the aplomb and discipline that marked the campaign--and if the Republicans continue to in-fight for much longer about who will lead their charge to reinvent themselves, rather than getting down to the business of how to do so--my expectation is that the Democrats could pick up at least four, and as many as seven, additional seats in the Senate (and almost certainly consolidate their hold on the House). And if that were to happen, the Republican party wouldn't necessarily be dead, but the Lee Atwater culture-war playbook almost certainly would be. And that, friends and neighbors, is a change we can believe in, even if nothing else changes for the better in the meantime. And smart money says that it will, anyway.

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

Friday, November 14, 2008

So Delicious, It Has to be Fattening

I don't know if you've seen Sarah Palin's three minute press conference at the Republican Governor's Association yesterday, but if you haven't I'd advise against drinking any milk while you do--at least without a hankie.

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

Thursday, November 13, 2008

Begich Now Leads Stevens!!!

It's now Begich 132,196 to Stevens 131,382 -- and even the Republican pollsters in Alaska are predicting that, with the remaining uncounted votes coming mostly from Anchorage, the lead is likely to hold.

I'll be going (semi?) dark for a few days, but the final tally in Begich v. Stevens isn't expected until next Wednesday anyway.


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

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

How Purple Is It, Rowan?

As I get older (a topic that's been much on my mind of late), I seem to be more and more acutely aware of other peoples' tendency to present as clever an idea that turns out later to be either a parlor trick, a tautology, a conclusion based on false assumptions, or some combination of all three. I believe the clinical term for this heightened sensitivity to pretentiousness is, "turning into a cranky old man," but I'll have to check my clinical literature and get back to you.

I mention all of this because of a new web site, uploaded by a certain Robert Vanderbei of Princeton University, intended to prove to us that we in this country are all really just one big amalgam of cheerfully cohabiting Republicans and Democrats, all of whom are capable of changing our vote on a four-year dime. It's an intrinsically appealing supposition, made even more appealing by the fact that Dr. Vanderbei chooses to make it visually--using an animated GIF of the past twelve Presidential elections, with the national map shaded county-by-county in various gradients of purple to reflect the proportion of votes received by the Republican and the Democrat each time. "Hey," we're supposed to think, "look at how purple the map is!" Then, after a few more of the slides have loaded, we're supposed to think, "Hey, look at how purple it always is!" And indeed to that extent Dr. Vanderbei is inarguably correct: Just how different is the map of 1976 from that of 1980, by this metric? The short answer is, not much.

Unfortunately, the maps in question (while fascinating to look at for any number of reasons) fail rather spectacularly to support Dr. Vanderbei's implicit assertion that the whole country is a mixed aggregate of more-or-less uniformly distributed partisans and independents. I hate to be the person to rain on such a sexy parade, but the maps simply don't suggest what they are implied to suggest, to even the tiniest degree.

To begin with there is the small problem of how our brains process color. I don't know about you, but the mid-point shade of purple (the one that would represent 50% Republican and 50% Democratic support in a particular county) looks an awful lot bluer to me than it looks red. Purple is, in my subjective assessment at least--and probably a lot of other peoples' as well--much more accurately described as a shade of blue than as a shade of red, not least because its position in the color prism is adjacent to blue and at the opposite end from red. For this reason, each four-year cycle's map will appear uniformly bluer than it really is. (And if you hesitate to agree, watch the movie again and make special note of 1980 and 1984, when the Democratic candidates for President were getting clobbered coast-to-coast, but whose maps appear not particularly redder than any of the others in the loop.)

The problem that this color-processing misdirect presents for vetting the underlying argument would be acute enough, but in fact there is a significantly bigger problem with the maps being advocated by Dr. Vanderbei: the counties don't decide the President, the states do. And the reason this is such a fatal flaw in the visual argument is that the dispersion of voters isn't uniform across the various counties in a state. Have a look at the border areas of Texas and ask yourself if you'd have expected to see anything like their shade, anywhere near Texas. It's tempting to presume that we all share in the power of our government, but the bitter reality that Dr. Vanderbei is apparently unwilling to face is that the blue-hued voters along the Rio Grande are routinely disenfranchised by the will of the more densely concentrated Republicans in the redder counties of their state.

The upshot of all of this is, in a plurality-take-all model of electoral votes, the notion that individual counties can tell us anything by their shading is no less misguided than the idea that the popular vote can tell us anything, either. It's just plainly and simply not the way we pick our Presidents--and, accordingly, not a particularly compelling visual. As long as more people vote for George Bush than John Kerry in the state of Florida, the map of Florida can look as purple as it wants to, and the outcome will be the same.

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

Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Was it a Fifty-State Strategy (or Just the Opposite)?

