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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US election 2016: Trump threatens to deny democracy

When asked if he would accept the result of the election, the reality TV star said that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

During this insane bad-acid-trip of an election campaign I have overused the phrase “let that sink in.”

There have been at least two dozen moments in the last 18 months which I have felt warranted a moment of horrified contemplation, a moment to sit and internalise the insanity of what is happening. That time a candidate for president brought up his penis size in a primary election debate, for one.

But there was a debate last night, and one of the protagonists threatened to undermine democracy in the United States of America, which throws the rest of this bizarre campaign into stark relief.

It was the third and final clash between an experienced if arguably politically problematic former senator and secretary of state – Hillary Clinton –  and a reality TV star accused of a growing number of sexual assaults – Donald Trump – but the tone and content of the debate mattered less than what the latter said at one key, illuminating moment.

That statement was this: asked if he would accept the result of the election, Donald Trump said that he was going to “look at it at the time,” and that he would have to “keep you in suspense.”

If your jaw just hit the floor, you have responded correctly. The candidate for the party of Lincoln, the party of Reagan, the party of Teddy Roosevelt, declined to uphold the most fundamental keystone of American democracy, which is to say, the peaceful transition of power.

Let that sink in. Let it sit; let it brew like hot, stewed tea.

This election has been historic in a vast number of ways, most important of which is that it will be, if current polling is to be believed, the election which will bring America's first female president to the White House, almost a century after women's suffrage was enabled by the 19th amendment to the constitution in August 1920.

If the last near-century for women in America has been a journey inexorably towards this moment, slowly chipping away at glass ceiling after glass ceiling, like the progression of some hellish video game, then Donald Trump is as fitting a final boss as it could be possible to imagine.

For Trump, this third and final debate in Las Vegas was do-or-die. His challenge was near-insurmountable for even a person with a first-class intellect, which Trump does not appear to possess, to face. First, he needed to speak in such a way as to defend his indefensible outbursts about women, not to mention the increasing number of allegations of actual sexual assault, claims backstopped by his own on-tape boasting of theoretical sexual assault released last month.

This, he failed to do, alleging instead that the growing number of sexual assault allegations against him are being fabricated and orchestrated by Clinton's campaign, which he called “sleazy”, at one point to actual laughs from the debate audience.

But he also needed to reach out to moderates, voters outside his base, voters who are not electrified by dog-whistle racism and lumbering misogyny. He tried to do this, using the Wikileaks dump of emails between Democratic party operators as a weapon. But that weapon is fatally limited, because ultimately not much is in the Wikileaks email dumps, really, except some slightly bitchy snark of the kind anyone on earth's emails would have and one hell of a recipe for risotto.

In the debate, moderator Chris Wallace admirably held the candidates to a largely more substantive, policy-driven debate than the two previous offerings – a fact made all the more notable considering that he was the only moderator of the three debates to come from Fox News – and predictably Trump floundered in the area of policy, choosing instead to fall back on old favourites like his lean-into-the-mic trick, which he used at one point to mutter “nasty woman” at Clinton like she'd just cut him off in traffic.

Trump was more subdued than the bombastic lummox to which the American media-consuming public have become accustomed, as if his new campaign manager Kellyanne Conway had dropped a couple of Xanax into his glass of water before he went on stage. He even successfully managed to grasp at some actual Republican talking-points – abortion, most notably – like a puppy who has been semi-successfully trained not to make a mess on the carpet.

He also hit his own favourite campaign notes, especially his opposition to the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) - but ultimately his intrinsic Donald Trumpiness couldn't stop itself from blazing through.

Remember the Republican primary debate when Trump refused to say that he would accept the party's nominee if it wasn't him? Well, he did it again: except this time, the pledge he refused to take wasn't an internal party matter; it was two centuries of American democratic tradition chucked out of the window like a spent cigarette. A pledge to potentially ignore the result of an election, given teeth by weeks of paranoiac ramblings about voter fraud and rigged election systems, setting America up for civil unrest and catastrophe, driving wedges into the cracks of a national discourse already strained with unprecedented polarisation and spite.

Let it, for what is hopefully just one final time, sink in.

Nicky Woolf is a writer for the Guardian based in the US. He tweets @NickyWoolf.