My dissertation chair, a woman with the mind of a Mensan and the patience of Saint Jude the Apostle (the patron saint of lost causes, for you non-papists), made her name in the field by researching what she calls "constructed explanations" for electoral outcomes. Briefly, elections suck at providing information. They tell us who wins, but nothing about why people voted the way they did or how Candidate X managed to prevail.
There is competition after any election to establish the explanation for what happened. Since there's effectively no way to answer the "why" question, self-interested political actors seek to establish the explanation that suits them as the definitive one. In other words, immediately after the election there are 100 explanations thrown at the wall by the media, candidates, and parties. Five of them stick. Over the next few weeks that gets narrowed down to one – "the" unofficial official explanation of what happened. This single explanation doesn't get established because it's true or superior to the alternatives – it takes root because the people who benefit from it did the best job of selling it. Thus these things pass from idle musings to certified Conventional Wisdom.
The 2000 and 2004 elections were extraordinarily close, meaning that the spin couldn't begin until we actually figured out who won. With the outcome of next Tuesday's presidential race being assumed by many candidates and talking heads at this point (justifiably or not), the attempt to construct explanations is already well under way. In particular, rival factions in the GOP have already fired the opening shots in a battle to explain their anticipated failure. I will bet my staggering grad student salary that the explanations will quickly winnow down to the following:
1. If McCain wins, the conversation will not be on his accomplishment but instead on how everyone managed to get things so phenomenally wrong. I mean, there aren't even many Republicans who expect him to win at this point. Explanations about McCain having achieved a miracle comeback will be floated. Eventually, though, the dominant explanation will be that McCain simply wasn't as far behind as the media led us to believe. Polls are nonsense and the media, with their fervent pro-Obama bias, endlessly reported his inevitable win because they wanted it so badly. There might be a grain of truth here. If McCain wins there certainly will be, as the man used to say, some splanin' to do from our friends in the media and in the polling industry.
2. If Obama wins in a historic landslide – something on the order of 400+ EV – the explanation will be "We underestimated the power of young and/or black voters turning out in large numbers." Again the polling industry will be fingered (*giggle*) for under-representing these voters in their samples in favor of lard-assed white guys in their 40s. There will of course be scant evidence that young and/or black voters were actually the cause of an overwhelming Obama win, but the explanation will be simple and plausible enough to gain wide acceptance.
3. In the event that the election very closely resembles the predictions, the explanations will focus on the candidates and not the coverage. It will also mark the official start of what could be a 1960s Democrats-style meltdown in the GOP. In one corner will be the moderates (non-Christian Right), the economic conservatives with lukewarm committments to social issues. They have chafed at the necessary presence of the Dobson crowd ("Can't have a majority without 'em", sayeth Rove) for two decades while the religious conservatives have resented that so little of their agenda receives more than lip service. A crushing loss in Congress and the White House will be the spark that causes the simmering tensions to explode.
The first team, who I shall call Team Palin, will consist mostly of the "values voters" and social conservatives who felt so powerful in 2000 and 2004. TP will also attract party hard-liners, the kind of people who think abandoning the party when it nominates a shitty candidate is tantamount to treason; National Review columnists, Freepers, and talk radio zombies. Their explanation is quite predictable: McCain lost because he wasn't conservative enough. He was some sort of closet liberal who failed the True Believer test repeatedly. To Team Palin, the lesson will be patently obvious: never again can the party err by nominating someone to the left of Sean Hannity. If you're one of these traitorous fake conservatives who bashed McCain for choosing the GovTard, you are not a real Republican. Mike sent me this link and called it the new "Palin Litmus Test." I think that fits. "I've got news for the Christopher Buckleys of the world — if Sarah Palin is enough to make you decide you're not a Republican, you're not a Republican."
There's going to be a lot of this kind of dick-waving, in-fighting, and calling-out during the fight to determine who the Real Republicans are. Picture extremist Muslim hard-liners, the kind who think suicide bombers are martyrs, versus that nice Muslim guy at your office who wears Dockers and watches 30 Rock.
Yes, the second team, who I shall call Team Traitor, will have a different explanation: "We ran a shitty candidate on the heels of a shitty President. We've gone too far. Time to ratchet down the rhetoric a little and win back mainstream America." These are the people jumping ship in advance of the election – Chris Buckley, Christopher Shays, William Weld, Lincoln Chaffee, David Brooks, Kathleen Parker, Colin Powell, and so on. These are the more reasonable, less ideologically rigid Republicans, the kind who are conservative but not mindlessly partisan. Unlike Team Palin, these GOPers will not blindly follow any jackass who calls himself a Republican. Team Traitor will of course blame the defeat almost entirely on the nomination of Sarah Palin. They will hold her up as proof that the party needs people of substance, not vapid spokesmodels.
If the election plays out as so many are predicting, this fourth and final explanation will come closest, in my opinion, to hitting the mark. This is still a ridiculously conservative country. An historic Democratic landslide across all races will not signal a population that has found Liberalism as its new religion. Instead I believe it is the non-Democratic voting public registering its disgust with the Rove/Bush/Dobson incarnation of the GOP. Palin and this campaign represent everything you need to know about why the Democrats are likely to win big – the inanity, the shameless mudslinging, the stale ideas, the hipocrisy, the faux-moralizing, and the racist dog-whistles. Team Traitor will be correct, in essence. The GOP needs to find good candidates, come up with a new idea for the first time in 40 years, and run the Principled Campaign that gramps promised he would give us.
But now that the GOP is stuck with the loony right as load-bearing column in their big tent, which explanation do you think will actually prevail? I think we know which one, and we're certain that it's going to be sweet, vengeful fun watching the intraparty bloodbath on the way to Team Palin's "victory."