The final days of an election cycle bring an obsession with the short term — the very short term. Daily tracking polls. A relentless get-it, post-it, blog-it news cycle. Trending topics on Twitter telling us something (though it's not always clear what).
But for just a moment, let's slow it down, look at what's happening over a somewhat longer time frame, and see what it tells us about what the country will look like for the winner of the presidential race.
The Long View
Paul Taylor at the Pew Research Center, for one, has been taking the long view — the very long view.
"Well, one way to think about America is we are in midpassage of a big, centurylong demographic change," Taylor says.
We are steadily moving toward the day when minorities will be the majority. In 1950, the country was 87 percent white. Taylor says that number will dip below 50 percent by 2050.
"Every year it ticks a little more. If you think about it in terms of the electorate, you know every year about 3 million new people age into the electorate and age into the workforce, and every year about 3 million people age out — which is a euphemism for they leave this vale of tears," Taylor says. "The people leaving are predominantly white. The people coming in are heavily nonwhite."
The growing percentage of the population that is minority comes thanks to a fast-growing Hispanic population as well as a steady increase in the number of Americans of Asian descent. All of this has an effect on politics.
"Republicans are 90 percent white. Democrats are only about 60 percent white," says Pew Research's Andy Kohut. "The Republicans have a white problem — or a lack of diversity problem. It's not apparent in this election so far, but over time, the changing face of America is going to represent more of a challenge to the GOP than to the Democrats."
Minorities overwhelmingly favor Democrats. That trend is likely enhanced by President Obama's status as the nation's first black president. In this election, African-American support for Obama tops 90 percent. Polls show Hispanics supporting the president by better than 2 to 1.
As for white voters, polls show they prefer Republicans. They went 55 percent for John McCain four years ago, and this year Mitt Romney is doing just as well or even better among whites.
The GOP's Problem
At George Mason University in Fairfax, Va., not far from Washington, D.C., sophomore Alan Williams is handing out campaign information for the College Democrats. Williams is African-American. He says he likes the fact that long-term demographic shifts are already helping Democrats in places like Colorado and Nevada and may help down the road in solid red states like Texas.
"As a Democrat, I think I'm excited that this is happening because, hey, it's looking good for us, and I think it definitely goes back to the statement that we are the party that represents America," Williams says. "And I just see the gap; the gap is getting much larger for us."
Republicans have long had difficulty winning over African-Americans, but many in the party are frustrated that they don't do better with Hispanics. They say the Latino focus on family and faith makes the GOP a natural fit. But that is more than offset by hardline GOP positions on immigration. There have been warnings from prominent Hispanic Republicans, including former U.S. Attorney General Alberto Gonzales.
"The way the party deals with issues like immigration — let me take that back: The way the party talks about issues like immigration is going to impact the future course of this party and the future course of this nation," Gonzales said.
Gonzales' old boss, President George W. Bush, tried to push his party to a more moderate stance on immigration reform — to no avail.
In addition to demographic changes, we're also seeing big generational differences of opinion become apparent. Older voters are typically more conservative on social issues. Marge Janus and her husband, both retirees, were at a Romney rally in Denver this month.
"We have a lot of economic concerns and we have a lot of moral concerns about abortion and gay rights and a lot of things. We can't think of anything we really agree with President Obama on. We're very concerned that he's done a lot of damage to our economy and just the way people are looking at a lot of moral issues," Janus says.
Meanwhile, two-thirds of young voters backed Obama four years ago. They are far more likely than people older than 50 to be in favor of same-sex marriage and to support an activist government. But they also have doubts about the future of social security and worries about job prospects.
"The 20-something, the early 30-something that can't get started in life, they're not starting families, they're not buying homes, they don't have careers to launch," Taylor says. "Will they be disillusioned?"
That's the potential trouble spot for Democrats and something Republicans see as an opportunity.
In Iowa a couple of weeks ago, a Romney campaign volunteer worked a neighborhood in a Des Moines suburb.
Joel Anderson, 23, answered the door of his parents' house. Anderson is a young man from a GOP household who voted Republican for president and Congress. But he told me that down the ticket in legislative races, he voted for Democrats. He said Republicans in the statehouse are too obsessed with issues like gay marriage, which is legal in Iowa.
As a younger voter who can be won over on economic issues but who is turned off by the GOP on social issues, Anderson represents both opportunity and risk for the Republican Party.
The New Partisanship
Kohut points to another change that defines the electorate today: issues that didn't used to be partisan, but that are now very partisan. Take the environment: Twenty years ago, Republicans and Democrats alike overwhelmingly saw stricter laws to protect the environment as necessary. Today, it's a different picture.
"In 2012, the Republican number has fallen from 87 to 47 percent, and the Democratic number remains at 93 percent. It's a measure of the way in which the parties are now different on a variety of issues. That was not the case 15, 20 years ago," Kohut says.
Kohut says the litmus tests for each party are getting stronger and more numerous: climate change, abortion, gay marriage, taxes and more.
For the next occupant of the White House, the United States will be more polarized and more diverse. And all of that will make it more difficult to find consensus.
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