In the opening days of the general election campaign, an exaggerated optimism has swept through Republican ranks and an equally exaggerated gloom has infected the Democrats.
A reporter readjusting his sights after living for two weeks in the twin bubbles of convention cities Denver and St. Paul can only wonder what has triggered these surprising reactions.
These are not the judgments of the party pros we were dealing with the last two weeks. When Steve Schmidt, John McCain's top strategist, visited The Washington Post team on the final day of the Republican convention, he said he would wait at least a week before he drew any conclusions from the public polls. Mid-September would be an even better time to assess the state of the race, he said.
But within 48 hours of McCain and Sarah Palin leaving St. Paul behind, we were flooded with polls purporting to measure the appeal of the McCain-Palin ticket vs. the Democratic pairing of Barack Obama and Joe Biden.
The Washington Post-ABC News survey, taken over the weekend after the GOP convention, reported the race essentially tied, whether you are talking about all registered voters or those most likely to show up at the polls. Obama led the larger group, 47 percent to 46 percent, while McCain led the latter, 49 percent to 47 percent.
Voters may take their time
The logical inference from these findings is that the race is still to be won, with events in the next eight weeks, including the debates, likely to determine the outcome.
But instead of reserving judgment, many of the Republicans I talked to in Washington have started a premature celebration, while their Democratic counterparts have panicked and started calling for Obama to “start fighting.”
The twin reactions were based on the suspiciously large shifts the Post poll and others reported among some voter groups – especially white women – and on some issues. McCain vaulted past Obama among those women and scored big gains on the economy and on the capacity to change Washington.
I call those shifts “suspiciously large,” not because I doubt the accuracy or the methodology on the surveys but because the years have taught me that such swerves in voter opinion are likely to be temporary.
What we know is that the American people take the choice of a new president very seriously – and especially at a time when their nation is at war and the economy is behaving in a way that causes real concern.
Getting to know the candidates
Relatively few Americans have ever cast a ballot for either McCain or Obama. McCain, after two campaigns for the presidency and a long career in Congress, is a comparatively familiar figure. But Obama came onto the public's radar screen only this year, and Biden and Palin are still strangers to most of their fellow citizens.
The curiosity about all four is intense, which means that the learning process may go relatively quickly. But because voters know that they have until Nov. 4 to figure out their choice, those who are less partisan and more independent will take their time before they commit.
They will search carefully for clues that can give them a degree of confidence that they are making the right choice. Those clues may come in displays of character, in policy promises, or in the endorsement of trusted sources. Informal conversations among friends and family will be as important as the TV ads or the candidates' speeches.
Multiply these factors by the political geography of this 51-part election, with nearly a dozen plausible tossup states, and the uncertainty of the outcome is overwhelming. My hunch is that we may go well into October and still not know who will be succeeding George W. Bush.
Some find this unsettling and unacceptable, and they give full license to their emotions of joy or despair. I find it wonderful, even inspiring. This has been – and remains – the election of a lifetime.