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Confidence at the Ballot Box, and Beyond

America’s future will be determined on Election Day

Ringer illustration

For the past couple of years, Joe Biden has led Donald Trump in most national polling in the 2020 presidential election. Trump’s long odds of reelection shouldn’t come as a surprise. He’s the most unpopular president to seek reelection since Gerald Ford in 1976. He’s the most persistently unpopular president in the history of polling. There’s profound cynicism in the Republican Party’s hopeful prediction for Tuesday’s election: Trump will lose the popular vote, as he did in 2016, but he’ll recover his vote share, and thus his presidency, in the electoral college. Writing for FiveThirtyEight, Nate Silver notes, “Projected margins in the tipping-point states are considerably tighter than the margins in the national popular vote.” In the most recent polls, Biden holds on to his leads in several critical states (Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Florida) that Trump’s previous opponent, Hillary Clinton, lost four years ago, while also putting some more conservative states (North Carolina, Arizona, Texas) that Trump won handily in 2016 into play.

Early voting in the 2020 presidential election already amounts to more than two-thirds of the total turnout from 2016. In Texas, the early-voting turnout has already surpassed the state’s total turnout from four years ago. For the past several months, Republicans have opposed voting contingencies, such as mailed ballots, to alleviate congestion at polling sites during the COVID-19 pandemic. In Harris County, Texas—a Democratic stronghold in Texas that includes Houston—Republicans unsuccessfully disputed 127,000 ballots cast at a drive-thru polling station, describing it as “an illegal voting scheme that invites corruption and fraud.” On the national level, Democrats fear the legal groundwork is being laid to contest a narrow outcome in the electoral college via the courts. The Supreme Court now seats three justices appointed by Trump, and three justices—John Roberts, Brett Kavanaugh, and Amy Coney Barrett—who, coincidentally, joined George W. Bush’s legal team in the 2000 Florida recount. These last-stand advantages mark a low point in Trump’s confidence about his reelection prospects and a high point in his party’s cynicism about universal suffrage. Meanwhile, Democrats, once superstitious about Trump’s political resilience, now imagine Biden beating the president in a blowout—so long as the voters, and not the courts, determine the winner.

Democrats were slow to develop such confidence about the 2020 presidential election, despite Trump’s historic unpopularity, his self-destructive course, and the profound stability in Biden’s polling advantage. The deeper signs of Trump’s electoral distress emerged several months ago in the massive disparity in turnout for the nationwide protests against coronavirus lockdowns, which varied by state, beginning in April; and then again with the nationwide protests against police brutality, following George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis, beginning in late May. The coronavirus lockdown protests, which, essentially, simulated Trump’s rallies during his three-month break from the campaign trail, turned out tens of thousands of people. The George Floyd protests, which, essentially, opposed Trump’s presidency, turned out tens of millions of people. The turnout disparity assuaged fears among some progressives about the scope of Trump’s supporters’ persistence, and their ability to become an almost magically resilient force in U.S. politics. The disparity also revealed how little has changed when it comes to Trump’s popularity since four years ago, when the turnout for his inauguration paled in comparison to the turnout for the nationwide Women’s March—the largest protest in U.S. history—a day later.

For the past four years, Democrats have discounted their anti-Trump enthusiasm as a bulwark against the more colorful and intimidating archetype of the ardent Trump supporter. In this election, Trump hopes to suppress ballots to depress and confound his opponents, who can never be too sure about which ballots will be counted and how many will be discarded before the definitive tally is announced. In the meantime, Democrats count the yard signs and banners supporting Trump in Midwest swing states, viewing these rudimentary indicators as evidence of Trump’s latent advantage over Biden. Trump supporters find their confidence in the rambunctious motorcades blocking traffic in New York and swarming a Biden campaign bus on I-35 near San Antonio over the weekend. So much for Shy Trump Voters! The Biden supporter’s confidence is best reserved for the quiet, decisive work of marking the ballots.