CLEVELAND—If Barack Obama wins the election, it will be historic. And if he loses, it will be pretty historic, too: It would mark the biggest collective error in the history of the media and political establishment.
An Obama loss would mean the majority of pundits, reporters, and analysts were wrong. Pollsters would have to find a new line of work, since Obama has been ahead in all 159 polls taken in the last six weeks. The massive crowds that have regularly turned out to see Obama would turn out to have meant nothing. This collective failure of elites would provide such a blast of schadenfreude that Republicans like Rush Limbaugh would be struck speechless (another historic first).
This situation lends a feeling of unreality to the proceedings as we begin to measure the time until Election Day in hours. It is the elephant on the campaign plane. No one is letting on. Journalists aren't supposed to. Plus, we've been wrong so often, and politics can be so unpredictable, it would be dumb to say that Obama is going to win big.
John McCain is still running hard, and Obama isn't doing any premature celebrating. Members of his staff are on a hair-trigger for any stories that might suggest he or they are displaying overconfidence. Aides said Obama was reacting to the apparent good news with trademark equilibrium though they did say he was happy to be at the end of his journey. "He's exhilarated," said David Axelrod. "He smells the finish line."
Despite Obama's even keel, there are a few small signs that suggest Obama is feeling good. He's flashing that magazine-cover smile, the one that takes over his face, a little more often. On the stump, where he's given nearly the exact same speech for a week, he's started to show some of the looseness of his earlier campaign. "Don't be hoodwinked," he said of McCain's claims, a standard line, to which he added a less regular filigree: "Don't be bamboozled, don't fall for the okey-doke."
In Columbus, Ohio, Obama even gave a shout-out to McCain. Talking about the need to improve the political discourse, he said that also included the need for more humor. "John McCain was funny yesterday on Saturday Night Live," he said. "I didn't see it last night but I saw it on YouTube. That's what our politics should be about, the ability to laugh at ourselves."
Obama has had the most fun with Dick Cheney, who recently said he was "delighted" to endorse John McCain. "You've never seen Dick Cheney delighted, but he is," Obama told a crowd here, chuckling to himself. "It's kinda hard to picture, but it's true." He went on to congratulate McCain. "He had to work hard for it!" The rain started pouring in the middle of his Cheney routine, but Obama didn't miss a beat. "Did you notice that it all started when I started talking about Dick Cheney? We've been through a nation of storms but sunshine is on the way."
In Cleveland, Bruce Springsteen opened for Obama. When he was finished, the Obama family joined him, and Springsteen brought up his wife Patty Scialfa and their three kids. Suddenly it was like we were all in the vestibule of a holiday party as The One and The Boss implored their children to step forward and shake the hands.
When the rally in Cleveland concluded, Obama was drenched but lingered for a moment in front of the crowd, estimated at 80,000, and did a few tiny little dance steps to "Signed, Sealed, Delivered, I'm Yours," the Stevie Wonder song that plays after each rally the minute he stops speaking.
It's hard to guess at a candidate's inner feelings. It is particularly hard with Obama, whose emotions are as carefully constrained as a bonsai tree and who keeps the press at a chilly distance. It could be that Obama is just happy to be with his family. Since Saturday, Obama's wife, Michelle, and children, Malia and Sasha, have been with him. The girls are clearly delighted to be in his company. At most stops, Michelle introduces her husband and implores the audience to help her husband finish the quest he started in their name 21 months ago. "I would love to give credit to my husband," she said, "but this race is not about him but all of us, all of you. He's taken us 85 percent of the way. The rest is on us."
Obama told the crowd in Cleveland that the family time is shaping his mood. "The last few days I've been feeling good," he said. "You start thinking that maybe we might win an election November 4."
Great: Now another American institution could be in peril: If Obama loses, we may have reason to doubt the power of family, too.