TAMPA -- The 2000 presidential race was supposed to be close and it was. Painfully so. The same was said in 2004, and it wasn't quite as close.
Anyone paying the slightest attention at this point in the 2008 cycle knew who the next president was going to be. Oh, there were a few desperate holdouts, waving their frayed copies of the "Dewey Beats Truman" headline and trying to explain about the Bradley effect to anyone who would listen. But for the sentient, the only question in that last weekend in '08 was whether the old fighter jock was going to punch out before he hit the ground.
Not so easy this year. Polls on the weekend before Election Day this year say the race is a dead heat -- tight as a tick -- and maybe it is. Anyone who says he knows what will happen Tuesday is either trying to sell you something or is deluded.
The candidates are still crisscrossing the country, at least the swing states part of the country, trying to jazz up their respective party bases, the members of which are already on a caffeine high. (If the folks I've talked to were any higher about voting, they would need clearance to land.) Gluttons for punishment still listening to campaign speeches are hearing the same things they've heard for months. Those staying glued to their TV sets to the bitter end now know how Bill Murray's character in Groundhog Day felt.
Speaking of bitter end, we can all pray the election will in fact produce a winner Tuesday night, or at least by early Wednesday morning. But with many precincts without power -- of the electrical kind -- it may take some time to count paper ballots, which are susceptible to demands for recounts and law suits. There are also many precincts that will have to parse a significant number of provisional ballots. In competitive states, various liberal groups are laying the groundwork for law suits that can and almost certainly will be filed if Romney wins the state narrowly.
I'm not predicting another 2000, but we could have one. There are many reasons to wish for a Tuesday wrap-up. Not an inconsiderable one for me (and millions of others) is that by Wednesday I could once again pick up my phone without hearing a recorded message from Pat Boone or Mike Huckabee. I'm not sure how much all these "voter contacts" help, if they help at all. A candidate might win more votes by buying full-page ads in newspapers saying that he did not call you so that you could enjoy dinner in peace.
There has been much criticism of how poll samples have been drawn up this year, and these criticisms may turn out to be sound. Devising a sample that allows for voter enthusiasm and predicts who will actually turn out to vote is no easy matter, even when the pollster is competent and honest. Not all are. We should know Wednesday how good the pollsters were this time. But Republicans relying on uncounted Romney supporters need to remember that similar criticisms were made of pollsters in 2008, and the polls were right for the most part then.
Romney partisans are fond of talking about the 1980 presidential race. And who can blame them? Like this year, the polls on the Friday before the Carter/Reagan showdown on Tuesday of '80 showed that race to be essentially even. On Election Day morning television viewers could hear the pompous Walter Cronkite and the less pretentious David Brinkley telling the nation that the race was just "too close to call."
It wasn't close at all. In fact, it was a rout. Reagan won 44 states and beat Carter by almost 10 percent in the popular vote. If it had been a fight, the referee would have stopped it before 8:30. Of course Mitt Romney is no Ronald Reagan. But then on Nov. 4, 1980, Ronald Reagan wasn't Ronald Reagan yet either. And Republicans are only as good as their dreams.
If it turns out that American voters choose Barack Obama again, with his openly statist agenda, it will indeed pave the way for the kind of fundamental change Obama said he was keen on bringing about when he campaigned in 2008. For many conservative voters, it will remind them of the famous quote from H. L. Mencken that "Democracy is the philosophy that the people know what they want, and deserve to get it good and hard."
I'm trying to maintain my equanimity, even though one of the candidates in this race is working for an America that I can't even recognize. To show how gentlemanly, downright Marquis of Queensberry I am about this, I'll share with you a brief exchange I enjoyed in a supermarket check-out lane with a guy behind me who looked like a central casting humanities professor -- beard, jeans, longish and scraggly hair, poor posture -- who was sporting an Obama sticker on his wrinkled T-shirt. I looked him up and down, smiled, and said, "Don't forget to vote next Wednesday." Give him some credit. He laughed. But who will be laughing next Wednesday?
Now for some football.