Across the broad swath of America that will decide the next president, the mood is bleak.
An uncivil war of rhetoric and resentments has scoured the country, unearthing deep ruptures. The candidates are unpopular and disdained for their shortcomings. Voters are fed up, mad at each other and despairing that anything can stem the corrosive animosity that will trail the winner to Washington.
And what happens after Tuesday? Can Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump put a fractured nation back together?
Pennsylvania and Ohio are neighboring states where the two parties held their nominating conventions in July and have bombarded voters ever since, to a sour end.
Along the roughly 380 miles from Pittsburgh to Cleveland to Cincinnati, dismayed voters abound. Ask them if either candidate can restore some tranquility to the country, and they answer as one: It’s hard to see how.
Taysha Jacko can’t even pretend to smile when she ponders the presidential contest at a Halloween festival in Alliance, a railroad-built town in northeast Ohio. She is 22 and, she said with a curt shake of her head, she does not plan to vote. She is sick of it all.
Neither of this year’s options is as appealing as Barack Obama or Bill Clinton, the only politicians she has ever liked. If she did vote, she allowed, it would not be for Trump because he’s said nothing in this long campaign about children, and at least Hillary Clinton has done that.
Almost nothing she can think of would bind the nation’s wounds, except maybe for the candidates to notice people like her, living lives far removed from the bluster of the presidential campaign.
“I just want to hear from somebody, mainly, about the people,” she said. “And what the people want.”
What is that?
“Honesty. Sincerity,” she said. She is not optimistic she’ll get it.
Halfway across the state at a pumpkin patch in rural Ostrander, Crystal Shock’s similar words posed a somber counterpoint to the squeals of children on nearby rides. She and her family have been through the wringer — lost jobs, uncertain housing, enough persistent economic worry that tickets for her four kids, at $12 each, verged on unaffordable.
So how does the next president glue together the shards of a divided America? Crystal looked downcast.
“It’s a struggle to make it every month,” she said. “Come down to our level. Know what it’s like to struggle.”
The presidential campaign eight years ago is forever wrapped in the soaring and optimistic Obama slogan: “Change we can believe in.” This one’s imagery is the detritus of FBI investigations, a candidate’s vulgarities, accusations of dishonesty, racial dog whistles, misogynist insults.
Any campaign belongs to its times, and this one fits squarely into a worldwide dislocation of the masses from the elites — those of governments, businesses, religions, media. In Great Britain, those sentiments led to the vote to leave the European Union. Here, it has helped to fuel Trump’s rise and limit Clinton’s success.
In an October tracking poll by SurveyMonkey, 50% of Americans said that the country was more divided now than ever before and that the splits would persist “far into the future.” Another 30% agreed that America was more divided than ever, but said the nation could knit itself together in the near future.
That left fewer than 1 in 5 people to assert that the country hadn’t actually sunk to its most divided state.
A cycle of distrust has bred pessimism, no matter the improving unemployment rate or other favorable statistics.
“Even when the news is good, people don’t trust it,” said Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford law professor and political scientist who has studied the national mood. The randomness of threatening events — whether economic collapse or terrorism — also “makes people jittery,” he said.
That sense of pessimism and dislocation is particularly strong among America’s shrinking white majority.
“Whites are feeling like the earth is moving beneath their feet. Whether it’s an African American president or immigrants, they feel the meaning of America is changing for them,” he said. “And it’s heaped onto the other insecurities.”
Dave Gedrock was loading campaign signs into his car in Medina, Ohio, a historical town southwest of Cleveland. The attorney blamed Trump’s rise on Republicans such as former House Speaker John A. Boehner, who he thinks “gave Obama everything he wanted” — a characterization Democrats would dispute.
“America’s frustrated,” he said. “It’s a protest. They don’t trust the current politicians, they don’t trust the insiders, and I think that’s why a lot of what Trump says doesn’t come back to bite him.”
Trump, he said, would unite the country as president by making government smaller and reversing policies that are “making it hard for people to make a living.”
Still, Gedrock exemplified another way divisions have deepened this year: Both sides exist in their own bubbles, listening to their own set of truths, repeated by partisans on social media.
