America loves a big event, and Election Day always has been one of our biggest. But process and delayed gratification? They're not really part of the national DNA.
WASHINGTON — You heard it loud and clear Monday when Rep. Connie Mack, the Florida Republican, introduced Mitt Romney at a Florida rally — and, in these times of polarization, perhaps channeled the sentiment of an entire nation. He led the crowd in a robust cheer: "One more day! One more day! One more day!"
"Epic ending," said one news anchor. "Big finish," said another. One more day, says a weary, expectant America — one more day until that moment when we draw together as a republic (sort of) to cast ballots (in some cases) at polling places (though not as much as we used to) and wait for the evening to bring us a newly elected president (possibly, but by no means definitely).
Tuesday is the culmination of months and years of effort and elbow grease and strategizing and big spending, distilled into a 24-hour period. But this year, chunks of the day's proceedings have trickled out beforehand in the form of early and absentee voting, more than ever before. And if the race is close as the polls say, we might not even get to experience the election-night Hollywood ending we generally crave.
Sure, American politics has been a scripted spectacle from almost the very beginning, and Election Day is the showpiece of that syndrome. But we now live in a media-driven nation where the crime is solved by the top of the hour, Dr. Phil fixes life's deepest problems before the commercial break and a candidate is proclaimed the winner of a debate before the closing statements.
"The overarching script of our media culture is drama and conflict followed by clear resolution. This is the setup as we close in on Election Day," says Kate Ratcliff, an American studies professor at Marlboro College in Vermont who is teaching a course about voting and campaigns in U.S. history.
"It's a combustible mix," she says — "an audience conditioned to expect the final, decisive episode of the Campaign 2012 miniseries, a decentralized electoral system marked by deep and widespread problems, and an electorate that has become increasingly polarized and distrustful of the opposing party."
That "miniseries" comment taps a deep vein in American culture — a society of shining cities upon hills, shots heard around the world, consumer products that change your life and Hollywood endings where the hero prevails, the villain is vanquished and the credits roll. Absorb that mindset over enough generations, and the notions of process and procedure begin to feel frustrating and irrelevant.
Yet a presidential election outcome happening over multiple days isn't new.
Yes, within living memory most Americans pretty much all went out on the same day to physical polls to cast our ballots. But Americans before that didn't have the technology to come together at once and share experiences. In fact, Election Day is on a Tuesday mainly to accommodate the farm-to-market schedules of rural America and make sure people could actually make it to the polls.
To give you a sense of how Election Day has changed as the nation has grown, consider this: In 1932, 22.8 million Americans cast votes for Franklin Roosevelt and 15.8 million for Herbert Hoover — a total of 39.8 million votes, if you factor in other candidates. This year, according to projections Monday from George Mason University, 46.8 million Americans — more than one-third of those expected to cast ballots — will have voted by the time the first polls open Tuesday morning. To resurrect an overused phrase, this isn't your grandfather's Election Day.
Is something sacrificed when we don't create the outcome of our democratic process together, in real time, as part of a common experience — and get a distinct outcome hours later? Will this serve to decay, in an era of polarization, one of the few experiences that Americans still share?
It certainly makes things feel different, says Evan Cornog, author of "The Power and the Story: How the Crafted Presidential Narrative Has Determined Political Success from George Washington to George W. Bush."
"It's the sense of taking part in one of the great public rituals of world history. I don't think it changes if you do it by absentee ballot or by mail-in ballot or by voting two weeks early. But if you were making a movie, you wouldn't do it that way," says Cornog, dean of the School of Communication at Hofstra University.
He sees the changes fitting into our increasing ability to live in an on-demand culture of "time-shifting," where we DVR our favorite TV shows to the point where nobody dares talk about this week's episode of "Homeland" in case your cubicle mate is still gorging on the first season.
Such evolution does, for sure, take us away from some very longstanding notions about drama that go all the way back to classical Greek culture: the idea that a story — Election Day, say — should unfold with a unity of action (electing a president), a unity of place (at the polls) and a unity of time (on one given day).
"We're losing that unity," Cornog says. "In terms of narrative, it's not that exciting."
It also poses operational questions. If you're a candidate considering a targeted ad buy in the campaign's waning days, how do you figure out what to spend if an enormous chunk of the electorate has already cast its ballots? How are you sure where to spend your valuable time in the final weeks?
Those who do vote early certainly find it a compelling alternative. In 2008, the Pew Research Center polled Americans who had voted early and found that 79 percent of them did so either because it was more convenient or to avoid long lines. However, a 2006 AP-Pew Research Center poll found that 66 percent of adults either opposed or strongly opposed the nation switching entirely to a vote-by-mail system.
And what about the other end of Election Day — the far end? What if on Wednesday — or next Wednesday, or even some Wednesday in December — we don't have presidential closure because the outcome is still too close to call or legal challenges are holding it up? That part has already proven deeply frustrating for Americans: Witness the tense, sometimes hair-pulling weeks of power jockeying and angst that followed the Bush-Gore contest of 2000.
"The American people see things starting and finishing in very nice, neat fashions. It doesn't work that way," says Lou Manza, who heads the psychology department at Lebanon Valley College in Pennsylvania.
In other words, the world of literature may have 50 shades of gray, but the world of politics is a different beast. "Life is messier," Manza says. "You have to condition people to accept more complicated outcomes, not just quick finishes."