Tuesday’s midterm election is about many things. It’s about health care and immigration. It’s about the economy. It’s about power and who will hold it, both in Washington and in the states. Above all, it’s about something more elemental: what kind of country Americans see today and want to see in the future. That makes these midterms unlike any in the recent past.
Talk to voters almost anywhere about what this election means to them, and the answer almost invariably involves personal feelings about President Trump and perceptions about the overall state of the country. This debate about America’s divisions has been underway for some time, but Trump has raised the emotional level to something not seen before.
This is an election that is being fought in individual districts and states, with traditional tools: money, advertising and boots on the ground. Television ads by Democrats hammer Republicans on this or that issue; Republican ads hammer Democrats. Money is coursing through congressional campaigns at levels not seen before. Voter mobilization is as sophisticated and robust as it has ever been. At the margins, those weapons can make a difference.
But it is the larger question about the values of the nation that has produced what we’ve seen over weeks and months. It is that unsettling, and unsettled, issue that has generated the record amounts of money raised and spent, and the remarkable outpouring of volunteers never before active who are walking precincts and making calls in these final hours — as they have been for months. It is what has motivated record numbers of people in many states to cast ballots ahead of Election Day. Together, those indicators have stamped this campaign as a once-in-a-generation event.
This is a divided country, growing more so under this president. Hostility from those in one party toward those in the other has risen. Divisions between urban and rural America have widened. Men and women are on opposites sides in assessments of the president — including in some marriages — and the gender gap has been at record levels. Education has become a new and significant fault line, dividing those with college degrees and those without.
One of the beauties of American politics is its diversity — from one region to another, from one state to another, and even within states. Each state or region has its own political history and culture. Each has its peculiarities, its good or bad candidates, its local conditions.
A midterm election is like a pointillist painting, each individual race a dot that by Wednesday morning will add up to an image that will provide some answer to the question of the moment: the identity of America as it is today, its aspirations and values, the tone and tenor of the debate.
Trump has decided views on these things. Many Americans are thrilled by what he has done or tried to do to shake up a political status quo that left them feeling like outsiders. They see his opponents the same way he often describes them, as enemies of him and of the country. But his presidency also has triggered a powerful backlash that is being felt on this final weekend before Election Day as it has been felt from the day he was inaugurated. His presidency has been a time of raw political anger. The clash of these values and perceptions will produce a rendering on Tuesday.
Because of geographical differences in a divided America, what happens on Tuesday could hit with unequal force. If things break as now appears possible, the election could wash away the Republican majority in the House and boost Democrats in gubernatorial and state legislative races. But it could leave Democrats still short of a majority in the Senate because nearly all of the most competitive races are now in red states.
Polls show close races for the Senate, the House and governorships. Polls have been wrong before. This could be a wave election, which is to say an election that produces results that overcome structural obstacles and impediments facing the minority party.
In this case, it is the strength of the economy that could help Republicans avoid the worst and another factor that makes Tuesday’s election different from those past. Look back to 1982, to 1994, to 2006 and to 2010. Those midterms saw the parties of two Republican presidents and two Democratic presidents suffer significant setbacks, but the ingredients were different than they are today — more customary, more understandable.
The 1982 midterm election was all about the economy. The country was in a deep recession, and the unemployment rate hit 10 percent in September of that year, the first time it had been in double digits in four decades. Democrats picked up roughly two dozen seats in the House, adding to their majority and dealing a blow to then-President Ronald Reagan.
In 1994, anger with government, corruption scandals in the House and legislative missteps by then-President Bill Clinton and congressional Democrats led to a historic revolt by the voters. After 40 years of Democratic rule in the House, Republicans led by soon-to-be-speaker Newt Gingrich swept to power on a tide of anti-government sentiment.
By 2006, the focus of the midterms was on the issue of war and peace, namely the growing unpopularity of the Iraq War, coupled with declining confidence in the leadership of then-President George W. Bush, over both the war and his administration’s handling of the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina. The combination cost Republicans their House majority.
Four years later, Republicans rode a huge groundswell of dissatisfaction to take back the House. In that case, Democrats under the leadership of then-President Barack Obama were done in by the slow pace of recovery from the worst recession since the Great Depression and deep political divisions over the Affordable Care Act, which had passed without Republican support.
As with so much else about the Trump presidency, this midterm election is in a class of its own, given that it is taking place at a time of economic prosperity. The country’s economic engine is running at peak power, and yet much of the electorate is consumed instead by the style, behavior and personality of the president.
Friday’s employment report from the Labor Department couldn’t have brought better news. All the indicators were moving in the right direction — job growth, wage growth, the unemployment rate and labor force participation. Yet in the midst of one of the best economies in decades, at a time of rising economic and consumer confidence, the campaign has been about almost anything but that. It has not been, however, about nothing.
Trump has gone back to spreading fear and division over immigrants, particularly a caravan of migrants hundreds of miles from the southern border. He has chosen to play down good news. Finally, on Saturday night in Florida, he spoke at some length about the economy. Mostly, however, he favors broadsides about law and order and what he calls Democratic “mobs.” Which is why the choice for many voters is not about personal finances or the economy or the tax cuts but about whether the country needs change.
Tuesday’s results could produce surprises. Elections like this often do. The outcome could change the balance of power in Washington, or it could leave Democrats wondering how they missed out again. It will provide a partial answer to the question of what kind of America this is and should be. A more definitive answer will come later, and by Wednesday, people will shift their focus toward another campaign two years from now.