On a blanket spread over concrete slabs, seven-year-old Hector Ramos crouches over a map of Central America, tracing a line from his home in Guatemala up the length of Mexico to the US border.
All around him, filling the square of a southern Mexican border town, hundreds of other blankets and tarps form a quilt of families on the move, dotted with pushchairs, backpacks, sleeping bags and suitcases.
With his mother, Sara, and eight other family members, including a baby just a few months old, Hector set out in search of a new life free from the poverty and gang violence of his homeland.
Over the past few weeks, along with up to 7,000 others from Guatemala and Honduras, they have walked hundreds of miles along highways and dirt paths, clinging to flatbed lorries and crossing rivers on rafts made of boards lashed to rubber rings.
More of the same lies ahead; and if they make it the thousand or so miles through Mexico to the US, the odds are that some will be abused, taken advantage of, robbed, beaten or arrested along the way.
With his map, Hector is keeping track of where he and his family are going – but few of his companions in the so-called “migrant caravan” will be aware that an entire nation is keeping track of them.
Unknowingly, they have become the focus of an election like no other in modern US history, as the American people prepare to deliver their first verdict on two tempestuous years under Donald Trump.
Going to the polls
In every state of the Union, Americans go to the polls on Tuesday to send new Representatives and Senators to Congress in Washington DC. In an atmosphere poisoned and polarised by rhetoric and acts of violence, their judgment will have profound repercussions.
Maintaining Republican control of both the Senate and the House of Representatives would herald an era of unprecedented power for the right in American politics.
The bruising confirmation of Brett Kavanaugh was the culmination of a decades-long project to secure a conservative majority on the Supreme Court that is set to endure for decades. A Republican victory this week could bring all three branches of the US government into lockstep and give President Donald Trump the opportunity to enact his platform, virtually unchallenged.
No wonder that the campaign has brought Barack Obama out of semi-retirement and back into the political fray. The former president told a rally in Wisconsin last week that these Midterms “might be the most important election of our lifetimes”. Revenge
Still wounded by their defeat two years ago, Democrats are desperate to take revenge for Trump’s victory. Polls suggest they have a good chance of taking control of the House of Representatives; a survey by the Washington Post last week gave the Democrats a 3 per cent lead across the 69 most competitive races.
But the Democrats rely on the support of under-40s and minorities, two groups that don’t traditionally make it to the polls in strength. Early voting tallies are set to break records, but turnout at Midterms is crushingly low: just 36.4 per cent voted four years ago, the lowest figure in more than 70 years, helping to put the Republicans in control of both houses of Congress.
“The consequences of anyone sitting out of the election are profound,” Obama admonished the crowd in Milwaukee. “The stakes really are that high.”
The pressure has forced other voices on to the political stage for the first time. “In the past I’ve been reluctant to publicly voice my political opinions,” the pop star Taylor Swift posted on Instagram last month, “but due to several events in my life and in the world in the past two years, I feel very differently about that now.”
With a passionate defence of LGBT rights and an attack on “terrifying, sickening” racism in American society, Swift endorsed Democratic candidates in her home state of Tennessee and appealed to her fans to register.
The current occupant of the White House has been busy firing up his own supporters. This election takes place against the backdrop of a buoyant economy, with wages growing at a rate of 3.1 per cent and a quarter of a million jobs being added in October. President Trump has nonetheless embraced every opportunity to make the campaign about national issues that inflame the already deep divisions between Americans.
“This will be an election of Kavanaugh, the caravan, law and order and common sense,” he told a rally in Montana in last month. Chief amongst the “wedge issues” has been immigration. Trump launched his presidential campaign with his infamous description of Mexican immigrants as rapists; from the “big, beautiful wall”, to the legally contentious travel ban affecting predominantly Muslim-majority countries, to the separation of thousands of children from their parents at the Mexican border, his dramatic policy interventions have done the most to define his presidency.
In that sense, the Central American “caravan” has been a gift in the final weeks of the midterm campaign.
Trump has told supporters that the column of migrants includes “criminals and unknown Middle Easterners”, and is sending at least 5,200 troops – more than twice as many as are fighting in Syria – to protect the border from a group of people who are still weeks away. Cable news channels responded by devoting wall-to-wall coverage to them, with commentators describing it as an “invasion” that threatens national security; one suggested migrants would carry leprosy into the US.
In reality, while the number of people arriving at the border this year from Central America is up by around 30 per cent, thousands have arrived in every year. But the issue cuts through with voters: the same Washington Post poll found that 54 per cent of respondents believe the government should do more to stop illegal immigration.
