Dum Spiro Spero

October 25, 2012

In this presidential race, both sides apparently think they are winning -- and I'm sure both are nervous they might be wrong. The truth is, neither can be sure how the election will come out. But that's not always the case. In The Bigger Hammer, McCain-Palin advisor Tucker Eskew quotes the South Carolina state motto “While I Breathe, I Hope.” He was talking about the sense in the closing days of a campaign that things may not turn out as planned, and of his effort to stay optimistic.

I've been at the end game of two presidential runs, and the feelings are more complicated than you’d expect. In the closing days of the Dukakis campaign, they sent almost everyone working in the national headquarters at 105 Chauncey Street in Boston out into the field to help get voters to the polls. It reflected both the campaign’s assessment of my abilities as field organizer and their desperation that I was sent to Johnson County, Kansas – the most Republican county in a state Dukakis was extremely unlikely to win. (There were so few Democratic workers there that I ended up hiring Kelly Girls temps to make Get Out the Vote calls.)

But the interesting part is that even on Election Day in the middle of Republican Kansas, when every outside observer knew Vice President Bush was headed for victory, I didn't. That was due, in part, to the campaign hierarchy feeding the staff optimistic exit poll numbers throughout the day (“Up 5 in Ohio!”). But, even more, it was the result of the self-deception that comes from a long devotion to a single cause. I went to an election-eve rally in Kansas City, Missouri and heard Vice Presidential nominee Lloyd Bentsen give a Texas stem-winder, ticking off numbers from the narrowing polls (“And the Harris Poll -- four points and closing!”). Part of me could see Bentsen deliberately boosting spirits – I knew the Harris Poll methodology leaned toward us, and was an outlier – but I could not help but believe.

So while smarter political pundits (okay, all political pundits) saw Dukakis’ defeat coming, I was stung when the networks called the race for Bush. Later that night I drove with another campaign worker across the Kansas prairie toward our morning flights from Wichita to Boston, past ghostly shadows of oil wells pumping in the moonlight, and I felt as empty as the landscape. If you really believe, it’s hard to see clearly what’s coming right at you.

Four years later, on the day of the Pennsylvania primary, our state campaign manager Celia Fischer tried to give me a Clinton for President t-shirt and I declined, citing my drawer full of Dukakis shirts. As I walked away, she yelled to me, “We’re going to win this time, Keith.” Soon after, I started to believe she was right, even when Clinton fell far behind in summer electoral vote projections. (In early June, a USA Today analysis of 25 state polls showed Clinton leading only in Arkansas.) It was the same insider's delusion, but this time it just happened to be right.

Check here for regular observations on the 2012 presidential campaign and political history, as well as new clips from The Bigger Hammer. Follow @TheBiggerHammer on Twitter to find out when new excerpts are released and where you’ll be able to see the whole film.

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