Six weeks out from the American presidential election, there is still considerable uncertainty about the ultimate outcome. To be sure, one would rather be in Joe Biden’s position right now than Donald Trump’s—Biden leads the national polls by six to eight percentage points, and is running ahead or even in many states that Trump won in 2016 and that are crucial for his re-election (Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, etc.). Moreover, polling in this race has been remarkably stable for over a year; Biden’s modest but significant lead has held with only minor fluctuation through a presidential impeachment, a pandemic and resultant economic shutdown, nationwide racial unrest, and the near-daily parade of “scandals” and “revelations” surrounding the Trump administration (some more legitimately concerning than others). Thus, based simply on the polling numbers, one would cast Biden as the strong favorite to win in November.
There is reason for some caution, however, surrounding this assumption. The most intense period of the campaign lies ahead, including the presidential debates, during which many Biden supporters fear that their aging candidate’s slipping mental faculties might be on prominent display. In addition, Biden’s support is less efficiently distributed than Trump’s; while he leads in many of the key battleground states, his leads are often small. His larger national margin comes from huge advantages in states like California and New York, which provide diminishing returns in the Electoral College that actually chooses the president. Thus, a shift of just a few points nationally in Trump’s favor could put the president in line for narrow victories in a range of key states, perhaps replicating the 2016 outcome in which he won the Electoral College despite accumulating fewer total votes nationwide than his opponent. There is also abundant anecdotal (and some polling) evidence that Trump’s supporters are more enthusiastic than are Biden’s and thus perhaps more likely to cast ballots in pandemic conditions which, being unprecedented in modern history, in themselves create a cloud of uncertainty surrounding all forecasts. Finally, in the back of everyone’s minds are the polling errors of 2016—not large, but significant enough and in the same direction in critical states, allowing Trump to seek out a victory when it appeared that Hillary Clinton had a lead. For all these reasons, modelers and gamblers are both hedging their predictive bets, casting Biden as a favorite but hardly a prohibitive one (with anywhere from a 55% to a 70% chance of victory).
Two major scenarios
Given these considerations, two major electoral scenarios are possible (the prospect of a clear and decisive Trump victory seeming remote). One is a decisive Biden victory, likely accompanied by a Democratic sweep of the House and Senate. All of those closely contested states that could provide Trump a path to re-election if they tip his way could also pave the way for a relative Biden landslide with a little movement in the other direction. There are plausible scenarios in which Trump loses Florida, Ohio, Georgia, Arizona, and even Texas, giving Biden a huge Electoral College win as well as a double-digit popular vote victory. In that scenario, Trump might well claim massive fraud, but the claims would be unpersuasive and unlikely to move even his generally loyal congressional Republicans, who would find support for Trump’s attempts to undo such a clear result an untenable position.
The much more problematic—and highly possible—scenario is one in which there is genuine and protracted uncertainty about the true winner of the election. Because of the pandemic, many states are quickly and dramatically expanding vote-by-mail options this election season. With most states requiring only that such ballots be postmarked—not received—by Election Day, the prospect of a protracted vote count that extends for days or even weeks is very real. Moreover, polling reveals a stark partisan divide in Americans’ intended method of voting, with those planning to vote in person favoring Trump by a large margin and those planning to vote by mail favoring Biden to an even greater degree. Thus, it is very possible that Trump will appear to be winning based on the initial vote tallies, only to see his margin dwindle and eventually disappear as mail-in ballots are counted. Given that the president has repeatedly decried the potential for fraud and abuse inherent in mail voting, he is unlikely to accept such an outcome with grace and equanimity. Likewise, should Biden fall just short because of mail-in votes rejected due to improper completion, signature mismatches, etc. (the fate of 1-2% of mail ballots in most elections), he and his allies are almost certain to reject the outcome as illegitimate. Already, Republicans are pre-emptively talking about “fraud,” and Democrats about “voter suppression,” to set the stage for protest actions and attempts to delegitimize the election should their candidate lose.
Any genuine uncertainty about the true winner—a real possibility created by the confluence of a close race in key states and hastily implemented state-by-state plans to handle massive increases in the volume of mail balloting—could not come at a worse time for the United States. The nation is already on edge from the pandemic, months of racial turmoil, and what promises to be a fever-pitch battle over a vacant Supreme Court seat. All of this is on top of the polarization and vitriol that already characterized the nation’s politics in the Trump era, and of the efforts of nefarious foreign actors to stoke divisions and to sow confusion and doubt about the legitimacy of the electoral process (imagine how media reports about Russian, Chinese, or Iranian efforts to inject fraudulent mail ballots into the system would roil the waters). Leading figures in both parties have already said publicly that the best course of action in case of any ambiguity about the electoral outcome is to concede nothing, litigate aggressively, and send supporters into the streets for massive protests. Such a scenario is a recipe for social and political disaster.
One can certainly speculate about the political and policy consequences of a Trump victory (possible) or a Biden victory (more likely). The more immediate concern, however, is whether the United States will have a clear and uncontested winner at all come November. If not, the nation will truly be in frightening and uncharted territory.