He blamed Obama for “apologizing to the Japanese for what happened in World War II, when they started the war.” He said Hillary Clinton supports sharia law, which discriminates against women.
Neither is true. Asked where he’d heard about Clinton’s views on sharia, Gedrock said, “I know I’ve seen it on Facebook.”
Gedrock’s opposite is Sayisha Wall, standing on the bank of the Ohio River in Cincinnati with her daughter Arayanah, excitedly awaiting the start of a Clinton rally.
Wall, a contractor for the IRS, said she doesn’t know anyone who is voting for Trump. “Thank God,” she added.
But while Wall’s political persuasion could not be more different than Gedrock’s, her yearnings sound a lot like his.
“The majority of people are not billionaires, they’re just trying to live and have a good quality of life and raise their kids,” she said. “It’s not even the American dream of having a big house and a fancy car. It’s just being able to pay our bills and be happy. To have a decent life.”
Wall, who is African American, said racial tensions have risen during the campaign. When she went to vote the other day, she said, a man asked her to move her car because he said it was blocking his vehicle, which bore a Trump sticker.
“I said, ‘You have 3 feet in front of me; I don’t need to move my car’,” she recounted. “And I heard him say [the N-word] as he got in the car.”
What can bring them together?
“If she gets in there I’ll have all the hope and the faith in the world. I’ll be able to sleep at night,” she said.
And if Trump wins?
“We’re doomed. We’re doomed. We’re doomed.”
At a convivial street fair in a thriving strip of shops along the Allegheny River in Pittsburgh, Jeanne and Chris Stephens were not feeling doomed. But neither were they thrilled with the presidential race or optimistic about what follows.
Trump and Clinton aren’t talking about climate change or education, Jeanne says, nor about lives like theirs.
“He has a great software job,” she said, pointing to her husband. “I’m a lawyer. And we’re still fighting [to get into the] middle class. And the more money we make — I don’t mind paying the taxes, but you still feel like you really can’t get ahead. And I have student loans. I’m 40 now, and I have six figures in student loans still.”
She is not confident that anything will improve if Clinton is elected, “because so many people hate her, so politically it’s going to be a stalemate.” But she cannot abide Trump.
“I’ll vote for Hillary because I have no other choice,” Jeanne says. “I’m voting for her to vote against Trump.”
A dozen miles from downtown Pittsburgh on a Friday night, a high school football stadium was the place to hear impassioned calls for cooperation once the long election is over.
The Central Catholic High School Vikings were heavily favored over the home-field Penn Hills Indians, the team for which Tony Allen’s son, Joshua, plays defensive end. Tony, who was setting up to record the game, is a rare voter who thinks America will find itself if people just back off enough to let it.
Any sort of coalescing, however, will have to be neighbor to neighbor, bottom-up and not top down, negotiated by people like him, not dictated by the new president, Allen said.
He has watched as friendships have broken up over this election. “Facebook is a mess” of political feuds, he said.
“We are allowing this election to divide us. Why?” he asked. Whoever wins needs to deliver a simple message: “All the hype is over. We need to work together, to come together as a country.”
A few rows up and to the right is Bill Rielly, a Central Catholic fan, real estate appraiser and Democrat-turned-Republican.
“I figure I’m a moderate conservative, and I don’t know that anybody’s moderate anymore,” he says, gently mocking his position: “If you’re not one way or the other, there’s something wrong with you.”
A friend wanders by and overhears the political talk. “Who ya voting for, Bill?”
“Well I’m not voting for Hillary, Frank,” Rielly replies.
Rielly turns to back to the conversation.
“ I didn’t say I was voting for Trump. I said I’m not voting for Hillary. ... Nobody wants to admit it. I think the Republicans are embarrassed. But by the same token, nobody wants her.”
Once it’s all over, he wants the same thing that Tony Allen and the Stephenses and all the others want, regardless of their candidate, except that no one really seems to know how to get there.
“I hope the country comes together,” he said. “I think it’s been a polarizing election. I don’t think anybody likes the two candidates.”
Then he repeated : “This country needs to come together.”