How the 2020 election could go relatively smoothly — and deliver Trump a resounding defeat

How the 2020 election could go relatively smoothly — and deliver Trump a resounding defeat
President Donald J. Trump walks from the White House Monday evening, June 1, 2020, to St. John’s Episcopal Church, known as the church of Presidents’s, that was damaged by fire during demonstrations in nearby LaFayette Square Sunday evening. (Official White House Photo by Shealah Craighead)

There are always dark warnings coming from the fringes that an incumbent president may refuse to honor the results of a losing election and pull off some sort of coup to remain in power. But with Donald Trump, such concerns are mainstream, and for good reason. Claiming widespread fraud, Trump rejected the results of the popular vote when he won the White House in 2016. His former consigliere, Michael Cohen, has said that he doesn't believe that Trump would leave peacefully if he loses. Trump has been preemptively lying about absentee balloting being rife with fraud for months, and just last week, White House Press Secretary Kayleigh McEnany laid the groundwork to claim that ballots counted after November 3 aren't "fair," telling Fox News that determining the outcome on Election Night is "how the system is supposed to work."


At this point, Trump is incapable of delivering an October Surprise that would catch anyone off-guard. He's widely expected to at least announce a vaccine breakthrough in the next six weeks, Bill Barr is expected to unveil a last-minute report on the FBI's investigation into Russian meddling in 2016--perhaps accompanied by some criminal charges--and ongoing sabotage of the Postal Service is being widely reported. Anyone who's been paying attention knows that Trump will claim that the vote was rigged if he loses, and will probably call on his supporters (many of them heavily armed) to take to the streets.

For months, preparations have been underway to counter these potential moves. The Biden campaign is assembling a massive legal "war room" to litigate challenged ballots. Various organizations have been gaming out and planning for a variety of possible scenarios that could lead to a crisis in November. (An effort that we talked about on the podcast last month.) And a coalition of dozens of civil society groups, led by Indivisible and Stand Up America, is organizing a massive grassroots mobilization to protect the integrity of the vote. (You can sign up to get involved in that project here: https://protecttheresults.com/).

While it's helpful to see responsible people raising the alarm, that does come with a modest risk that some voters may come to the conclusion that their votes won't be counted--especially those cast by mail--and become discouraged. So it's important to acknowledge that while we may be headed toward an acute crisis of democracy, there is also a real possibility that this election will go at least relatively smoothly, fired-up Democrats will turn out large numbers and deliver Donald Trump a clear and decisive defeat--perhaps even one that's clear on Election Night.

Because the press is obsessed with stories about Trump supporters who continue to support Trump, it's easy to forget how deeply unpopular he is. The ceiling of his approval rating in the polling averages has been around 45% for four solid years, and his disapproval numbers are always over 50 percent. But it's the "strongly disapprove" numbers that really tell the tale, routinely doubling the share of respondents who "strongly approve" of his performance and in some polls breaking 50 percent.

That's the baseline, and we've seen in the recent past that clunky attempts to suppress the vote can piss off voters and result in a backlash. In 2018, people living in communities of color in a number of states controlled by Republicans--notably Georgia and Florida--had to brave ridiculously long lines to vote, but vote they did. During the primaries, when the Wisconsin GOP went to court to force people to vote in-person during a pandemic, they voted in unusually large numbers despite the fact that it was a rainy day.

In 2018, Republicans undertook relentless efforts to suppress turnout among traditional Democratic constituencies, according to a report by the Brennan Center for Justice. Then, as now, they attempted to capitalize on white racial anxiety in crude terms, running on claims that MS-13 gangsters and invading caravans from Mexico would rape and kill suburban children. But despite all of that, at the end of the day, Democrats won by the largest margin in a midterm contest in American history. Fifty percent of eligible voters cast a ballot that year, which may not sound like much but was a huge number for a midterm. For comparison, just under 37 percent of eligible voters participated in the 2014 midterms.

Trump wasn't on the ballot in 2018, but it was widely seen as a referendum on his performance. And keep in mind that in 2017, Democrats flipped a governorship and a Senate seat, and in 2019, they grabbed a House seat, a governorship and control of the Virginia state legislature.

As I write, early voting has begun in four states--Virginia, Minnesota, South Dakota and Wyoming--and early reports are coming in suggesting that the turnout in Virginia, at least, is massive.

Most scenarios that would lead to a democracy-threatening crisis require a close race. If Democrats jump through whatever hoops they have to and turn out in force, and Biden wins by a significant margin, it would shape the media narrative and make it far less likely that the Republican establishment would seriously back any false claims Trump might make about the election being rigged.

Now, I am not predicting that this election will go smoothly. I expect that Trump will do anything within his ample powers to create a messy crisis. And regardless of how it plays out, I believe that the right's ubiquitous falsehoods about Democrats cheating make it a near-certainty that QAnon devotees and other unbalanced Trump supporters will commit at least scattered acts of violence.

But Democratic turnout overwhelming all of Trump's mendacity and all of his party's attempts to suppress the vote is one potential outcome that can be realized if those who care about democracy, the separation of powers and the rule of law remain positive and put in the work.

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