People think politices is a science; actually it is a strange and eerie art form. Campaigns start as ideas shared by only a small group of people. As the campaign proceeds, the ideas are refined, discipline is applied and more people are added. By the time you get close to the election, the campaign has a life of its own; it's a living, a breathing thing that you no longer can control. The candidate and a few of his close advisers sit atop this creation, holding on for dear life as it plunges toward Election Day. Gone is the ability to fine tune it, too late is it to cure its faults; you ride, hoping you won't be thrown off and praying that you put it together well, that the heart won't fail, that the direction is true.
On Election Day this creation, born of one man's tremendous ambition and the dreams of millions of others, vanishes as though it never existed at all. Those deeply involved know it lived, for it took part of them with it; win or lose, there is an emptiness the day after the election, a sense that your life has been altered, and it is then that you realize how much the beast took from you, how much he was your master toward the end.
Timing decisions are the only device by which you can influence the progress of the campaign. Let your supporters indulge themselves in an emotional binge too early and they will have nothing to call upon when it counts at the end; leave yourself with nothing new to say and you will lose your appeal in the stretch; try to sit on a lead and your enthusiasm will slip away, the campaign heart will fail, the beast will stop running.
Richard Nixon knew a lot about running. It was Nixon's lot to be in a profession for which he had little natural talent. But he was able, through trial and painful error, to develop a sophistocated sense of some dimensions of politics that others have never probed. Thus, in 1968, he let Romney have his head, holding back on his own effort. When Romney stumbled. Nixon ran past him quickly, aimed at securing a lead in the polls by early September. When September came, the divisions in the Democratic Party had given Nixon a lead far beyond his expectations. By mid-October, he still had a solid lead of 14 points.
But Nixon, an accomplished student of timing, a man who confessed to having not saved enough for the stretch in 1960, succumbed to the temptation to sit on his lead. Humphrey came on him at the rate of a point a day and what could have been a landslide became a victory of 5000,000 votes nationwide. Humphrey attacked Nixon viciously. Nixon ignored him, knowing that if he were to react once, images of the old Nixon with his instinct for the jugular would flash throught the minds of the voters and spell defeat. Nixon had no control over his destiny toward the end; luckily for him, his beast fell across the line before Humphrey's flashed by.
Of course, the classic case of sitting on a lead occurred in 1948. Dewey ignored Truman as he heaped invectives on the Republicans more severe than anything we've heard this year. The press didn't like Truman and wrote that he was a sure loser. Dewey believed it too, and sat idly by as Truman's severe criticisms took hold in mid-October.
I labor this point because the rush is now on to declare Reagan the electoral winner under circumstances where this unfairly casts Reagan as the dominant force in the race. The controls are always on the side of the incumbent, and any slacking of pace, any decision to sit on his lead, will render Reagan a probable loser.
By the time the campaign reaches October, it is normal for as much as 80 percent of the electorate to be spoken for. This year, that figure is no more than 65 percent. Thus, Reagan is being awarded states under circumstances where there is more than enough undecided and soft support to beat him. A recent poll in his home state shows him with a 40 percent to 28 percent lead, with 19 percent undecided and a healthy level of support for John Anderson. I think Reagan will win in California, but if I had only this poll to judge from, I would be very concerned. Shrink Anderson to 10 percent and it will take 46 percent to win; Reagan isn't there yet. Whoever has the momentum toward the end will get the break on the undecideds; if Reagan tries to sit on his lead, it won't be he. Other large states that are being awarded to Reagan present an even less secure picture.
Also, there is a peculiar quality to this race. When the voters are told that one man or the other seems to be doing well, a significant segment retreats from that man as it reconsiders whether it really wants him as president. Under theses circumstances, it may be a distinct advantage to be a close second up to the very end.
The campaigns will be running loose now. Those who have been assumed to be controlling them will only be riding. While I count myself lucky that for once I don't have to ride, I missed it.