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.
A Democratic lobbyist, who asked not to be identified because he doesn't want his colleagues to think he is "unhinged," says, "My wife is constantly telling me, 'You've got to calm down. You've got to let go.' " But how can he? Aren't the stakes too high? "I'm really worried about the country," he says.
Normally one could diagnose this as a normal Washington neurosis, but it seems to be a national pandemic. Candice Russell, a freelance writer and art curator in South Florida, says she had a visceral reaction to a poll showing Bush creeping ahead of Kerry: "I'm so depressed, I'm sick over it." She was supposed to work at a phone bank but just couldn't bring herself to it. Needed a day to pull herself together. She spoke on her cell phone while scanning the street, which was lined with Bush signs. "How stupid could Americans be?" she asks.
In Birmingham, Ala., chiropractor and nutritionist Rodger Murphree says he has patients who are suffering from election stress. Many are Republicans. "We live in such a stressed-out society, go go go, do do do society, when you add to that the unknown of what could happen -- that's really scary for some people. People don't really know what's going to happen if John Kerry's elected."
Politics is normally somewhat compartmentalized, except for those who are serious junkies and those paid to live and breathe it, but this is a moment when the rest of life is pushed into a compartment. Americans will return to mundane matters like art and music and literature when the last returns from Nov. 2 are counted, hopefully at some point prior to mid-December.
Michael Gillenwater, who works for a nonprofit environmental organization, had a bad dream recently in which people were deciding not to vote for Kerry because of his reference in the third debate to Dick Cheney's lesbian daughter. Gillenwater woke up at 3:30 a.m. and couldn't get back to sleep for two hours. "I totally have pre-election anxiety," he says.
Anecdotally you hear about close friendships being ripped apart by differing political allegiances. Forget the old wedge issues, like abortion, affirmative action, taxes: The election itself is a wedge issue. If you're not feeling wedged you're not paying attention.
Pre-Election Anxiety Disorder is often driven by serious and rational fears, with global events so alarming. Technology ensures that we are stalked by data, that we're always hearing about who's up, who's down, what's the latest controversy, the latest menace to peace and sanity and good health. We get all twisted up by the spin cycle.
Republicans fear a Kerry victory will mean appeasement to the terrorists and the French, and will be a major step toward the ultimate horror, a Hillary presidency. Democrats believe a Bush reelection will mean endless war and a return to the economic system known as feudalism.
David Gergen, veteran presidential adviser and pundit, says, "We're at a point now where each side has so demonized the other, and played upon fear as a major driving force behind the candidate, that there is a deep anxiety now that if your side loses, the country is going to go to ruin."
David Abshire, who served in the Nixon and Reagan administrations and is now president of the Center for the Study of the Presidency, has written a long treatise on the loss of political civility. Rancor among leaders translates into anxiety at the grass roots, he says.
"What civility is, is respect for individuals. It's listening. It is dialogue. And then you may get to higher ground."
It sounds quaint: Higher ground. Meanwhile, you hear people announce that if their guy loses the election they will leave the country outright, like the late Pierre Salinger, who moved to France.
But that's not what people will really do. They'll absorb the facts, celebrate or mourn, and move on with their lives. And somewhere along the way they'll figure out what to tell the children.