After roughly two years of campaign announcements and primaries, public opinion polls, and rallies, and all those incessant TV ads, we have finally arrived here: the most frustrating moment of every presidential election. Near the end of this, the longest of years, we are now inside those hours of limbo on Election Day, when the only thing anyone wants to know — what’s going to happen? — is unknowable before the vote counting begins.
In the meantime, let us look ahead, with the help of some experts, to some of the what ifs of the final hours of the 2020 presidential election.
What if . . .
. . . President Trump declares victory before the votes are counted in the key swing states?
This is a pretty likely what if, since Trump has spent months trying to plant doubts about the legitimacy of mail ballots, which may have discouraged his supporters from voting by mail. Polling suggests early votes will favor Democrat Joe Biden, but they may take longer to count in some states. Axios has reported that Trump intends to declare a swift victory if he looks to be ahead in key states.
“The problem is going to be the first reported numbers in many states will be the in-person voting,” said Darrell M. West, vice president and director of governance studies at the Brookings Institution. “And we know from polling that that vote leans Republican. So there could be a number of states where [the president] has an early lead and then therefore comes out and declares a victory.” States such as Pennsylvania, for instance, where the counting of likely Biden-heavy mail ballots could take days to complete.
“It doesn’t mean he has victory by claiming it, but it mobilizes his supporters and sets up his argument that everything was rigged via absentee ballots.”
Joshua A. Douglas, a University of Kentucky law professor who studies election law and voting rights, said, “Election Night ‘declarations’ are always media projections, and nothing more. Declaring that we have to stop counting ballots would disenfranchise thousands, including military and overseas voters. It’s like a manager of a Major League team saying his team has won after the seventh inning.”
Claiming premature victory could conceivably put pressure on judges deciding legal challenges to certain ballots, West said, but only if the race is extremely close.
“If it’s not a close race, none of that is going to matter,” he said. “People will just see it for what it is, which is trying to come up with an excuse for why he lost.”
What if . . .
. . . I want to interpret the early vote count for some sense of how the election will turn out?
“I think number one, look at . . . total turnout,” said Republican political strategist Matt Mackowiak. “To me, there’s a lot of reasons why I think Trump can win; there’s a lot of reasons why I think Biden can win. The biggest question is if we go from about 128 million votes in 2016 [between Trump and Hillary Clinton], to somewhere between 150 to 155 million votes four years later, that means Trump’s going to need to get 12 or 13 million more votes than he got last time. And I just don’t know that that’s doable. Even with the electoral college.”
Another clue comes from the early state results. While Pennsylvania may be counting for days, other swing states, such as Ohio and Florida, are likely to be reporting numbers, he said. "We should have a pretty good sense of both of those states really early. Look, the Trump team thinks New Hampshire is in play; Biden’s team doesn’t. That will be interesting.
“Does Biden close off the Electoral College pathways for Trump early in the night? Does he take North Carolina, because then it becomes difficult [for Trump]. If Biden takes Florida it’s basically over and you can almost call it a night right there. But if Trump keeps it going, if he gets through the seven o’clock Eastern poll closings, I think we’re going to be in for a long night.”
Peter Fenn, a longtime Democratic Party strategist, says the key early states are: "Florida, Florida, Florida. And look for the Arizona numbers that will come in early. If Biden wins Arizona, that’s a good sign for him. Biden can get to 270 [electoral votes, the minimum to win] even without Pennsylvania, which may take a long time to count.
North Carolina and Texas, where polling shows tight races, are also expected to report swift results and will draw immense attention.
What if . . .
. . . the evil year 2020 delivers the worst-case election scenario for America? What would that look like?
West: “The nightmare scenario is if it all comes down to Pennsylvania and it takes seven days to figure out who won, and then if it turns out to be really close and there’ll be lots of legal challenges and Pennsylvania will be the Florida of 2000 of this election.”
Fenn: “The nightmare is that we get caught up in insane legal challenges to ballots that are totally uncalled for and have no historic basis in truth. And this thing drags on. I still find it difficult to believe that even with a Trump Supreme Court that they would go all along with the total undermining of American law. But you could have two months of this. They’re boarding up my office building in downtown Washington right now, preparing for violence.” What if, he wonders, it lasts for months?
Mackowiak: “The scenario where no matter who wins, half the country doesn’t respect the outcome and doesn’t believe it was legitimately arrived at.” In that case, he said, much depends on the behavior of the losing candidate. "It’s perfectly appropriate to engage in legal challenges. Once the courts have ruled, you have to accept that ruling. And it’s going to be hard, I think, for the losing side to accept. I really think that’s critical.
“That’s the first question: Can the losing side ultimately concede?”