Now that Barack Obama is President-elect and Howard Dean has announced that he will step aside as Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, the floodgate of electoral postmortems has been blown wide open with effusive feel-good's on the subject of the Obama (Dean) philosophy of map-widening. Stories abound on the subject of exactly how Barack Obama won, in many of which space is saved among the references to Bush's low approval ratings and Steve Schmidt's insistence on Sarah Palin and McCain's "fundamentals are strong" gaffe, to pay homage to what was originally Dean's mantra of fifty-state competitiveness for the Democratic party. The reason the Democrats had lost in 2000 and 2004, Dean argued when he took the reins of the DNC, was that they had concentrated all of their resources into trying to consolidate a handful of plum electoral prizes with blue hues--mostly on the two coasts--and then slugging it out to the death over an even smaller assortment of "winnable" purple states like Ohio and/or Florida. With such a narrow playing field, Dean suggested, the Republicans could leverage their funding advantage in those purple states and eke out victory every time.

As brilliant as Mr. Dean (and his more recent counterparts at the top of the Obama campaign) now appear, it is worth considering the extent to which the fortunes of the two parties were shifting during Dean's post-scream administrative ascendancy: In the midterm elections of 2006, when Dean was receiving his first wave of kudos for having expanded the map, most of the television-viewing country was buried up to its neck in nightly news reports about Iraq that were so bloody and so terrible that in many households the youngest children were forbidden from watching the six o'clock evening news. The President's approval ratings had begun tanking in the summer of that year, and by the end of the election cycle the Democrats had overtaken the GOP in fundraising for the first time in memory. Dean's hand-picked candidate for Mayor of Salt Lake City won, but his hand-picked candidate for Senator from Tennessee lost, as did his hand-picked candidate to succeed Joe Lieberman in Connecticut.

Fast forward to 2008 -- particularly the last few days and weeks -- and the mantra from a slothful (if not actually credulous) mainstream press is that Obama won by expanding the map into places like Nevada and Virginia and North Carolina, forcing the Republicans to play out the entire game on their own side of the field. This much is indubitably true: George W. Bush never had to worry about making campaign stops in North Carolina or Virginia and, while he did make stops in Nevada, never really fretted any of the aforementioned states in either one of 2000 or 2004. Indeed the shift in the electoral map from 2004 to 2008 has been so significant and so unmistakable that to title a column such as this one in a contrarian tone is to invite ridicule: How can anyone argue that Obama's expanded map was the secret of his success, when an un-expanded map would've gotten him 252 electoral votes?

But the issue isn't really whether Dean and Obama were smart enough to pull off a widening of the map at all--no, it's rather the opposite: Dean and Obama were too smart to waste resources where they would have done no good, and to that extent they were too smart to miss the downright Machiavellian opportunity that the term "fifty-state strategy" presented for strategic deception of the other side, beginning all the way back in '06: To win by conceding any realistic hope of competitiveness in a small, comparatively dry assortment of states--without sounding weak and defensive in the process.

Try to imagine Barack Obama standing before a lectern, on a chilly evening in late November of 2007, telling a small gathering of pool reporters that he plans never to visit Tennessee a single time in the upcoming general election campaign. Try to imagine him saying out loud that he won't compete for Arkansas, won't share a single stage with Bruce Lunsford in Kentucky, considers West Virginia like a lost cause and Missouri a bonus prize. The press would've portrayed him as a mealy-mouthed stooge who can't muster the courage to give a speech to an unsupportive crowd, and he'd have lost. The key to Democratic victory in Presidential elections, after all, was always supposed to be the interior south. That's how we got Bill Clinton in the first place.

Four years ago, John Kerry's selection of John Edwards was based at least in part on his desire to bring the heart of Dixie into electoral play, and John Kerry lost because it didn't work. It was he, John Kerry, who'd walked the walk of the fifty-state strategy--to the extent that his comparatively meager finances would allow--and because of it he went down in flames. Indeed I still remember the night of the Democratic primary in South Carolina in 2004, when all the reporters were scrambling to make sense of Mr. Edwards' victory, and one lowly reporter had been dispatched to the White House for a comment from the other team. "South Carolina is Bush Country," had come the terse reply from the West Wing. They couldn't have given a mouse's fart whether Kerry or Edwards won the primary there; they didn't have to.

The genius of the Dean/Obama vision was that instead of expanding the playing field, they reversed it--which is far from being the same thing. There was no point, in the end, to competing for Arkansas and Tennessee and Kentucky, if the group of people who voted in this swathe of the country would never embrace a Democratic agenda for the country anyway. Instead the demographics in places like Virginia (with its bursting DC suburbs) and North Carolina (with its exploding bank sector--in both senses of the term), were surgically targeted by a campaign that knew all too well how weak it would make them look to openly invite the support of the gun-rack ownin' Dixiecrats in the uplands. Mr. Obama and Mr. Axlerod and Mr. Plouffe recognized, if Mr. Dean perhaps did not, that Democrats could win by conceding the states that, in the nineteen-fifties and sixties, had been their wheelhouse.

As the country moves forward, more states will come demographically into play for the Democrats (though the next census will continue to ameliorate their advantages in the northeast and along the Pacific coast, too). Nevada and Montana and Colorado and New Mexico are all tending blue, not because of any genius move by Howard Dean but for the simple fact of the Californian diaspora, which makes the Yankee diaspora of a generation ago look vague and indecisive by comparison. With the ubiquitousness of modern information technologies, there's simply no longer any good reason to sit for an hour and a half in each direction on the one-ten. (And in case you missed it, Obama positively clobbered McCain in Nevada--by a twelve-point margin that was so far astray from even last-hour polling numbers that it would've been the second-lead in the November 5th news coverage, had the press been paying that kind of studious attention to anything other than the topline numbers from the night before.) Virginia and North Carolina may both be slipping from the Republicans in a relatively structural way, as well, while Indiana is probably a fluke of Mr. Obama's omnipresence in the Chicago media market.

