The US midterms: protest voting or conservative revival?

What can we expect from today’s election results?

It's been a long and a noisy election – and today, as voters across America go to the polls, there's been no let-up in the campaigning, from rallies to radio phone-ins and those incessent negative ads. Only Delaware was spared a 30-minute ad from the Tea Party darling Christine O'Donnell: her team left it too late to buy network airtime, and the public access channel that was supposed to run it just plain "forgot". Twice.

President Obama, who's been staying put in the White House since the weekend, called in to four radio shows and taped an interview for American Idol's Ryan Seacrest, hoping to boost Democratic turnout in a handful of key battleground states.

In his place, out on the ground, Michelle Obama has been stumping alongside the embattled Senate majority leader, Harry Reid, in Nevada, pleading with voters to be patient about the pace of change, before heading to Pennsylvania to lend support to Rep Joe Sestak in his tight Senate race.

And Bill Clinton, who seems to have been everywhere in the past few weeks, was back in Florida – in case the Democrats' Alex Sink can slip through in a two-way Republican fight.

But – unless all the polls are suddenly proven wrong, and barring any last-minute surprises – today's election looks like producing the worst results for the Democrats in at least 60 years.

Some pundits have cautioned that this may not turn out to be the expected Republican rout – but according to the latest Gallup poll of 1,539 likely voters, the GOP has built up a 15-point lead.

The survey predicts Republican control of the House of Representatives is "highly likely" – the party needs 39 seats to take over, and Gallup says the party's gains could be "anywhere from 60 seats on up". Thirty-seven seats in the Senate are up for election this year: Rasmussen Reports predicts that the Republicans will pick up 25 of these – not enough to take control of the upper house – but GOP leaders are already talking confidently of "finishing the job" in 2012.

Dozens of races are considered too close to call. Some early signs could come from the first polls to close tonight – with key races in Virginia, Pennsylvania and New York pointing to the size of the Republican sweep, though it'll be several hours before the outcome of some crucial seats is clear.

There are plenty of senior Democrats in danger – not Reid, who's neck-and-neck with the Tea Party's Sharron Angle in Nevada – but even Massachusetts Rep Barney Frank, who is facing an unexpectedly tough fight. Another surprise upset could come in Arizona, where the staunchly liberal Raul Grijalva could fall to the 28-year-old rocket scientist and Christian conservative Ruth McClung, whose mother is running her campaign.

And six Democratic governors are at risk, too vulnerable to the white working-class voters who probably backed Hillary Clinton in the presidential primaries, and who now seem likely to switch parties altogether – or simply stay at home.

It's all such a far cry from the euphoria that overwhelmed Washington just two years ago: the queues of excited people who waited hours to cast their vote, the sense of belonging, of making a difference, of a moment in history.

But if the people clamoured for change back in 2008, they're demanding it again now – albeit change of a rather different kind.

Now the grind of hardship, their uncertainty about their jobs, the fragility of their trust in Washington to make it all better – all of this has turned people against the man who once promised so much, and who is now slated (fairly or not) for delivering so little.

Part of this backlash is only to be expected: in times of economic troubles, the party in control gets the blame. And history shows that not only does America expect to have a divided government, in which a different party controls the White House and Congress – most people actively prefer it.

Many independent voters, suggests the pollster Mark Penn, are planning to vote Republican today to achieve just that, a sign that they are "extremely dissatisfied" with what this particular Congress has been doing. Never mind Obama's approval ratings – take a look at how unpopular the pols on Capitol Hill have become. It ain't pretty.

So, rather than some kind of mass conversion towards conservative values, we could view this as a vote against the guys who happened to be in charge during the most challenging economic crisis in living memory.

But the president must take the blame for this much at least: the gaping "enthusiasm gap" that means so many Democratic supporters simply won't bother to show up at the polls. Whether it's been a mixed message, an elitist message, or no clear message at all, Obama has signally failed to sell his agenda to the nation. The man whose own personal narrative was so compelling has consigned his first two years in office to narrative oblivion.

Instead, the wider story of this election has yet to emerge. What has been the real impact of the Tea Party – and how big will its future influence be? How quickly can the Democratic Party – and the president – regroup and recover? And, after all those billions of dollars spent, did money persuade that many people to change how they voted?

All of these questions are waiting for answers. Not least for those planning the next election campaign – the race for 2012.

Felicity Spector is chief writer and US politics expert for Channel 4 News.

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How Donald Trump is slouching towards the Republican nomination

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb.

In America, you can judge a crowd by its merchandise. Outside the Connecticut Convention Centre in Hartford, frail old men and brawny moms are selling “your Trump 45 football jerseys”, “your hats”, “your campaign buttons”. But the hottest item is a T-shirt bearing the slogan “Hillary sucks . . . but not like Monica!” and, on the back: “Trump that bitch!” Inside, beyond the checkpoint manned by the Transportation Security Administration and the secret service (“Good!” the man next to me says, when he sees the agents), is a family whose three kids, two of them girls, are wearing the Monica shirt.

