It’s been 576 days since Hillary Clinton announced her candidacy with a YouTube video and 511 days since Donald Trump rode down that escalator, and for many Americans it has felt like much longer. The end is here, at last—though many Americans on either side seem to feel that the result tonight won’t be just the culmination of the presidential campaign, but the end of the American way of life as they know it.
Sometime this evening, barring a freak occurrence like an Electoral College tie or a 2000-style recount, either Democrat Hillary Clinton or Republican Donald Trump will be president-elect. Most of the data point to a Clinton win. The Democrat has led polls consistently throughout the race except for a brief period immediately following the Republican National Convention. But in the last weeks of the campaign, the gap between them has narrowed, with Trump developing a narrow but real path to victory.
The eyes of the world will be on North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida tonight. In order to prevail, Trump will likely have to win every state that Republican Mitt Romney won in his losing effort four years ago, a group that includes the hotly contested Tar Heel State but not the other two, which both voted for Obama twice. From there, Trump has a few possibilities. He has to win Pennsylvania; or a combination of Nevada, Iowa, New Hampshire, and Maine’s second congressional district; or Iowa, Nevada, and some other unexpected state, like Colorado, Michigan, New Mexico, Virginia, and Wisconsin, all of which have polled in Clinton’s camp.
This election is a meeting between two candidates who are widely unpopular with the electorate. Clinton seemed, for years, inevitable as the nominee, despite her legions of critics and a stiff primary challenge from Senator Bernie Sanders. The nomination of the other candidate, Trump, seemed impossible, yet the businessman and entertainer managed to emerge from a crowded pack of experienced Republican politicians despite no experience and a passel of personally liabilities. For most intents and purposes, the vice-presidential nominees—Governor Mike Pence of Indiana for Trump and Senator Tim Kaine of Virginia for Clinton—have not factored into the race.
More than most presidential elections, this contest pits two radically different approaches to government against each other. Clinton would become the first woman president, following 43 men, in 240 years of U.S. history, but in most other ways she epitomizes the status quo: A former senator and secretary of state, she is the wife of a former president and has promised on the stump to continue the legacy of her predecessor, Barack Obama. Opposing her is Trump, a man who represents not just a radical break with the current direction of the United States but even with his own party. Trump has overturned Republican doctrine on free trade, abandoned party efforts to reach out to Hispanics, African Americans, and women, and threatened to abandon long-held U.S. doctrine on defense and international alliances.
Yet the two candidates don’t just present two different philosophies of governance—they also represent two diametrically opposed styles of campaigning. Clinton has run a big campaign, with a huge fundraising operation, a large staff, and a sprawling organization in the states. Trump, by contrast, has run a highly unorthodox campaign. He waited for months to begin raising money, and still lags far behind his rival. He has run a lean operation, with minimal staff and frequent turnover, remaining personally involved in all decisions. Trump’s campaign poses a test not only to the status quo but to the conventional wisdom about how candidates run for office. It also remains unclear whether he has a serious data or get-out-the-vote operation; its absence could tip closely contested swing states.
The only reason Trump remains competitive is the strong support he enjoys among white people without college degrees, and particularly men. Following the 2012 election, many Republicans argued that their party could only survive by better courting minorities, particularly blacks and Hispanics, and women. Instead, Trump has led the party in the opposite direction, demonizing immigrants, insulting blacks, and alienating women. Trump’s fortunes are a test for whether a largely white party can still win an election, while Clinton’s fortunes will depend in large part on turnout among black and Hispanic voters.
Voters aren’t just choosing the next inhabitant of the White House—they’re also deciding who will control Congress. Most of the drama is on the Senate side, where Democrats need to win at least five seats—or four, good for a 50-50 tie, if a Clinton win installs her running mate Tim Kaine as the tiebreaking vote—to regain control. Most forecasters have the battle for control of the Senate race as a toss-up. Democrats’ best hopes for takeovers are in Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. They are also seeking to knock out incumbents in Missouri, North Carolina, Indiana, and New Hampshire, but optimism for a pickup in Florida has mostly faded since Senator Marco Rubio reversed course and chose to run for reelection. Republicans are seeking to hold all of those seats and swipe a Democratic seat in Nevada, where Minority Leader Harry Reid is retiring.
For a time, Democrats also dreamt of winning the House. Today, the 38-seat swing necessary for that to happen seems unrealistic. It would require an unforeseen blue wave to achieve that margin, meaning that even if Democrats win the White House and Senate, a President Hillary Clinton would have to contend with a divided Congress. If Trump wins, by contrast, he would likely head to Washington with Republicans controlling both houses of Congress. Whether that would translate into unity is a different question. Speaker Paul Ryan has backed Trump, but with notable hesitation, and some pro-Trump Republicans have suggested trying to topple the speaker.
Several state houses are up for grabs, and there are important gubernatorial elections in Missouri, Montana, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Vermont, and West Virginia. There are also hotly contested ballot measures around the country. The election could witness a huge shift in state policy on recreational marijuana use. Four states and the District of Columbia currently allow it, but voters in Arizona, California, Maine, Massachusetts, and Nevada will decide on their own referenda Tuesday. (Legalization has depended on the federal government’s tacit tolerance, though how the next president might view such laws is unclear.) Several other states are considering medical-marijuana laws.
Despite the traditional drama of Election Day, more than 40 million people—around a third of the total popular vote in 2012—had already voted when the polls opened this morning. Meanwhile, the hardest work for either a President Clinton or a President Trump will come once the confetti has been swept up and the balloons dropped, as the new commander in chief confronts the task of governing and uniting the nation after one of the nastiest, most fractious campaigns in memory.