The mistake for the Democrats now would be to convince themselves that the expression "fifty-state strategy" was ever more than a rope-a-dope, and to plow further blood and treasure into the lost causes along the southern Appalachians and across the lower Mississippi into the southern plains. As the last two elections have shown, making a more appealing case in places like South Carolina will not win you the White House, and making a less appealing case there won't lose it for you either. The good news is that, far from deserving less credit than they're getting, the Obama team is more than clever enough to see all of this before any of the rest of us had even noticed.

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

Monday, November 10, 2008

In the Senate, A Week Without End

As the sun set this evening on the first full week of the Obama era in the United States, three individuals who can't (yet) share in the jubilation are Jim Martin, Al Franken, and Mark Begich--though a more sober columnist than I would have to make at least a passing reference to the differing chances they each face in ever feeling as though they can. In Georgia, where electoral funny business still seems the most plausible explanation for President-elect Obama's poor relative showing on election day, Republican incumbent Saxby Chambliss nearly reached the 50% threshold the first go 'round against Democratic challenger Jim Martin, and will now enjoy the undiluted attentions of what's left of the Republican all-stars in campaigning for a runoff. All of which has led one notable pundit to recall a certain prominent Republican's scathing criticism of Chambliss' 2002 campaign:

"I'd never seen anything like that ad. Putting pictures of Saddam Hussein and Osama bin Laden next to the picture of a man who left three limbs on the battlefield -- it's worse than disgraceful. It's reprehensible."

...And who said this, exactly? The same John McCain who is now scheduled to speak on Senator Chambliss' behalf, during the runoff. And just for the record, you know that you're clinging irrationally to self-destructive behavior patterns when you start getting shown-up in the graciousness department by George W. Bush. At all events, the smart money is on Chambliss and his Republican benefactors in the runoff, since it's a virtual certainty that the cool-headed Obama will resist the urge to weaken himself by wading into a Senate fight in Georgia.

Things are more encouraging in Alaska, depending a lot on how one looks at it. The good news is that about 80,000 votes have still not been counted in the state--classified as either "early," "absentee" or "questionable"--and that it is likely (based on what we know about the geography of these ballots) that a full accounting for them would more than negate Stevens' roughly 3,000-vote lead. The bad news is that if these ballots haven't yet been counted, the odds of them ever being counted must surely get slimmer every day that the story of the election recedes further and further from the collective media consciousness. Suffice it to say, if Begich becomes the next Senator from Alaska, it won't be because the rest of us sat back and allowed the State of Alaska's elections officials to decide how seriously to take the remaining canvass.

Paradoxically, the most encouraging of the three unresolved Senate races is also the only one in which a recount is the only thing standing between the good guys and defeat: Minnesota. Here the Republican incumbent Norm Coleman continues to lead, though his lead is shrinking almost by the hour and a significant pool of undervotes for the Senate race in blue-leaning precincts have led to speculation that Franken will surpass Coleman when the undervotes have been resolved. The path to a continued sense of productive engagement in all three of these races is to press the media--particularly, this time, the largest and most respected media sources within each of these three states--to continue digging into the question of how (if not actually whether) the remaining votes in each state have been counted. In Minnesota this journalistic standard-bearer would be the Minneapolis Star-Tribune. In Georgia it would be the Atlanta Journal-Constitution, and in Alaksa it would be the Anchorage Daily News.

Many left-leaning columnists wasted no time admonishing their readers that the lea of Obama's historic victory was no shelter from the job of keeping vigilant and fighting for every inch of ground in the fight to win a progressive agenda for the country. Some even began suggesting that election night was a beginning, rather than an end. They may not have realized, in committing such sentiments to writing, that the notion of a beginning and not an end would apply on the evening of November 4th to the outcome of the election itself.

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

Thursday, November 6, 2008

An End and a Beginning

Over on MSNBC, Evan Thomas of Newsweek reports that "both the Hillary Clinton campaign and the John McCain campaign were a mess" (emph. orig.), and that the Palin shopping spree was an even bigger distraction than we knew at the time. Told to buy three suits for the Republican National Convention--according to a still unattributed senior campaign staffer--the Alaska Governor instead raided high-end clothing stores across the Twin Cities with her entourage, buying up everything in sight. "It was like the Beverly Hillbillies," the campaign staffer told Mr. Thomas. Which begs the question: if any of this stuff ever goes full-on-record, will Palin try to order the Alaksa State Public Safety Commissioner to have all of these people fired from their jobs in other part of the country?

