In the US mid-term elections, voters will face a choice between “the narrow nationalism and anarchic chaos of lyin’ Donald Trump” and the “imperfect but largely well-intentioned progress” offered by the Democrats, argues Susan Dalgety.
Our journey round the United States has come to a temporary halt.
Our trusty van – our home for the last six months – is parked in the driveway of a modest 1950s bungalow in a modest suburb of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.
Instead of exploring the local tourist hotspots, we will spend the next ten days pounding the city’s streets, knocking on strangers’ doors, exhorting them to vote on 6 November, in what many say is the most important US election for generations.
We have joined the campaign to elect Democrat Susan Wild as the next congressional representative for the Lehigh County district, home to 700,000 folk. It will be a close race between her and the Republican candidate, a former Olympic gold medallist, but we are ready for the challenge. We have our clipboards and marker pens. We have stocked up on energy bars and cheap red wine. We even have his and hers t-shirts bearing the legend: “A wild woman belongs in the House”. What we did not anticipate was a terror campaign.
Just as we entered the former shop that is now Susan Wild’s HQ for the first time, news broke of a bomb scare. Rudimentary but deadly devices had been sent to a number of household names.
The list of recipients reads like a Who’s Who of President Trump’s most wanted: Hillary and Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, Joe Biden, Robert De Niro and, of course, “fake news” CNN.
A country that is already divided by politics is now intimidated by a home-grown terrorist.
“As a person, I am great,” said Hillary Clinton in response to the threat against her and her husband’s life. But she’s not so sure about her country. “It is a troubling time, isn’t it? It’s a time of deep divisions and we have to do everything we can to bring our country together. We also have to elect candidates who will try to do the same.”
Even Donald Trump realised that this was not politics as usual, and has been doing his best to be “nice” during his campaign stops. “We want all sides to come together in peace and harmony,” he said on Wednesday night, and then immediately attacked the media for their “endless hostility”.
Only time will tell if Trump can maintain this air of civility until 6 November, or if he will retreat to his comfort zone of bullying and intimidation, underpinned by shameless lies. My money is on the latter.
This is not our first foray into American politics. We were volunteers in the Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012, each time in Bethlehem. We have grown to love this former steel town, which sits just a few miles north of Philadelphia.
The giant blast furnaces of Bethlehem Steel, lit for the last time in 1995, still tower over the city, a poignant reminder of the region’s industrial heritage.
In 1873, Bethlehem produced the first steel rails for the railroads that opened up the country, from east to west. Bethlehem steel was used to build some of America’s most iconic landmarks including New York’s Chrysler building, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, and Madison Square Gardens.
It was the country’s second largest steel manufacturer, after US Steel, with each of its five furnaces producing up to 3,000 tons of iron a day. It was a powerful symbol of America’s industrial might.
It is now significant example of its industrial decline. Cheap imported steel and a poor management forced the company into bankruptcy in 2001. Thousands of jobs disappeared, and, with them, a little bit of America’s soul died.
Today, the mill is home to Steel Stacks, an arts and music campus that offers more than 1,000 concerts a year, and the country’s largest free music festival. And next door sits Sands Casino, where, in a few days’ time, one of our musical heroes, Elvis Costello, will appear.
I have written before of the serendipity of travel, and this concert is just another in a long line of happy coincidences that have enriched our US road trip. For a few hours next Friday night, we can lose ourselves in the music, before the rigours of ‘Get Out the Vote’ (GOTV) begin in earnest on the following Saturday morning.
This four-day period up to, and including, election day, is the most crucial in any election campaign. The time for persuasion is over. The priority now is to get your side’s supporters to the ballot box.
Americans are reluctant voters. Even the razzle dazzle of a presidential campaign cannot persuade more than 60 per cent of the electorate to make the effort.
And the last mid-term elections, in 2014, hit an all-time low with only a 36.6 per cent turnout, the lowest in a mid-term since World War II.
Early indications suggest that 2018 could buck the trend. Some states have a phenomenon called early voting, where people can cast their ballot up to two weeks before election day.
This election has seen a surge of early voters which has led some polling experts to suggest that there could be a big turnout come 6 November.
Speaking to the New York Times earlier this week, Professor Michael McDonald, of the University of Florida, said: “If these patterns persist, we could see a turnout rate at least equalling the turnout rate in 1966, which was 48 per cent, and if we beat that then you have to go all the way back to 1914, when the turnout rate was 51 per cent.”
“We could be looking at a turnout rate that virtually no one has ever experienced,” he added.
There is no early voting in Pennsylvania, so we will have to wait until election day to find out whether our Get Out The Vote campaign has worked.
“Is that the Democrat?” asked one man, resplendent in a pumpkin orange Halloween t-shirt, when I knocked on his door two days ago.
“Yes,” I said, nervously, unsure of his reaction.
“Right, I am voting for him, her, whoever it is,” he barked, as I handed him a Susan Wild leaflet. “I ain’t voting for those Republicans, and ... him. Anyone but him,” as he closed the screen door in my face.
These elections are all about him. About the man who has divided America as no other President in living memory has split the nation.
In ten days’ time, America will choose between the narrow nationalism and anarchic chaos of lyin’ Donald Trump, or the imperfect, but largely well-intentioned, progress offered by the Democrats.
Never has those four days of Get Out The Vote mattered so much.