Donald Trump tells lots of lies. But he lies most adventurously about elections. Even when it was clear he had lost the popular vote by millions of ballots and won the Electoral College by a handful of razor-thin margins in battleground states, he claimed on November 27, 2016, that “in addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” Both statements were false. But Trump was determined to control the narrative, and he has maintained that determination to such an extent that his supporters imagine him to be far more popular than polls have ever suggested.
So what are the chances that an embattled and desperate Trump will try to control the narrative when the results of the 2020 election begin to trickle in? What are the chances that he will cry fraud when none exists? What are the chances that he will declare victory even if he’s losing? The answer to those questions came on August 17 of this year in Oshkosh, Wis., where he told supporters, “The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged. Remember that. It’s the only way we’re going to lose this election.” He knows this is not true. Yet he has already proved he will seize every opening to foster the chaos, confusion, and legal malfeasance that might allow him to snatch victory from the jaws of defeat.
Don’t think it can happen? It already has. In 2000, during the fight over who would win Florida’s electoral votes, George W. Bush and his Republican lieutenants fostered the illusion that he was a winner-in-waiting in the days following a too-close-to-call election. He formally declared victory on November 26 of that year—at a point when Democrats were legitimately contesting the results. Twelve days later, Florida’s Supreme Court ordered a manual recount that might have confirmed an Al Gore victory if it had not been upended the next day by a Bush-friendly majority on the US Supreme Court. Even though avenues existed for fighting on, Karl Rove and the Bush team were so successful in conjuring fantasies of Bush’s inevitability and legitimacy that Gore conceded in what looked like a hostage video.
Trump may not be interested in history, but rest assured that he and his aides are well aware of the maneuvers that gave Bush the presidency. The real issue in 2020 is whether the Democrats will give Trump the space to dictate the story of November 3 and what comes after.
To address it, let’s deal in something the president eschews: facts.
November 3 is just a way station on the circuitous route to choosing the next president. December 14, 2020, is the day the Electoral College votes. On January 6, 2021, a joint session of Congress counts the electoral votes, and—if there are no objections—the winners of the presidency and vice presidency are formally announced. If Democrats Joe Biden and Kamala Harris prevail and if Vice President Mike Pence, as the president of the Senate, announces the name of Trump’s successor on that day, the pieces will be in place for the peaceful transfer of power on January 20.
But the vagaries of the Constitution and the statutes that extend from it leave enormous openings for what is insufficiently described as mischief. Nothing in Trump’s history suggests that he will respect norms that do not benefit him. This has led to widespread speculation about the lengths to which he might go to keep the presidency.
Trump has clearly signaled one of the routes he’ll take, starting with objecting to voting by mail. On September 17 he tweeted, “Because of the new and unprecedented massive amount of unsolicited ballots which will be sent to ‘voters’, or wherever, this year, the Nov 3rd Election result may NEVER BE ACCURATELY DETERMINED, which is what some want.” Wrong. The result will be determined, though maybe not on a normal timeline. This is where the question of who controls the narrative before and after Election Day becomes vital.
Fifty-eight percent of likely voters plan to vote early or by mail. In the roughly 20 states that allow ballots postmarked on or around November 3 to be counted if they arrive after Election Day—including battleground states such as Iowa, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and perhaps Wisconsin—results may not be known for a week or more.
Even with recounts of close states, that’s plenty of time to meet the Electoral College deadline. Unfortunately, it’s also plenty of time for Trump to engage in bad-faith maneuvers throwing a divided country into chaos. How? Democrats are more enthused about voting by mail than Republicans. For instance, in Wisconsin a Marquette University Law School poll in August found that, of people who said they’ll vote by mail, 81 percent supported Biden and 14 percent favored Trump. Among those who planned to vote in person on Election Day, 67 percent supported Trump, versus 26 percent for Biden. But initial returns from battleground states will highlight the sentiments of in-person voters, because many mail ballots arrive after Election Day and ones that arrive before then aren’t counted until later.
The fact that in-person votes will shape early results creates the prospect, according to the data and technology firm Hawkfish, that a “red mirage” could emerge on election night. At a point when most ballots remain uncounted, Trump could lead nationally and in critical battleground states. “We can anticipate that the president and at least Fox News, likely, but many others, are going to declare victory at that point,” Ellen Konar, Hawkfish’s vice president of voter research, told USA Today. “They’re not going to say, ‘Oh, let’s hold off. We don’t have all the ballots in.’”
In one Hawkfish scenario, Trump could enjoy a projected Electoral College count of 408-130 on election night—with under 20 percent of the votes counted—only to see Biden win 334-204. If the final margin’s that wide, Trump’s gambit may simply embarrass the president and his gullible supporters. But what if it’s closer? What if key states require arduous recounts? Then Trump’s lies get traction.
Trump could claim headlines, dominate social media, and deliver his victory speech at the start of a process that is destined to turn against him. In so doing, he wouldn’t just create a false impression. He would open space for the same Republican legal teams that worked to make it hard to vote before the election to make it hard to count votes after the election. With objections to nonexistent voter fraud, he could give allies encouragement to disrupt and discredit the ongoing count. “This is what sets up a potential disaster,” tweeted David Axelrod, who ran Barack Obama’s presidential campaigns. With Election Day voting favoring Trump and mail-in voting favoring Biden, we could see “Trump claiming fraud as the count turns against him.”
This is where Republican legislatures and conservative courts could advance Trump’s agenda. The Constitution reads, “Each State shall appoint, in such Manner as the Legislature thereof may direct, a Number of Electors.” It’s been accepted since the 19th century that voters appoint electors on Election Day. But that’s not always required. During the Bush v. Gore imbroglio, Republican leaders in the Florida legislature entertained the prospect of short-circuiting the long recount process and simply naming pro-Bush electors. It didn’t come to that in 2000 because the high court closed the deal. But anyone who doubts that Trump might provoke a constitutional crisis—and all the chaos associated with it, including an Electoral College breakdown that might steer the fight into the halls of Congress—has not been paying attention to this president or to Attorney General Bill Barr.
Is the Trumpocalypse inevitable? Not necessarily. If voters deliver a decisive message, the “red mirage” might never appear. Further, if Democrats flip the Senate out of Mitch McConnell’s hands, many possible scenarios after January 3 could be decided by a Congress that is constitutionally empowered to put an end to Trump’s nonsense.
If the results are slower to emerge, Biden and the Democrats must grab the narrative from Trump. That’s where Gore failed in 2000. He imagined that the courts and the media would do the heavy lifting. But the Supreme Court was a lost cause in December 2000, and it will be more of a lost cause in December 2020.
Biden and Harris must play hardball before Election Day, with a clear message that the best way to avoid chaos is a decisive result in the presidential and Senate races. Their campaign and the Democratic Party must defend the count at every turn—placing a greater emphasis on election security than ever before, working with state and local officials to keep the system running, and having lawyers and money at the ready if and when it breaks down. Above all, Biden must forge the narrative, on every platform and with fierce urgency, about the danger to the republic posed by any and every assault Trump will launch on the vote. No concessions. No compromises. No punches pulled. No rest until January 20.