Last updated on September 23, 2020
GOTV and get a Biden landslide.
With a few notable exceptions, like my estimable colleague Jonathan V. Last, it seems that nobody wants to predict the November 3 election—not the staunchest partisans and particularly not the professional prognosticators. Snake-bit from 2016, they’re all hedging with terms like “the race seems stable” (translation: Biden is comfortably ahead) or “Trump has a 26 percent chance” of winning (which strikes me as CYA).
What the heck, I predict that Joe Biden will win in a landslide. I know, I know, there are all those Trump flotillas out there. And no one knows how the virus will affect turnout. And there could be “shy Trump voters” who will surge to the polls on election day. And the country is so polarized that the era of landslide victories is over. And remember what happened in 2016!
Fine. Most of that could be true, and Biden could still win in a landslide.
While there is no historical analog to 2020 (and hopefully never will be again), the contest that most resembles it, I submit, is 1980. The final two years of Jimmy Carter’s presidency were terrible for the country. The oil shock following the 1979 Iranian revolution sent prices soaring, while the Federal Reserve’s tight money policy to fight inflation sent the economy into its worst recession since World War II. The unemployment rate in 1980 was 7.2 percent, which may not seem so bad to 2020 eyes, but it was combined with an inflation
In 2020, the electorate is even less satisfied with the incumbent than they were in 1980. Trump has trailed Biden consistently since Biden emerged as the Democratic frontrunner and later the nominee. As in 1980, the country is beset by troubles—a pandemic, a severe recession, and racial strife. And unlike Carter, Trump has never enjoyed majority support. The electorate is poised to fire the president.
The one remaining test they need is to see Biden pass is debate. Pundits keep saying that Trump and Biden are well-known figures and that there aren’t going to be any surprises in the race. I’m not so sure. Trump is known. But is Biden? Sure, people know he served in the Senate and as Barack Obama’s vice president. But do they have a real sense of how he talks, how he interacts with others, how he leads? Fewer than 20 million Americans watched the Democratic debates. And those committed enough to tune in to the intra-Democrat contest are probably not in doubt about which party to support in November. About 25 million watched some portion of the Democratic Convention, but how many of those were undecideds? Hard to know. An estimated 156 million Americans will vote in November.
Forewarned is always forearmed. Remember, “no battle plan survives first contact with the enemy.” And there likely will be lawfare, if not a few RW insurrectionists like the Boogaloos wanting that “first shot” of the Second/Third Civil War. Trump needs that insurgency if only to try to threaten those who would prosecute him once he loses with something, something civil disorder.
Some reports are more worth reading than others.
The report warns that a desperate Trump could push the American republic to the breaking point. The authors even envision scenarios in which Trump wins the Electoral College but loses the popular vote and exploits the ensuing unrest, goading Western states into attempting to secede from the Union.
Increasingly, election observers point to the possibility of Trump using the courts to contest so many states’ ballot tallies that the Supreme Court ends up as the ultimate arbiter, as happened in the 2000 election. In some scenarios he loses, but his campaign refuses to accept state results, aiming to tie up the process so that states can’t certify their results in time for the January inauguration. In others he dispenses with the legal niceties and simply refuses to cede power, banking on enough backing from quasi-military agencies supportive of his agenda, such as Immigration and Customs Enforcement and Customs and Border Protection as well as law enforcement agencies at the local level and militia groups, that it would take a military intervention to bounce him from the White House. Something like this scenario was outlined in an open letter to Gen. Mark Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, by two Iraq War veterans, John Nagl and Paul Yingling, in mid-August. “If Donald Trump refuses to leave office at the expiration of his constitutional term, the United States military must remove him by force, and you must give that order,” they wrote.
After gaming out various scenarios, the group said its conclusions were “alarming:” In an election taking place amid a pandemic, a recession and rising political polarization, the group found a substantial risk of legal battles, a contested outcome, violent street clashes and even a constitutional impasse.
“We assess with a high degree of likelihood that November's elections will be marked by a chaotic legal and political landscape,” the Transition Integrity Project, which organized the “war games,” said in a report this week.
