Americans are in the grip of a monster case of Pre-Election Anxiety Disorder. No one is talking about voter apathy anymore, because the opposite is more likely the case. People care too much. They're losing sleep. They're having bad dreams about unfavorable tracking polls.
PEAD worsens as Election Day approaches and it's a 50-50 country and there's a war going on and people are dying and the talking heads are howling and the polls come firing at your head like fastballs. It's too close to call, too close, too close, we know the whole thing could pivot with the slightest breeze, that nothing is too trivial now, that even the slightest verbal gaffe by a candidate or his wife or one of the daughters could have a butterfly effect on world history.
Lawsuits are flying as we speak, and the election may come down to a single precinct in Winter Haven or Deland or Immokalee, followed by the soon-to-be-traditional Recount, the dueling press conferences, James A. Baker flying to Tallahassee, and a final and definitive verdict by Nino Scalia.
Laura Auerbach, a Democrat and the director of a Washington research foundation, finds herself struggling with her emotions as E-Day gets closer. She hates the president. He's a "horrible" man, she says. She sent an e-mail to a friend: "I never feel like such a bad person as I do when I'm talking about Bush. He is so hateful he makes me hate."
The worst part is that her 2-year-old, Ben, is picking up on her rage, and she feels as though she's a bad role model. She and her husband routinely fume about George W. Bush, and the little boy sometimes asks why they're upset.
"I'll explain to him, 'Ben, there are people out there who don't always make what Mommy thinks are the right choices.' "
Parents making speeches to toddlers: A classic sign of pre-election stress.
Democrat Sally Aman, who has a public relations firm, says her daughter's kindergarten teacher recently decided that her students should participate in a presidential straw poll. Everyone, apparently, has to take a position on the election these days, even those who are primarily interested in the latest policy about lollipops. Stand up to your full height of 3 feet 6 inches and be counted.
"Everybody I know is just obsessed," Aman says.
It's a bipartisan disorder, but Democrats are struggling the most, haunted by what happened last time. Republicans, though guardedly optimistic, are still supremely frustrated by the way this thing is dragging out and staying close. "The hardest thing to understand is why haven't we put this guy away a long time ago," a prominent Republican confides in a low murmur.
The main Republican fear is fraud.
"The Republicans think that the Democratic purported 'turnout effort' is an effort to have people vote early and often," says Mike Carvin, a Republican lawyer who has worked on voting issues, including the 2000 recount.
GOP partisans worry about Democratic shenanigans if John Kerry loses a close election. There are tales of 10,000 Democratic lawyers, organized into SWAT teams, descending on disputed states. Part of election anxiety these days is the absolute certainty that the other side will steal any election that's not nailed down. Florida might have been merely a warm-up for a truly apocalyptic 2004 recount, Carvin suggests.
"If there is a recount this time, it will be in five states and it will last at least two months, and it will be a nightmare, and it will make Florida look like a well-oiled machine," Carvin says.