With a record number of Americans having already voted and the rest preparing to do so today, the endless electioneering will soon be quieted and replaced by noxious Election Day and post-election anxiety on all sides.
Democrats truly believe in their minds that Joe Biden’s enduring lead in public polling – shrinking in recent days – is larger than that of the vanquished Hillary Clinton four years ago. Still, their spirit is in a state of high alert bordering on paranoia, replete with Vietnam-style flashbacks to the horrors of 2016 and the specter of a replay in these next hours and days. Their optimism is reflected in late campaign appearances by Biden and his running mate Kamala Harris in GOP strongholds Georgia, Texas, and Ohio. Their pessimism is revealed in Biden’s late visit to Minnesota, which Democrats have carried for the last 48 years.
Republicans are feeling what they believe – or hope – is a surge, a groundswell even for Donald Trump in the closing days of the campaign, not so much nationally but concentrated in the swing states the president has visited with increasing frequency during his closing kick. As in 2016, Trump placed an emphatic exclamation point on his campaign with a dizzying flurry of rallies across critical battlegrounds, which both sides agree will decide the election – Florida, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Arizona, Michigan, and Wisconsin. He did five rallies in five different states on Sunday and five more events on Monday. His campaign was at least optimistic enough to send Trump to three states over the final days that he lost last time: Minnesota, Nevada, and New Hampshire. At the same time, GOP anxiety is at peak level over the possibility that the polls are right this time and that history in the form of the shock election of 2016 is very difficult to repeat in the face of relentless, overwhelming and unparalleled opposition from the political and media establishment.
But as in all such quadrennial election years, the power wielded by the winner at the top of the ballot will depend largely on results down the ballot, which includes 470 congressional contests (435 in the House, 35 in the Senate) along with countless state and local races and ballot initiatives. Maintaining control of the upper chamber presents an acute source of worry for the GOP, as the composition of the next Senate may not be finally determined until two tightly contested races in Georgia are (potentially) settled in run-off races weeks after today. Republicans hold a current 53-47 edge but are defending almost twice as many seats in this election as Democrats (23-12). The GOP also faces an uphill battle in the House, where they need a net gain of 21 seats to win majority status.
But as the excesses of a bitter campaign give way on Wednesday to charges of electoral malfeasance and/or hanging chad syndrome, pre-election jitters on both sides may soon be replaced by a post-election cold sweat over the inevitably extended counting of ballots – and whatever outcome ultimately awaits. The pivotal state of Pennsylvania only started counting mail-in ballots this morning, and deadlines have been extended in other key swing states, foremost among them, Pennsylvania and North Carolina.
The calculation that only a landslide for Biden could prevent widespread civil unrest is likely true. An overwhelming victory by Trump would avoid recounts, but likely induce riots of untold magnitude. If either candidate breaks the tape in a photo finish or by any challengeable margin, the outcome will be disputed, recounts will be demanded, and ugly fights over mail-in ballots will be certain to ensue for who knows how long. The worst-case scenario comes from 2000, when George W. Bush captured the presidency in the tightest outcome in American history – by a margin of 537 votes in Florida. It took 33 days past the election – and the U.S. Supreme Court’s intervention – to reach the final verdict.
The problem of Americans’ anxiety about the very legitimacy of the outcome is already baked in and speaks to the alarming issue of election integrity. A recent Gallup poll revealed that 44% of voters do not believe that votes will be accurately cast and counted, with more than 70% of Republicans saying this will not be a free and fair election. The GOP believes their opponents will “find” or “harvest” votes in states where ballots are accepted beyond Election Day. Democrats’ fears are based around Trump using (unspecified) intimidation tactics to lower turnout and then prematurely declaring victory tonight or early Wednesday. The Dems have long been fearful of the fallout from GOP-fueled voter ID laws and scrubbing of voter rolls. Each side is convinced the other is employing some form of voter suppression or subversion.
But beyond the inevitable post-election wringing of hands, end zone dance for the winner and blame game for the loser, stands the looming shadow of renewed and uncontained urban violence, and of course, a pandemic which refuses to go away and has sent another wave across a significant swath of the nation. The overwrought citizenry will soon replace their electoral anxiety with a now-familiar day-to-day concern about protecting their families’ health, safety, and livelihoods, and about the state of a reviving yet still fragile national economy and a disturbingly schismatic culture.
When you are fearful of electoral upheaval in its many possible forms, the best plan is to seek safe shelter – mentally, emotionally and spiritually. Ingest a chill pill. Expect the best and prepare for the worst. Have faith, if possible, in the fair judgment of the American people. And remember, through it all and no matter who wins, the sun will come up tomorrow, and we will continue to rest our future on those six most precious words in the free world: the privacy of the voting booth.
Read more from Tim Donner.