NEW YORK - After six months telling us that Tuesday is going to be tighter than Britney Spears’ pants, the murmurs from the cognoscenti during our MSNBC election rehearsal last night reflected a much older conventional wisdom: that incumbents never have tight elections, win or lose.
The bigger-margin-than-we-thought talk was not the result of the rehearsal. For the pure purposes of practicing, elaborate story lines are created (for the paranoid of both parties, it’s your worst fear come true: the same people who’ll bring you the election results are making stuff up on-camera). But even these were relatively balanced from a smorgasboard of scenarios: a big Kerry win, a big Bush win, lines of thousands waiting to vote and polling hours extended in a swing state, early reports of voters being blocked from the polling places - all that good juicy political science fiction stuff that, if we had been thinking, we should have recorded, edited down, and sold as a DVD.
No, the “somebody by 30 Electoral votes” talk was history itself speaking: the Clinton and Reagan second-term victories, the Bush 41 and especially the Carter defeats. Carter’s was invoked because on the Friday before it, the 1980 election looked as tight as, well, to adjust the cultural reference, Cher’s pants, yet Reagan wound up walking away on Tuesday. The theory goes that by now, the electorate has pretty much made its mind up on the incumbent: they either want him back or they don’t.
The benefit of the large-margin doubt talk seemed to be mostly in the President’s favor, and I have to assume that has to do with the Osama Bin Laden tape from Friday. I follow the logic - there is a significant tide of terror anxiety prevalent among the proverbial Soccer Moms (that’s why otherwise Democratic-controlled New Jersey is believed to be in play).
But I guess what I don’t follow is the logic of the Soccer Moms.
I saw or read nearly the entirety of the Bin Laden tape and it’s the damnedest one yet. I can’t understand how it could be viewed as being beneficial to Mr. Bush. On a fundamental level, it’s clearly recently-recorded - the Ramadan reference suggests maybe as late as a week ago - and he’s clearly alive and healthy. I can’t imagine that among the Soccer Moms and the others dismissing all other issues to focus their vote solely on the terror threat, that one of the other primal reactions in their synapses wouldn’t be “Umm, how come we haven’t caught him yet? Who’s in charge of that?”
And to anybody who listened to the madman’s comments had to feel perversely liberated. Unless the tape was an elaborate, subtle feint to suddenly get this country to let it’s guard down (a very poor bet, to say nothing of exhibiting nuanced psychological planning in which the terrorists have shown no prior interest whatsoever) - Al-Qaeda’s sole intervention in this election will have turned out to be its head gangster to announcing that it didn’t really matter to him who anybody voted for, because the re-election of Bush or the election of Kerry wasn’t going to impact how Al-Qaeda wants to impact us.
This has to, in some minds anyway, have reduced the apocalyptic anticipations which the Bush-Cheney campaign has repeatedly invoked. Bin Laden may not be one for subtle actions, but it can’t have been accidental that he appeared without his trademark sub-machine gun. It’s not like he forgot it back in the cave. Don’t get me wrong on this: I’m not buying his explanations nor his posture as a borderline-sane geo-politician. But those intentions were clear. That was a policy speech. In his lunacy, he probably thought it was statesmanship.
I may be wildly wrong about its impact in the days before this election. It may very well be that the It-Helps-Bush crowd is right, that the knee jerk reaction will certify the re-election: There’s Osama, Better Keep Bush. Back in my sports days when people asked me for a prediction on a game I used to be smart enough to invoke the great sportscaster Red Barber’s standard reply: If I knew in advance who’d win, they wouldn’t have to bother playing the game, would they?
But I’m covering news now, therefore I am dumber.
And I think the political analysts have forgotten to examine the psychology of an electorate under the stress of war and fear. For the longest time, even when Mr. Bush’s approval ratings were at their apex in the post-Afghanistan and immediate post-Saddam periods, I kept wondering if he wouldn’t fall victim to the Winston Churchill effect.
Mid-20th Century British politics aren’t taught much in American schools any more, but it has fascinated me always that in the spring of 1945, with Hitler dead, England’s gamble to fight the Nazis having been vindicated, and his own gallantry and leadership acclaimed universally, that the British promptly voted Churchill out of office in favor of a first-time Prime Minister in Clement Attlee. It astonished Churchill, and British pollsters, and world leaders in general.
There were many factors - the country clamored for universal health care (sound familiar?) and Churchill loathed the concept. But I always wished someone had conducted an exit poll, not with statisticians or political volunteers, but with psychologists. I continue to wonder if the British voters, in the brief quietude of their voting booths, hadn’t looked at Churchill’s name and seen not just victory, but also death and destruction and most of all anxiety, and if they hadn’t said “Thanks for getting us through that, Buddy. We’d like to forget that now. Bye bye.”
