The final countdown

| November 3, 2020

The US election next week carries something of the whiff of a Las Vegas casino – bluff, bluster, and braggadocio. The stakes for the nation are perhaps higher than they’ve ever been. The entire electoral table is in play.

The election may be on Tuesday (US time), but there’s still a long way to go and, as we saw in 2016, anything can happen in the interim.

270 is the magic number

To win this election, Trump or Biden must win the electoral college. Consisting of 538 members, the winner needs at least 270 electoral votes.

It’s not enough for a candidate to win the popular vote. Remember that in 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote. More people voted for her than Donald Trump. But, she didn’t carry the electoral college, and she lost the election. Trump carried 306 electoral votes to Clinton’s 232.

Each state in the nation has a certain number of electoral votes. The census process decides how many votes each state gets. Some get far more votes than others. As a result, things can become rather dicey when general elections come around.

So, what does it take to reach 270?

The swing states

This is where the much-discussed swing states come into play. Pundits, politicians, speculators, strategists, commentators and, yes, even academics, are talking a lot about the following states: California, Florida, Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio, Texas, and the Carolinas.

Why? Because winning a greater number of the key swing states means reaching, or exceeding, 270, and winning the election.

This is why Trump is desperate to win Florida, and is undertaking a whirlwind tour of the other key “battleground” states such as Wisconsin, North Carolina and Arizona. Republicans know they must carry these states, just as they did in 2016, or face defeat.

California, with 55 electoral college votes and a large, diverse population, has been a Democrat stronghold since 1992. It will likely go to Biden. The Midwest and Rust Belt states of Pennsylvania, Illinois, Ohio and Michigan are far more unpredictable, and that’s why they’re being fought over. Candidates will repeatedly visit these states in a non-stop travelling circus right up to election day.

Florida is the bellwether state in deciding who will win. It’s often cruel to the Democrats. With 29 electoral college votes, it’s vital to Trump’s prospects of a second term.

Illustration of side-by-side Pennsylvania ballot papers, Republican and Democrat
Pennsylvania, Joe Biden’s birth state, is one that hangs in the balance.

Also for Trump, pride is at stake. He’s long been a part-time Floridian with his mansion, Mar-a-Lago, near Palm Beach. As a result, he’s been vigorously campaigning there. If he can’t carry Florida, he’ll find a win almost impossible. With California largely in his pocket, Biden has other options.

Present polling for the electoral college in the keys states indicates that Biden will carry Illinois (20 votes). Significantly, though, Pennsylvania (20 votes), Ohio (18 votes), North Carolina (15 votes) and Wisconsin (10 votes) are all too close to call with some five days remaining.

If he’s to win, Biden must win the majority of these states. He’s been relentless in his frequent trips to Pennsylvania, and at every opportunity points out that he was born there.

The electoral mathematics are complicated, but if Biden can turn some of the swing states that voted Republican in the last election, he’ll win in 2020. A win in Pennsylvania will significantly boost the likelihood of a Biden presidency.

So, what are the drivers in these states?

Now we get to the politics

This is where the messy politics of the US comes into play. The big domestic issues are social inequality, unemployment, racial division, and the economy. They’re all connected, but the degree varies depending on the state. Again, these issues in the swing states are the key.

Voters must decide if Trump has been effective and is deserving of another term. Has he made their lives better or worse? History tends to favour incumbent presidents, even unpopular ones.

Yes, Trump has been a highly polarising and divisive president. But he’s acted on some of the initiatives that appealed to his voter base that saw him elected in 2016. He’s pushed back on China with the trade dispute, and attempted to bring back disappearing manufacturing jobs. He’s jumped on institutions such as the WTO for making decisions he sees as counter to American interests.

In a similar vein, Trump has frequently chided and repudiated allied nations, notably NATO states, which he claimed were ripping off the US.

On the home front, he made substantial tax cuts that some see as beneficial to the economy, an important factor in the industrial swing states.

“A close outcome, with votes coming in after election day, in favour of Biden will be bitterly fought in the courts. Such an outcome may well suit Trump, who would be happy to see the process dragged out.”

