The Road Forward

“Bart’s Comet,” a seasons 6 episode of The Simpsons finds the residents of Springfield panicking that a colossal meteor the size of Texas will destroy their town. Homer Simpson, however, is more sanguine. “So there’s a comet, big deal,” he says. “It’ll burn up in our atmosphere, and whatever’s left will be no bigger than a Chihuahua’s head.”

When that’s exactly what happens – the tiny rock that remains actually bounces next to a Chihuahua to provide a precise measurement – Bart notes that “what’s really amazing is that this is exactly what Dad said would happen.”

“Yeah,” Lisa adds in amazement. “Dad was right.”

“I know, kids,” Homer says. “I’m scared, too.”

That’s how I feel this morning after last night’s rhetorical bloodbath. I was confident that Romney would vastly exceed expectations and reset the race. But I had no idea he would do it in a way that was unspinnably obvious and undeniable, forcing all of the MSNBC pundits to be placed on suicide watch. In my wildest dreams, I couldn’t have imagined that Bill Maher would tweet that Obama “looks like he DOES need a teleprompter” or that Andrew Sullivan would say, “He choked. He lost. He may even have lost the election tonight.”

In other words, I knew I was right, but it scares me that I was this right.

So enough gloating. (Well, okay, just a little more gloating. Dennis Miller had the best tweet of the night when he wrote, “Let’s hope ‘ass kicking’ is covered under Obamacare.”)

The real question is what happens now. Let’s get the unpleasant bits out if the way first.

1. Watch for Paul Ryan to lose the Vice Presidential Debate to Joe Biden.

Just as expectations worked in Romney’s favor last night, so do they provide the headwinds for Ryan going up against Crazy Uncle Joe, who is not nearly as stupid as he repeatedly sounds and who is much better at connecting with audiences than the far more wonkish Ryan. Romney’s rout last night did nothing but raise expectations for his running mate, and, barring Biden “literally” screwing things up, Ryan will look aggressive and peevish, while Biden will come off as warm and folksy and not stupid. It won’t be anything like the Obama debacle from this first debate, but it will be more than enough to help Rachel Maddow and Chris Matthews reclaim their Republican-hating mojo. It also won’t matter much or at all, considering, you know, it’s a Vice Presidential Debate.

2. The polls will move toward Romney, but not as much as they should.

For all of Romney’s triumphs last night, the one thing he didn’t do was convince diehard Obama supporters to abandon their guy. Current poll methodology continues to be based on a flawed 2008 turnout model, which will bear no resemblance to the flood of energized Republicans and conservative independents who will give Romney a landslide victory on November 6. Consequently, they won’t be represented in the polls to the extent that such polls will reflect just how much the game changed last night. Watch for many a lefty pundit to hang onto the straw that the polls still show a close race, even though their guy is fading fast.

3. The Obama nastiness meter now goes to 11.

Obama’s losing. He now knows he’s losing. Anger and hostility get amped up when desperation sets in. And that puts the Mormon card back on the table. A group called “Catholics for Obama” has started making push calls asking Ohio voters how they can support “a Mormon who doesn’t believe in Jesus Christ.” The Onion has released a video “voter guide” to Mitt Romney that includes a snarlingly derisive description of my faith and out-of-context snippets of sacred Mormon temple ceremonies. I still think Daniel Z. was right and that Mormonism won’t really play a big role in this election at this point, but a campaign willing to sanction an ad that claims Mitt Romney gives women cancer isn’t going to flinch at playing every card they possibly can, even from the bottom of the deck.

4. The next two presidential debates will have no decisive winner.

Obama is too smart and too savvy to repeat the catastrophic performance of last night in his next two outings, and now, with a major drubbing behind him, expectations play solidly in his favor. Romney will be stellar, but Obama will push back, and in the end, it won’t be enough to convince Chris Matthews to put the noose back around his neck.

5. Republican enthusiasm, along with the “Shy Tory/Bradley Effect” will end in a Romney landslide that will make this debate loss seem like the best night of Bill Maher’s life.

The first four points, in the end, won’t make a difference. Romney won the election last night, and here’s why.

A. Newfound Republican Enthusiasm for Mitt
Republicans are highly motivated to beat Obama, but last night, they became motivated to vote for Romney. That’s never, ever happened before in this cycle, and it’s hard to overstate how significant that is. Romney was always the best of a number of bad options, and even the very smooth albeit somewhat bland convention didn’t turn the GOP into Mitt fanboys. Last night’s debate, however, did.  Giving these guys a positive reason to show up and vote will widen the enthusiasm gap between parties and ensure that Republican turnout will break all records. This will fly in the face of assumptions that now predict that Obama will win even more support from his base than he did four years ago.

B. Shy Tory/Bradley Effect
In 1992, opinion polls in Great Britain had John Major neck-and-neck with his Labour Party opponent, only to have him win a decisive 7-point victory on election day. Pollsters dubbed this the “Shy Tory Effect,” explaining that conservatives were far less willing to tell pollsters their true voting preferences. It’s very likely that such a thing is happening here in the US, especially when you consider the Bradley or Wilder Effect, where black politicians tend to do far worse in opinion polls because voters don’t want to admit they’re voting against the African-American candidate for fear of looking like racists.

Obama was supposed to be a transcendent, transformational figure, and even Republican hacks like me cheered the fact that this nation is now colorblind enough to elect a black president. Voters don’t want to admit, at least publicly, that the guy who was supposed to lower the sea levels and heal the planet is really kind of incompetent. But in the privacy of the ballot box, they’re going to have to ask themselves if they really want four more years like the last four years. Last night, Romney gave them permission to vote against the likable, inspiring, yet failed president they supported so eagerly four years ago.

To sum up: get used to saying “President Romney.”

All of the above seems obvious to me, and my track record thus far is pretty good. That scares me, too. I wonder if maybe I’ve used up my fair allotment of Chihuahua’s heads.

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