What will sound more loudly in the psyches of more voters on Tuesday? The idea that terrorists are still an extraordinary threat, or the idea that George Bush’s presidency, whether through his fault or merely by the circumstances of history, has been a time of stress and death and war and falling skyscrapers and terror color codes - things we may or may not be personally able to alter or impact in any way - but which we really wish would just go away.
When offered an incumbent for a second term, a country has always tended to decide not just on a man, but also on an era. I’ve wondered for two years if the Americans of our time would choose - rightly or wrongly, thoughtfully or naively - to ask Mr. Bush to go away, and take the years 2001-2004 with him.
The history of the large margins for or against an incumbent with which I started these meanderings, and which we’ll address in a special Sunday edition of Countdown tonight, includes FDR and Abraham Lincoln. It’s a shocking fact to look at the 1944 vote, in the midst of a World War the necessity and conduct of which few had any doubts, and see that Roosevelt gained a fourth term by only 53-46 over Thomas E. Dewey.
And as to our greatest war-time leader, the history books show Lincoln having handled General George McLellan pretty easily in 1864, 55-45. Less easily remembered is that as late as that August, Lincoln was certain he wouldn’t be returned to office, his greatest media ally Horace Greeley wrote of how the nation begged for peace at any price, and that leaders in his own party were calculating if there was still time to nominate another candidate.
People wanted it to all go away.
And then Sherman captured Atlanta.
The videotape may remind voters, perhaps in a deeply subconscious way, that Mr. Bush has not made Osama Bin Laden go away, and there doesn’t seem to be an Atlanta on the schedule between now and Tuesday night.
Thoughts? email me at KOlbermann@msnbc.com
Election to be decided Sunday (Keith Olbermann)
New York— Well, so much for saving the Bill O’Reilly tapes. We got up to about $175,000 in your pledges (excuse me for a 1970ism, but how far out is that?) but we couldn’t top Bill O’Reilly, who may have paid a year’s salary ($2M-$10M, says The New York Daily News) to keep the tapes from showing up at Tower Records. We’ll have to settle for those lovely transcripts and the knowledge that you can never get all the toothpaste back in the tube, nor all the soap out of the loofah.
We now rejoin the election, already in progress.
And, as teased here these last two days, we might be told Tuesday night or Wednesday morning, or not until January 15th, but, if history holds, we will know by around 4 p.m. EST Sunday who will be president next year. There are many irrelevant indicators out there on which to hang a forecast (the NASCAR dads, the stock market, Robert Novak), but to my knowledge only one logical fallacy has stood the test of time. So here goes.
By definition, the logical fallacy, of course is simply this: Event A occurs. Then Event B occurs. Therefore, Event A caused Event B. Obviously, it’s simply not true. Nonetheless, when the presidential election is this close, we look for anything and everything that might predict the outcome— whether common-sense or logically fallacious.
And as logical fallacies go, we are privileged to have a doozy, one that seems to have correctly predicted the last seventeen Presidential Elections.
Terror? The economy? The incumbent’s final rating in the Gallup poll? Turnout in Ohio?
It’s the Washington Redskins.
The football team with the politically incorrect name has been anything but incorrect in presaging which party will win the White House. The franchise began its life in Boston in 1932, when George Preston Marshall bought a dormant team that had gone belly-up in Newark. Originally named after the baseball team in town— the Braves— they were re-christened the Redskins in 1933, and thus it would not be until November 1st, 1936, that the ‘Skins played their first game during an election season.
In their last game home before the vote, the Boston Redskins beat the Chicago Cardinals 13 to 10. And two days later, Franklin Roosevelt was reelected president. By the time FDR ran again in 1940, Marshall had moved the Redskins to Griffith Stadium in Washington. And, again, in their last home game before that election, the Redskins beat Pittsburgh 37-10, and Roosevelt was returned to office.
On November 5th, 1944, it was Cleveland at Washington. Redskins won 14-10. Two days later, Roosevelt was re-re-reelected. And four years later, they repeated the trick, preceding Harry Truman’s unexpected holding of the White House for the Democrats. The Redskins were now 4-0 in their “election day games”— and so were the Democrats.
But on November 2nd, 1952, the Redskins, in their last home game before the vote, lost to the Pittsburgh Steelers 24-23. And days later, Democrat Adlai Stevenson lost the presidency to Dwight Eisenhower. In '56, it was a pre-election home victory for Washington, and a re-election for Ike.
