What To Watch For In The Campaign's Wild Last Week

After the longest presidential campaign in our history, Election Day is finally in sight.

We've had plenty of "never before" stories to tell in the 21 months since the first candidate debate in the primaries, and we surely haven't seen the last turn in the road yet.

Still, the endgame of an American election usually follows a pattern, and there are certain things we can expect to see in the final frantic days.

The Narrowing Gap — Whatever the polls may have found up to now, they are likely to change at the end to reflect the "settling" of the vote. This often means voters return to the party they usually vote for, and it often means the gap between the two candidates shrinks.

The polling gap tightened in this fashion in four of the last five presidential elections. The exception was 1992, when a three-way race broke open at the end and allowed Bill Clinton to win by about 5 percentage points.

We have seen some evidence of this settling process in recent days as John McCain adds Republican leaners to his base of 90 percent support among hard-core Republicans. While his overall number was mired down around 40 percent through much of the past month, McCain is far more likely to finish with 45 percent or more of the general election vote. And this has begun to show up in the polls, some of which even have him above 45.

By the same dynamic, some of these polls have shown Barack Obama below 50 percent in recent days, allowing McCain to come within a point or two of a tie. These have all been polls taken among 'likely voters," meaning the responses of those who have not voted before are being excluded or given less weight.

Even without a major precipitating event, it is quite possible that in the final week, one or more polls of likely voters (so defined) will show McCain in a tie or pulling ahead. But does this mean the underlying dynamic of the election has changed? Not necessarily.

The Closing Circle — Watch for the number of states visited by the two campaigns to shrink and for the itineraries to become almost identical. This is the truest indicator of where the two camps see the race. Whatever the polls show, the contest is really about reaching 270 votes in the Electoral College, and that is done by winning individual states. As we saw in 2000, it is possible to win the popular vote and lose the Electoral College.

So watch the travel schedules. McCain will be concentrating on a triangle of states from Missouri eastward to Ohio and Pennsylvania, then south to Virginia, North Carolina and Florida. Once he has completed a circuit of these six, he'll do another. And another.

He may toss in another swing through the Western trio (Nevada, Colorado and New Mexico), and he may venture another visit to his old friends in New Hampshire. And he may want to stop off in Indiana on his way.

But he will have to stress the Big Six triangle states because he needs to win them all, and neglecting any one of them would probably mean conceding it to Obama. All but Pennsylvania are states that voted for George W. Bush twice, so McCain should find sympathetic audiences in each. But why aren't these states already in his column? That question is the clearest indication of the score in this campaign.

Proliferating Superlatives — Candidates in endgame tend to forget the simple declaratives and comparatives in favor of the superlative — and even the apocalyptic. This is the most important election of our lives. The challenges have never been greater. But this can still be the greatest era in American history, and our best days are still be ahead of us. Huzzah! Cue the band.

Process Anxiety — We will see more stories about glitches and problems in the voting system, including attempts to register cartoon characters and entire rosters of football players. There will be lawsuits over attempts to purge voter rolls (as in Colorado) and over attempts to register more voters (as in Ohio).

We will hear that electronic voting machines are going to break down, or not start, or switch votes once cast. They will be accused of eradicating entire precincts of data. We will hear of stolen signs and ballots and of fliers instructing voters to vote on alternating days, one party on Tuesday and the other on Wednesday. Partisan actors on the left and right will find in these anecdotes final evidence that the other side is trying to steal the election.

No doubt many of these stories will have some basis in real issues of voting procedure, and some of the controversy will be legitimate. But much of what we hear will also be overblown, overheated and overreported.

Random Ugliness — Fed by rumors and fear, there will be reports of confrontation, intimidation and threats of violence — both on Election Day and beyond. This year, much of this talk will be about race. The nomination of an African-American for president is a symbol of racial progress, to be sure, but it also touches a certain nerve in the body politic that responds with resentment and worse.

We have already seen stories about troubled adolescents reacting to the political dynamic in twisted ways. These may be minor incidents at the margin of our national life, but they are a glimpse into an undeniable part of our political culture. And the final throes of a national campaign bring every aspect of that culture to light.

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