Over the weekend, my parents were visiting for my son's seventh birthday. As a small group of adults softened the sharp edges of tyke-induced chaos with white wine and take-out falafel, political talk ensued. My father commented out of the blue that he didn't see how Obama could possibly lose the presidential election. The Arizonans in the room glanced at my old man like he'd grown another head. Obama a shoo-in? His reality didn't really jibe with ours.
I've noticed before that the political assumptions my father references, even though we agree on most issues, are at some variance from my own. He lives within easy commuting distance of Washington, D.C. and his buddies are all retired or near-retired government workers or military. Whatever their nominal ideologies, they tend to assume that politicians are rather smarter than my neighbors and I consider them to be, and they assign a higher level of competence to government agencies than is considered credible in my circles. Not long ago, I started a dinner-time argument on the East Coast by suggesting that Joe Biden isn't the sharpest knife in the drawer. That's not exactly a controversial point of view in my current stomping grounds.
Which is not to say that the assumptions that Arizonans are soaking in are necessarily correct. I think the folks I meet in town who assume Romney will win in a walk are dreaming too. But they talk with like-minded people and reinforce each other's opinions just like the superannuated bureaucrats in Maryland — it's just a different set of assumptions.
A few years ago, Bill Bishop and Robert Cushing wrote in The Big Sort about how Americans are increasingly moving to areas or just associating with people based on their political and cultural comfort levels, and how their opinions tend to become hardened by subsequent reinforcement. I think even those people who hold on to outlier beliefs still marinate in the local assumptions. That's true of me and my friends as much as for my father and his.
But I still think I'm correct in looking at the presidential race and seeing anything but an easy call. Strictly speaking, I see two midgets locked in a slap fight, and the loser is us as we confront the fact that one of them will be left standing.
Even beyond that prejudicial take, though, the numbers all around are pretty uncertain. The RealClearPolitics average of polls gives the incumbent a 3.5 percent advantage (with both major candidates coming in under 50 percent) and Nate Silver of the New York Times averages the prediction models to, as of today, give Barack Obama about a 60 percent chance of winning reelection.
But this is in an election season where the Democrat is only eight percentage points ahead in Connecticut, a state he won in 2008 by almost 23 points.
I read that as a really soft edge for Barack Obama, in a race that either he or Mitt Romney still has a lot of opportunity to screw up.
But, when our friends start telling us that something is a sure thing, it's hard to not go along with the reality they're creating around us.