Last minute nerves

Obama may be looking like a shoe in but Democrats have had too many disappointments in recent years

A few hours out from Election Day, both candidates have made their closing arguments and all the cards appear to be on the table, so I don’t anticipate much more drama in the presidential race. The good news for Democrats is there is not a single poll that has McCain winning the election. Among Conservative opinion-leaders, the mood is subtly shifting from the desperate search for evidence that McCain's steadily closing the gap, to self-consolation that he's kept the race relatively close despite all his disadvantages.

I don't think any remaining uncertain factors will be enough to undo Obama's lead. That being said there is a feeling of anxiety among many Democratic activists right now that something could go terribly wrong on Tuesday. There's not much evidence to support such fears, and that even if McCain winds up doing exceptionally well among undecided voters, he's probably too far behind to close the deal.

I'd argue that aside from there well-earned Democratic pessimism based on past close elections, there might be two factors underpinning this anxiety. The first is obvious enough: race. With the McCain campaign heavily relying on submerged and not-so-submerged racial appeals, old fears about the willingness of white Americans to elect an African-American president have bubbled up.

The second factor is subtler: personal emotional investment in Obama. Democrats have long considered Obama a phenomenal, once-in-a-generation leader who can be "transformational;" others have reached this conclusion more recently. Still others simply think it's imperative, that the Republican lock on the White House is terminated this year, for reasons ranging from Supreme Court appointments to foreign policy.

I wanted to understand why there was anxiety amongst the Democrat activists and one personal experience summed it up best for me – a teacher who goes by the name Ed (who is campaigning in Pennsylvania) said to me that he has only had a strong emotional, as opposed to professional or ideological, investment in the outcome of two presidential elections: 1992 and 2004. And those two Election Nights represented the ultimate highs and lows.

“Back in1992, I remember the joy I was feeling sitting in Atlanta's premier political watering hole, Manuel's Tavern, surrounded by members of a class I was teaching, as Georgia was called for Bill Clinton just two minutes after the polls closed. In 2004, the bad news came to me from a friend of mine who was working for John Kerry in Florida, and told me: "We're done in Florida, and we're done nationally," finally dashing the illusions born of faulty exit polls.”

Many other Democrats have had similar experiences, more negative than positive, usually and many more were wrenched by the endless and ultimately maddening drama of 2000 than with the near miss of 2004. But virtually all of them seem transfixed by this year's election, and what it might signify. That can produce anxiety, which will only be resolved when all the votes are in, and the Democrats have prevailed.

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The first godless US election

America’s evangelical right has chosen Donald Trump, who hardly even pays lip service to having faith.

There has never been an openly non-Christian president of the United States. There has never been an openly atheist senator. God, seemingly, is a rock-solid prerequisite for American political life.

Or it was, until this year.

Early in the 2016 primaries, preacher and former Arkansas governor Mike Huckabee and former senator Rick Santorum – both darlings of the evangelical far right – fell by the wayside. So did Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, the son of a preacher.

Ted Cruz, once the Republican race had thinned, tried to present himself as the last godly man, but was roundly beaten – even among evangelicals – by Donald Trump, a man whose lip service to religion was so cursory as to verge on satire.

Trump may have claimed in a televised debate that “nobody reads the Bible more than me”, but he demurred when pressed to name even a verse he liked. His pronouncements show a lack of any knowledge or interest in faith and its tenets; he once called a communion wafer his “little cracker”.

The boorish Trump is a man at whose megalomaniacal pronouncements any half-hearted glance reveals a belief in, if any god at all, only the one he sees in a mirror. The national exercise in cognitive dissonance required for America’s religious rightwingers to convince themselves that he’s a candidate with whom they have anything in common is truly staggering.

But evangelicals don’t seem troubled. In the March primary in Florida, Trump carried 49 per cent of the evangelical vote. He won Mississippi, a state where fully three-quarters of Republican primary voters are white evangelicals.

In the Democratic primary, Bernie Sanders became the first Jewish candidate ever to win a presidential primary – though he has barely once spoken about his faith – and Hillary Clinton has spoken about god on the campaign trail only occasionally, without receiving much media play. In fact, when the question of faith came up at one Democratic debate there was a backlash against CNN for even asking.

The truth is that Christian faith as a requisite for political power has drooped into a kind of virtue-signalling: the “Jesus Is My Homeboy” bumper-sticker; the crucifix tattoo; the meme on social media about footprints in the sand. It is about identity politics, tribal politics, me-and-mine versus you-and-yours politics, but it hasn’t really been about faith for a while.

What the hell happened?

Partly, there was a demographic shift. “Unaffiliated” is by far the fastest-growing religious category in the US, according to a study by the Pew Research Center, which also showed that the total proportion of Americans who define as Christian dropped almost 9 percentage points between 2007 and 2014.

There is no doubt that America is still a fairly devout nation compared with the UK, but the political mythos that developed around its Christianity is a relatively late invention. The words “under god” were only implanted into the pledge of allegiance – between the words “one nation” and “indivisible” – in 1954, by President Eisenhower.

The ascendance of the political power of the Christian right in America happened in 1979, when a televangelist called Jerry Falwell founded a pressure group called Moral Majority.

Moral Majority’s support for Ronald Reagan was widely credited for his victory in the 1980 election, which in turn secured for them a position at the top table of Republican politics. For three decades, the Christian right was the single most important voting bloc in America.

But its power has been waning for a decade, and there are greater priorities in the American national psyche now.

Trump’s greatest asset throughout the primary was what makes his religiosity or lack thereof immaterial: his authenticity. His lack of a filter, his ability to wriggle free from gaffes which would have felled any other candidate with a simple shrug. This is what not just religious voters, but all of the Republican voting base were waiting for: someone who isn’t pandering, who hasn’t focus-grouped what they want to hear.

They don’t care that he may or may not truly share their belief in god. Almost all voters in this election cycle – including evangelicals, polling suggests – prioritise the economy over values anyway.

On top of that, the Christian right is facing the beginnings of an insurgency from within its own ranks; a paradigm shift in conservatism. A new culture war is beginning, fought by the alt-right, a movement whelped on anarchic message boards like 4chan, whose philosophical instincts lean towards the libertarian and anarcho-capitalist, and to whom the antique bloviation of Christian morality politics means nothing.

Trump doesn’t pander, an approach only made possible by social media, which amplifies his voice six millionfold while simultaneously circumventing the old establishment constructs – like the media – which had previously acted as gatekeepers to power.

The Christian right – now personified in Jerry Falwell Jr and Liberty University, which Falwell senior founded in the Seventies – found itself another of those constructs. They were forced to choose: jump on board the Trump Train or be left behind.

They chose Trump.

Nicky Woolf is reporting for the New Statesman from the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.