Republicans headed into Election Day arguing that their candidate should by all rights win the election: Mitt Romney, they argued, has the right persona and plans, the ineffable momentum, and even "destiny."
Democrats spent much of the Monday arguing that President Barack Obama will win. The star of the Democratic case has not been a citizen who has been helped by the extension of health care or the end of the Iraq war, but the wonky New York Times blogger Nate Silver, whose election-eve forecast that Obama has a 91% chance of victory had been retweeted a remarkable 3,700 times by early Tuesday morning.
Where Democrats in 2008 were stirred by Obama’s promises of hope and change, they are now confident in the victory of one of American history’s great political machines. And Republicans, who picked the most calculating of candidates, find themselves true believers, raging against the polls.
“It feels a little like 2004,” said Jim Jordan, a veteran Democratic strategist who ran a key outside-spending effort that year. "We hated Bush so much we simply couldn't imagine that Americans as a whole could disagree.”
The Republican criticism of polling has been at times crude, at times sophisticated, based on arguments about modeling and the composition of the electorate. The impulse behind some of it is tactical: Campaigns routinely argue, in the late days of a race, that they are winning, if only to keep supporters on the bandwagon, and President Obama’s campaign did the same a few short weeks ago.
“They are mentally preparing to say they’ve been robbed, and we are mentally preparing to say ‘the vote’s the vote,’” said another Democratic strategist, Jonathan Prince.
But the impulse behind the Republican response to consistent public polling against Romney is different: It reflects a sincere belief that Romney should be winning.
"I think the Democrats’ defensiveness whenever their numbers are called into question is a great sign for us,” said Tim Miller, a spokesman for the Republican National Committee. “We'll know the math soon enough, after all. "
RNC Chairman Reince Priebus has repeatedly captured the grassroots Republican sentiment on the stump for the Romney-Ryan ticket, speaking loftily of a "rendezvous with destiny.”
“I don’t think I’ve seen a time in our nation’s history where the man and the moment have met so perfectly,” Paul Ryan says in the campaign’s final video released early Tuesday morning.
“We have energy and purpose on our side,” said Romney Rapid Response director Danny Diaz, predicting a “big victory.” “And the math is pretty straightforward.”
The GOP arithmetic is largely influenced by factors external to the campaign: 23 million unemployed or underemployed Americans, a 7.9% jobless rate, and a creeping economic recovery. Republicans can’t imagine how a president gets reelected under those conditions, especially when they’ve nominated the most centrist and economically focused candidate they could find. And indeed there is an inkling of despair that if they can’t win this race, when will they have a better shot at the White House?
The Democratic fixation on the process, rather than on the inevitability of Obama’s victory as a result of his liberal policy accomplishments and his role in pressing forward a passable economic recovery, seems to reflect something less than the Republican confidence in the strength of their political arguments. Democrats, by contrast, appear perpetually slightly surprised to be winning, and more than pleased that something approaching a majority seems ready to stick with the president for a second term.
But if polls and inevitability are the talk of the Democratic political class, the people around Obama say they feel no disconnect at all.
“I've been traveling for four days with POTUS,” his chief strategist, David Axelrod, said in an e-mail to BuzzFeed. “I haven't heard him once talk about electoral math.”
Likewise, Romney’s team maintains the consultant-turned-private-equity-executive is fully immersed in his campaign’s math, pouring over internals in the final days of the campaign at the front of his jet.
But the different positioning was reflected in the contrast in how Obama and Romney closed the race on Monday night — Obama reached back for a fleeting reminder of 2008 that he hasn't been able to recapture on the stump all year.
But for those following the campaign closely, it was Romney who closed looking ahead. As Barack Obama brought himself to tears with nostalgia about his own 2008 campaign, speaking in front of his old office in Iowa and repeating the same "Fired Up, Ready To Go!" story he used to end that race, Romney campaigned like a man who felt he deserves to win.
"This is much more than our moment," he said in Manchester, New Hampshire — the state where he announced his candidacy. "This is American's moment of renewal, of purpose, and optimism. We have journeyed together far and wide in this great campaign for America's future, and now we're almost home. One final push and we'll get there."
Ben Smith is the editor-in-chief of BuzzFeed and is based in New York.
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