And in 1960, the tanking Redskins were clobbered in that last home game before the vote, by Cleveland, by 21 points. Nine days later, it was John F. Kennedy over Richard Nixon, by about 21 votes. And by now, the pattern had emerged. If the Redskins won their final home game before a presidential election, the incumbent party kept the White House. If the Redskins lost that game, so did the party in power.
And this, remarkably, has held up:
1964: Skins 27, Bears 20. Lyndon Johnson retains the office.
1968: Washington loses the last home game before the vote, to the New York Giants. The Democrats fall out of power, in favor of Richard Nixon
1972: Skins win; so does Nixon.
1976: Washington loses to Dallas; Republican Gerald Ford loses to Democrat Jimmy Carter.
1980: They lose again; Carter loses to Republican Ronald Reagan.
1984: Washington wins, Reagan wins again.
1988: Washington wins, George W. Bush wins.
1992: Washington loses to the Giants 24 to 7, and the incumbent party is bounced again: Bush out, Clinton in.
1996: Clinton's re-election is foretold: the Redskins win their final home game before the vote, against Indianapolis.
Going into the Bush-Gore race of 2000, the outcome of Washington's last home game before the election had coincided perfectly for 16 consecutive games, and 16 consecutive elections: 10 Redskins wins, each of which is followed by the incumbent president and/or party retaining the office, and six Redskins losses, each of which is followed by the incumbent president and/or party losing the office.
On October 30th, 2000, the Washington Redskins, with, to that point, 6 victories and 2 losses, hosted the Tennessee Titans, who had 6 victories and 1 loss. In betting circles it was a virtual toss-up, with a slight edge to Washington because it was playing at home. The Redskins scored first and led 7-0, giving an early hint that the Democrats would retain the White House. But Tennessee rallied to go in front 20-7, and hold on for a 27-21 win. It’s a six-point victory, and, six weeks later, a five-electoral-vote victory for George W. Bush— of the party that had been out of office, the Republicans.
Now it would be really spooky if those 17 games had all surprises, upsets as they call them. I was disappointed to find, after having gone back and calculated won-lost records and intangibles, that, in fact, all but three times the Redskins were favored to win and did, or they were expected to lose and did. Then again, how many elections in that same span have really been upsets? Truman, anecdotally if not truly; maybe Reagan over Carter, probably Bush over Gore— and no, the Redskins’ game upsets do not perfectly coincide with the election upsets.
Still, it's some streak. The Redskins have played home games before 17 Presidential Elections, and only 17 Presidential Elections, and their results have easily and without qualification forecast the outcomes of all 17.
And now for the 64-billion dollar question. When is/was the Redskins’ last game before this year's election? The one in which the prophecy says, if they win, George Bush is re-elected, and, if they lose, John Kerry takes office? It’s Sunday, against the Green Bay Packers, who’ve won two in a row. Who play in Lambeau Field— which Senator Kerry infamously misidentified earlier in the campaign as Lambert Field. The Redskins, meanwhile, have already suffered a four-game losing streak and found that the return of Coach Joe Gibbs (himself a NASCAR owner and presumably a NASCAR dad) has not been the panacea Washington sports fans always expect as if it was an unfunded federal mandate.
Oddsmakers favor Green Bay by two or two-and-a-half points, which, as any politician— or football gambler— can tell you, is well inside the margin of error.
But this is an ironclad sports tradition:
Skins win, incumbents stay in;
Skins lose, incumbents are old news.
An ironclad sports tradition, just like the fact that in 122 years of post-season competition, no baseball team has ever come back from down three-nothing to win a playoff series.
Oh, wait— didn’t somebody just do that?
Email me at KOlbermann@msnbc.com
O'Reilly settlement reported (Keith Olbermann)
SECAUCUS— Oh, calamity!
Old pal Harvey Levin of the syndicated television series "Celebrity Justice," reports Bill O'Reilly has settled his lawsuits with former producer Andrea Mackris, the night before their lawyers would have met up in a Nassau County, New York, supreme court.
Details are not immediately available.
Harvey will join us on 'Countdown' tonight.
You will not be held to your pledged contributions to the "Save The Tapes Fund," now totalling nearly $175,000.
Blame the Red Sox (Keith Olbermann)
SECAUCUS— I don't like going back on promises but the blog version of the secret foolproof augur to knowing in advance who'll win the Presidential election is going to have to wait another day.
