Where I live, the presidential election is settled. Barack Obama is poised to carry California by the widest margin in state history. The latest Field Poll gives him a 22-point lead over John McCain here, and if that holds, he will not only fare even better than former Governor and favorite son Ronald Reagan did in 1980 and 1984, but he will also surpass the record 18-point victory posted by LBJ in his 1964 landslide over Barry Goldwater.
But I have traveled all across the country during this campaign, and I know that Californians are not necessarily representative. I have talked with voters in 13 states, including battlegrounds North Carolina, Virginia, Wisconsin, Minnesota, Colorado and Nevada. Many of them have a completely different view of the candidates, and of this election.
In Green Bay, Wisconsin, Democrat Jeannette Potteiger told me about her father, a lifelong Democrat who hasn't actually voted since 1972. This time, he's voting - for John McCain. Why? "He wants to vote against Obama," she told me. "Because Obama's black." Some of her friends in Milwaukee feel the same way. "They've actually told me they would never vote for a black man, so they're voting for McCain. It makes no sense, because they completely disagree with McCain on the issues, and they agree with Obama. It's sad, actually."
Nick Weinberger of Columbus, Wisconsin has encountered some of the same racism. He's a Republican who will vote for McCain. He scoffs at Obama's roots as a community organizer. "Come on. A city planner? What the hell is that?" He asked me. No, a community organizer, I explained to him. "Whatever. That doesn't qualify you for the presidency." On the other hand, he thinks Sarah Palin is "fun" and "a pistol." He, too, has friends and family who simply won't vote for Obama because of his race. He's heard friends go off on five-minute long racist tirades about Obama, full of racial invective I won't repeat here. "There's better reasons to vote against Obama than his skin color," Weinberger told me. He's especially concerned about Obama's tax and economic policies.
McCain's derisive attacks on Obama as "Barack the Wealth Spreader" do seem to be resonating with middle-class Middle Americans. Never mind that if Obama really were a Socialist, they'd be the ones who would benefit the most. Never mind that Obama's tax plan, as he describes it, would lower their taxes. Some are legitimately afraid he will come take their hard-earned pay, and maybe their guns too while he's at it. Others are looking for an excuse to vote against him. Some don't trust Obama, or believe him when he insists only those making more than $250,000 will have to pay more. Obama didn't help his cause by suddenly lowering that threshold in his infomercial last night, to $200,000. Joe Biden took it even lower yesterday, to $150,000, although that may have been a typical Biden slip of the tongue, not an articulation of actual policy. Obama would do well to suggest that if McCain doesn't want to share the wealth, then he must want to keep concentrating it. But of course, we all know how faithful candidates are to their campaign promises, so who's to say that a President Obama, with a filibuster-proof Senate and a 100-seat majority in the House, won't propose an entirely different tax plan?
You don't really have to go to Wisconsin, or North Carolina, or Virginia, to find racists who might vote for Obama if only he were white. We've got them here in the progressive, enlightened Bay Area too. Voters have expressed that kind of bigotry to my face, if not into my microphone. I did a story on it yesterday. I ran into Senator Barbara Boxer and she didn't particularly like it. "I was just listening to your comments about race. I hate stories like that," she told me. "You're just giving voice to racism." At first I copped out by saying, well, we have to do the race story. But then I defended it more legitimately. "Wait a second," I told her. "It's real. The racism is out there. It's a serious issue. You can't ignore the elephant in the room." Besides, it's a lot better to expose bigotry than to ignore it and pretend it isn't there. She didn't agree, saying we're just legitimizing the racism by airing it, and giving these people a forum.
It will be difficult to measure the impact of racism in next week's numbers, but if Obama doesn't win, you can bet plenty of pundits and pollsters will try.
Beyond the Midwest, and the Middle Class, there's another kind of Middle Earth in this election. It's inhabited not by hobbits in search of a ring, but by voters in search of a candidate. They are the middle-of-the-road undecideds. Some people find it hard to believe anyone could still be undecided. But they're out there. One Northern California voter told me, he's a loyal Republican who's fed up with President Bush and the GOP. He says his party abandoned fiscal conservatism a long time ago, and he's more moderate than the party is on social issues. But he's having a really hard time voting for Obama. He doesn't think the first-term Senator is ready to be president, and he's wary of his economic policies. So five days before the election, he just can't commit either way.
Then there's the Tennessee Democrat I met outside Lambeau Field in Green Bay. He really wants to vote for McCain, because he respects his military service and thinks he'd make a better leader than Obama. He swears he's not racist, but he's ready to jump ship from the Democrats this time because he says he just doesn't know where Obama will take the country. But he was absolutely appalled by McCain's pick of Sarah Palin for vice president, and now he's torn. Obama or McCain? He told me he probably won't decide until he steps into the voting booth.
On the coasts, the race is over. Obama will sweep the Far West, with the exception of Palin's Alaska and maybe McCain's Arizona (although if it's a landslide, Obama could even embarrass McCain in his home state). He will also carry the Eastern Seaboard, from Maine all the way to Virginia, and maybe even as far south as North Carolina. But the presidency will be decided in the great middle of the country, the places we fly over on Jet Blue. If big swaths of that map turn blue next Tuesday, then the racism won't have mattered after all. If they stay red, then we'll know that McCain's 11th-hour economic arguments and scare tactics - "John the Fear Spreader" - will have carried the day.
Fresh interviews, analysis, ballot measure stories and the latest polls, all at www.sovernnation.com