We’ll know soon enough who won. We already know the prize: A big, ugly gash in the heart of American politics.
Nearly two years of relentless campaigning and racially loaded rhetoric has exposed a country that is deeply fractured along lines that are hardening and raw.
Race, gender and class appear to be ever more reliable predictors of whether Americans cast their ballots for Donald Trump or Hillary Clinton. And as Americans have retreated further into their corners, politicians have seen little motivation to understand the other side.
The dynamic just played out, while America (and the world) cringed. This campaign often looked like a noisy and incoherent conversation taking place in parallel worlds, with Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton shouting across a daunting gulf between them.
It may have been a race filled with unpredictable moments, but its near certainties are just as notable. As she heads into Election Day, Clinton is on track to win solid, and in some cases overwhelming, majorities of black, Hispanic and college-educated voters. Polls show Clinton, running to be the first female president, may also hit new levels of support among women.
Trump, meanwhile, has been propelled by support from white, working-class voters, a group that according to polls may reject Clinton more decisively than any of her recent Democratic predecessors.
These splits between whites and minorities, between men and women, between those with college degrees and those without, did not begin in 2016. Clinton’s coalition is likely to look much like the one President Barack Obama assembled in 2008 and 2012, and has its roots much deeper.
But 2016 will be the year when the gaps widened, the lines hardened and the conversation, in turn, became more painful.
It will be remembered as the time when a Republican candidate could call American cities “war zones” without apparent worry about the feelings of the people who call them home. It will be remembered as the election in which Clinton described half of Trump’s supporters as a “basket of deplorables,” and apologized only for her measurement. It will be remembered as a moment when Trump’s closing argument was that “everything’s wrong,” while Clinton asked, “Since when do we become pessimistic?”
It’s hard not to blame Trump’s button-pushing candidacy for much of this strangeness.
The Republican nominee’s bid made a mockery of party elders’ “autopsy” of the 2012 defeat of Mitt Romney, which bemoaned that the GOP “offends too many people unnecessarily.”
Trump’s fate now rests in the hands of the very people he’s offended. If blacks, Hispanics, young people and women turn out in large numbers, it becomes exceedingly difficult to find enough of his voters to win the day.
Roughly 45 percent of the electorate are non-college educated white, the core of Trump’s base, noted Brookings Institution demographer William Frey. And that share is shrinking. They made up 50 percent in 2008, he said, and 57 percent in 2000.
But Trump’s willingness to risk saying the thing others would not has no doubt connected with a substantial share of America’s voters.
The New York businessman saw the opportunity to run against his party and those wanting to restore America to a lost moment.
“I watch the speeches of these people, and they say the sun will rise, the moon will set, all sorts of wonderful things will happen. And people are saying, ‘What’s going on? I just want a job. Just get me a job. I don’t need the rhetoric. I want a job,'” he said from the lobby of his Trump Tower high-rise, when he announced his campaign.
If Trump wins, it will be because he understood the depths of white anxiety. It will be because he galvanized the alienated and the angry, in corners of the country where people have felt ignored through eight years of the Obama administration.
Democrats acknowledge they may have left Trump this opening. For much of her campaign, Clinton had all but given up talking to white, working class men. That was for surrogates like her husband, Bill Clinton, Vice President Joe Biden, and even Obama.
On Monday, Clinton began to acknowledge the work she had ahead of her.
“Anger is not a plan, my friends,” she said. “If we’re going to harness our energy and try to overcome our problems, then we need to start talking to each other again.”