In the final days of the campaign, Trump has doubled down on his strategy, releasing a campaign video featuring Luis Bracamontes, a Mexican man deported from the US who returned and murdered two police officers in California. “I’m going to kill more cops soon,” Bracamontes says in the clip, followed by image of the migrant caravan, with the captions: “Democrats let him into our country… Who else would Democrats let in?”
Critics have condemned the message as race-baiting, and the worst example of negative political campaigning since the infamous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign. It helped end the challenge of Democratic nominee Michael Dukakis, blaming the Massachusetts governor for a rape committed by a black convicted murderer while on furlough from prison.
The ad 30 years ago was unofficial, produced by a third party; the one tweeted by Trump was signed off by the Republicans.
Meanwhile, the man charged with killing 11 people at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh was found to have embraced conspiracy theories around immigration, posting on social media shortly before the shooting that Jewish refugee relief groups “bring invaders in that kill our people”.
Even before the campaign began, these Midterms delivered a seismic shift as Democrats confronted their worst defeat in generations. How could they re-engage with voters turned off by Hillary Clinton’s campaign for the White House?
One answer has already been delivered, and confirming it on election day should be a formality. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is all but guaranteed to become the youngest woman ever elected to the House of Representatives. Her battle was fought and won when the 29-year-old, who last year was making cocktails in a Brooklyn bar to pay the bills, shocked the Democratic establishment by winning selection as the candidate in New York’s 14th congressional district.
To do so, Ocasio-Cortez ousted the so-called “King of Queens”, 10-term congressman Joe Crowley, who had been expected to take over the Democratic leadership in the House of Representatives. The stunning upset was fuelled by a message that politics had grown too distant from the people it was supposed to serve, and a willingness to embrace policies that are at the centre of British debate, but have been too extreme for many Democrats: free healthcare for all, free tuition in university, and the abolition of the immigration police force, ICE.
Ocasio-Cortez may be the best example of how Bernie Sanders’ left-wing challenge for the 2016 Democratic nomination has reverberated through the party, but she isn’t the only standard-bearer for a new generation of candidates. In Michigan, Rashida Tlaib is seeking to become the first Muslim woman elected to Congress; in Kentucky, the first women fighter pilot in the US Marines, Amy McGrath, beat a party-backed candidate; in Texas, Beto O’Rourke is taking on Ted Cruz in a tough Senate race with a message of “Medicare for All”. For the first time, white men are in a minority on the Democratic slate for the House of Representatives.
But it’s away from Washington and out of the national and international spotlight that some of the most defining political shifts could take place. In the Deep South, two states could get their first black governors – Stacey Abrams in Georgia and Andrew Gillum in Florida both have ties to the left of the Democratic Party – but the impact of local statewide contests is more than just symbolic.
The Midterms also encompass elections to 87 out of the 99 state legislatures across the US, and this year’s votes will shape American politics for a decade. They are the last to take place before the 2020 US census, which will trigger a national redrawing of electoral districts.
Most states give legislatures and governors control of the process, leaving it open to gerrymandering, where electorates are carved up to benefit the party in power.
With politics so starkly divided, this is often done on racial lines. Recent Supreme Court rulings have also given states greater freedom to set laws that restrict voting rights – a measure historically also used to disenfranchise minorities. More than six million mostly black votes are thought to be missing.
As part of his onslaught over the migrant caravan, President Trump claimed he would sign an executive order revoking the right to citizenship granted to anyone born in the US. The president was claiming a power he doesn’t have: birthright citizenship is enshrined in Article 14 of the US Constitution, enacted to ensure that the children of freed slaves were not denied their rights because their parents were once someone else’s property. It can’t be signed away.
However, growing Republican dominance in the “red states” of middle America means that could change. The party controls 31 out of 50 state houses. To trigger a constitutional convention, approval is needed from 34 legislatures, and 38 must ratify an amendment to make it law. It’s conceivable that within the scope of a two-term presidency, Trump could secure the power to change the constitution and strip millions of second generation immigrants of their citizenship.
Throughout the campaign, much of the focus has been on the chances of a “Blue Wave”, but low turnout and fired-up Trump supporters could still deliver a Democratic defeat as unexpected as two years ago.
It would herald renewed efforts to dismantle president Obama’s healthcare legislation, further rolling back of environmental regulations, a bid to strip transgender Americans of their legal status, and would make it much easier for President Trump to shut down Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election.
More significantly, though, it would be a validation of Trump and his methods, and confirm the Democrats’ worst fear: that two years on from the presidential election, they still don’t have a winning strategy to take on the politics of fear, resentment and division that have consumed America.