An Election About Everything

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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In 2014, pundits, strategists and reporters dubbed the midterms the “Seinfeld election” — as in, an election about nothing.

Those midterms, the thinking went, had no overriding theme, no sweeping Democratic plan for the middle class, no big G.O.P. proposal to slash spending.

(Also, it gave everyone an excuse to link to old Seinfeld clips, because, really, who doesn’t love a Seinfeld clip?)

Four years later, the exact opposite feels true: President Trump has turned 2018 into an unpredictable, and often uncomfortable, election about the most divisive issues in American life.

The past two weeks have only served to underscore that intensity.

Let’s recap: On Friday, Cesar Sayoc Jr. was charged with sending explosive devices to at least a dozen Democrats and CNN. On Saturday, Robert Bowers was charged in the horrific massacre at a Pittsburgh synagogue. On Wednesday, Gregory Bush was charged with murder after fatally shooting two black seniors at a Kroger store near Louisville, Ky., after first trying to get inside a black church. And before that, of course, there was the hurricane in Florida, the migrant caravan and the killing of the Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi.

We know late-breaking events can swing elections (see: Comey, James; and a long list of other October surprises). But in this case, it’s hard to know exactly what — if anything — the impact will be.

Traditionally, this kind of unrest should play to Republicans, who have long positioned themselves as the party of law and order. And, typically, the incumbent party benefits during national crises.

But that’s assuming the White House is handling the sense of anxiety in a unifying way. In the 48 hours after the synagogue shooting, Mr. Trump did not do any of the things Americans expect of their presidents in these kind of moments. He did not deliver an address calling for harmony, meet with faith leaders, introduce new policies or console the victims. In fact, he didn’t even pause his campaign, the standard response to tragedy.

On Monday afternoon, the White House press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders announced that Mr. Trump and his wife would travel to Pittsburgh to meet with the Jewish community — but she blamed the media for the toxic political climate that led to the attack.

That leaves us in fairly uncharted waters, politically. It’s part of the reason that strategists from both parties are urging candidates to stick to their messages.

Meanwhile, in interviews with The New York Times, many voters have seemed to retreat even more into their corners as a result of the discord.

In Houston, Democratic volunteers told our Texas correspondent, Manny Fernandez, that recent events have been a source of sadness, anger and what one volunteer described as “renewing the spirit to work harder.”

“It’s instilling a very strong sense of urgency, that we must have leaders who symbolize respect, integrity and honesty,” said Nancy Nichols, a volunteer for the Democratic Senate candidate Beto O’Rourke in the East Texas city of Tyler.

But will these past few weeks drive even more Democrats to the polls? Or remind those all-important suburban women of the kind of divisive rhetoric they don’t particularly like to hear from the president? Or convince Republicans that the president is being treated unfairly by the media?

We are making no predictions, beyond what we said last week: expect surprises. You’d be wise to keep that in mind next time someone — on cable news or at the water cooler — tries to tell you they’ve got…

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