An American election is a bit like a Wagnerian opera. Loud, shrill, indecipherable, populated with violent and flawed characters and going on longer than any sensible person would permit. Nevertheless, there comes the moment when the voices reach a crescendo; the Rhine bursts its banks and, in the following silence a new age begins.
Tonight is Gotterdammerung. If you are joining the legions of political anoraks around the world hoping for Trump to lose, and staying up into the small hours, what do you want to look for?
You might not even want to stay up at all. The polls are pretty much unanimous that Clinton has a lead of 2-4 points, which means the night ought to be hers. But then again, the past two elections that I cared about have seen the polls get the results substantially wrong; and this can be a third.
So I’m spending election night looking to measure two potential sources of error.
1. Brexit2 – A lot of hope in the Trump campaign at the end is for a Brexit style upset. This isn’t completely mad – one of the challenges we had during Brexit was that the polls were built to examine a different sort of election with different kinds of voters. Trump taps in to a similar vein. Angry, working class whites might show up in significant numbers, and more than the mainstream media would have reason to expect.
If that’s the case, the places this is going to show first are in post-industrial east coast states. I’ll be watching New Hampshire and especially Pennsylvania – if both of these go for Trump, he’s likely to win the night; and Michigan and Wisconsin will prove it.
But balanced against this we have…
2. Ground game – If you find yourself interested in the number of campaign offices that the Trump and Clinton campaigns, you probably need to get out more. But this stuff matters. One aspect of the campaign that’s not got much attention is that Trump & co. have been quite spectacularly disorganised. They don’t have as many operatives in the states that count; they have had to change campaign managers three times. In the final weeks of the campaign, Trump has effectively fired his pollster and refused to pay back bills – meaning that he’s been flying blind.
If Trump has adopted the ‘entourage’ approach to management, Clinton and the Democrats are the well-run production line. The tricks they have up their sleeve are the same ones that the Tories had in 2015 (because they rely on the same people), and they proved to be enough to swing 20 marginal seats that no one was predicting. If the Democrats have an ace in the hole, this is it.
The place you’d see this earliest and most clearly will be Florida – given that voters here have strong loyalties and winning is normally a matter of turnout for the two parties. I could imagine Clinton securing a much higher margin here than we’re expecting; and if so the trend is likely to repeat elsewhere, and she is pretty much guaranteed to be president.
And with that, we take a five minute break, and then we start talking about who’s going to win in 2020.
PS – Also keep on the lookout for an unlikely, but real nightmare scenario, is where the election is won by a single state with a vanishingly thin margin, triggering months of talk about recounts. Imagine Bush v Gore, but with Donald Trump in the starring role…