Electoral funny business in Georgia and Alaska hasn't gone unnoticed, but it remains to be seen whether the Republicans will get away with it this time. If Ted Stevens is certified as the victor in the Alaska Senate Race and then loses his appeal, he'll undoubtedly be expelled by a chastened Republican caucus, after which there would be a special election in the state, with far fewer reasons for the Republican voters in the state to turn out at the polls. Over in Georgia, meanwhile, it now appears likely (if not actually certain) that Chambliss and Martin will have a runoff.

Rahm Emmanuel has not yet accepted President-elect Obama's offer to be his Chief of Staff--which begs the question of whether the Obama transition really will be any more disciplined or polished than the Clinton transition was in 1992, since an eventual "no" from Emmanuel would expose Obama as a man unable to get what he wants. The good news is that Emmanuel won't say no, in the end, for this very reason.

Many thanks to all the readers who've made me a part of their day over the past few weeks and months--but also a pledge: If you'll keep checking-in, I'll keep providing the best commentary I can on the three topics on which this column was originally intended to speak: Politics, movies, and travel. I'll be taking the next few days to recharge my own batteries, but Monday doesn't just begin a whole new kind of work-week for Barack Obama, it also begins a whole new kind of challenge for all of us--writing, agitating, pulling our own weight to fulfill the visions of this man who may, just may, go on to be one of the greatest Presidents we've ever had.

See you all Monday?

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

Wednesday, November 5, 2008

A Morning-After Roundup - UPDATED

Good morning, fellow citizens of a country in which the black son of a single mother can become President!

The election returns for President are still trickling in, with very ominous signs of funny business in Georgia, where the President-elect crushed Senator McCain in early voting, apparently so much for naught that McCain is projected to win 53-46, a not-even-particularly close outcome. According to CNN, Obama has amassed only 1,700,000 votes in the State of Adventure, despite the fact that 35% of the 2,000,000 early votes banked in the state were cast by African-Americans (0.35 x 2,000,000 = 700,000 people, which would suggest that Obama only received about as many total votes on election day as he did from African Americans in two weeks of early voting, which doesn't sound right to me.

Meanwhile, drama abounds in the remaining un-called states: Obama leads McCain by about ten thousand votes (out of 4.2 million cast) in North Carolina, and by about 23,000 (out of 2.7 million cast) in Indiana. (UPDATE: INDIANA HAS BEEN CALLED FOR BARACK OBAMA, bringing his electoral-vote total to 349.) John McCain's lead in Missouri, meanwhile, is only about 6,000 votes, out of 2.9 million cast. Other recent Presidential contests have been closer in their overall electoral vote tallies, to be sure, but I can't remember a contest in my lifetime in which three different states had come down to such razor-thin margins in the same election. Incidentally, I can't resist the chance to gloat just one last time about the prediction that the mainstream media's inability to call Indiana would set the tone for the coverage. Sorry: I promise not to bring it up again. (The second district of Nebraska may also have to be taken down from McCain's column, incidentally.) Here's your new map:

Over in the Senate, the Democrats have picked up seats in New Hampshire, Virginia, North Carolina, Colorado and New Mexico, but while nobody was looking there's plenty of room to wonder about electoral funny-business in other hotly contested races with Republican administrations. For one thing we have Saxby Chambliss in Georgia, magically sitting on exactly fifty percent of the vote after an all-night tally in which he'd only been at 47 or 48 (which would've required a runoff).

Meanwhile in Republican-Governed Minnesota, Norm Coleman has mysteriously squeaked back in front of Al Franken this morning, after trailing him by a few thousand votes all night. That race will probably be headed for the courts, since Mr. Franken isn't about to pull a John Kerry on us and lie down. Oregon might be the big disappointment for the Democrats, this time around.

But the big head-scratcher is in the Republic of Sarah Palin, where her husband's long-standing membership in a secessionist party may not have won her the right to anoint herself President--yet--but where convicted felon (and twelve-point underdog) Ted Stevens is somehow, "miraculously" clinging to a lead of a few thousand votes over centrist Democrat and popular Anchorage Mayor Mark Begich. My guess is that this last one was definitely hacked. ...The silver lining in which is that Governor Palin has overreached and gotten caught for it before, so she just might live to regret this one. (The other possible explanation is that Sarah Palin just had $150,000 coattails, but that seems more a convenient excuse to yours truly.)

It was a decent night for Democrats in the House, but for the high expectations that had been set beforehand. They were never going to pick up thirty additional seats over the comfortable majority they came in with, and accordingly a great many of the major media franchises are reporting the outcome in the House as a chastening moment for Team Blue. With eleven races still undecided, the Republicans are assured of 173 votes in the lower house of the next Congress, and while that's not exactly a roadblock of an opposition, it isn't comic-book-small, either.

Of the as yet un-called races, the Republicans lead in six and the Democrats lead in five--though the head-scratcher of the bunch is Colorado-02, an open seat in suburban Denver: as these words are written the Democratic candidate, wealthy philanthropist Jared Polis, is leading Republican graphic designer Scott Starin by a 60-37 margin. So why isn't the race being called for Polis, you wonder? So does your author: At 9:24Am on the east coast, fewer than half of the precincts--in a suburban Denver congressional district that has reported all of its votes for President--have been counted in this race. Something very, very, very fishy going on there.