But this year is different. A global pandemic hangs, inescapably, over the campaign. Trump has presided over a botched response process that has resulted in the deaths of more than 226,000 Americans. His cavalier attitude towards the management of the virus has caused many who voted for him in 2016 to cast a vote for Biden in 2020.

Nevertheless, Trump persists in claiming that his administration is doing a fine job mitigating the effects of COVID-19. Many of his supporters, and many in key swing states, still believe him.

It should be noted that some of these swing states are more conservative than others. They will lean more towards Trump than others.

The state of the economy, the level of unemployment, and the ongoing racial troubles are going to be a key driver of the way others vote right up to election day. It could yet be a close result, and that may play well for Trump.

Donal Trump, wearing gloves, addressing a campaign rally
President Donald Trump is on a whirlwind tour of “battleground” states as the election nears. 

A supreme complication

With the recent death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Trump has successfully put a conservative, Amy Coney Barret, on the Supreme Court bench. This issue has become another late complication in the contest. Coming so close to election day, this was a highly controversial move.

However, with a Republican-controlled Senate, it was always a done deal. This means Trump has had the surprising fortune of putting three judges on the Supreme Court bench in only one term. The court is now stacked with six conservative judges to the three seen as liberal.

Recent comments by Brett Kavanaugh, Trump’s controversial 2018 appointee, suggest that the Supreme Court is ready to weigh in on any contentious election result. Any mail-in ballots that arrive after election day will be grounds for lawsuits and trouble over the count.

A close outcome, with votes coming in after election day, in favour of Biden will be bitterly fought in the courts. Such an outcome may well suit Trump, who would be happy to see the process dragged out.

There is precedent here, as we saw in the 2000 election. George W. Bush won 271 electoral votes to Al Gore’s 266. Florida was at the centre of the drama. The Supreme Court awarded the 29 contested electoral votes to the Republicans, and with it the keys to the White House. A conservative majority court bench could find similarly in Trump’s favour should history repeat.

Furthermore, in 2020 the political environment in the US is far more charged than it was in 2000. Social inequality and racial divisions are rife. The economy is in a far more parlous state, and unemployment sits at 8%. By comparison, it was 3.9% at the time of the 2000 election. Not since 1968 has the presidential election been held with such rancour and division among US citizens.

As if that wasn’t enough, there’s one more thing making this an election unlike another.

The COVID complication

Like the sword of Damocles, over all of these problems hangs COVID-19. How it’s impacted votes being cast and voter turnout isn’t yet clear. It’s caused some to change their allegiance and vote for Biden in the face of Trump’s inept handling of the contagion. How many exactly will only become apparent as results roll in on Tuesday.

Nor is it clear whether COVID has prevented some from voting at all due to fear of being out in public. This is an important reason for the Democrats encouraging people to vote early and to utilise mail-in ballots. The number of early votes cast has been unprecedented.

Should Biden win, his first priority will be to curb the devastation wrought by COVID-19 on the nation. That in itself may prove to be highly divisive.

Presidential candidate Joe Biden addressing a rally in Georgia
Joe Biden addressing a rally in Georgia. The former vice-president needs to “win big” to put the result beyond doubt.

And in conclusion …

Current polling shows that voter opinions have barely changed since the last presidential debate. Biden’s numbers look good. If these numbers are true, if they hold, then there will be a new president on 4 November. What happens after the election, however, will depend on the margin of victory, be it a Trump or a Biden win.

Given all the uncertainty, if Biden should win, he needs to win by a significant margin. A drawn-out legal contest to be decided by the Supreme Court, as was the case in late 2000, will put additional pressure on an already strained nation.

A slim, contested margin may well lead to more civil unrest and further division in an already divided nation. Trump has been slippery on the question of whether or not he’ll concede a close result.

With its social and political fabric well and truly frayed, what happens after the election will test the unity of the United States.

If Biden is to win, he must put the result beyond doubt by winning big.

This article was published by Lens.