KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images.)
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– Here’s an Election Day prediction:
Some year not far in the future– maybe not four years from now, or eight years from now, or twelve years from now, but soon enough– don’t be startled if the current political trend toward early voting is reversed, and states decide to make it more difficult, once again, to vote on any day other than Election Tuesday.
At least that is the clear signal we are getting from the people we have talked with as we have driven through the United States on our journey leading up to today– and the clear signal we are getting from people at Grant Park, where tonight’s rally for Barack Obama will be held.
CHICAGO, Illinois (CNN)– When you spend an entire autumn aboard a bus with three other guys– days, nights, meals, missed meals– you tend to get to know each other pretty well, and to have too many conversations to count them all up.
So– this was at some point during the last week of the campaign, when all four of us who were sitting around the bus: Dale Fountain, who drives the Election Express; Josh Rubin, who produces the stories for CNN that come out of the bus; Jordan Placie, who makes certain the electronic signals hit the right spot on the right satellite and find their way into your home; your devoted typist– arrived, at about the same moment, at a mutual realization concerning this election year:
The finish line isn't.
Meaning: tomorrow night, when the story is supposed to end, it really is just beginning.
If Barack Obama wins the presidency, the historic aspects of that victory, and of what will follow, are self-evident. If John McCain proves the pollsters wrong, and walks away with the presidency, there will be a different kind of history in the making, one that will be analyzed for generations to come.
Either way, regardless of your political leanings, you almost certainly have to concede:
When the ballots are finished being counted late tomorrow night (or early the next morning), the country in which we live, and its long-running story, will only become more interesting, not less.
The finish line, we are about to find, is really the starting line.
“It feels like people have put away their cynicism during this election year," said Eric Olmscheid, 27. “But if I had to bet, I’d say that the cynicism will come back once we have a new president.”
An arts education manager, he is another of the people with whom we’ve been speaking as we have moved through Iowa toward Election Day. As with the others, we spoke with him not so much about his preference in candidates, but his sense of what this election year has been like.
“People haven’t been as cynical as usual because, no matter who wins, there’s going to be a change in Washington for the first time in eight years,” he said. “The voters know that the president and vice president will not be people who have been working in the White House.
“But when I say that the cynicism will probably come back, that’s just because the first time the new president, whoever he is, makes an important decision, some people are going to be happy about it and some aren’t. It’s not going to feel like a campaign– in a campaign, the candidates don’t have to make real decisions for the country. And the people who don’t like that first decision the new president makes are going to go back to their old way of thinking about politics."
Still, he said, he believes most Americans understand that “things don’t happen in this country based just on what the president of the United States wants to happen." And he hopes the energy that has been shown by the electorate all during the campaign doesn’t disappear the first time what happens in the new administration feels like business as usual.
“There won’t be the flashiness of the campaign,” he said. That’s just the reality of governing, he said– the everyday business of running the country is not as compelling and exciting as what our presidential campaign seasons have turned into.
“But so many people have become involved with the campaign, thinking about it and talking about it and really caring about it,” he said. “I hope that doesn’t go away. Because I think the enthusiasm and engagement, no matter who you want to win, has been good for everyone, and I wouldn’t want to lose that."
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“Hectic,” said Ben Bueford, 65.
That’s the word he thinks best sums up what this election year has been like: “It’s been a very hectic year, which I think is wonderful." He’s retired, and works part-time at a YMCA; he is one of the people with whom we spoke about the tone of the long campaign, on our way through Iowa as we move toward Election Day.
“You can tell that there has been a level of interest in this campaign that is different than in years before, and I think it’s that way all over the country, not just here in Iowa," he said. Because Iowa and its caucuses play such an important role in the early stages of the process of electing a new president, he said, it is tempting for Iowans to believe that the interest there is more intense than in other places.
“But I don’t think that's really so," he said. “It may have started here, but the way the country has become involved in this election year, especially so many young people– I’ve seen a lot of presidential elections, and I don’t think I’ve ever seen anything like this."
Because he is a supporter of Barack Obama, he knews he may be accused of not being objective about something he has noticed, but he wanted to offer his feelings about it anyway:
“I don’t like the tone of what John McCain’s campaign has been saying about Sen. Obama,” he said. “In my opinion, it’s starting to sound more like slander than a list of the facts. It seems to me that the McCain campaign is trying to make Obama seem to be not quite American. You can disagree with your opponent, but when you try to portray him as not being a good person, you put fear into people.”
He knows that McCain supporters probably feel strongly the other way, and the visceral strength of the feelings on both sides, he said, is what has separated this year’s campaign from some others he has watched in the past. “Whatever you may like or dislike about the campaign," he said, “you can’t criticize the level of energy. I don’t think it could possibly get any more energetic.”
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“I don’t think we’re ever, as a nation, going to completely come together," said Kari Tindall, 25. “And I don’t think we really need to.”
She’s a fundraiser for a theater and arts complex in Iowa; as we moved through Iowa on our way to where we’ll be spending Election Day, we talked with people not about their predictions for who will win and who will lose on Tuesday, but about their thoughts concerning this long campaign itself– and what will come after.
“It’s our nature in this country to have two sides to everything,” Tindall said. “That‘s just what we do. So to expect, after the election, for people who supported Obama and people who supported McCain to completely agree on everything, just because one candidate has won. . .you know that’s not going to happen.
