It’s Fate, Stupid

That might be the most powerful force in this election.

It's Fate, Stupid

Mossback’s new favorite election-year toy is at the Los Angeles Times Web site ( It has a tool called the “2004 Electoral Vote Tracker,” which allows you to gaze down at the United States and survey the election landscape. Colored according to current state-by-state polls, John Kerry–leaning states are blue, George W. Bush states are red, and swing states are white.

Run your cursor over a state, and it will tell you what the latest poll says and which candidate won the state in the last four presidential elections. With a click of the mouse, you can change a red state to blue, or a white state to red, and read the electoral vote tally as you go (it takes 270 to win).

You feel all-powerful, like a god, or Justice Antonin Scalia.

I love looking at a landslide map that’s as blue as Lake Washington in summer. But I know that’s a dream. However, if you check the stats for the so-called swing states, and click the white states blue where Kerry currently leads or has a good shot of winning, as Al Gore did in 2000, it’s pretty easy to come up with reasonable scenarios where Kerry wins.

Playing with the tracker is not only empowering, it keeps your mind focused where it ought to be: not in Boston at the Democratic Party’s party, but on the state-by-state battles that lie ahead. Washington, for example, is considered a swing state, though I think it’s more likely we’re leaning toward Kerry, especially if the trends George Howland Jr. has sniffed out for this week’s cover story about Issaquah hold true (see “Swingtown,” p. 18).

But the map in its current form presents a large mass of red in the West and South, where Bush wins are certain. By clicking and playing, you learn that this vast red sea isn’t as intimidating as it looks. The presidential election isn’t a ground war, it’s a population war. Electoral votes are based not on the size of a state, but on how many people live where. In electoral terms, New Jersey is worth five Alaskas. The red sea, therefore, can be parted and crossed.

The national polls indicate that the election is still a tie. Each side is loading the scales, hoping to gain the advantage. Is the balance precarious? Will wars, terrorist attacks, marvelous rhetoric, or sleazy TV ads cause public opinion to swing decisively, like when one person jumps off a teeter-totter? Will Kerry or Bush get “big mo” or “big bounce” out of their conventions? Or will the outcome be settled by who puts the last feather on the scale?

The feather scenario seems the more likely way to reach a tipping point. Both major parties are targeting micro- constituencies, including confused, indifferent, or blockheaded voters. It’s hard to imagine that there is anyone truly undecided at this point. After four years, the choices seem clear. But then, it seemed that way back in 2000, too. Still, Ralph Nader managed to blur the differences for some. And there was Mickey Kaus, the blogger who agonized endlessly on Slate about how he couldn’t make up his mind between Bush and Gore. It was like watching a color-blind man trying to pick house paint.

It’s hard to know what moves these voters. Their anxiety about what track the country is on suggests they might trend toward change and Kerry. But other indicators favor Bush. A worrisome poll suggested that the electorate sees Kerry as “smart” and Bush as “strong.” In America, strong kicks smart’s ass every time.

So, much is left to a tiny group of people who seem unreachable by reason or conviction. Indeed, we can play upon their fears, excite their emotions, appeal to patriotism. But even so, despite everyone’s best efforts, the election outcome could be out of our hands.

I say this because, since the media, pundits, and polls don’t explain much about the current state of affairs, I’ve once again turned to sources that provide genuine perspective: narratives from ancient Rome.

One reads that the Romans, despite their enormously energetic accomplishments in engineering, warfare, government, and commerce, were ultimately confounded by the world. They relied, as we do, on a mix of practical reason, faith, and superstition. Like we moderns, they saw their own failings yet were unable to stop them from unraveling their world. Romans were aware their empire was falling, long before it fell. Even the most powerful were powerless to stop it. Emperors who were declared gods could only act as humans.

So they made sacrifices to the goddess Fortune—the volatile and blind deity who, wrote Pliny the Elder in the first century, is “fickle in her favors, and favors the unworthy,” which explains Dan Quayle.

Pliny was later quoted as saying, “Fortune helps the brave,” an inspiring battle cry for any campaign. But to demonstrate her capriciousness, Fortune killed off Pliny shortly after he uttered the phrase, suffocating him in the fumes of Mount Vesuvius.

It is no longer fashionable to believe in Fortune. In Darwin’s era, only the fit are fortunate; in Bush’s, only the rich have good luck. Those with big-picture perspective tend to believe in the nebulous “forces of history.”

At any rate, all any of us can do now is energetically follow our consciences, watch for signs and portents, and let the empire fall where it may.

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