Other people are content with the shirts they arrived in (“Waterboarding – baptising terrorists with freedom” and “If you don’t BLEED red, white and blue, take your bitch ass home!”). There are 80 chairs penned off for the elderly but everyone else is standing: guys in motorcycle and military gear, their arms folded; aspiring deal-makers, suited, on cellphones; giggling high-school fatsos, dressed fresh from the couch, grabbing M&M’s and Doritos from the movie-theatre-style concession stands. So many baseball hats; deep, bellicose chants of “Build the wall!” and “USA!”. (And, to the same rhythm, “Don-ald J!”)

A grizzled man in camouflage pants and combat boots, whose T-shirt – “Connecticut Militia III%” – confirms him as a member of the “patriot” movement, is talking to a zealous young girl in a short skirt, who came in dancing to “Uptown Girl”.

“Yeah, we were there for Operation American Spring,” he says. “Louis Farrakhan’s rally of hate . . .”

“And you’re a veteran?” she asks. “Thank you so much!”

Three hours will pass. A retired US marine will take the rostrum to growl, “God bless America – hoo-rah!”; “Uptown Girl” will play many more times (much like his speeches, Donald J’s playlist consists of a few items, repeated endlessly), before Trump finally looms in and asks the crowd: “Is this the greatest place on Earth?”

There was supposed to be a ceiling above which Trump’s popular support could not climb. Only a minority within a minority of Americans, it was assumed, could possibly be stupid enough to think a Trump presidency was a good idea. He won New Hampshire and South Carolina with over 30 per cent of the Republican vote, then took almost 46 per cent in Nevada. When he cleaned up on Super Tuesday in March, he was just shy of 50 per cent in Massachusetts; a week later, he took 47 per cent of the votes in Mississippi.

His rivals, who are useless individually, were meant to co-operate with each other and the national party to deny him the nomination. But Trump won four out of the five key states being contested on “Super-Duper Tuesday” on 15 March. Then, as talk turned to persuading and co-opting his delegates behind the scenes, Trump won New York with 60 per cent.

Now, the campaign is trying to present Trump as more “presidential”. According to his new manager, Paul Manafort, this requires him to appear in “more formal settings” – without, of course, diluting “the unique magic of Trump”. But whether or not he can resist denouncing the GOP and the “corrupt” primary system, and alluding to violence if he is baulked at at the convention, the new Trump will be much the same as the old.

Back in Hartford: “The Republicans wanna play cute with us, right? If I don’t make it, you’re gonna have millions of people that don’t vote for a Republican. They’re not gonna vote at all,” says Trump. “Hopefully that’s all, OK? Hopefully that’s all, but they’re very, very angry.”

This anger, which can supposedly be turned on anyone who gets in the way, has mainly been vented, so far, on the protesters who disrupt Trump’s rallies. “We’re not gonna be the dummies that lose all of our jobs now. We’re gonna be the smart ones. Oh, do you have one over there? There’s one of the dummies . . .”

There is a frenzied fluttering of Trump placards, off to his right. “Get ’em out! . . . Don’t hurt ’em – see how nice I am? . . . They really impede freedom of speech and it’s a disgrace. But the good news is, folks, it won’t be long. We’re just not taking it and it won’t be long.”

It is their removal by police, at Trump’s ostentatious behest, that causes the disruption, rather than the scarcely audible protesters. He seems to realise this, suddenly: “We should just let ’em . . . I’ll talk right over them, there’s no problem!” But it’s impossible to leave the protesters where they are, because it would not be safe. His crowd is too vicious.

Exit Trump, after exactly half an hour, inclusive of the many interruptions. His people seem uplifted but, out on the street, they are ambushed by a large counter-demonstration, with a booming drum and warlike banners and standards (“Black Lives Matter”; an image of the Virgin of Guadalupe, holding aloft Trump’s severed head). Here is the rest of the world, the real American world: young people, beautiful people, more female than male, every shade of skin colour. “F*** Donald Trump!” they chant.

After a horrified split-second, the Trump crowd, massively more numerous, rallies with “USA!” and – perplexingly, since one of the main themes of the speech it has just heard was the lack of jobs in Connecticut – “Get a job!” The two sides then mingle, unobstructed by police. Slanging matches break out that seem in every instance to humiliate the Trump supporter. “Go to college!” one demands. “Man, I am in college, I’m doin’ lovely!”

There is no violence, only this: some black boys are dancing, with liquid moves, to the sound of the drum. Four young Trump guys counter by stripping to their waists and jouncing around madly, their skin greenish-yellow under the street lights, screaming about the building of the wall. There was no alcohol inside; they’re drunk on whatever it is – the elixir of fascism, the unique magic of Trump. It’s a hyper but not at all happy drunk.

As with every other moment of the Trump campaign so far, it would have been merely some grade of the cringeworthy – the embarrassing, the revolting, the pitiful – were Trump not slouching closer and closer, with each of these moments, to his nomination. 

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism