American voters are deciding much more than their next President tomorrow

As America goes to the polls, the 'down ballot' results could have a major impact for whoever reaches the White House

Voting, United States, election,

Image: Voters cast ballots in the primary election in Chesterville, in the swing state of Ohio (AP Photo/Matt Rourke)

After a campaign that has dragged on for 18 months, the focus has been almost exclusively on who will be elected the next President of the United States.

However, the success - or otherwise - of the winner's presidency will hinge not only on the level of support they have garnered to get them to the White House, but on the other races which are taking place across the country. 

Before capitulating and eventually supporting Donald Trump, Ted Cruz encouraged those at the Republican National Convention to "vote their conscience, vote for candidates, up and down the ticket who you trust to defend our freedom and to be faithful to the constitution."

While that was greeted with derision and calls for the Texas Senator to "endorse Trump," the fear was that the damage done to the Grand Old Party (GOP) by the businessman's comments would affect them badly enough to see the Democrats gain ground in the House of Representatives and the Senate. 

The American model relies on, as it has often been referred to, a system of checks and balances. The legislative branch of government, or Congress, is split into the House and the Senate, while the executive power rests with the President, Vice-President and the cabinet. That is further kept in check by the judicial branch, including the Supreme Court.  

In his eight years as President, Barack Obama has faced difficulties in delivering on the policies he campaigned on due to the Republicans holding a majority in Congress, in particular during his second term. Although there was a "wave" of support in 2008, by 2011 that had flipped by the end of the voting in 2010, as the Republicans took a 242 to 193 majority in the House, and eventually took control of the Senate four years later.

That significant swing has been a result of a number of factors, from the splitting of the media landscape, to redistricting to the parties finding compromise a lot more difficult to come by. Famously this resulted in a government shutdown in 2013, and three unsuccessful attempts to repeal the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act, also known as Obamacare.

Opportunities and Challenges

Currently, the Democrats trail in the House by a margin of 246 to 188, while the Republicans also control the Senate by a majority of 54 to 44. Across the country on November 8th, voters will be focusing on the local issues as they head to the polls, with the coattails of both candidates providing precious little spare material to grab on to. 

Not all the seats in Congress are up for grabs, as there will be 435 in the House and 34 in the Senate, as well as a few others to fill vacancies, totaling 478 according to Democrats would need to gain around 30 seats to turn the House in their direction, a task which is particularly daunting given the way the districts have been redrawn. 

In his book Ratf**ked, author David Daley outlines a tactic which became known as 'Operation RedMap'. Seats in the state legislature were targeted strategically by the Republicans, off the back of information from the 2010 census. This allowed them to have a say in the redistricting of congressional races, maximising their support and turning it into seats in the House and Senate.

Image: The U.S. Capitol is seen in early morning light in Washington, Dec, 2013. (AP Photo/Jacquelyn Martin)

Speaking on NPR's Fresh Air back in June, Daley said: "It is more money than these races usually see. It can be a hundred percent of the budget that these candidates thought they were going to have to spend or imagined that they would face from an opponent."

"If you could go in and spend just enough money to take out four or five guys [in local races]," added Daley, "which was the goal, you could flip this for a song. This isn't just brilliant politics. It's Moneyball applied to politics, because they got a bargain here."

Jane Mayer, in her book Dark Money, further highlights the role that the changes made at the local level have had on the state level, while Ari Berman also outlines the changes made to voting in his book Give Us the Ballot.

The changes made present a huge challenge for Democrats, but they also give Republican candidates up and down the ticket an opportunity to oppose the policies of a Hillary Clinton presidency, should she win on Tuesday.  

Speaker of the House Paul Ryan's decision to eventually back away from Trump therefore served a dual purpose for those politicians in difficult races. If they were involved in a tight race where the Republican candidate was performing well, they could criticise Ryan for not sticking with the man the people had chosen, while those who needed to create some distance from Trump could line up behind the stance that he had taken, as the face of the GOP.

Where to Watch

There are a number of races that could signal what way voters are reacting to both candidates, who are uniquely unpopular for different reasons.

In Minnesota's 8th District, an area where Trump is performing well, Rick Nolan, a member of the Democratic-Farmer-Labor Party, is battling Stewart Mills, a multi-millioniare who is backing Trump to bring economic recovery and jobs. 

Nolan took a 32-year break from Congress before he was re-elected in 2013, and Mills has been busy tying that record (and the large gap in his political CV) to his inability to make the changes needed to return prosperity to the region. However, despite the fact that Mills has echoed many of Trump's policies and attacked his opponent's stance on immigration and the Iran nuclear deal, it looks unlikely the general support for the Republican candidate will carry over and help him defeat Nolan.

In Idaho, Senator Mike Crapo withdrew his support for Trump, despite the fact that it looks almost certain that the Republican candidate will claim victory in the state. Like Ryan, he withdrew his support after a video of Trump making lewd comments about women was leaked to The Washington Post.  

However, Crapo is in one of the safest possible places to make a move against Trump, given the state has not elected a Democratic senator since the 1970s. If he improves on his result last time out, it could be an indication of the willingness of GOP voters to move on should Trump fail to get elected. 

In New Hampshire, Kelly Ayotte is in a much closer Senate race, and she has stepped back from the Republican candidate in fairly vocal terms. Her record of going against the GOP - such as acknowledging the contribution that mankind is making to climate change - may play well in her area, and see her through, but this race is almost certainly a toss up.

Similarly, in the House, Republican candidate Carlos Curbelo in Florida is just as vulnerable as Ayotte, but has consistently stated that he would never support Trump. That principled stance could cost him his seat, although he may be given somewhat of a boost from Marco Rubio's campaign, which looks less beleaguered. 

Darrell Issa, a firm Trump supporter and head of the House Oversight Committee, looks to be on the ropes in his district on the opposite side of the country in California. Having first been elected to Congress 16 years ago, his seat would have been seen as pretty safe, but he barely scraped through his own primary in the summer.

Although redistricting has altered this area through the years, he is now locked in a battle with Doug Applegate - a former marine - and the Democrats have poured money into his campaign, sensing a weakness there for the first time in decades. 

Elsewhere there are interesting races for vulnerable Democrat Brad Ashford in Nebraska, a state likely to vote for Trump. Similarly, Republican Bruce Poliquin faces a fight to keep his seat in the blue state of Maine, while in Nevada, minority leader Harry Reid is retiring and hoping that Catherine Cortez Masto can beat Republican Joe Heck in a tight race. 

Back in the hazy days of summer, as Trump went from controversy to controversy, it seemed a real possibility that the Democrats could take the White House and make big gains in Congress - but the slog of the election seems to have made the split along political lines more evident than ever before.

It is highly unlikely that any sort of "wave" will give a push for any down ballot candidates, and in fact, the opposite may be true.

Trump's unpopularity could weigh heavily around the necks of those who have failed to choose a side of the fence or begrudgingly given him their support, while the lack of enthusiasm for Clinton as a candidate could see a low turnout, which would cost the Democrats badly.

The real effect of these races may well determine what type of Presidency the eventual winner has, and, crucially, if they get a second term.