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What to watch for as the U.S. election grinds to an end

Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump addresses supporters during a campaign rally at the Bank of Colorado Arena on the campus of University of Northern Colorado in Greeley, Colorado on October 30, 2016.

JASON CONNOLLY/AFP/Getty Images

This region's fabled autumn foliage – the shimmery tartan blanket that hugs the hills every October – is gone. And so now, on the cusp of America's election month, it's impossible to ignore the pending change of season. With the approach of what Robert Frost, this vital swing state's most beloved poet, characterized in his poem My November Guest as the "dark days of autumn rain," the race for the White House is reaching its weary conclusion. It enters its last full week Monday.

No American election of modern times has so shattered generations-old rules of campaign comportment nor had so many unpredictable elements, the latest being Friday's stunning FBI decision to reopen its investigation into former secretary of state Hillary Clinton's e-mails, a development that Donald Trump claimed "changes everything." From vulgar repartee to unbridled insults, the 2016 election has broken new ground – and has broken untold numbers of unspoken conventions.

Read more: As the U.S. election draws to a close, both sides pulling out all the stops

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Read more: Democrats' loss of momentum has Republicans eyeing a lock on Congress

Read more: A very long year: Canadian expats reflect on an ugly election and what comes next

And so as the titanic struggle between Ms. Clinton and Mr. Trump grinds to a close, here is a viewers' guide, a brisk Baedeker to the final days.

Watch for where they go

For months, the country has known which dozen or so states were "in play," the battleground states where the contest will be decided. With nearly 40 states reliably in either the blue Democratic column or the red Republican column, these other states have the greatest stakes – and the greatest rewards – for the candidates, and thus have been the sites of the greatest number of campaign appearances and (mostly negative) television advertisements.

Now, in the climactic end to what has seemed like an endless campaign, the candidates must choose their venues with extreme care. That makes it easy for the armchair pundit to ascertain the true nature of the campaign.

Mr. Trump, newly energized by the fresh peril facing his rival, has paid great attention to New Hampshire, with its paltry four electoral votes, because his strategists believe that, perhaps even more than Ohio and Florida, it is the ultimate swing state – the place that, true students of American politics know, determined the overtime election of 2000 between George W. Bush and Al Gore. (Had merely 7,212 of the 22,198 votes cast for Green Party candidate Ralph Nader gone to Mr. Gore, there would have been no recount in Florida.)

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Ms. Clinton's organization in New Hampshire is far superior to Mr. Trump's – she has about double the number of field workers plying the towns and small urban centres. But Mr. Trump sent his son, Eric, to visit four New Hampshire campaign locations last Tuesday, the candidate himself campaigned in the armoury in Manchester, the biggest city, on Friday, and then a leading Trump campaign surrogate (former New York City mayor Rudy Giuliani) and the candidate's running mate (Governor Mike Pence of Indiana) landed here on the weekend – unmistakable signals that his team believes the election will be close enough to merit attention to four electoral votes.

Another state where Mr. Trump may turn up: Nevada, which twice voted for Ms. Clinton's husband, former president Bill Clinton, and then again two times for Barack Obama. The latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News/Marist poll puts the two candidates tied at 43 per cent.

Keep an eye, also, on Ms. Clinton's campaign itinerary – and whether she takes the offensive or is on the defensive on the e-mails.

Moments before the FBI e-mail announcement was made Friday, her campaign – riding high and not expecting its newest challenge – announced it would devote fresh attention to Arizona, which ordinarily is reliably Republican but a state where she has opened nearly three dozen offices (Mr. Trump has none), where she is beginning a $2-million (U.S.) ad campaign (Mr. Trump has no plans to advertise there) and where the powerful statewide newspaper endorsed a Democrat for the first time in 120 years.

Pay special attention, too, if she veers from the battleground states to places such as Texas, which has voted Republican the past nine elections in a row, and four years ago it gave Mitt Romney, the Republican candidate, a 16-point margin of victory. If Ms. Clinton lands in Odessa or St. Angelo, roughly in the centre of the state, that is a signal that she expects a big victory. That district voted for Mr. Romney by a four-to-one margin. If Texas, with its mass of 38 electoral votes, is a possible Democratic pick-up, Ms. Clinton is looking at a landslide.

Watch for subtle changes in emphasis in the campaign

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Right now the great preponderance of attention is on the presidential race. But there are 435 seats in the House of Representatives at stake in the election as well as 34 of the 100 seats in the Senate. (The Republicans hold 24 of these Senate seats, which puts the GOP more at risk. The Senate today has 54 Republicans, 44 Democrats and 2 Independents who almost always side with the Democrats.)

If the emphasis remains on the presidential race, that is a signal that the White House contest is close. If there is increased attention on the congressional races, especially the Senate, that is a signal that the presidential race no longer is competitive. If Ms. Clinton, for example, showers more attention on fellow Democrats running for the Senate, particularly in states that are not competitive in the presidential race, that is a signal that her pollsters believe that, despite the e-mail controversy, she is comfortably ahead.

Watch for how they close the sale

As a businessman by profession and inclination, Mr. Trump above all knows the importance of bringing a deal to a close. If his language suggests he is preparing a new administration and has his eyes on selecting his cabinet, that is a strong signal that his internal polls indicate he is on the cusp of victory, or at least within range. If, on the other hand, he digresses to discuss his real-estate developments – his visit to one of his Florida golf courses last week was a curious diversion from the work at hand – then his prospects may not be promising.

Ms. Clinton, too, will be giving off subliminal signals. If her last swing through the states has the air of a triumphal victory tour unburdened by the e-mail controversy, then she may have victory in her grasp. But if it has the deadening feel of a farewell tour or if her responses to the e-mail issue have an awkward lawyerly tint, she may have recognized that her quarter-century at the centre of global attention is at an end.

The word to listen for: legacy. That's a term that presidents employ at the end of their term, not the beginning. If you hear that word even once in the next several days – or if you hear from the stump a candidate say his or her campaign has changed America rather than that it has won the support of America – one thing will be sure. The candidate who speaks it is doomed.

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About the Author
Executive editor, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

David Shribman, executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, won a Pulitzer Prize for coverage of U.S. politics. More

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