Political thinking, wrote Orwell, suffers from a universal problem. "People can foresee the future only when it coincides with their own wishes, and the most grossly obvious facts can be ignored when they are unwelcome." You'd think by now that sentence would be printed and tacked above every editorial desk in every newspaper bureau around the world. Yet who hasn't read recently that Barack Obama is already the next president of the United States? Even where this presumption isn't stated outright, it's implied with enough moonbeams-and-gillyflowers sentimentality (halos if you're Rolling Stone) that every guilty hack in the country must have laughed hardest at last week's Onion headline: "'Time' Publishes Definitive Obama Puff Piece." ("When the American people cast their vote in November," remarked the only slightly exaggerated version of editor Richard Stengel, "this is the piece of fluff they're going to remember.")
Obama himself told donors at a Monday night fundraiser that his odds of winning were "very good," which is surely something donors like to hear but not something the latest USA Today/Gallup poll can confirm. It has John McCain ahead by four points among "likely" voters.
Out of the country, the mood is even more besotted, if not schizophrenic. After quitting the scene in Germany last week, Obama was helpfully sworn in by the newspaper Der Spiegel, which crooned, "Anyone who saw Barack Obama at Berlin's Siegessäule on Thursday could recognize that this man will become the 44th president of the United States."
The paper might be forgiven a lapse into premature wish fulfillment, but it can't quite be forgiven a lousy short-term memory for its own reporting. It was only back in January of this year that Der Spiegel announced, with equal certainty, that Number 44's days were numbered:
The euphoria is gone, the friendly fire has started: Barack Obama is suddenly looking less like a superstar and more like just another candidate. His message isn't hitting home with the three most important groups of voters: women, older Americans and blue-collar workers.
All of those people who've been dreaming of America's first black president now have to slowly wake up. It'll happen one day, hopefully, but not in this election.
White House races are as much about marketing as anything else, so it's actually rather sobering that Advertising Age has run an editorial by Ken Wheaton warning the media that it should have a Plan B for the very possible contingency that Obama loses.
I don't want to be a downer, but I also don't want you collapsing into a state of shock in the event of a McCain victory. Maybe you should have an oxygen bag on hand and a personal flotation device. I'm of the school of thought that the president usually isn't as important as we think he is — especially when it comes to the economy. But I'm afraid that if Obama loses, I'll wake up Wednesday morning to find that the major networks have forgotten to put stuff on the air. Marketers might call their agencies to find that no one's shown up for work. New York and L.A. might actually come to a standstill.
Or the networks and newspapers will simply pretend they never called it the other way. Odd, because there's a whole industry cliché tailored to account for bogus political predictions.
Dewey Defeats Truman. This fateful episode is invoked whenever pundits want to call each other out for failing to heed its cautionary value. On Nov 3., 1948, the Chicago Tribune published a few hundred copies of the headline, announcing the election of Republican Thomas E. Dewey to the presidency, before issuing a second edition that reported, whoops, Truman won. The error was made even more glaring by his margin of victory: He took 303 electoral votes, as against the 189 racked up collectively by Dewey and Strom Thurmond, who ran on the segregationist ticket of the States Rights Democratic Party.
Truman loved the snafu. "That ain't the way I heard it!" he remarked while holding up a copy of the sham Tribune. Years later, the publishers were good sports to mock themselves and their epochal bloomer: They had planned to give Truman a plaque containing a replica of the false headline to mark the occasion of the 25th anniversary of the '48 election, but the then-ex-prez died before he could receive it, though (probably) not before the paper wrote his obituary.
Closer to our time, professional temperature-takers have been humiliated for similar reasons.
The fog of Zogby. John Zogby's polling company had previously done an admirable job of polling elections, at least judging by how well the outcomes jibed with the Zogby data. Then the grim go-round of 2004 hit and the man himself decided to venture beyond raw statistics and into the realm of prophecy. Zogby's numbers leading up to Election Day were good, but even before the polls had closed, he called the thing for Kerry with uncannily precise wrongness: 311 to Bush's 213, with 14 votes still up in the air. "Bush had this election lost a long time ago," he said, claiming that voters would pick "any candidate who was not Bush." This statement was actually at odds with Zobgy's final poll for the day, which put Bush over by a mere point. "I will do better next time," Zogby promised. "I will just poll, not predict."
Still, his methodology had been needlessly disgraced due to his grandstanding, which called into question his business sense. After all, when your job is to ask people what they think in order to get a sense of where the nation is headed, your own personal opinion matters least.