The American midterm elections are winding to a frenzied, even frantic, ending and in every corner of the United States — from swing-state Pennsylvania to Southern bellwether Georgia to laid-back liberal California — the state of the country’s politics is in flux.
A caravan of would-be immigrants crawling up the spine of Central America. Revulsion on all sides over a bitter Supreme Court confirmation battle. A quarter-of-a-million new jobs added in the month before critical midterm elections. A large segment of the population aghast at the language and symbolism employed by the President. Another segment mobilized by the chief executive’s vows to curb immigration and his boasts about the economy, which in the final week of campaigning reached the lowest U.S. unemployment rate in 49 years.
Plus this, only 10 days before the voting: the slaughter of 11 Jews in a Pittsburgh synagogue, followed by cries for new gun laws; criticism of Donald Trump’s language as intemperate and provocative of violence; rage over the failure of important Pennsylvania figures, from Governor Tom Wolf to Pittsburgh Mayor William Peduto and others, to greet Air Force One or to accompany him to the grieving grounds outside Tree of Life or to the hospital wards of UPMC Presbyterian, both also sites of anti-Trump protests, handbills, placards and chants.
There may never have been a set of midterm contests with so many vital themes, so many contradictory impulses, so many contrasting campaign memes and so many reasons to doubt any predictions – some for blue wave for the Democrats, others for a red-wave backlash for the Republicans – about how Tuesday’s 470 congressional races and 36 races for governors’ chairs will turn out.
In other critical midterm fights – 1862 over the course of the Civil War, 1866 over Southern post-war Reconstruction, 1918 over American involvement in the League of Nations, 1930 over the economy as the Great Depression deepened, 1970 over Vietnam – there was one theme to the contests. This year there are myriad themes, each motivating huge swaths of the American people, perhaps enough to overcome the voter lethargy that customarily is an important feature of off-year elections.
This year, too, there is an unconventional president, the possibility of a change in power on Capitol Hill, and – the great hope of Democrats, the great fear of Republicans – the possibility that Mr. Trump’s administration could face endless subpoenas, serious investigations and perhaps impeachment if the Republicans relinquish control of the House.
For while most of these elections are local contests – one figure with a regional reputation against another, some of whom are incumbents – there is a vital overlay to Tuesday’s voting that cannot be ignored: the fate, historically, legally, morally and politically, of Mr. Trump.
These elections technically are not a referendum on the President; the personalities of the combatants and the peculiarities of the ridings in which they are campaigning vary from place to place and are important elements of each contest.
But taken as a whole – as they will be in the late hours Tuesday and throughout Wednesday and likely into history – they inevitably will be read as a measure of Mr. Trump’s issue portfolio (tax cuts, immigration overhaul, opposition to a national health-care scheme). But they also will be regarded as a verdict on the President’s personal style, ranging from his language (welcome to some ears, intemperate to others), the symbolism he employs (refreshing to some eyes, racist to others), his bearing (bold to some minds, vulgar to others), his recasting of the country’s political character (an overdue re-evaluation of U.S. immigration policy to some, a rash of nativist fear to others), even his lifestyle (honest and unvarnished to some, tasteless and tawdry to others).
In all of this, there are some highly unusual elements that have made for a riveting campaign season.
Former presidents seldom are outspoken opponents of their successors; with the exception of Herbert Hoover, who was an outspoken critic of Franklin Roosevelt and his New Deal, they generally merely seethe in private. But this year the 45th president has in recent weeks been the target of the 44th, with Barack Obama criticizing Mr. Trump for ‘‘fear-mongering’’ and setting forth examples of what he describes as his lies.
Most years when there is a robust economy, the party in power can count on voters recognizing, and then rewarding, its record. This year the stock market remains at high levels, but some stuttering in October raised questions about whether the post-2008 recovery – once a slow, silent one and then a raging boom reaching a post-Second World War record 32nd consecutive quarter of growth – might be at an end, with fresh fears of new inflation and even a recession.
Most midterm elections, business-oriented Republican fund-raising efforts far outpace those of Democrats, generally fuelled by labour and other interest groups. Not this time. Energized by the Senate judiciary committee hearings over the nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and by searing opposition to the President, the Democrats have raised about 50 per cent more money in 32 of the 45 closest House races. (In the remaining 13 of those most-competitive races, the GOP raised about a third more than the Democrats.) That translates into a formidable Democratic advantage in a year in which they need to flip 24 House seats to seize control.
Over all, while the conditions for a Democratic takeover have been laid – in one survey of competitive House races, 50 per cent of likely voters support the Democrats, with 46 supporting the Republicans – there are no certainties, especially in the wake of the failure of pollsters to identify the Trump surge that carried the Manhattan billionaire to the White House two years ago.
But one factor common to all midterm elections prevails: turnout. Ordinarily only two in five registered voters go to the polls in these contests. There is every indication – high voter interest and passion, reports of remarkable early voting in the 33 states that permit it – of an unusually high turnout Tuesday. The question, as always, is which party is more energized, which has the best get-out-the-vote operations, and, ultimately, which voters pull the curtains in the polling stations and thus pull away the curtains from the mystery surrounding the 2018 midterm elections. An enormous amount is at stake.