WASHINGTON — Voters aren’t just choosing the next president on Tuesday. They’re mercifully putting the most emotionally draining and overwrought campaign in decades out of its misery.
A White House battle fought not over the direction of the nation but through blistering character attacks is triggering extreme emotions in the final days of the race.
The 2016 campaign has been dominated by explicit sexual content and racially charged rhetoric. Fuming crowds at Donald Trump’s rallies harness their hatred of Hillary Clinton with the chant, “Lock her up.” Clinton, meanwhile, depicts a Trump victory as an apocalyptic event.
No wonder the country is at the end of its rope.
“At this point we are all boiled frogs. We are wondering why our skin is falling off,” said Tommy Vietor, who worked for Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign and in the White House and now co-hosts the “Keeping it 1600” podcast. “I think when this election ends and people stop for a minute and people actually reflect, they will realize how insane and horrible and unprecedented it really was.”
Election obsession syndrome is taking hold of the country. Its main symptoms are soaring ratings for cable news shows and frequent refreshing of polling and election forecasting websites. With Clinton’s lead over Trump in battleground states shrinking in the final stretch, the next two days promise to be even more nerve-wracking as both sides angle for victory.
The cover of next week’s New Yorker sums up the brittle national mood — especially among fretful liberals — picturing a man on a train reading a newspaper with the headlines “Oh Sweet Jesus, Please God No,” and “Anything But That.”
Even “Saturday Night Live” has had enough. During the opening sketch Saturday, Alec Baldwin broke out of his Trump impression and turned to Kate McKinnon, who plays Clinton, and said: “I’m sorry, Kate. I just hate yelling this stuff at you like this.”
“Yes, I know, right?” she answered. “This whole election has been so mean.”
“I just feel gross all the time. Don’t you guys feel gross all the time about this?” Baldwin asked the audience.
The pair then ran outside the studio. Baldwin hugged an African-American man and McKinnon embraced a man with a “Make America Great Again” hat who gave her a piggy-back ride while she ate cotton candy. It was a cathartic moment meant to celebrate the diversity of American life.
Anxiety among Democrats
Among Democrats, there is a palpable sense of intense anxiety about Clinton’s prospects. Her campaign was rocked when FBI Director James Comey revived her email controversy, triggering growing concern that Trump could win.
“Every Democrat I know right now is checking the validity of their passports,” CNN commentator Van Jones said Friday on “Erin Burnett OutFront.”
For his part, Trump has shown remarkable discipline over the past week, further unnerving Democrats who are used to baiting him into a meltdown.
Conservative talk radio icon Rush Limbaugh crowed this week that “we have panic starting to set in in the Democrat Party and in the Drive-By Media.”
On Friday, CNN modified its projected electoral map, for the first time putting Clinton’s current total of electoral votes below the magic number of 270.
The Twitter account of David Plouffe, the former Obama election guru, has become a source of free therapy for nervous Democrats.
“Clinton path to 300+ rock solid. Structure of race not affected by Comey’s reckless irresponsibility. Vote and volunteer, don’t fret or wet,” Plouffe tweeted on October 30.
One Democrat who is not panicking is Clinton herself.
“Here she is, the biggest event in the history of this country potentially and she’s calm and collected. She’s focused,” billionaire and Clinton supporter Mark Cuban told reporters Friday. “I’ve been around situations when people are anxious. You see people choke. Look, she’s confident. She’s good.”
Despite the tightening race, Clinton’s campaign remains convinced that her advantage on the electoral map will hold and she will prevail on Tuesday. But that’s unlikely to calm everybody down.
“Both Democrats and Republicans are really worked up,” said Sam Wang, who runs the Princeton Election Consortium and questions whether the emotions whipped up by the race are justified by the facts of the election.
‘Separate the drama from the data’
“In my own mind, I try to separate the drama from the data. Early this season, I noticed that no matter what happened, opinion didn’t move that much,” Wang said in an e-chat on CNN.com this week. “The race has shown less variation than ever in the history of presidential polling. It made me realize that the race probably wasn’t going anywhere. But when was the last time a presidential race was this emotional?”
Vietor agrees that the level of emotional involvement is out of whack with what has been an unusually stable race that has not been permanently shaken by even stunning events like Clinton’s fainting spell in September or the release of an “Access Hollywood” tape in which Trump is heard making sexually aggressive remarks.
“It does feel like every day something is said or done that in another election would be a blockbuster or game changing story,” Vietor said. But in this race, “it feels like the half life of any major story is five days.”
The election was always going to be an emotional roller coaster, given the candidates.
In Clinton and Trump, their parties nominated the two candidates most guaranteed to cause the maximum amount of alienation on the other side.
Trump is so far outside the normal parameters of what is accepted behavior for a potential president, firing off conspiracy theories and outright falsehoods in his stump speeches, it is not surprising he rouses fierce emotions. The Republican nominee has deliberately stoked anger, grievances and grass roots fury, using demagogic techniques to power his anti-establishment campaign.
His presidency would in many ways be a leap into the unknown for America and the world — so heightened concern is inevitable.
But Trump is not the only candidate who evokes strong feelings.
For more than a quarter of a century, Clinton has been one of the most polarizing personalities in American politics. While Trump has gone further than most of her other critics in openly branding her a crook, the intensity of feeling towards her among conservatives is visceral.
The candidates are doing nothing to calm things down — seeing raging emotions as a tool to get their base voters to the polls.
“I think this will be the last election if I don’t win. I think this will be the last election that the Republicans have a chance of winning,” Trump told David Brody of the Christian Broadcasting Network in September, warning Democrats would naturalize millions of illegal immigrants to swamp the voting rolls.
Clinton warns Trump could incite Armageddon.
“Think about what it would mean to entrust the nuclear codes to someone. with a very thin skin, who lashes out at anyone who challenges him,” she said in Pittsburgh on Friday. “Imagine how easily it could be that Donald Trump would feel insulted and start a real war — not just a Twitter war — at three in the morning.”
Obama went even further this week warning during a campaign trip, “the fate of the world is teetering and you, North Carolina, are going to have to make sure that we push it in the right direction.”
Given the intensity of the feelings, it’s unlikely that the fury stoked by this election will quickly dissipate after Tuesday. It will likely be a powerful force in shaping the presidency of whoever wins.
But one longtime Washington sage, Charlie Cook, has a message for a divided nation in his latest National Journal column: Take a breath.
“My advice is for folks to ease off the caffeine, maybe watch less television news, take in a movie, play a round of golf, or do whatever lowers their blood pressure and preserves their sanity,” Cook wrote. “This country has survived a lot, and it will still stand tall whatever happens on Tuesday.”