Like most of my colleagues, I plan on spending tomorrow night watching the returns with baited breath, matching state calls with my own personal forecast. And though it’ll be my first presidential election accompanied by Twitter, hard liquor, and neo-Georgian surroundings, the air will be heavy with a tangle of anticipation, jubilation, and dejection as old as the election night broadcast.

But compared to these cosmetic changes, there’s an important way in which Election Night 2012 will be different from all my other election nights. Given that I don’t have much patience for either candidate or major party, tomorrow night will be the first time I experience election night not as a glandular, world-changing battle between my side and the bad guys—but rather, as a cultural spectacle to be taken in with amused detachment.

Far from what most college friends imagine, I was a diehard Republican for eight prefrontally challenged years. One of my most vivid childhood memories concerns Election Day 2000, spent with my grandparents in their Monroe, New Jersey retirement community. I had already learned to forgive Grandma Sylvia for being a Democrat, but I’ll never forget the confused righteous anger I felt when Grandpa Stan, a lifelong conservative Republican, pulled the lever for Gore. “Why?” I asked.

“Because Lieberman’s Jewish.”

After struggling to get my bedtime extended, I fell asleep in the upstairs den at 9:30, particularly nonplussed by the announcement that Florida had gone blue.

The next morning, Grandpa Stan told me wryly over Grandma’s French toast that in fact, nobody had won. The electoral count hung at 249 to 246, with Florida, Oregon, and Wisconsin still in the balance—an ambiguity for which my little Manichean mind was not prepared at all. I half-convinced myself that it was all an act of grandfatherly ribbing, until arriving at school, where throngs of proto-Democratic New Jersey Jewish third graders awaited me with the awful news that Wisconsin had been called for Gore, leaving him within ten electoral votes of victory. My heart sank. I fumbled heavily over my times tables.

I followed along with my parents (Republicans of the most benign, reasonable variety) as days of uncertainty grew into weeks of Florida recount drama. As the last few counts drew Gore within hundreds of votes from the presidency, my mind began to conjure up images of—I don’t know what: murdered babies? Willie Hortons? A Soviet resurgence?—certain only of the fact it was too bad that old people in Palm Beach didn’t know how to vote, but rules were rules…

When Katherine Harris stopped the clock at 537, I thanked God and went back to being a normal third grader.

On the morning after Election Day 2004, I taunted our Democratic family friends on a trip up to Boston as it became clear that Bush had earned another term in office. Stu insisted that we’d be best to just turn the radio off, but I think he was kindly suggesting as much of my voice box. In 2008, when my Manichean conservatism was on its last limb, I watched in despair as Obama—whom I’d bet would wait another four years to even consider running—wiped the floor with my childhood political hero. One of two Republicans in a room full of equally Manichean little Democrats, I felt utterly devoid of the will to show up to my locker the next morning, the Sons of Light having been so badly routed by a newbie messianic claimant.

I care much less today. I’m amused by how despite the overwhelming similarities between the two candidates, so many smart people around me continue to labor under the illusion that It’s All Over If the Other Guy Wins. It’s quite clear to me that Barack Obama, a recipient of massive corporate funding, doesn’t want to reconfigure America into a command economy; it’s equally clear that Mitt Romney, whose wife has donated to Planned Parenthood, has no intention of imposing Christian shari’a in American wombs and bedrooms.

But it’s hard to blame people for falling prey to thinking about politics in ingroup-outgroup terms: it’s our nature, it’s fun, and it’s morally satisfying. Unlike in 2000, nothing electoral this year could lead me to the point of near-death from anticipation. I won’t have a chance to enjoy the adrenal ecstasy of 2004. And for better or worse, there will be none of 2008’s brooding, poetic self-assessment. If you can relate, at least take solace in the fact that you’ve grown up and become a little bit less animal than you once were.

Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons

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