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.