Canadians, as a rule, do not play close attention to midterm elections in the United States.
We know incumbency fatigue will be a factor, meaning whichever party controls the White House will likely lose seats in Congress, where one-third of the 100 Senate seats and all 435 House seats are up for grabs on Tuesday.
The outcome may make a president’s job more complicated, but generally it will not provoke big changes in direction, policy or foreign relations.
That’s the conventional wisdom.
With Donald Trump, however, conventional wisdom is no indicator of future behaviour, and expert opinion is worthless.
The best-informed commentators in the United States cannot agree on what will happen. Although a few extremists among them are talking darkly about a second American civil war, the consensus, backed by recent polls, is not so dramatic. It is that the Democrats may gain control of the House while the Republicans may retain control of the Senate. In each case, the weasel word “may” should be underlined.
I’m not persuaded the outcome will make much difference. Trump will be still be president. He will still be uninformed, vulgar, narcistic, estranged from the truth, erratic and unpredictable.
He might perceive the loss of congressional seats as a warning that it is time to clean up his act. Or, given his performance to date, it seems likely he would resume campaigning (for 2020), doubling down on his favourite targets: fake-news media, crooked Democrats, George Soros, liberal liars, druggies, Mexicans, Hollywood elites, and other assorted victims that resonate with his base.
In such circumstances, about all the Trudeau government can do is to go about bilateral business as usual, trying to keep Canada below Trump’s radar, while hoping for the best and preparing for the worst. Experience suggests it wouldn’t take much more than a careless comment on Fox News to draw the president’s gaze north – to cause him, as an extreme hypothesis, to seal the border to prevent an imagined invasion of cannabis-crazed Canucks.
People who make their living in the netherworld of political backrooms pay close attention to polls, but less to the big national numbers than to the little numbers – regional and demographic splits, likelihood of voting, and the like.
Trump won in 2016 because the Republican base turned out while much of Hillary Clinton’s Democratic base stayed home. It’s why Trump been campaigning so hard to energize his base by feeding it red meat at his midterm rallies.
There’s another indicator. That’s fundraising. Backroomers say the first indication that their party or candidate is gaining or losing momentum comes not from opinion polls, but overnight fundraising results, the assumption being that citizens who care enough to give money also care enough to vote.
By this measure the Democrats are going gangbusters. As of Friday night, Democratic candidates for the House of Representatives had raised $649 million in individual contributions, compared to $312 million by Republican candidates.
For reasons I can’t fathom, I find myself on multiple sucker lists of the Republican party (yet on none from the Democratic party). Every day for months, through the miracle (or curse) of the internet, I’ve received appeals, from Vice-President Mike Pence down to candidates and supporters of candidates for the House, Senate and state governor.
Their urgency is increasing. They warn that without my contribution the historic achievements of President Trump will be lost, along with brilliant future he holds in his hands for Americans and their nation. (It’s supposed to be illegal to accept political funds from foreigners, but perhaps the GOP thinks Ontario is just a city in California.)
The appeals often come with a digital clock counting down the seconds to the fateful moment when the polls close and America will be lost or won.
Sunday morning brought a “personal” appeal from Trump himself to rescue Senate candidate Marsha Blackburn from a fate worse than death in Tennessee.
Sorry, Marsha, but I’m going to give him and you a pass.