Silly me, I thought the St. Louis Cardinals were actually going to look like National League Champions and not the last-place finisher in the Eastern League's Western Division, and would at least extend the World Series another day, thus obviating the need to devote time tonight on the show to saluting the end of the 86-year drought of the Red Sox.
But there's no way around it, plus, Boston's famous/infamous lunatic pitcher of the '70s, Bill "Spaceman" Lee, was available to join us on the air tonight. Thus the story of the augur, time tested through the last 17 elections, will run tomorrow night and I'll give you the preview tomorrow afternoon.
This isn't a sports blog but I have to share one coincidence and one thought about Boston.
The coincidence is that the first champion Red Sox since 1919 are managed by Terry Francona, who just happens to be the first cousin of MSNBC military analyst Rick Francona. As Rick put it the first time I met him, "If you're a Francona, you're a cousin."
And the thought is a simple one, based on my years in sports and particularly my one year working in television in Boston itself.
What the hell are Red Sox fans going to complain about now?
Email me at KOlbermann@msnbc.com
A quick note on the World Series (Keith Olbermann)
Do you realize that as of Wednesday afternoon, every baseball team that has gone up 3-0 in a best-of-seven playoff series since 2000 has gone on to lose that series?
Just a thought.
50 percent of the vote and 51 percent of the lawyers (Keith Olbermann)
NEW YORK— There’s a lot of people here with vacations scheduled for November and I have a feeling we’re going to be seeing a lot of flight reservations cancelled.
John Dean was on the show last night. Few of our political figures carry so much of our institutional history around in their heads, and considering this particular head includes not just a photographic memory but its auditory equivalent, I listen carefully when he speaks.
And it’s his conviction that, next Tuesday, we’re likely headed for the Perfect Electoral Storm. The Republicans will be as rabid as 2000 over every close vote in every precinct this side of Stuttgart, and the Democrats, having learned a lot by watching Karl Rove and James Baker run rings around them four years ago, may be even more fanatic than their teachers.
In short, 2004 could make 2000 look like an argument over a parking spot.
The Bush-Gore mess was so profoundly disturbing that we’ve tried to smooth over its post-traumatic stress disorder more intently than we have worked to heal 9/11. It seemed to represent that which was impossible in this country: a disorderly transition, two Presidents-In-Waiting, two different covers of Time Magazine.
Dean foresees challenges in many states— they’re already starting in Florida and elsewhere—and veritable flying wedges of electoral lawyers staging bloodless Antietams and Shilohs throughout the land. The imagery isn’t accidental: Dean used the term “a 21st Century Civil War” in his excellent piece on the worst-case scenarios on the FindLaw website.
We forget— hell, we weren’t taught— about the chaos that ensued after the contested 1876 election. It not only involved Florida, The Supreme Court, debated Electors, and even a special Election Review Commission, but worst of all, it was settled only when popular-vote winner William Tilden told his supporters to dissuade those Civil War vets still in the army to put away their swords. We never got close to bloodshed but you wouldn’t know that from reading contemporary accounts.
And the compromise, brokered by the two parties, might actually have been worse than a riot. The Republicans, then the more liberal of the parties, got the White House. But the Democrats got the pre-approval of their congressional agenda, which, in 1877, meant the harsh, pro-White reconstruction of the South that Abraham Lincoln had warned against. The dominoes would fall for a century: Jim Crow laws, disenfranchisement, Strom Thurmond, you name it.
Something to look forward to. President Kerry, with a Constitutional amendment to ban gay marriage, or Bill Bennett on the Supreme Court. Or President Bush, grudgingly attending a Democratic-managed world summit on what the hell to do with Iraq, and a Karl Rove speech endorsing universal Stem Cell Research.
John Dean also recognizes the wild card within the wild card: the sudden health crisis facing our second-ever oldest Chief Justice. William Rehnquist might be sick as anything, he might be undergoing chemo for his thyroid cancer for all we know, he might be receiving visits from William Howard Taft and John Marshall, but as near as Dean could figure—if he’s still breathing, he can vote on any electoral Chinese Finger-Trap that lands among the Nine Old Men (and Women).
One silver lining exists and we will examine it in depth on Countdown on Thursday night, though I’ll preview it at length here during the day Thursday. There is, believe it or not, a simple to understand and so-far fool-proof augur of the Presidential Election, one that has paid off perfectly for every election since 1936— even in 2000.
I’ll tease you by saying we’ll know its prediction over the weekend and give the hint that it has nothing to do with the economy or where the Chief Justice gets his designer robes made.
Email me at KOlbermann@msnbc.com
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