“What would be good, though, is if we’re able to use the experience of the campaign we've just been through to try to find some common ground when it's over. That in itself would be better than the way things have been.”
She said she worries that the campaign, in its final weeks, “has turned a little bit ugly." The way she perceives it, Barack Obama has managed to give the impression that he “always keeps his cool,” while John McCain at certain times “seems overwhelmed.”
But she recognizes that those perceptions will not be helpful once there is one winner and one loser. And she thinks the reason there has been so much interest– and so much acrimony– during the presidential campaign of 2008 is that “there’s a lot more news coverage than ever before."
It’s not that citizens make the conscious choice to be so consumed, even obsessed, with news, she said.
“It’s that you can’t get away from it. It’s everywhere. You couldn’t avoid the news this year even if you tried.”
Joe Raedle (Getty Images.)
MITCHELLVILLE, Iowa (CNN)– The echoes are still sounding, even though we’re on our way to the next city, and toward Election Day.
“Next Tuesday, voters will say no to the McCain-Palin campaign of fear and smear,” Tom Harkin, Democratic senator from Iowa, was saying to a cheering crowd in downtown Des Moines.
It wasn’t the fear-and-smear insult to John McCain and Sarah Palin that stood out; McCain and Palin were, somewhere in America, being just as insulting to Barack Obama and Joe Biden on this day.
No, what stood out was the “next Tuesday.” Suddenly, the candidates and those who speak on their behalf no longer have to say “in November” when referring to the election. Now it’s down to a single day of the week: Tuesday.
There were, in the Des Moines public park, those twin contemporary hallmarks of presidential campaign rallies: enormous American flags held temporarily aloft by the gigantic orange steel arms of SkyTrak forklifts, and armed men wearing black on surrounding rooftops. Patriotism and firepower, as omnipresent as confetti and brass bands once were.
And the helicopters. Always the security helicopters, buzzing over the crowd.
The word I O W A, just like that, in big, white, blocky welcome-to-the-state-fair style letters with spaces in between each one, greeted the arriving members of the audience, many of whom were walking up Locust Street on a warm and gorgeous autumn day. I had walked with some of them, crossing a bridge that spanned the Des Moines River, and that Bruce Springsteen song that has become as identified with Obama rallies as his campaign button or his photo on posters sounded over the loudspeaker system, indicating that he would soon be present.
DES MOINES, Iowa (CNN)– On this journey we stay in a lot of hotels near interstate highways, the kind that serve free breakfasts in the lobby. And at adjacent tables at breakfast one day during the past week, there was a person crying at one table, and people laughing at the next.
We have been in West Virginia and Indiana and Kentucky and Ohio and Missouri and now here in Iowa in recent days, and the stops tend to blur into each other, but this stood out. The woman crying at the one breakfast table was in the town for a funeral; I could overhear the conversation as family members tried to comfort her. She was weeping softly; if the people raucously laughing at the next table over had been aware of her grief, I like to think that they would have toned it down. But they were facing away from her, they didn’t hear or see her, so their laughter continued, as did her quiet tears.
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KANSAS CITY, Missouri (CNN)– At first, many people thought it was a trick question.
“You want me to say something good about who?” said Christine Graham, 43, of Arapahoe County, Colorado.
But it wasn't a trick. It was just a small attempt, in the final days of a presidential campaign that has at times been vicious and brutal-spirited, to, as they say, bring the country together.
“But I’m for John McCain," Christine Graham said.
That’s fine. McCain has your vote.
But, knowing that you’re not going to change your mind, Mrs. Graham, say something good about Barack Obama– something that you truly believe.
“Well. . . .” she said.
She paused for a few more seconds, and then said:
“He’s a dreamer. I think he probably wants to make life easier for people.”
There. Easy as that.
LIBERTY, Missouri (CNN)– “In the end, the country runs itself,” said Mike Roush, 43, of Lewis Center, Ohio.
He’s a businessman on the road. We’ve been talking with people, as we cross the country, about “The Candidate.”
Not the candidate– not Barack Obama or John McCain.
But “The Candidate”– the riveting 1972 political movie starring Robert Redford as a handsome and telegenic novice who runs for the United States Senate and wins. The cynicism of the movie, bordering on bitterness, is what makes its message lasting.
Some of the people with whom we’ve spoken remember “The Candidate” well; some have never seen it. But everyone– including Mike Roush– understands the power of its much-discussed closing scene.
In that scene Redford, who has just been elected after using every trick at his disposal and at the disposal of his campaign adviser (played by the late Peter Boyle), pulls Boyle aside and, with the victory cheers still sounding, says:
“What do we do now?”
It’s the ultimate election-night quandary: with triumph fresh and the office finally won, what comes next?
TERRE HAUTE, Indiana (CNN)– Unfortunately for John McCain and Barack Obama, the Michael Phelps Syndrome does not apply to them.
Or at least it will soon not apply to one of them– the one who, a week from tonight, will be elected president.
The Michael Phelps Syndrome– relatively new in our attention-flitting society– dictates that, no matter how famous you are today, you’ll be much less famous a few months from now.
In August, the entire nation, and much of the world, was fixated on Phelps‘ quest for eight Olympic gold medals. You would overhear people talking about him on the street and in restaurants.
The new half-life of fame being what it is, though, today– and this is still only October– August seems years distant. Phelps is a well-known guy, with endorsement contracts in place, but he is not at the center of the universe. That was a summer thing.
Today. . . .