WASHINGTON—Americans are choosing a new president Tuesday, but not just that. They are making history, reshaping Congress, saying good riddance to a campaign of numbing negativity and setting the political calculus of a nation that won’t be healed any time soon.
Whether the glass ceiling shatters or not, precedent will.
Never before has the country had a woman as president, not to mention the spouse of an ex-president. Never before has the country had a president like, well, Donald Trump, unique in lacking the public-service background that everyone in our lifetimes and deeper into the past brought to the office (both his weakness and his strength). Whether the 45th president is Hillary Clinton or the billionaire outsider, the U.S. is turning a corner.
CLINTON vs. TRUMP
The two New Yorkers pounded each other relentlessly, each preaching that the other is wholly unqualified, as the race tightened in the final days after a persistent if elastic lead for Clinton, the Democrat, in preference polling. Those who dreamed of Bernie Sanders for the Democratic ticket or anyone but Trump for Republicans face their time of reckoning. Will they come home to their party, or just stay home?
Clinton, inheritor of Barack Obama’s vaunted campaign apparatus and a skillful (and well-financed) organizer in her own right, fielded an impressive professional and volunteer operation. She had big names on the stage, loads of people tracking down supporters and getting them to early-voting places, committed and well-heeled interest groups behind her and lots of money for sustained advertising.
Trump’s effort paled in comparison, seeming as unpolished and improvised as the candidate himself. What he had, that she didn’t, were the pulse and the passion of huge crowds. Election Day should settle the question of which counted for more.
To those in Trump country, no boastful, stomach-turning video about women, no “lock-her-up” insult from the stage, no toxic tweet in the wee hours, could peel them away from the man whose crudities only made him more authentic in their eyes. To many of the Republicans who didn’t come to the rallies — and to some of the lawmakers who faced the prospect of working with him in Washington — he was a disaster, a Republican Titanic sailing alongside Clinton’s Democratic Lusitania. To the country at large, and much of the world, he polarized, repelled, entertained, shocked and fascinated.
Did that make Clinton less of a divisive figure?
Not to the Republicans who are already itching to impeach her if she wins.
WHAT TO WATCH
Virginia could be a harbinger for the night. An early win for Clinton in that state bodes well for her; a contest that drags on until 9 p.m. or 10 p.m. EST could mean a good night for Trump. Results begin to come out when polls close at 7 p.m. in Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, South Carolina, Vermont and Virginia. More waves come just after 8 p.m. and 9 p.m., when polls will have closed in 30 states and the District of Columbia.
Trump and Clinton fought fiercely over Florida, a big prize. Trump also made an audacious play for Minnesota and scared Clinton in Michigan, which drew both the Democratic nominee and President Barack Obama on the campaign’s final day.
Republicans fretted about Utah, normally as GOP-friendly as can be. The state was courted by an independent who tapped anti-Trump sentiment among the state’s many Mormons.
FIZZLING OCTOBER SURPRISE
FBI Director James Comey’s disclosure that the agency discovered more emails potentially connected to its investigation of Clinton’s email practices roiled the race. That shadow lifted when Comey said Sunday that the review had found nothing to change the FBI’s recommendation in July that she not face charges. Between his two announcements, though, nearly 24 million ballots were cast in early voting.
The night’s second big mystery is which party will control the Senate, now Republican dominated. Democrats need to gain five seats to take an outright majority. If they gain only four — and if Clinton is elected — her vice president will be able to break 50-50 Senate ties.
Indiana could give an early hint of where the night is going. Nevada, New Hampshire, Pennsylvania, Missouri and North Carolina could tip either way. Republican incumbents were in particular danger in Illinois and probably Wisconsin.
The math made it tough for the GOP: Republicans had to defend 24 seats compared with only 10 for the Democrats. Some were between a rock and a hard place — risking rejection from anti-Trump Republican voters if they were too close to him and rejection from his core supporters if they pushed him away. Squirmy rhetoric ensued.
Barring a shocker, Republicans will keep control of the House. They populate that chamber in numbers not seen since the 1930s.
The breakdown is 247-188 for the GOP, with three vacancies. GOP losses of 10-15 seats have been predicted by people in both parties.
Notable names: Republican Liz Cheney is expected to win the Wyoming seat once held by her father, Dick Cheney. GOP Rep. Darrell Issa of California, investigator of the Benghazi, Libya, episode and other Obama administration actions, could be upended.
Rare is the U.S. president who has come to office without having held any previous public office.
To be sure, some were branded resume lightweights in their campaigns: ex-governors George W. Bush of Texas, Bill Clinton of Arkansas and Ronald Reagan of California, among them. But they came from the tradition of having served somewhere — whether in Congress, states or in a high post in an administration. Dwight D. Eisenhower had no political experience but plenty of leadership cred — as well as war hero status — as allied commander in Europe in World War II.
Trump comes purely from the business and reality-TV worlds, making him distinctly a political outsider even if he’s firmly part of the elite. No one questions Clinton’s breadth of experience, as secretary of state, a New York senator and, uniquely, as a policy-driven first lady during her husband’s two terms. The question is what voters make of her experience and his lack of it.
Trump pronounced in advance that the election is rigged, in what sounded like a hedge should he lose. He warned without evidence that Clinton partisans would commit fraud and prodded his supporters to watch for misdeeds at polling stations. The prospect of vigilante election monitoring and the anger seething behind that impulse raised concerns about confrontations Tuesday, especially if the result is close.
Voters in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts and Nevada are deciding whether to legalize recreational marijuana use; Arkansas, Florida, Montana and North Dakota are weighing whether to do so for medical marijuana. Arizona, Colorado and Maine are deciding whether to raise the minimum wage to $12 by 2020; Washington state is considering $13.50. The federal minimum is $7.25. Voters in several states may tighten controls on guns and ammunition.
SOME POLITICS IS LOCAL
Of a dozen races for governor, at least seven appear competitive and most of those have Democrats on the hook. Republicans went into the campaign with 31 governorships, just one short of their historic high. And Republicans control more than two-thirds of statehouse chambers.