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Close encounters of the worst kind: Why the country doesn’t need a nail-biter election in 2012

Jeff Greenfield
Yahoo News

Judging by the rhetoric coming from the campaigns, this election pits a party that will dismantle the social safety net and put the rights of women, gays and African Americans on the endangered species list against a party that will drag the nation ever closer toward a socialist-inspired spending and regulation binge that will cripple the free enterprise system. Is there anything--anything--that partisans of every stripe can enthusiastically root for?

Yes, all of us should be rooting for a decisive election outcome. Why? Because a close or contested election would deal a body blow to the nation’s political health. Right now, every poll, and just about every pol, says the same thing: that this is going to be very close. This isn’t written in stone, of course: We’ve seen close races become blowouts in the final days (think Reagan-Carter in 1980). If the political wisdom is correct, however, we can expect razor-thin margins in half-a-dozen states or more, any one of which could determine the election. Right now, polls report spreads of three points or less Florida, Virginia, Iowa, North Carolina, Colorado and Missouri. Others hint at tightening races in Wisconsin, Minnesota and possibly Arizona.

If November brings us a raft of states that are, as Dan Rather might put it, tighter than granny’s corset on an August Sunday in Del Rio, it would hardly be unprecedented. In fact, we’ve had a remarkable number of such races.

•    When Truman upset Dewey 1948, he won three big states--Illinois, Ohio and California--with margins of less than one percent.

•    John Kennedy’s 1960 win--with a national spread of about one tenth of one per cent of the popular vote--featured not just the still-controversial 8,800 vote win in Illinois, but very close victories in New Jersey, Delaware, Missouri, Minnesota, New Mexico and Nevada.

•    In 1976, a switch of 6,000 votes in Ohio and 7,500 in Mississippi would have kept the White House in Jerry Ford’s hands.

•    In 2000--a race decided by Florida’s 537-vote margin (out of 6 million cast)--it’s often forgotten that George W. Bush won New Hampshire by 7,000 votes, while Gore won both Wisconsin and New Mexico by a fraction of one percent.

So why does the prospect of another very close election--that is, a series of very close statewide elections--chill the marrow?

To put it mildly, this is not your father’s political climate. Back in 1960, there were voices determined to charge that the Democrats will stealing the election (reporter Earl Mazo of the New York Herald-Tribune was particularly dogged). But Richard Nixon himself echoed the dominant mood of the times, arguing--at least publicly--that the country had to unite behind the apparent winner.

Half a century later, our political culture has become far more litigious. Republicans have embraced voter fraud as a cause celebre; Democrats are convinced that voter suppression is the real goal of tougher voter ID laws. More broadly, the whole idea of good-faith disagreement among political combatants has pretty much gone the way of the mimeograph machine. A close election would deny the winner the mandate he will need to have any chance of enacting meaningful reform.

There’s another reason to fear an election clouded by uncertainty. Back in 2000, the Bush-Gore runoff took place in a time of unprecedented, seemingly permanent peace and prosperity. The Cold War was over, al-Qaida was a concern to a tiny handful of officials, unemployment and inflation were both negligible, real incomes for average Americans were rising and the big debate was what were we going to do with those trillions of dollars in surpluses. As one writer put it, “America was a hotbed of rest.” There seemed so little at stake that a catchphrase of the day labeled it “the Seinfeld Election--a contest about nothing.”

Now we live in a country mired in economic woes, still in the grip of the longest, darkest environment since the Depression and increasingly divided over which party--if either--offers a credible path out. An election that ends with recounts, court fights and state legislatures threatening to take control of its electoral votes will take place in a country where divisions, suspicions and passions are utterly unlike the atmosphere a dozen years ago.

Four years ago, Barack Obama won the presidency with a clear, convincing margin, winning 22 states and 264 electoral votes by margins of nine points or more. Only the fire-breathers and the birthers could argue that he had not won the election fair and square. This time around, with the victor facing painful decisions, fiscal cliffs and continued gridlock, it would be a genuine gift to our battered political process if the citizenry could grant that same gift of unquestionable legitimacy to the next president. He’s going to need it.