The final daze of 2016 campaign: Races are tight, stomachs in knots

And angst is unlikely to end after Election Day

There was a perfect tweet during the rain delay in the epic seventh game of the World Series: “Most Americans want neither of these teams to lose. Most Americans want neither of these presidential candidates to win.”

That about sums it up. What a contrast between the wholesome competition of two noble underdogs on the diamond and the toxic mutually-assured destruction of the two political parties and their candidates in an election void of rules, integrity and uplift. A pox on all their houses is the mantra this weekend before the grand finale. If the final innings of the elections have as much drama as game seven, well, buckle up.

This is not at all what the doctor ordered. A poll by the American Psychological Association found that 52 percent of Americans report feeling high levels of stress because of the election. Those field interviews were done back in August, so just imagine how high the national stress level is now.

In this final daze, Democrats are more stressed out. The presidential race has tightened up in the national polls and, more importantly, in key battleground states. The outlook for control of the Senate is equally close.

The basic structure of the election, however, has changed very little since the primaries ended in June, though it doesn’t feel that way.

Hillary Clinton has held a constant lead but it has expanded and contracted between 2 and 8 percentage points in averages of the many national polls. In the Senate races, the Democrats always have been sure to gain seats; the question is how many.

Now only days before the vote, Democrats seem poised to gain 4-6 seats net, which is what the handicappers have been saying for months. So if Clinton wins, the Democrats are very likely to gain control of the Senate since a Vice President Tim Kaine would be the tiebreaker. A Trump victory likely would be part of a big movement that would keep the Senate in Republican hands.

As of Friday morning, Clinton led by 2.6 points in the RealClearPolitics average of presidential polls that include third parties and by 5.5 points in the HuffPostPollster calculus. Clinton’s lead seems to have shrunk over the past two or three weeks. In this final weekend, Clinton is further ahead of Trump in the poll averages than Barack Obama was ahead of Mitt Romney in 2012. Obama went on to win by 4 percentage points.

Polling in battleground states, however, is what is giving Democrats and #NeverTrumpers ulcers. Clinton’s position has weakened in several states where she is nonetheless still ahead, including Florida, Pennsylvania, Virginia and Wisconsin. Florida appears to be the biggest Democratic worry in that group.

Clinton seems to have lost her lead in the key states of New Hampshire and North Carolina. She has been consistently behind in Ohio and Iowa, but she has made unexpected gains in Georgia and Arizona, where her campaign has worked hard. Both states still look to be out of her reach, however.

Nevada is one state where data from early voting has changed and probably clarified the picture. The polls have been tight. But in the early voting, many more Democrats have turned out than Republicans. Hispanic turnout has been especially high. Some analysts argue that the lead Clinton built in the early voting is now insurmountable.

If that’s the case, Trump’s route to 270 electoral votes is even more narrow and fragile than it has always been.

Under almost any plausible scenario, and assuming he wins Ohio and Iowa, Trump will have to win two of three other big states to have a chance at victory: Florida, North Carolina or Pennsylvania. Trump’s chances in Pennsylvania aren’t good, though Clinton and her top stand-ins are spending lots of time there. Trump will need a giant, salty wave that isn’t now visible to win Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

Even if Trump does run that gauntlet, he’s still not safe. If Clinton does indeed hold Nevada, Trump would still have to win Colorado and New Hampshire. The odds of that happening are long.

Several other variables will be important:

  • Clinton has a massive field organization and corps of volunteers; Trump does not. In a close election, that will matter; in a landslide in either direction, that will matter less.
  • Trump is relying on the Republican Party organization to get out the vote and provide grassroots support. Trump’s most ardent boosters are generally alienated from that Republican establishment. Traditional and loyal Republicans, of course, have fraught relations with Trump and his followers. We really don’t know anything about how that might play out in key states in these last days.
  • Clinton has a long list of highly effective surrogates and boosters led by Barack and Michelle Obama and including Bill Clinton, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and scores of senators and governors influential in there homes states. Trump doesn’t.
  • Polling and early voting seem to indicate that turnout among African-Americans will be lower than 2008 and 2012, which is thoroughly predictable and understandable. The question of how much lower will be key in places like North Carolina, Florida and Pennsylvania.

Of course, there is also the biggest variable of all: the mystical and mysterious movements of the mass electorate. Is there some kind of Trump Factor that made for this crazy year that isn’t apparent in polls and traditional reporting? Is there a new social media dynamic that is overlooked? Is the disgust with politics and the media even greater than we think? What would that mean? This whole campaign from Bernie Sanders’ rise to Trump’s win has been unpredicted, so won’t that continue on Election Day?

While there are many extra-tight Senate races this year, they can’t match the presidential election for weirdness.

The Democrats have only one seat in deep trouble, Nevada. The polls show a toss-up, but as in the presidential race, the early voting gives the Democrat an edge.

Republican incumbent Mark Kirk seems doomed in Illinois. Former senator Russ Feingold is very likely to oust the incumbent Republican, Ron Johnson, in Wisconsin, though the race has tightened up. The other states Democrats are salivating all over are Indiana, New Hampshire, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.

The Republicans have a lot of battlefields to defend. At this moment, losing six seats seems to be the most plausible worst case and losing four seats appears likely. Control of the Senate could easily depend on control of the White House.

One other thing is highly unpredictable: How many people will feel less anxious after the election than they do now? I am inclined to predict there will be no net decline in national angst.

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