Historians may look back at this election and decide that the outcome was never really in doubt. The political fundamentals were so clear and so unchanging long before the real contest began, throughout nearly the entire second-half of the Bush presidency.
The war, the economy and the GOP mismanagement of their congressional powers and an incredibly unpopular president may have made it almost inevitable: The Republicans were going to lose. The particulars of the current election—economic chaos, an efficient, mistake-free, flush Democratic campaign and a Republican one opposite in every way—have done nothing to change those fundamentals.
Of course, history is for tomorrow.
Today, no matter what the polls look like, those who genuinely believe that the race is over make up a minority of Americans, and those willing to say that it's over are a tiny minority of that minority. In part, those unwilling to call the race now are just being careful with their history. To believe the most likely outcome is to be comfortable with the idea that a Democrat, who happens to be a black man, is going to prevail, inevitably, over a genuine American war hero, who is white and who comes from a kind of American royalty, with a father and grandfather who were both 4-star admirals in the U.S. Navy.
Many Democrats can't bring themselves to believe that Obama will not find a way to lose in the way that John Kerry and Al Gore did. Many black people cannot fathom that the America they grew up in, rife with prejudice and racial hostility, is on the verge of electing a black president. Black Democrats, and there are a lot of them, are doubly anxious. So fundamentals be damned.
"I just see Dewey and Truman, all over again," says one of my New York friends who spends all of his time reading the swing state polls.
"My mind tells me we can win," says one Democratic operative who got her start in politics on the triumphant Clinton campaign of 1992 and has been in withdrawal since. "But my heart won't let me go there."
John McCain sought to shore up his base this week, by playing the we're-down-but-not-out card. "Senator Obama is measuring the drapes and planning with Speaker Pelosi and Senator Reid to raise taxes … we've got them just where we want them," he told a crowd in Virginia Beach. According to the polls, McCain is trailing in Virginia, which has not been won by a Democrat since the LBJ landslide of 1964. He also trails in key states that George Bush won in 2000 and 2004—North Carolina, Colorado, Ohio, Missouri and Florida. If these polls even remotely reflect the mood of the electorate, McCain could be headed for an LBJ-size thumping. Lyndon Johnson won 486 electoral votes to beat Barry Goldwater, then the senior senator from Arizona, who would eventually be replaced in the Senate by John McCain. But at about this time in 2000, Al Gore was ahead by double digits, too.
One point of consensus across the political and emotional spectrum is that tonight's debate is John McCain's last chance to make a case to voters that he is the better choice to lead the country out of this mess.
In some ways, this imperative offers McCain a shot to play to his strengths. Whatever his faults as a candidate and a man, no one can question his survival instincts. He has been left for dead more than once, only to pull some strange Lazarus act and walk away triumphant. Ask next-presidents of the United States Mitt Romney, Mike Huckabee and Rudy Giuliani. McCain has been getting a lot of advice on how to proceed in the face of his dismal prospects, all of which can be divided into two categories: 1) Take the high road and talk to the American people about his plans. 2) Get nastier and raise doubts about Obama.
Conservative talker Tucker Carlson advocates the latter, insisting that for McCain, not talking about Obama and his former pastor Rev. Wright would be political malpractice.
"The McCain campaign's attempt to tie Barack Obama to terrorist-turned-professor Bill Ayers appears to have failed…By the end of the week, McCain will likely have moved on to another line of attack. The obvious question is: Why not Jeremiah Wright?"
In The New York Times, Bill Kristol, who has been coaching the McCain-Palin campaign from the sidelines, has decided it is time for a more dramatic move: "It's time for John McCain to fire his campaign," Kristol wrote on Monday. "He has nothing to lose. His campaign is totally overmatched by Obama's. The Obama team is well organized, flush with resources, and the candidate and the campaign are in sync. The McCain campaign, once merely problematic, is now close to being out-and-out dysfunctional."
I'm guessing that the only real option for McCain is to go dirtier not cleaner, to convert his campaign over the next two weeks into a giant Obama Doubt Generation Machine, and I wouldn't be surprised if that conversion begins tonight. Look for a dramatically different John McCain in New York this evening from the ones we saw in Nashville last week and Mississippi three weeks ago.
The question, of course, is whether it is too late for him now, or whether it ever would have mattered. Of course, only history can go there.
Terence Samuel is deputy editor of The Root.