Tuesday was Independence Day for America's voters.
The day voters threw off the shackles of the econometric forecasters, the demographic determinists, the pollsters with their likely-voter models, the ad guys with their focus-grouped messages, the direct-mail gurus with their micro-targeted lists and sub-lists.
The political-media complex, accustomed to calling elections weeks, certainly days -- definitely hours -- before the votes are counted, for once had nothing definite to say. Voters were finally free to go to the polls and decide for themselves.
And they did, in impressive numbers. So many people voted in Missouri, Democrats sued to extend the polling hours in their union and African American stronghold, St. Louis. A federal judge (a Democrat) ordered up three more hours, while vans rumbled through the streets in search of every last vote. An hour later, the appeals court shut the doors.
In Oregon, the combination of a tight race and vote-by-mail might have produced the heaviest turnout ever -- more than 80 percent. At Evergreen Volunteer Fire Station, in Haymarket, Va., poll chief Shirley Hearn took a breather mid-morning to say: "I've never seen it so busy."
Who ever heard of an election that political insiders couldn't yawn over days in advance? The nation's political scientists said earlier this year that economic conditions foreordained an easy victory -- a landslide, perhaps -- for the Democrat, Al Gore. They had proof -- numerators, denominators, theorems and factors.
Not so fast, smart guys. As the lunch hour passed and exit polls began to show razor-thin margins in crucial places, Gore's troops frantically redirected telephone banks from other states, flooded volunteers into loyal precincts, took the airwaves to sound the alarm -- desperately trying to eke out each vote.
"We're on a second and third round of phone calls," Democratic spokesman Jenny Backus said breathlessly after her cell phone beeped for the umpteenth time at Gore headquarters in Nashville. "We've been actively moving volunteer bodies and diverting phones into Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. We think that state will shift later."
The strategy said Gore needed a 325,000 vote edge in Philadelphia to win the state. Labor unions -- most of which had the day off to vote -- kept their eye on the polls in the morning, then set off to knock on doors and ferry the laggards one by one in the afternoon.
Meanwhile, Gore staffers busily called radio stations trying to get their message on the air. Gore, his family and his running mate, Joseph Lieberman, unspooled their spiel to one radio audience after another. Celebrity backers -- including hip-hop mogul Russell Simmons for the African American stations -- joined in the sales pitch.
You could be, in other words, one Wisconsin mom headed home from work in Neenah to your place in Appleton, radio tuned to the soft-rock hits of the '80s, and 665 miles away, the mighty media machinery of the Democratic Party was frantically trying to get the vice president's wife on the air to address you .
Not just "you," a bland demographic cold cut from the poll-driven deli slicer of American politics. You, an actual enfranchised voter who could -- a handful of you, anyway -- shift a very tight race in a crucial state. A state, let it be noted, that not one expert expected, when this race began, would matter one little bit.
PICK UP 13th graf: Freedom! The freedom xxx
Los Angeles Times-Washington Post News Service
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