All three of the principal players on the Presidential stage were gracious last night, notably George W. Bush, whose congratulatory telephone call to the President-elect was significantly longer and significantly more cooperative in tone than was either necessary or reasonable to expect under the circumstances. (Perhaps we can look forward to an SNL sketch in which Mr. Bush and his wife sell jewelry on QVC, in the near future?) Both Mr. McCain and Mr. Obama extended substantive olive branches, and if they are to be believed at their word, the next few weeks and months could easily lay the foundations for a tone-setting start to the Obama Administration.

Safe money is on Tom Daschle for Chief of Staff, but I've never bet safe money before so I'll throw my wager behind Rahm Emmanuel. Daschle, meanwhile, will be a cabinet secretary--possibly Ambassador-at-large for health care reform. Hillary Clinton wants no part of the Administration, not for reasons of leftover angst but because she'll be in a much better position to prosecute her own agenda from the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The Treasury Secretary position (remember when that one seemed all wonky and uninteresting?) will be the first and most closely watched appointment, and it's likely to be a moderate with unimpeachable credentials--probably current NY Fed Bank President Timothy Geithner, Paul Volcker would be perfect in this respect but he's way too old.

I've got a bizarre little fantasy for Obama's choice of Attorney General, but you won't like it at first so bear with me: Arlan Specter. It probably won't happen, but Specter is one of the few Republicans left in the country who is also a decent, inoffensive guy who wants what's best for the rest of us. His positions on stem-cell research, choice, and gun control are all solidly Team Blue and his legal credentials (and his relationship with the rest of the Judiciary Committee) could easily result in a confirmation by voice-vote without a hearing. Why would the President-elect choose a Republican for such a high-level position, you ask? Because the vacancy he'd create in the US Senate would be filled by a Democratic Governor. Stay tuned.

On the foreign policy side, first thing's first: William Jefferson Clinton is your next U.S. Ambassador to either the UN or to Israel (a wider assortment of poon-tang over at the UN, plus no commute back and forth to Tel Aviv, so he's probably rooting for that one), while Robert Gates will almost certainly stay on for a time as Sec-Def, eventually giving way to either Chuck Hagel (if John Kerry can squeeze him out as Secretary of State), or Jack Reed (if Hagel gets the State Department). The odd man out in the foreign policy arena is Bill Richardson, who took a big risk by switching sides in the primary fight, but who's got a pretty good job already and might be perfectly happy to keep it. As for really dark-horses, don't put it past the President-elect to extend the biggest of olive branches to Joe Lieberman, not just because it'd be good politics, but because it would (at least technically) gain the Democrats a Senate seat when next the matter came up for a vote--though in the meantime the Republican governor of the state would appoint a replacement.

Public financing of election campaigns is, of course, dead. And if the Republicans can take any solace from last night's repudiation, it is that they will never again have to worry about complaints from the other side involving any kind of funding gap. Look for the evangelicals, in particular, to gear-up a massive netroot fundraising apparatchek for the next contest in 2012, regardless of whether their favorite Hocky Grandmom is running.

We're only just getting started, here, people!

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

Tuesday, November 4, 2008

Live Blogging the Election Returns

12:23AM - FINAL THOUGHTS: Sorry I went dark there for a while, just now, as the President- and Vice President-elect were strolling the stage with their extended families; I was... well... I was crying. You'll forgive me, presumably, but either way that's what I was doing. And now I'm going to bed, folks. It's been a long day for me (started before 6:00AM) and I'm totally exhausted. I'll be updating the electoral map first thing in the morning. Thanks for sharing this historic moment with me, everybody.

12:16AM -
Not his best speech, but that's the thing about Barack Obama: He's such an amazing speaker that every time he opens his mouth he raises his own bar. I think, personally, he was just a little bit tired. ...And who could blame him?

12:12AM -
Time to wrap it up, Senator.

12:07AM -
Getting a lot more forward-looking, now, which is important. (And it looks to me like Obama will win North Carolina, Indiana, and Montana as well, which would give him 367 electoral votes, total.)

12:06AM -
Speech leaning a little bit too far in the celebratory direction right now (though I forgive him for wanting to toss a bone to all of his volunteers).

12:03AM -
If Senator Obama and Senator McCain really mean what they say about working together over the next few weeks and months, that much alone could tell the tale of Obama's legacy. (And by the way, Obama is fifteen-thousand votes up in INDIANA.)

12:01AM -
This man's going to be one of the greatest Presidents we've ever had.

12:00AM -
Great opening.

11:58PM -
Can't help but feel a little bit afraid, right now, despite the better angels of my nature. That's an *awful* lot of people, there in Grant Park.

11:56PM -
Obama is leading by 30,000 votes in North Carolina, now, with 96% reporting. That's getting the tarheel state pretty doggone close, folks. (OBAMA IN THIRTY SECONDS!)

11:52PM -
As the big moment draws nearer (when we'll hear from Senator Obama), I decided to scroll through the entire election returns for the House of Representatives, where the Democrats are currently up twelve seats, with about half the races decided. If that number doesn't plump-up considerably before it's over, the Republicans will probably find something in it to build on.

