Predictions are the third rail of punditry. Everyone hates a Cassandra who gets it right; the poor columnist never hears the end of a wrong call. Like a beautiful luna moth drawn to the flame, however, we can’t help ourselves.
We think we know what will happen next. People constantly demand our prognostications. We crave danger.
With the caveat that you’d probably have to go back to one of the two elections in which Abe Lincoln was a major party candidate to find a contest with more crisis-related variables than this one, here’s my guess for how this year’s presidential and congressional elections will play out.
When: Don’t expect immediate results. For the first time ever a whopping 40% or more of the vote will come into boards of election by mail—about 13 times more than 2016. Some 42 states have laws (pushed through by Republicans) that prohibit counting to begin until after the polls close. Eight states, including the swing states of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, don’t even allow election officials to begin processing—opening envelopes, verifying signatures and removing secrecy sleeves— mail-in ballots before the night of November 3rd. Even if the polls turn out to be correct and it’s a popular vote landslide for Joe Biden, I’ll be shocked if any broadcast network will be able to project a 270-electoral vote winner on Election Night.
Who: If Biden wins, it won’t be by double digits. As usual at this stage, the presidential race is narrowing. A week ago, Biden was ahead by 14 points. Now it’s 8. If every vote, those cast in person as well as mail-ins, were counted (which is a mega big if, keep reading), Biden would probably win the (theoretically 100% counted) popular vote by a bigger, but not much bigger margin, than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Biden’s sizable lead in the polls will be shrunken by two factors.
First, the enthusiasm gap. Republican voters are wildly enthusiastic about Trump; Biden’s voters just want Trump gone. It is true that, as a CBS pollster notes, “an unenthusiastic vote, of course, counts just the same as an enthusiastic one.” The point is that anti-Trump Democrats are less likely to vote than fervent Trumpists.
Then there’s the progressive factor. Biden and the DNC have bent over backwards to insult, belittle and generally tell leftists they’re not welcome in what Biden calls “his” party. The same centrist tiny-tent approach, coupled with sucking up to imaginary swing voters, prompted between 3 and 4 million Bernie Sanders voters to stay home in 2016. If half as many progressives sit this one out too, Biden’s lead gets nibbled away more.
Unequal Votes: One person, one vote? Not when there are two classes of votes. Because they’re less worried about the coronavirus Republicans will tend to vote in-person. Democrats will disproportionately vote by mail, by a factor of at least 3-to-1.
Mail-in ballots often get thrown out. 1.2% of mail-in ballots got tossed in 2016. But many of those were cast by experienced absentee voters like business travelers. This year, because the vast majority of them will be sent in by voters who have never before been through this arcane process, I think it will be closer to 6% (the rejection rate in Philadelphia’s local election in 2019), meaning that Biden could see up to 2% or 3% of his popular vote total vanish.
The biggest reason mail-in ballots get thrown out is because the signature doesn’t match the one on file. People add or subtract a middle initial or they change the way that they sign their name. In states that require a witness signature, many voters blow off that requirement. People ditch the seemingly redundant security envelope. Poof!
Running Out the Clock: COVID-19 is President Trump’s ace in the hole. The 80 million expected mail-in ballots, three-quarters or more of them Democratic, will be targeted by the GOP’s team of thousands of attorneys all over the country for legal challenges. “Republicans are preparing prewritten legal pleadings that can be hurried to the courthouse the day after the election, as wrangling begins over close results and a crush of mail-in ballots,” Politico reported in late September.
The chaos in America’s COVID-choked court system will make Bush v. Gore look like a cakewalk.
Trump’s legal filings will have two goals: disqualifying Democratic mail-in ballots over technicalities and dragging out the vote count until December 14th. Trump’s lawyers may get help from partisan election officials in Republican states. State officials may take advantage of the fog of uncertainty of a recount war to order their electors to vote Republican whether or not their state’s actual voters agree. The chairman of the Pennsylvania state Republican Party told a magazine he had talked to the Trump campaign about subverting the popular will. (He later walked that back. Still.)
Running out the clock could tip the election to Trump. If the December 14th electoral college deadline for vote certification isn’t met by enough states to add up to 270 for Biden (or Trump), the dreaded 12th Amendment scenario kicks in. The new House of Representatives convenes, one state, one vote, and Trump almost certainly wins.
What are the chances of a prolonged recount battle triggering the 12th? At this point, in my view, slightly better than 50%: far from certain, but likely. Speaker Nancy Pelosi is alarmed and trying to win races that could be crucial in a House vote scenario.
If Trump wins: No president, not even George W. Bush or Rutherford B. Hayes, will ever have enjoyed less legitimacy or acceptance by voters. Democrats will control a bigger majority in the House and will probably retake the Senate, so Trump will be unable to govern beyond executive orders and his role as commander-in-chief. City streets will be roiled by liberal protests and counterprotests by the president’s reactionary supporters. Whether the U.S. recovers or collapses into a full-fledged depression will depend on whether Trump is willing to acquiesce to Democratic demands for a major economic stimulus package. If not, things will burn. And there will be a renewed cry to get rid of the Electoral College.
If Biden wins: With his party controlling both houses of Congress a victorious Biden will be able to do anything he wants. Voters will expect quick, bold executive action to address the pandemic, fix the economy and reverse Trump’s noxious policy attacks against the environment and illegal immigrants. Americans will give him six months to turn the country around.
If he doesn’t, things will burn.
(Ted Rall (Twitter: @tedrall), the political cartoonist, columnist and graphic novelist, is the author of the biography “Political Suicide: The Fight for the Soul of the Democratic Party.” You can support Ted’s hard-hitting political cartoons and columns and see his work first by sponsoring his work on Patreon.)