Democrat Stacey Abrams, who is running for governor in Georgia, campaigns outside the Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church in Macon last month. (Photo by Melina Mara/The Washington Post)
Opinion writer

This post has been updated.

Over the past two years we’ve seen what happens when we elect an unfit president, when he and his allies stir white grievance, when women are dismissed (and then fight back in the #MeToo movement) and when a party leaves a coherent, albeit stale, ideology to embrace the cult of personality and ugly nativism. We learned other things as well:

  • Voters are less concerned with ideological purity than pundits and pols think;
  • Democracy is more frail than we imagined, and it relies to a large extent on unwritten norms and habits of mind;
  • Party and tribe can sublimate the Framers’ best-laid plans for divided government, and checks and balances;
  • Voter fraud is rare, but efforts to extend white dominance in the electorate by voter suppression are common; and
  • The free press and independent courts may be the most essential aspects of our democracy.

More than 5,000 presidential lies later, we are ready to see if the electorate shifted in some permanent ways in 2016 or whether 2016 was a perfect storm, an aberration and a wake-up call. The perfect storm explanation for 2016 would say that a poor presidential candidate, a complacent Democratic base, a TV celebrity candidate and a last-minute intrusion into the election campaign by FBI Director James B. Comey produced a narrow victory for President Trump, a result few expected, including the candidate. The permanent-shift explanation is that Americans demand entertainment from politics, dismiss (or even embrace) racism and misogyny,  and are indifferent about the survival of democracy. They want someone to break the furniture and don’t much care how he does it or what he says.

Here then are five questions, the answers to which will help clarify whether 2016 was closer to the perfect storm or a harbinger of  a permanent shift, one that reveals democracy’s decay:

  1. What is the final turnout? Early voting was off the charts. “With just over 24 hours until the first polls close, more than 35 million Americans have already voted in the 2018 midterm elections,” according to Medium.com, in a post citing data from Target Early, which tracks early voting. “Of those who have already voted, more than 1.5 million are new registrants who have never voted before and 6 million are infrequent voters. These two groups are seeing a .92% and 4.17% growth in total vote share, respectively, over the 2014 midterms. By comparison, the share of early vote among voters most-likely to turn out (“super voters”) are down a significant 8.35 percent. The number of voters who have never voted or are infrequent votes has more than doubled compared to 2014.” If early voting didn’t merely cannibalize Election Day voting but grew the electorate in a significant way, it is a good sign that Americans got a wake-up call in 2016 and value the most fundamental aspect of citizenship, voting.
  2. Does voter suppression and racist rhetoric win elections? In Georgia and North Dakota, we saw deliberate efforts to dissuade African Americans and Native Americans, respectively, from voting. The racial composition of the electorate will be of great interest, as will any evidence that voter suppression triggered a backlash not only among nonwhite voters but also among independents and moderates. Trump’s two-week long racist rant and scare tactics about the caravan were meant to stir the base. We don’t have a “control group” to measure against the election, but if the House flips, the suburbs go Democratic and/or known race-baiters such as Rep. Steve King (R-Iowa) lose, we will have some evidence, however imperfect, that such tactics are not only morally wrong but politically ineffective.
  3. Will 2018 really be the year of the woman? Trump won in 2016 even after the “Access Hollywood” tape and myriad women accusing him of unwanted sexual conduct surfaced. He insulted women regularly, and frequently remarked on their looks and (low) intelligence. According to the Center for Women and Politics at Rutgers University, 237 women are running for the House (the vast majority, Democrats), 23 for the Senate and 16 for governor. One measure of the revulsion over Trump’s treatment of women and the Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings, as well as the wider #MeToo movement, will be the number of women elected. Another measure will be the gender gap and specifically whether women who have traditionally voted Republican (e.g. white college-educated women) vote Democratic.
  4. Is the electoral map back to “normal”? When Trump won Ohio, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Republicans crowed that they’d broken the Democrats’ grip on the Midwest. A cottage industry of consultants told Democrats they had to appeal to white men, even at the expense of traditionally Democratic groups. All four of these states have a Senate race and a governor’s race. If Democrats win most of these, 2016 looks more like that perfect storm and not a permanent shift.
  5. Have Republicans lost the suburbs by following an irrational, racist president? The House majority will turn in large part on those suburban districts that voted for Hillary Clinton in 2016 but for Republicans for the House, and/or that voted for Barack Obama in 2012 but went for Trump in 2016. If the frenetic, chaotic presidency, the nonstop lying, the failure of adult leadership and oversight, the racism and the sexism provoke the suburbs (with women leading the way) to switch parties, we may see a wholesale realignment in our politics.

We are reminded once more that victories in American politics are not permanent, and the country and its politics are far more fluid than many pundits and pols think. After the 2018 votes are counted, we’ll have gained some perspective regarding the 2016 election — and perhaps how Trumpism can finally be routed.

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