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The big picture as voting draws to a close

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

While some reporters are out at polling places today asking about specific issues, national political correspondent Mara Liasson is looking at the big picture. Hey, Mara.

MARA LIASSON, BYLINE: Hi there, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So what are some of the big questions that this election will answer?

LIASSON: One of the questions is, how powerful are the fundamentals? You know, we know that normally the party out of power has the advantage - in this case, the Republicans. We know the president is unpopular. That's an important fundamental. We know that inflation is really bad, and there are widespread concerns about the economy. But will those fundamentals work against the Democrats, or are we so tribalized and polarized that they won't work as strongly? Another big question, especially for the Senate races, concerns what Mitch McConnell has called candidate quality. There are several Republican Senate candidates who have had personal problems and scandals - for example, Georgia Republican Senate candidate Herschel Walker. There are other candidates who have very low favorability ratings. That's Mehmet Oz, the Republican running for the Senate in Pennsylvania. But both Oz and Walker are still favored in the polls by a tiny bit.

So the question is - voters have told pollsters - 63% of Democrats and Republicans - that they'll stick with their candidate even if they have personal or moral failings. We'll see if that works out tonight. And then the last thing we're going to find out about is whether the historical trend that all - most toss-up races, within two points in the polls, tend to swing in one direction at the end. There are a lot of toss-up races tonight. They've been heading in the Republican direction. The question is, will they all break in that direction?

SHAPIRO: You described the reasons that historical trends would be expected to favor Republicans tonight. If that holds, what kind of gains should we expect the GOP to make?

LIASSON: Well, in the House, I think if Democrats can keep GOP gains to 20 or less, that will be a very good night for Democrats. Anything between 20 and 30 would be a kind of normal midterm. I think if you get over 40, it would be a real Republican blowout. And then, of course, for the Senate, big question is whether Democrats can hang on. They can only afford to lose one net seat.

SHAPIRO: Do you think we're actually going to know the outcome tonight?

LIASSON: No, we won't. And that's something that people should really understand. Patience is our message. It could take a week. It could take longer than that. There are a lot of states that don't allow the counting of mail-in ballots until Election Day or later. So we might be waiting for the results for quite some time. But there also might be runoff elections.

SHAPIRO: And in the meantime, what kind of tea leaves are you going to be trying to read?

LIASSON: Well, I think there are a couple of things I'm watching for tonight. First of all, will there be an Election Day red tsunami? We know that more Democrats vote early. More Republicans vote on Election Day. Former President Trump has asked Republicans to wait until today to vote. Democrats have been pretty happy with their early voting turnout in a lot of states. But the question is, will Republican Election Day turnout swamp that? The other thing I'm watching is some House races that will report early, like in the state of Virginia. If a Democratic representative like Abigail Spanberger gets swept away from her very blue seat, we'll know that the night is going to look pretty ugly for Democrats. And like everyone else, I'm also watching for how much chaos will there be at polling places. Are voters being challenged and turned away? That's something that I'm watching for.

SHAPIRO: There's something that President Biden has been saying on the campaign trail a lot, which other presidents before him have said. Here's how he put it last week when he was campaigning in San Diego for Representative Mike Levin.

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PRES JOE BIDEN: Five days.

(APPLAUSE)

BIDEN: Five days until one of the most important elections in our lifetime.

SHAPIRO: One of the most important elections in our lifetime, he says. How high would you say the stakes are tonight?

LIASSON: Well, you know, every president says every single election is the most important election in our lifetime.

SHAPIRO: Right.

LIASSON: But I think the stakes are pretty high because it's not just about divided government and the fate of Biden's agenda. But there are at least 345 Republican candidates on the ballot who have said that the 2020 election was stolen. More than half of those candidates have a good chance of winning. Very few of them have said they would accept the results of the election if they're not declared the winner. And that, I think, is - means the stakes are very high for democracy. Donald Trump has a playbook for this. He's already saying the vote is rigged in Pennsylvania. But the playbook is simply call for the count to be stopped after Election Day, especially if Republicans are ahead. Declare victory, and if you're not named the winner, say the race was stolen. And we're watching elections deniers who are running for secretary of state in places like Arizona and Nevada. If they get in, they're saying that they would possibly try to reinstate Donald Trump. So, yes, democracy is on the ballot.

SHAPIRO: NPR's Mara Liasson. Thanks a lot.

LIASSON: You're welcome. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Mara Liasson
Mara Liasson is a national political correspondent for NPR. Her reports can be heard regularly on NPR's award-winning newsmagazine programs Morning Edition and All Things Considered. Liasson provides extensive coverage of politics and policy from Washington, DC — focusing on the White House and Congress — and also reports on political trends beyond the Beltway.