For a number of months now, good political risk man that I am, I have worried aloud in these pages with increasing dread about the 2020 US presidential election.
There are times when you hate being right about making correct political risk calls. The Iraq War debacle was surely such an occasion for me.
Sadly, the ongoing mess that is the 2020 presidential contest is another.
For beyond the polarised politics of the moment in the US, something more banal — the process by which elections are carried out themselves — has greatly concerned me. I have called this, here and in other thought pieces, the curse of the Mail-In Vote. And like a horror movie, after last night’s shocking, if partial, presidential results, that curse is now visited upon us. It will be devastating for America, whatever the outcome.
The facts leading up to this harrowingly correct political risk call have all moved forward like a nightmare. Due to understandable fears of the coronavirus, many Americans decided to vote by postal ballots rather than in person — around 50 per cent, up from 25 per cent in 2016.
Disproportionately, these voters are Democrats. In five battleground states, fully 52 per cent of those who asked for postal ballots identified as Democrats, with 28 per cent being Republicans and 20 per cent independents. So this grouping of votes is a possibly decisive factor in any close race.
In the three pivotal Midwest battleground states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, all only begin to count postal votes after the polls close in their states (an obviously stupid idea) and generally after the in-person votes are cast, making for an endless process which in a close race fans the flames of political uncertainty. This seemingly anodyne procedural reality has led the American Republic straight into the jaws of catastrophe.
Now we come to last night’s results. Against all the odds, Donald Trump managed to (almost) run the gamut of must-win states, keeping his far-fetched hopes of re-election alive. While Trump does appear to have lost Arizona, he won all of the other toss-ups he absolutely needed to have, including pivotal Florida and Ohio, and quite likely North Carolina and Georgia.
When all is said and done, former vice president Joe Biden has around 244 electoral votes and Trump 247, with 270 needed and with only the three midwestern states left in play.
Everything is left to play for.
As of this morning, due to the votes of those who did so in person, Trump is ahead in all three. As Real Clear Politics Reports, with 70 per cent of the vote counted in Michigan he holds an eight per cent lead. The same story holds true in absolutely vital Pennsylvania, where with 75 per cent of the vote counted, the president is up by 13 per cent. In Wisconsin, with almost all the votes counted (96 per cent), Trump is also ahead, if by the smaller margin of four per cent.
It is at this point that our postal voting process story collides with political reality, causing the greatest of political risks.
Postal votes in all three states are tallied last. In each state Trump has a seemingly commanding lead, but one that, given the voting rules we have discussed, is inevitably due to be whittled down. The President has already, in his devastating, unfounded and paranoid speech of last night, charged (in the absence of facts) that the electoral process is rigged and that the Democrats are out to steal the election.
These baseless charges, causing immense reputational damage to the republic itself, come even before Trump’s lead is inevitably narrowed. Imagine the President’s rhetorical behaviour as the process moves along.
If Trump wins the election, he has committed an act of the gravest self-harm, calling his own mandate into question. If Trump begins to lose, look for an endless series of court challenges, taking weeks and heading to a polarised Supreme Court, fundamentally discrediting an administration of either stripe even before it takes office.
Ironically, all this makes it entirely clear that the real winner of the 2020 vote is: Xi Jinping of China. President Xi’s pitch to Asia and the rest of the world, that a declining America is increasingly unstable, polarised, self-involved and inept (as in “America cannot even organise an election”) is highly likely to have a whole new salience after the contested presidential race of 2020.
The era is changing quickly. American political self-harm is beginning to cause it — and its allies — long-term and irreparable damage.
Main image credit: Getty