11:44PM -
Both Udall's have now won their (Democratic pickup) Senate races. Meanwhile the Lincoln Diaz-Ballart house race has closed to within two percent, and is now "un-called" on the CNN election center map.

11:39PM -
ABC just called Nevada for Obama, which took longer than it should have--but it's worth the wait. Here's your map:

11:37PM - As we await the President-elect, you might be interested to know that Indiana has swung the other way, now, with Barack Obama about 8,000 votes ahead.

11:29PM -
Fewer than eight thousand votes separate the candidates in Indiana, and fewer than five thousand votes separate the candidates in Montana. All of which confirms my swiftly hardening conviction that the mainstream press is just jaw-droppingly, profoundly lazy. All of this "true to type" coverage is completely missing the story of the night.

11:27PM -
While John natters on like this, you might be interested to know that North Carolina is hanging in the balance, with fewer than five thousand votes separating the two candidates. It's gonna come down to provisional ballots there, me'thinks.

11:25PM -
I was almost feeling a little sorry for John, for a minute there, and then he had to go and say how proud he was of Sarah Palin. Seriously, the content of this speech isn't bad, but the delivery is nothing short of painful, and listening to nothing--almost nothing--coming from the audience, is making it even worse.


11:20PM -
McCain's speech is gracious (if also a little affectless), but the crowd went from being nasty to being eerily, almost preternaturally quiet. I've never heard so little ambient noise from an audience that large, and it's creeping me out. Meantime, here's your map:

11:12PM - ABC calls Colorado for Obama. I can't make the new maps fast enough!


11:05PM -
CNN calls Virginia for Barack Obama, as well. (And you've waited for the map long enough.)
11:01PM - The CBS crew is completely speechless. Not just the meteoric four-year rise, not just the urban background, not just the age--we've just put a black man in the White House. We now live, for the first time, in a country in which a black man can be President. The heck with the map, folks, Barack Obama is your next President.

11:00PM -

10:56PM -
Talk about "not pretending to be stupid": A few weeks ago the networks were all visibly grappling with the question of how to handle reporting on a race that could end up decided fairly early--whether to say so, or try to preserve the suspense--all of which led some senior editorial staffer at one outlet to say, "we're not in the business of pretending to be stupid." Well, just now Katie Couric signed off of the ten o'clock hour of coverage by saying, "When we return, history will be made." I guess that's your cue to pick up the phone, John.

10:51PM -
Just a reminder: It's not actually possible to do what I just did, at 10:42--namely, to base a guess about how a state will go on the partial precincts. The precincts themselves don't report their results on a proportionate basis, they come in completely at random. So if, for example, the only places we haven't heard from in a state are in the blue-leaning areas, then the current state of the partial precincts in a state will skew the race toward McCain. (Generally, the last precincts to report are from crowded, lower-income areas in urban areas, which means Democrats tend to do better and better as the percentage of precincts reporting increases.)

10:47PM -
Anyone care to wager when the next big undecided state will be called, and which one that is? My guess is that the networks will call Colorado for Obama before the top of the hour.

10:42PM -
Obama finally inches ahead in Virginia, 51-49 with 91% reported. It's also 51-49 for Obama with 80% reporting in Florida, while McCain continues to cling to a 15,000 vote lead in North Carolina with 86% reporting. Color me puzzled; I'd never have dreamed that these states would stay gray this long after Ohio went for us, and I certainly didn't think we'd lose any of them.

10:36PM -
CNN calls Mississippi for John McCain, and CBS (not wanting to be left out?) calls South Dakota for John McCain as well. By the way, CBS is also demurring on the competitive congressional districts in Nebraska. Here's (one version of) your current map:

10:33PM - Obama winning 37% of the whites and 97% of the blacks in North Carolina, which explains why that state is so neck-and-neck (fewer than 8,000 votes separate the two candidates, at the moment).

10:28PM -
CBS is calling Nebraska for McCain and (apparently) awarding all three of its congressional districts to him, too, keeping the state's electoral vote total intact. Here's the map:

10:22PM - Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) holds on in Pennsylvania, after calling his own constituents racists, while Rep. Chris Shays (R-CT) goes down to defeat in Connecticut. Pardon my gracious frame of mind, but Chris Shays is not a bad guy. ...Which isn't quite the same as saying that I feel sorry for him, you understand.

10:18PM -
Here's a thought: One of the biggest "assists" in Obama's victory tonight is deserved by a certain Hillary Clinton. By dragging-out the primary contest instead of going gently into that good night, Hillary pushed Barack Obama into our living rooms, coast-to-coast, and forced him to build an enormous field operation that kept working at full, hot-house tempo all the way through... well... they're still working, out west.

10:10PM -
Nobody's talking about this, but frankly I think this is kind of a bizarre night: The early voting advantage isn't helping Obama in the very places where the canvass was looking the most favorable for him, and other places are going bluer than most of the reasonable political voices expected. Can someone explain to me how McCain might win Virginia on the same night that Kay Hagen beats Libby Dole? Why isn't anyone talking about this???

