A week to Election Day and polls show Barack Obama with a big lead over John McCain. The polls may be right, but the results aren't always as clean-cut as the customers at Richard Moynihan's Fort Road Barber Shop.
Sometimes it's a close shave and someone wins by a hair. Which is why I went back to Moynihan's shop in St. Paul on Monday to administer the only poll that has been right every time: The barber pole poll.
According to customer Bill Cline, Moynihan, 69, "could lick anyone on West Seventh Street," no mean feat. Moynihan is a staunch Democrat who says he hopes Obama will be the first black president but has a hard time believing it.
"I'm voting for him, but the rest is all speculation," he says. "I'll believe it when I see it."
Moynihan runs a non-partisan shop where all customers, Democrat or Republican, get the same treatment: $12 for a regular cut; $10 for a quicker buzz cut. Two months ago, I was an official observer as Moynihan conducted the quadrennial flipping of his lucky 1878 Liberty head silver dollar, which, since 2004 (the first time we did it), has predicted which party will win Minnesota and its 10 electoral votes. The coin came up Obama, but Moynihan believes the outcome is still a toss-up.
Maybe so: The votes cast from Moynihan's chair Monday were divided -- like some of the haircuts -- down the middle.
Cline is voting for McCain. Ray Fischer, an old neighbor of mine, is voting for Obama. "I'm a Democrat," he explained. Case closed.
John Cook was leaning toward Obama, but is worried by some of the things he's heard on talk radio. Now he's undecided, and plans to do some Internet research to find out if what he's heard is true.
"You can't believe what you read on the computer," Moynihan says as he works on Cook, a consultant for Sam's Club. "Don't count on that stuff."
Cook, 67, is having a hip replaced Thursday. He was going to cast an absentee ballot, but has decided to wait until he comes through the operation and won't make up his mind until he limps into the polling booth.
Cook is right: It would be less painful to go under the knife than pick a leader the way we do it.
"Last night, I wanted to smack the TV because of all these political ads, and it's only going to get worse," said Simon Jungbauer, 33, a carpenter who was feeding his 7-week-old baby, Reyna, while his 14-year-old, Aaron, got his hair cut. Jungbauer voted for George Bush last time, but wouldn't do it again. He doesn't like that we're still paying for Iraq and he's worried about losing work if the economy tanks.
"I was thinking I'd vote for McCain, but Obama has some good points," he said. "We need change, but I don't think Obama's health care plan is the way to go. On the other hand, there's the Bush factor." He said "the Bush factor" like he was telling me I had something icky on my shoes.
"I already voted for McCain," said Tom Perin of Eagan, a 77-year-old retired Northwest Airlines worker. "But Obama's going to win. That's what my grandchildren tell me. They think he's going to solve all our problems."
That last sentence was delivered with a world-weary sigh indicating that solving our problems might be harder than can be imagined by Mr. Perin's grandchildren, or even by Barack Obama.
"No man can do it all alone," said Moynihan, as Perin's hair got shorter. "Did you watch '60 Minutes' last night? They made it pretty clear that the mess we're having now was because both parties were responsible for it. I think they should lock 'em all up. It seems like whenever we're having a good time, like we were during Clinton and Bush, that it always falls apart. And now we're going to pay."
Perin agreed: "The first year or two is going to be horrendous, no matter who wins."
So maybe it's not just the usual election fatigue we're feeling. Maybe it's something bigger, and something worse. No one who came into Moynihan's shop Monday seemed very lighthearted, even if they thought their man might win in a cakewalk. The feeling was our cake may be about to fall.
"Neither party can run the country on their own," said Joshua Smith, 22, who works the meat counter at a Super Target. He's voting for McCain but expects the Democrats to win because the country wants to try the other guys after eight years. "If we let 'em keep flip-flopping, maybe things will balance out."
Well, there's a stirring endorsement for the American political system. But maybe that's the best we've got. Maybe that's the best there is.
"Next Wednesday will be a great day," Simon Jungbauer said. "Because we'll finally be finished with all this stuff."
Yes, we will have a new president by Nov. 5. Then we can get started on Campaign 2012. email@example.com • 612-673-4400