“The winner may not, and we assess likely will not, be known on 'election night' as officials count mail-in ballots,” the report said. “This period of uncertainty provides opportunities for an unscrupulous candidate to cast doubt on the legitimacy of the process and to set up an unprecedented assault on the outcome.”
In each scenario, Team Trump — the players assigned to simulate the Trump campaign and its elected and appointed allies — was ruthless and unconstrained right out of the gate, and Team Biden struggled to get out of reaction mode. In one exercise, for instance, Team Trump’s repeated allegations of fraudulent mail-in ballots led National Guard troop to destroy thousands of ballots in Democratic-leaning ZIP codes, to applause on social media from Trump supporters. Over and over, Team Biden urged calm, national unity and a fair vote count, while Team Trump issued barely disguised calls for violence and intimidation against ballot-counting officials and Biden electors.
Today (8 September) brings a Daily Beast story about the Left prepping for doomsday unless Biden wins in a landslide
But the Transition Integrity Project noted that there would be immense pressure on Biden to fight it out if, for the third time in 20 years, the Democratic candidate won the popular vote but didn’t take office. In a simulation they ran, Team Biden “encouraged Western states, particularly California but also Oregon and Washington, and collectively known as ‘Cascadia,’ to secede from the Union” unless structural reforms were made. In exchange for Trump getting the presidency, for instance, Republicans would need to agree to abolish the Electoral College, give Puerto Rico and D.C. statehood, and divide California into five states for better Senate representation.
Below the surface, it was even more harrowing. In the simulations, the Trump campaign was “consistently more ruthless than Team Biden,” the authors wrote. The options that Team Trump had to use or misuse included manipulating classified information, selectively releasing “classified documents for political purposes, fueling manufactured rumors,” freezing “assets of individuals and groups the president determines to be a threat,” and restricting “internet communications in the name of national security.”
That was just the beginning. The report’s authors noted that Trump could also “rely on surrogates to embed operatives inside protests to encourage violent action” as well as “mobilize a range of law enforcement actors… who might, without proper training or if led by politicized actors, escalate matters.”
In some simulations, the Trump team “succeeded in invoking the Insurrection Act and sending active duty military troops into U.S. cities to ‘restore order,’ ‘protect’ voting places, or confiscate ‘fraudulent’ ballots.” In others, the team “had Attorney General Bill Barr order the seizure of mail-in ballots to ensure that vote counting would stop.” Those running the simulations said there was “quite a bit of speculation that Trump might himself initiate a foreign crisis shortly after the election or during the transition, perhaps to change the media narrative.”
The project of rectifying all this with more resources and a broader substantive commitment to the popular vote from progressive groups and leaders will be vital in the long run. In the short run, obviously, it’s already too late—it is entirely possible Trump will again emerge the victor of a ludicrous and indefensible electoral system that, panicked as they might be about the trajectory of American democracy, nobody in national politics has made a serious effort to challenge.
Boston Globe: “A bipartisan group secretly gathered to game out a contested Trump-Biden election. It wasn’t pretty” — “On the second Friday in June, a group of political operatives, former government and military officials, and academics quietly convened online for what became a disturbing exercise in the fragility of American democracy.”
Newsweek: “Bipartisan Group Predicts 'Violence' If Trump Loses Election and Refuses to Leave White House” — “A bipartisan group of about 80 political operatives and academics has been involved in discussions about what could happen if President Donald Trump were to lose the November election and then contest the results, potentially refusing to leave the White House.”
Financial Times: “How America could fail its democracy test” — “Donald Trump has won the electoral college by a clear margin. Yet America is in ferment. Cities around the world are holding candlelit vigils for US democracy and smaller Democratic states have joined California to threaten 'Calexit.' Unions plan a general strike to pressure chief executives to back America’s majority.”
Washington Post: “Trump’s assault on election integrity forces question: What would happen if he refused to accept a loss?” — “President Trump’s relentless efforts to sow doubts about the legitimacy of this year’s election are forcing both parties to reckon with the possibility that he may dispute the result in November if he loses — leading to an unprecedented test of American democracy.”
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