The 70-mile stretch of sea that separates this faded Victorian resort town from mainland Europe has long served as a bridge linking the British islands to the continent.
But on Thursday, voters here are expected to turn out en masse to back a party that wants to turn the bridge into a moat.
The U.K. Independence Party, which has enjoyed a surge in popularity this year with calls for Britain to get out of the European Union, is considered the overwhelming favorite to win its first-ever parliamentary seat in a special election here in Clacton-on-Sea.
The victory would mark another milestone in the party’s journey from the xenophobic fringe to the center of British political discourse following its triumph in European parliamentary elections in May — the first time in more than a century that a party other than Labor or Conservative has won a nationwide British vote.
While one seat in the 650-member House of Commons will hardly make UKIP a force in the Palace of Westminster, the situation here in Clacton reflects a broader political dynamic that could spell major trouble for Prime Minister David Cameron as he seeks another five-year term next May.
“It’s possible — and some would say likely — that UKIP could cost David Cameron and the Conservatives the next general election,” said Matthew Goodwin, a politics professor at the University of Nottingham and author of a book chronicling UKIP’s rise.
That’s because UKIP appears poised to siphonvotes from the right and deny the Conservatives seats they would otherwise win. Even if UKIP gains only a handful of seats, its share of the vote could tip close contests to the center-left Labor Party and help deliver the prime ministership to Labor leader Ed Miliband — despite the fact that a significant majority of voters consider him unlikable and ill-prepared for the job.