10:03PM -
CBS' county-by-county returns in Florida showing Obama out-performing in the I-4 corridor. Coupled with the Hispanic support for Obama, I think it's only a matter of time there. Here's your current map:

10:00PM - CBS calls Iowa for Obama, and Mississippi and Utah for McCain and (gutless!) doesn't call Nevada.

9:56PM -
Virginia is, essentially, down to a single vote. I still don't understand how to reconcile this with the enormous advantage Obama had in polling numbers and early vote totals, and I'm still inclined to wonder if the early votes are being counted as absentees, at the end? I didn't expect Virginia to be close, and neither did Fivethirtyeight.

9:53PM -
Couric talks to Ambinder about Obama's ground-game in Ohio, I wonder if Ambinder will mention that series of pieces on Fivethirtyeight about McCain's closed and locked field offices all over the country? Probably not.

9:50PM -
Another mini-drama of call differentials, right now: CBS is apparently calling only one of the two congressional districts in Maine, since their electoral vote tally for Obama is 199 and all the other networks have him at 200. Wouldn't it have been a pisser if Obama had hit exactly 270 on three of the major networks, and 269 on the other one, and the other one had turned out later to be right?

9:46PM -
Nevada and Iowa will both close in fourteen minutes, and they'll both pop immediately for Barack Obama.

9:42PM - Oh, this'll be good:
Katie Couric is about to interview Peggy Noonan about the election; anyone wanna bet on what Ms. Noonan decides to say, this time, about Sarah Palin? :-)

9:41PM -
I just lost my mappy-thingy, somehow. I don't know how, but it's not working anymore, so I'll be screen-capturing the networks' maps from now on.

9:30PM - CBS projects for McConnell and Cochran
. This is very interesting, folks--a much more interesting night than the top-line numbers would suggest. So far what's been happening is that the close Republican states in the north are blowing out for Obama and the close Republican states in the south are blowing out for the Republicans. By the way, CBS ALSO JUST PROJECTED NEW MEXICO. Here's your map:

9:25PM - TALK ABOUT AN EARLY NIGHT? With Ohio, Barack Obama makes it virtually impossible for McCain to win. The Pacific coast states, plus Obama's current total, adds up to virtually all of the 270 electoral votes he needs. (Entirely by the way, CBS has also called Louisiana for McCain--another state that had showed signs of tightening.) Here's the map:


9:20PM -
CBS just showed a shaded map of Virginia and McCain's doing very well in the south and west, but he's doing so much better in the central than any polling data had suggested that I'm inclined to wonder if the early votes are being left 'til the end. Indiana is looking very good for Obama--even if it doesn't ultimately fall, it's still spinning the coverage (and, to that extent, influencing things out west). I had to chuckle, though, when the guy playing with the map of Indiana circled the Gary/Hammond area and said, "this is where Notre Dame is."

9:15PM -
I know there are a lot of really smart people thinking about this stuff, but still I'm wondering if the early votes (for Obama) are being taken into appropriate consideration with these projections. What if, for example, the early votes in Virginia were all counted as absentee? Then it could be that Obama's advantage in early votes wouldn't show up until after all the precincts have reported.

9:10PM -
Most over-hyped story of the night so far? Whether the Democrats will get to 60 Senate seats and be "filibuster-proof." Cloture votes are NEVER along straight party lines, and with the power of the White House to toss pork at a Republican or two, the Democrats absolutely do not care whether they make 60 or not. Most under-hyped story of the night so far? The inability to call Indiana, Virginia, North Carolina, Florida, Ohio, or Missouri. With every second that ticks off with those states un-called, John McCain's chances just get slimmer and slimmer and slimmer.

9:00PM - Huge Top-of-the-Hour in numbers, maybe not drama.
Katie Couric can make it sound like a big moment if she wants to, but nobody lost money on TX and KS going for McCain or MN and WI and NY going for Obama. If there's a surprise this hour, it's only an air-quote surprise--Obama not forcing North Dakota to go a little deeper into the night. That's the third state that I thought we had a shot at winning, and to have them all red, this early, is disappointing, since it'll cut into Obama's mandate. Here's your map:

8:54PM - First big disappointment of the night. NBC has just called Georgia for John McCain. I shouldn't let that bother me, but gosh those early voter numbers for African Americans were awfully, awfully impressive, and it breaks my heart to see all that hard work go to waste. Maybe it'll help Jim Martin in his bid to unseat Saxby Chambliss, at least. Come to think of it, I'm probably like Steve Spurrier in this respect: He doesn't call a single play on offense without expecting it to end in a touchdown. Anyway, with the top of the hour fast approaching, here's your map:

8:44PM - Let's play a game. Can John McCain still win this election? Well, technically the answer is, of course, yes--until someone has 270 electoral votes, nobody can't have 270 electoral votes. But now that the only two creaky John Kerry states (PA and NH) have both been called for Obama, McCain must keep Obama from peeling another eighteen electoral votes from the Bush '04 map. It would only take eighteen more--that's Ohio all by itself, but it's also Nevada and Virginia all by themselves, too--for Barack Obama to make the magic number.

