We are now in the theoretical end game for the 2020 United States presidential election.
November 3rd will be the final day of the contest between Republican incumbent Donald Trump and Democrat challenger Joe Biden, although the reality of vote-by-mail and early voting means people makes November 3rd the last day ballots can be cast rather than necessarily voting day.
It has been nearly 30 years since the last incumbent President lost the re-election attempt – the last one was George Bush Sr in 1992. Polls have mainly suggested that this would break the streak, with Biden consistently leading the polls since he was confirmed as candidate, but the Democrat camp is not getting carried away after 2016’s polls gave the wrong outcome.
But the world should also be braced for November 4th to not be the end of it all. In truth, everything may well be up in the air until the Electoral College confirm the results for good around a month later, maybe even Inauguration Day itself in January.
Maybe it would be ever thus. The last 10 years have been consistently crazy, before 2020 itself became a whole new level. America has been one of the nations worst hit by coronavirus with over 230,000 Americans dead – more than US losses during the Vietnam War, and nearly half as much as those from World War 2. The country is also now going through either a third wave or simply new heights of the same outbreak, depending on who you ask.
Meanwhile, the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis in May after the actions of local police has lead to a resurgence of the Black Lives Matter cause, and huge scale demands for reform to fight racial injustice. These have continued after further, similar cases dotted throughout the year, including one just this week in Philadelphia.
2020’s chaos adds to unresolved tensions from the last US election in 2016, which saw Trump somehow end up in the White House despite registering 3 million fewer votes nationwide than Hillary Clinton, and the chaotic presidency of Trump, which mainly seems to have mainly achieved a tax cut for the rich and making asylum/immigration significantly harder, and going from “draining the swamp” in Washington to make a bigger swamp.
The election takes place amid a backdrop of extreme political polarisation that is clashing with a system that is supposed to encourage parties to work together. This is not a new phenomenon, but since 2016, there has been tension described by many as a culture war, driven in part by social media’s curation of thought bubbles and separate conversations, and the real sense of two Americas where both assume they’re automatically right.
The atmosphere is not normal, and it wasn’t in the years before 2020, but now, its absolutely not normal for there to be civilians with assault rifles claiming they’re protecting democracy, yet here we are.
Part of the fear for this carrying on is of course the factor that Trump is a terrible loser driven by his massive ego. He is already claiming any result that has anything other than him winning will be a fraudulent result, which doesn’t bode well for any thoughts of reconciliation.
Trump’s terrible handling of the covid pandemic should be a disqualifier in and of itself, but the Republican brand he’s attached to still carries lustre, and many are willing to overlook elements of its nastier side. It also does have something to note that 2016 exposed the electoral college make-up as having a slight Republican bias, and the efforts of Mitch McConnell means several courts that might be required to rule on this are packed with conservative-biased judges.
This blind support is to say nothing of the weird lengths some people take to justify support, not least the suspicious QAnon conspiracy accusing the Democrats and Hollywood of being run by Satanist child-killers or paedophiles that, to an outsider, reads like a Reddit or 8Chan joke that got out of hand.
Yet there are suspicions about whether Biden, who is 3 years old than Trump, is the right long-term bet to try and fix things. While he has talked more solid policy recently, his main thing for running was simply “I’m best placed to beat Trump”, hence his preference over the more out-there candidates like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, but its still something people may not find suitably inspiring even before the odd brain fade in quotes.
As well as the flaws for candidates, there are structural problems that feel like another pressure point. One of those is the electoral college, of which Richard Nixon said in 1970 that America was gambling each Presidential election would work one more time and which has still not been fixed.
Bipartisan plans to replace it at the time failed in the Senate, while the fact its counting system put a popular vote loser into the White House twice in the last 20 years and which many think could do it again means it is clearly causing problems.
Then there are fears over the ballots themselves. There has been past evidence of faulty voting machines, a lack of polling places and poll workers leading to long queues, talk that other countries have hacked voter registration data or are sending harmful advertising and insidious attempts by Trump and his Republican acolytes to make it harder to vote by mail, which has even included starving the US Postal Service of funding, or even just to vote full stop.
Voter suppression in recent years has been a real point of inquiry the Republican Party needs to provide an answer for, given the ideals of America as a democracy jar with the fact it puts so much effort into trying to stop (largely non-white) people voting rather than trying to appeal to voters.
Structural problems like this will continue to do so unless somebody fixes it. And this means truly fixing it, given that the last few weeks have seen several ad hoc legal decisions being made recently almost on a state-by-state basis as to when the vote counting will actually stop, which doesn’t really count as a fix. It leads as well to possibility of a “red mirage” or a “blue shift”, where states initially declare for Trump but reveal to actually be for Biden.
Whether the US has the appetite to do so in the fact of a late of people who will cite “tradition” or thinking it goes against the will of the founding fathers is, of course, another question.
Yet early talk is that this might be a year where the endless “Go out and vote” advertising that dominates social media even to us in the UK during US election years may be sinking through. America has not had a ballot top 60% turnout since Richard Nixon’s first win in 1968, even though it has stabilised after the nadir of 1996 when it dropped below 50%. yet talk is that this may be the year the people turn up in their millions.
Early talk suggests this one could be America’s highest turnout in years, which would be an achievement in and of itself, let alone in the middle of a pandemic that the US government seems to have accepted its not going to control. Though this could be its own argument, with endless fears as to how ballots might end up being disqualified on technicalities.
All of this adds to the extreme exhausting factor in this election, and adds to the reality that, rather than being an end to the chaos, election day itself may only be the start. The only way it may be anything other than a topic for dispute is if we have an immediate on-the-day landslide, which feels unlikely.
US elections have, in the last few decades, felt like the world’s election, where the rest of us 7+ billion people are waiting on what the number of US voters want to do. But equally, as well as the ballot, there’s every sense that a chaotic year is the right breeding ground for yet more chaos to come, and as much as we’d like it to be straight forward, its worth bracing for any more twists and turns yet to be revealed.