vision 2020

Why Trump Could Have an Election Night Lead in Blue States

A recurring nightmare for progressives? Photo: Mark Wilson/Getty Images

It’s probably safe to say that a lot of progressive Americans look forward to Election Day 2020 in hopes of exorcising the demons that turned their worlds upside down on November 8, 2016. A year after that bizarre night, I was still not quite over it:

I sometimes envy those who had a full emotional breakdown on November 8, 2016, and then had time to fully recover. There are ways to cope with post-traumatic stress disorder. Post-Trump stress disorder is a condition that will continue to cause less evolved progressives like me terrible tremors, until such time as there is a 46th president and new hopes and fears emerge. At my age, that can’t happen too soon.

At the moment, in the wake of the 2020 RNC, Trump’s reelection prospects don’t look good. The Caligula-like excesses of his acceptance speech on the White House lawn on Thursday night feel more like a final desperate abuse of power than the beginning of another Electoral College coup. But unless the Biden-Trump race turns into a true rout, the likelihood of any Election Night catharsis for Democrats is quite low, for reasons some of us have been writing about for some time now. As I wrote last month:

Polls are … 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.

Now comes Nathaniel Rakich with some fresh polling data on this possibility and what it might portend for those gazing at TV screens on the evening of November 3:

According to a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, 30 percent of registered voters said they planned to vote by mail, and 43 percent said they planned to vote in person on Election Day. But among Trump supporters, only 11 percent said they planned to vote by mail, and 66 percent said they planned to vote in person on Election Day. Among Joe Biden backers, 47 percent said they planned to vote by mail, while only 26 percent said they planned to vote in person on Election Day. (The share who said they would vote early in person was consistently 20-21 percent among all three groups: Trump supporters, Biden supporters and voters overall.)

If this holds, it would mean votes cast on Election Day would skew heavily toward Trump, and votes cast by mail would skew heavily toward Biden.

How heavily might the Election Day vote skew? Crazy far, says Rakich:

In the NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll overall, Biden led Trump by 9 percentage points among registered voters. But Biden led Trump by 63 points (!) among voters who planned to vote by mail, and Trump led Biden by 33 points among voters who planned to vote in person on Election Day. If this kind of partisan split occurred in every state, Biden would win the mail vote in all 50 states — from Alabama to Wyoming — and Trump would win the Election Day vote in all 50 …

We could — not necessarily will, but could — have absurd initial results like Trump winning Massachusetts or Illinois.

It’s possible that Trump could even lead in New York State, his very blue former home state, on Election Night, especially given the state’s troubles in counting mail ballots after the June 23 primary.

As Rakich cautions, votes cast on Election Day are not the only votes reported on Election Night: There are in-person early votes, which may actually tilt Democratic, and then in some states mail ballots received well before Election Day may be counted pretty quickly. In addition, how the whole deal goes down may depend significantly on how media choose to report and explain it. The exit polls media outlets rely on to “call” elections will be affected by any partisan gap in when votes are cast, which means supplemental polling to assess early voting will become very important; the odds of exit-poll data being “off” may well be much higher than in past elections. And as Elaine Kamarck recently noted, the need for caution and patience in this particular election cuts against deeply instilled competitive instincts:

If differences between in-person and absentee results persist and if the networks rush to judgement on election night, they will play right into the hands of conspiracy theorists who will argue that the election was rigged and corrupt. This is why, right now, it is the civic duty of network news executives to keep from rushing to judgement on election night and to explain to the public that it will take longer to count the votes than usual.

Some media outlets, of course, may have particular reasons to “rush to judgment,” particularly if “their” candidate is claiming victory on the basis of Election Day returns and suggesting that the mail ballots slowly being counted later are part of an effort to steal the presidency. But ultimately, we can talk about these scenarios endlessly (and we should until it really sinks in and even Fox News viewers understand that many millions of entirely legitimate votes are going to be counted and reported after Election Night) without being able to completely predict how the country will react if on the evening of November 3, Donald Trump has taken a big lead in Massachusetts. Heads still tender from November 2016 may explode. And in MAGA-land, a mighty roar of triumph may spill into the streets. Get your psychic Go Kit in order, progressives. On Election Night, it could get crazy dark before the dawn.

Why Trump Could Have an Election Night Lead in Blue States