The last 10 days of the campaign
Until Friday, Trump felt he was on the verge of pulling off another stupendous upset – keeping both the House and Senate in Republican hands – and therefore banking, once again, what the pundits have deemed an impossible win. You could feel it: Trump in his element at his rallies, the wanton pugilism to his opponents – principally Democrats and the media – all designed to lock up that base, with a strong economy buttressing the all-important Trump approval ratings, which have notched upwards.
Suddenly, the midterms have become very complicated.
Just as in October 2016 when then-FBI Director James Comey issued public statements regarding the investigations into Hillary Clinton (which clearly impacted her effort to close out a victory) outside forces have intervened. There's the serial parcel bomber, the horrific mass murders of Jews at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and thousands of immigrants marching through Mexico, seeking refuge in the United States. The first two events have now begun to cut against Trump and have slowed his momentum. The latter is hurting Democrats by playing on what we know in Australia all too well: hysteria over the prospect of waves of immigrants reaching our shores.
How are these developments going to play out in the last 10 days of campaign 2018?
1. Domestic terrorism has detonated a reaction against Trump and his base
You know Trump is agitated when he is tweeting at 3.18am against the mainstream media and its coverage. In a tense and anxious electorate, the mail bomber played on a pervasive anxiety, and many commentators saw a link to Trump’s excoriating calls disparaging all major Democratic leaders – from President Obama on down - in the most uncivil terms (and that’s putting it kindly).
The mass shooting in the synagogue in Pittsburgh on Saturday contributes an added element of fear that the social fabric is unravelling and a sense that the country is headed in the wrong direction. Millions of pennies dropped, and the blanket media coverage of the bomber and the synagogue murders meant that Trump and his messages were relegated to second place. Together, these events are feeding a closer re-assessment of Trump by voters just as they prepare to cast their ballots.
The bomber, together with the incident Pittsburgh, feeds Americans' concern that Trump is encouraging the kind of extremism that is dividing the country. If so, this may well help keep independent and moderate Republican voters away from voting for Trump and more open to voting Democrat.
2. The immigrants marching through Mexico help Trump
The refugees transiting Mexico may be 1000 miles and weeks away from reaching the Texas, but the military forces Trump ordered to the border will shortly be on duty. It is likely election day will come before there is any direct confrontation as the refugees move to seek asylum in the United States, and therefore no scenes of armed soldiers forcibly turning back refugees.
This means that the fear factor Trump has whipped up against the immigrants can reach maximum force. This is potent stuff. Trump will give a speech on immigration on Tuesday, perhaps sealing the border to prevent refugees from reaching US territory to claim asylum. The politics of the caravan stiffen the spine of Trump voters whose fear is economic insecurity driven by migrants taking their jobs.
3. Trump's game plan
You can tell where a race is contested by where the president – any president – chooses to campaign in the final days. For Trump, it is in the red states he carried in 2016, and he will have 10 rallies in the last 11 days, from Ohio to Montana to Florida and others in-between. This suggests a determination to absolutely lock up the Senate for the Republicans. It's also a tacit acknowledgement, by not campaigning in the swing suburban districts where Republican House seats will be flipped, that the House will go Democratic.
The strong economic growth numbers – 3.5 per cent – are blunted politically to a degree by the volatility in the markets. The aftermath of the murder of Jamal Khashoggi and the impending summit with Putin are enormously important, but not vote changers. Further numbers on Trump’s approval rating will be a barometer of where sentiment is shifting these last days
4. This week’s cautionary tale
In these last days of the campaign, Trump is stumping with the promise of keeping coverage, under Obamacare, for those with pre-existing conditions – and baldly asserting that Democrats are against it. (Untrue). Enormously popular, but those with good memories know that every Republican vote to repeal Obamacare removed that guarantee. So, if the Democrats do win the House, one of the first bills they pass will be to strengthen the coverage for pre-existing conditions. Trump will be under enormous pressure from Republicans who hate Obamacare to oppose it. Given Trump himself repeatedly calls it a “disaster”, he will.