vision 2020

Joe Biden Needs to Win Big to Avoid a Contested Election

How big a Biden win will it take to convince Trump he should go away quietly? Photo: Sean Rayford/Alex Wong/Getty Images

Like any candidate for any office, Joe Biden would obviously love to win big in this year’s presidential election. It would be good for his ego, good for his party (especially for down-ballot candidates), and good for the political capital he could amass upon taking office. Hell, a big enough win might even accomplish the goal so often articulated by Biden’s old boss Barack Obama: “breaking the fever” of extremism in the Republican Party.

But there is now a more immediate reason Biden may really need to win big: the increasingly strong likelihood that anything other than a landslide may lead Donald Trump to contest the results on the phony-baloney grounds that the mail ballots almost certain to be cast in large numbers are fraudulent and represent a “rigged” election he actually won.

This intention is the only logical explanation for the extraordinary effort Trump has placed on discrediting voting by mail, as I noted in May:

Trump is now regularly claiming that voting by mail is inherently illegitimate, except for grudging exceptions for people who can’t make it to the polls. So, presumably, states that allow for no-excuse voting by mail in November are holding “substantially fraudulent” elections. That’s 34 states who do so by law (including battleground states Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin), 11 more that so far are waiving excuse requirements this pandemic year (including New Hampshire), and another that may be forced to do so by a lawsuit (Texas).

So in a very real sense, unless Trump backs off his claims that voting by mail means a “rigged election,” he’s letting us know that he and his supporters will be justified in challenging any adverse results in states that allow this terrible practice to take place.

Republicans are intensely engaged in efforts (successful in Texas) to keep the plague of no-excuse absentee ballots contained, but it’s still likely that a sizable majority of states, and most of the Electoral College battlegrounds, will have abundant voting by mail, particularly if COVID-19 doesn’t significantly diminish. But here’s the really perverse twist: Trump’s relentless campaign against voting by mail (which in the past has been as popular among Republicans as among Democrats) is beginning to convince Republicans to vote in person on Election Day, as the Washington Post reported recently:

In several primaries this spring, Democratic voters have embraced mail ballots in far larger numbers than Republicans during a campaign season defined by the coronavirus pandemic. And when they urge their supporters to vote by mail, GOP campaigns around the country are hearing from more and more Republican voters who say they do not trust absentee ballots, according to multiple strategists. In one particularly vivid example, a group of Michigan voters held a public burning of their absentee ballot applications last month.

Polls are also showing a large and growing partisan gap in willingness to vote by mail.

This disparity could feed Trump’s willingness to contest an adverse result. In most states, Election Day results are reported first (and in all states they are counted before late-arriving mail ballots and provisional ballots, both of which already tend to skew Democratic). So if Republicans are disproportionately voting in person and Democrats are disproportionately voting by mail, misleading early returns may show Trump and other Republicans doing much better than they will eventually do, enabling Trump to claim fraud when those evil mail ballots turn it all around for Biden and his Democrats.

Anyone doubting this is a plausible scenario needs to look back to 2018, when Republican congressional leaders Paul Ryan and Kevin McCarthy made specious claims of voter fraud when late-arriving mail ballots predictably shifted the results in key House races in California. It could have been a dress rehearsal for what might happen this November.

Election-law expert Rick Hasen has a very specific scenario in mind:

“As Trump drives more and more of his supporters to vote in person and away from vote-by-mail, it’s quite likely that we’ll see Trump getting many more votes on Election Night, the votes that are counted on Election Day,” Hasen said in an interview on “The Long Game,” a Yahoo News podcast.

“Then, four or five days later, [if] Biden becomes the winner as the absentee ballots are counted in Philadelphia or Detroit, that’s a recipe, if it’s close, for a really ugly election scenario,” he said.

Hasen pinpointed Philadelphia and Detroit in particular because they are both big cities in swing states that decided the 2016 election, and both cities have a track record of what Hasen calls “electoral incompetence.”

Note Hasen’s qualifier: “if it’s close.” A comfortable Biden win in Michigan and Pennsylvania (and other battleground states) might neutralize any Trump scheme to challenge the results, as I observed last week in a post on the consequences of a Democratic “tsunami:”

Even if Trump managed to post early leads in some competitive states based on heavy in-person Election Day voting by Republicans, they wouldn’t last long, and the Biden wave in later-counted (mostly mail) ballots would be too large and national to attribute to any sort of wire-pulling, particularly given Republican control of the election machinery in some of these states.

A Biden tsunami is definitely the best, and possibly the only, way to avoid disinformation about the results in a year when a slow count is going to definitely occur.

How big a Biden win might reasonably avoid the contested-election scenario? It’s hard to say at this point, but here’s a chilling bit of intel from Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman based on what happened in a special congressional election in New York recently:

Now to be clear, Joe Biden and his campaign have at best a limited ability to influence his margin of victory and are obviously going to ensure there is some victory to celebrate before worrying too much about its size. But certainly on the margins, the Biden campaign can influence the scope of the electoral battlefield via advertising and other investments, and it can also choose a strategy and message that take some risks with a potential payoff in a larger-than-necessary win. Thanks to what happened in 2016, few Democrats in or beyond the campaign are likely to be overconfident, so “running scared” and running up the score in the polls shouldn’t be that controversial.

But totally aside from its other benefits, putting away Trump on Election Night might avoid putting the country through the nightmare of a contested election producing massive litigation, partisan skullduggery (e.g., Republican-controlled legislatures trying to name electors as Florida’s very nearly did in 2000), and possibly unrest and even violence. If the most important energizer for Democratic voters this year is getting Trump out of the White House, giving him any opportunity to stick around could be disastrous.

Joe Biden Needs to Win Big to Avoid a Contested Election