Of all the states that are still at least theoretically in play, McCain must win all of them and then-some. He must win IN, MO, VA, OH, FL, and NC -- all of which are trending Obama's way, to one extent or another -- but he must *also* keep Obama from making eighteen electoral votes out of NV, NM, CO, and IA. And those last four are states that nobody's been talking about for weeks because the race in those four places has been so solidly for Obama that nobody's been seriously considering them up for grabs.

I would also like to take a moment to toot my own horn, here, on two small scores: First, you heard it here first on the subject of McCain's Palin pick raising questions about his age and judgment--back when I was about as close to the lone voice in the wilderness as a person can get in the blog era without claiming that Neil Armstrong faked the 9/11 attacks. Second, you heard it here first on the subject of Indiana's stubborn refusal to be called, and the dramatic effect it would have on the evening election coverage on the TV. No constructive purpose for calling attention to that, you understand--but on the other hand, my Presidential seal isn't back from the printer's yet, either.

8:39PM -
CNN calls Alabama for McCain, but the story of this election has definitely been told with the inability to call Indiana for McCain, on the one hand, and the very, very quick pop for Pennsylvania, on the other. The McCain/Palin ticket put a lot of time and energy and money into the Keystone State, and they're getting walloped, there. Here's your map:

8:30PM - Arkansas for McCain, and CBS finally climbs aboard with the Pennsylvania call. There's a surprising amount of disparity between the networks tonight (although not right at the moment). Let's see which of the big networks decides to take the plunge first on one of the other big prizes.

8:24PM - Arkansas
at the bottom of hour.

8:21PM - Taking a breath.
At this moment, the big news is that McCain's last best hope for winning--the Pennsylvania gambit--is off the table. A conservative mainstream press is hesitant to call Virginia or Florida for Obama but both of them are showing some extremely promising crosstabs in their exit polling. If Obama wins 55-60% of the Hispanic vote in Florida, he just might be on track to break through the 353 electoral vote total we've been bandying about in here.

I guess that's the first death-rattle of the Karl Rove culture wars--especially with that whole "godless" business falling flat. They're also calling NH Senate for Jean Shaheen, but we expected that one.

8:13PM -
Governor Ed Rendell interviewed on CBS just now said that well over ninety percent of the registered voters in the Philadelphia area have voted. Probably explains why NBC and ABC have put it in Obama's column, huh?

. If that call holds up with the other networks, this thing is pretty-much over. Here's your map (amended to take Rhode Island back down from the Obama campaign, which I mistakenly awarded him earlier).

8:00PM - Katie Couric announces that Florida, Pennsylvania, and Missouri are all un-called, but a gaggle of other states have fallen: Illinois, New Jersey, Massachusetts, Maryland, Connecticut, Maine, New Hampshire, and Delaware, and the District of Columbia (Obama), while Tennessee and Oklahoma are called for McCain. Looking for a spin? How about that New Hampshire fell the instant it closed? Maybe the press is trying to be cautious with this thing, and some of those other states are going blue, too.

Meanwhile, CBS is reporting that Obama is winning the Hispanic vote in Florida (uh-oh) and significantly out-performing expectations in the Republican areas--the so-called "T"--of Pennsylvania.

Here's your map:

7:57PM - Fasten your seatbelts, Pennsylvania and Ohio are about to close at the top of the hour. A double-blue is the end of the road for John McCain.

7:53PM - Fun fact of the half-hour? How about this one, courtesy of CBS: Of all the money Barack Obama raised for this campaign, seventy percent was spent on red states. Call him arrogant all you want, but he'll take that label if it comes with a change of address.

7:49PM - CBS calls South Carolina for McCain. Pass the No-Doz, please....

7:41PM - Still no big calls, which is pretty bad news for McCain. Indiana, in particular, sitting there gray is having disproportionate effect on the way the news is being spun. CBS is hinting that Obama is outperforming his own expectations in rural Virginia and rural Indiana, and is even more significantly outperforming past Democrats in young-voter turnout. If they're not full of baloney, that's a very steep hill for McCain, indeed.

7:37PM - FIRST SIGN OF A BIG NIGHT? Now that I'm caught up a little, I had a quick peek at one of the other big political news aggregator sites, and there's a blurb there about exit polls being so good for Obama that the site manager from that other place doesn't even believe them.

7:31PM - West Virginia pops for McCain at the moment of poll-closings, which is a shame because we got it close there for a couple of weeks, but it's the sort of state that Rick Davis probably had in mind when he said that Obama "won this election three weeks too early." At all events, it doesn't come across as a surprise, so it won't hurt Obama's chances anywhere else. Here's your map:

7:29PM - BIG MOMENT COMING, as polls close in Ohio and North Carolina in just over a minute. If one or both fall immediately for Obama, this is an early night. If they remain uncalled, Obama wins later tonight. If they both pop instantly for McCain, Obama could lose.

7:20PM (EST) - Sorry I'm late; I've been working for the Obama campaign all day and just got home. Final pregame thoughts? Look for Virginia, Indiana, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia and Florida to tell the early story. If more than one or two of those go blue, it's a back-breaker for McCain. Obama doesn't need any of them to become President. Here's your map, up-to-the-minute.

Click Here to