11/04/2012 04:14 pm ET Updated Jan 04, 2013

What We Know Before Election Day: Countdown Day 2

NEW YORK -- Midtown Manhattan is sunny and eerily calm the Sunday before Election Day 2012. The marathon tourists are here, even though there is no marathon. The normally teeming avenues are small-town quiet. People are hunkered down at home, thankful that it is warm and dry; or idling in gas lines; or they are elsewhere, helping friends and family.

It feels as though something has ended, something more than a storm. And in a way, something has: even before the votes are counted on Tuesday, we have learned a lot about ourselves this year, about the state of our politics, and about our future.

For one, the harsh realities of post-Sandy life downtown, and especially across the water in Staten Island and in New Jersey, reminds us all that there is -- there must be -- more that unites us than divides us.

Or, as President Bill Clinton once said, there is nothing that's wrong with America that can't be fixed by what's right with America.

If this region can survive the storm -- it can and it will -- then we can survive this nasty downer of a 2012 presidential election.

Beyond that, what have we learned?

For one, that the tough issues won't be settled by the vote on Tuesday. The big questions -- about taxes, spending, entitlements and health care, to name just a few -- are likely to be as nettlesome and contentious on Wednesday as they are today.

Whoever wins in whatever combination -- presidency, Senate, House -- will face a country divided over whether to raise taxes and in what way; over how to distribute and control health care; over how to put together a deal to address long-term debt.

In other words, the fiscal cliff will still be a cliff, no matter who wins what. As things now stand, the Senate will remain in Democratic hands, if barely, and certainly not by a filibuster-proof margin. The House will remain in Republican hands, though not by a wide enough margin to silence defiant Democrats in the chamber.

Regional, racial and demographic divisions are, if anything, getting deeper, it seems clear. Almost 150 years after the end of the Civil War, the "Solid South" remains pretty much just that. President Barack Obama and the Democrats still think they can win Virginia, at least, but everything else from Columbia, South Carolina over to Columbia, Missouri is a sea of one-party Republican Red.

Nothing is forever in politics, but the endurance of that regional split, rooted in slavery and war, is nothing short of remarkable.

The same is becoming true, more than ever, for race, ethnicity and lifestyle as markers of allegiance in our national political life. The gulf is wide and growing. To simplify things only slightly, the GOP is more than ever a party dominated by white, married, faith-based, tradition-observing suburban and rural voters.

The Democrats, meanwhile, are increasingly metropolitan, multicultural, secular, non-traditional voters: unmarried whites, predominantly female; almost 100 percent of black voters; perhaps 70 percent of all Hispanic voters; and growing percentages of Asian-American Pacific Islanders.

Everyone views this as a challenge to the GOP: how do they reach growing populations of Latinos? How do they reach single women? But what about the Democrats? How healthy is it for them to be losing white, married, Christian men by huge margins?

The answer is that it isn't good for any of us to be splintered politically in this way - and this election, if anything, has divided us further.

We also know that no one in the present political power structure wants to talk about immigration and illegal immigration. The candidates have all but ignored it: too dangerous, too difficult. It seems like a problem that we will let fester until it explodes.

It is also clear that, even if Mitt Romney manages to win, the war within the GOP has just begun. If he wins, his first challenge will be to deal with the anti-tax Tea Party wing of his own party. Paul Ryan will earn his pay, big time. And if Obama is reelected, the same will be true: will a Rump Parliament of moderate Republicans play ball with him on a grand budget compromise? Do they dare risk the wrath of what's left of the Tea Party?

We already know that Gov. Chris Christie of New Jersey is running for the 2016 GOP nomination, just in case Romney loses. Christie has expressed support for Obama's handling of Sandy's aftermath, and Rupert Murdoch wants Christie to recant. He can't recant.

Finally, this election has reconfirmed what we already knew: Bill Clinton is the best politician of our time, the Bruce Springsteen of the campaign trail. He explained what the president couldn't; he needled Republicans without seeming mean about it; he embodied the sense of sheer exuberance about democracy in action.

The Dude abides.

For Howard Fineman's full 2012 Countdown, click here.


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