Juan Williams: In the 2016 election we jumped the shark, America

1280 Trump Clinton

Editor's note: The following column originally appeared in The Hill newspaper and on TheHill.com.

We jumped the shark on this campaign a long time ago.

First, there was the hostile takeover of the Republican Party by a candidate with no qualifications to be president, given to shaming women about their looks, insulting Mexicans, and even demeaning a former prisoner of war, himself a former GOP presidential nominee, for getting captured.

Then the American press played stupid.

They equated one candidate’s reckless use of a private email server with the other candidate’s litany of disrepute — his reported failure to pay taxes; his insults of a Gold Star family; charges that he regularly groped women; as well as federal charges of racial bias against black people trying to rent apartments. Oh, and don’t forget charges of fraud at Trump University and the stories — never convincingly rebutted — of his corrupt use of money intended for charity. 

Along this twisted road to elect a president, U.S. intelligence agencies concluded that Russia is trying to influence the election by attacking one candidate. And when — days before the election — the FBI director took a shot at the same candidate, the 2016 campaign totally went off the rails.

By that, I mean it went past all bounds of my prior experience with hardball political campaigns over the last 40 years.

The smart money is still on a Hillary Clinton victory. The bettors in Las Vegas and the polling/statistical analytics crowd have her as the favorite to seal the deal.

But her lead in the polls – both nationally and in the battleground states – has dwindled in the last week.

The nation is still shaking its collective head over FBI director James Comey’s letter to Congress stirring new suspicion about Clinton, without charges of misconduct or any evidence. The FBI’s credibility has been damaged. That damage has not been repaired by Comey's statement on Sunday, stating that the new emails had not changed his earlier conclusion that Clinton's deeds did not rise to the level of prosecutable offenses.

The actual election won’t end the craziness. This year’s campaign is just the latest chapter in years of polarized, dysfunctional national politics.

So as you watch Fox News for election coverage on Tuesday night, here is a viewer’s guide.

As we begin the contest, Clinton dominates the map. States that would be safe for any Democratic nominee give her just under 200 of the 270 electoral votes needed to win. Then there are four states very likely to add to her total — Virginia and the Midwestern trio of Minnesota, Wisconsin and Michigan.

If she can add Electoral College votes from Pennsylvania and New Hampshire — 20 from the former and four from the latter — she is on the brink of victory. Either Colorado or Nevada would carry her over the finish line.

Any sign that Donald Trump might grab one of those states threatens Clinton’s path to early victory.

Pay particular attention to Virginia. An early call that Clinton has won the state is a good sign for her in states with lots of college-educated whites and strong racial diversity — read that as auguring well for her chances in Colorado too.

Also keep an eye on Georgia, where the polls close at 7 p.m. The state has voted Republican in every presidential election for the last two decades. But Trump’s toxicity with racial minorities has given Democrats reason to believe they can do well. Trump holds the lead in polls. A close race here is bad news for him while a quick call for him will cheer his backers. 

Staying in the south, there will be much attention paid to Florida and North Carolina.

Florida is critical with 29 electoral votes but it is never an early call because part of the state is on central time. The Tar Heel state, however, is likely to be an early bellwether. Polls close there at 7:30 p.m. As of Sunday, the RealClearPolitics polling average in the state showed a small advantage for Trump.

Texas is on my list for fun. The state has not voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since Jimmy Carter in 1976. But Trump’s racist rhetoric about Latinos has given Democrats new hope in the state with the second largest share of Hispanics in the nation: 39 percent. Polls show Trump leading but home-state Sen. Ted Cruz beat him in the state’s GOP primary by 17 points. 

Stay up late to keep an eye on Utah. Trump can’t afford to lose a solid GOP state. But some recent polls show that independent candidate Evan McMullin, a former CIA officer and a Mormon, is competitive with Trump and Clinton. If McMullin wins, he will be the first third party candidate to claim electoral votes since George Wallace in 1968.

Arizona is worth watching too, because the Democrats see the state as their best hope for an election night shocker. Since September, Clinton has spent over $1 million on ads in the state, where 31 percent of the population is Hispanic. One indication that Clinton has a chance: she nabbed the endorsement of the state’s largest newspaper, the Arizona Republic, which has never endorsed a Democrat for president since it began publishing in 1890.

Get out the popcorn, start Tweeting and watch the returns come in. This is politics as soap opera or World Wrestling Federation — entertaining but at the end disheartening. 

When all is said and done, 2016 remains the year that American politics jumped the shark.

Juan Williams currently serves as a co-host of FOX News Channel’s (FNC) The Five (weekdays 5-6PM/ET) and also appears as a political analyst on FOX News Sunday with Chris Wallace and Special Report with Bret Baier. Williams joined the network as a contributor in 1997.