If Trump ekes out a victory in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote, Americans on the left will inevitably raise concerns about minoritarian rule. A Republican presidential candidate has captured the popular vote only once since 1992, and yet another victory that fails to capture the popular vote will convince many Americans that the Electoral College is unfairly stacked against Democratic voters who tend to cluster in large cities in blue states.
Given current polling of the presidential race, it is possible to imagine three scenarios, either on November 4 or on days soon thereafter: a narrow Trump victory in the Electoral College, with a huge loss in the popular vote; a Biden landslide in which Trump claims he lost because of a “rigged” election; or a very close and potentially flawed election going into overtime that could lead to a prolonged struggle over the presidency and the country. Each of these presents its own set of challenges for American democracy.
If Trump loses by up to 5 million votes in the popular vote, as he could well do, and he remains in office thanks to an Electoral College victory after a divisive first term, it would vindicate his strategy of catering to a fervent white, rural and older base of voters while spurning a more multi-cultural and eclectic American majority. The American left would view such a narrow victory as the product of political manipulation, especially after Republicans over the last two decades played hardball on gerrymandering and restrictive voting laws. But if history is any indication Democrats are unlikely to do more than loudly complain unless there is evidence that Trump engaged in actual electoral tampering to ensure his victory.
A Biden landslide in both the popular vote and the electoral college, which seems plausible given current polling, would raise its own set of challenges. It is hard to imagine Trump accepting a loss with grace and giving a magnanimous concession speech wishing Biden and the country well. The best-case scenario under this potential outcome is that Trump grumbles on his way out, ready to rebuild his business empire and perhaps start Trump TV while a number of lawsuits and investigations play out.
Should Trump decide not to go quietly following a Biden landslide, there’s good reason to believe that American institutions as well as Republican election leaders would accept his defeat and refuse to allow him to make an authoritarian power play. Trump has tested American norms since his candidacy in 2016, and has on multiple occasions refused to commit to a peaceful transition of power.
But a Trump trouncing would spell the end his political career and other Republicans looking to save their careers will be eager to renounce him. Already some Senate Republicans are distancing themselves from Trump. In the Biden landslide scenario, Republicans would be unlikely to control either chamber of the Congress by January, when the electoral college votes are counted. This would make electoral college vote shenanigans, where Republican legislatures might try to directly choose Trump electors for the Electoral College, especially unlikely.
In 2019, we saw Republican incumbent Matt Bevin try to stay in power after he lost to Democratic challenger Andy Beshear in the Kentucky gubernatorial race. Rather than concede, Bevin’s campaign made unsubstantiated allegations of “irregularities” and suggested that the Republican state legislature use its powers under the state constitution to take the choice of governor away from the voters.
After a few days of failing to produce any evidence of fraud, legislative leaders rejected Bevin’s call and he conceded — blaming the “urban” vote for his losses on his way out. Like the Kentucky legislature, congressional Republicans will want to cut their losses if Trump suffers a massive electoral loss, instead of choosing to go down with the ship.
But what if it is close? This is the scenario that keeps me up at night. The race could come down to Pennsylvania or Michigan, two battleground states with a history of poor election administration in big cities including Philadelphia and Detroit.
If the race is close, Trump and his campaign could file lawsuits and use evidence of election administrator incompetence to convince key segments of the American right that Democrats stole the election through deliberate fraud. Trump has already sowed distrust in the results by saying without evidence that the only way he loses is if the election is “rigged.”
I am most worried about a race that is too close to call — especially in states struggling to count a torrent of mail-in ballots, such as Pennsylvania, whose legislators so far have refused to give election officials a head start as they do in other states like Florida to process absentee votes.
With more Republicans expected to vote in person this time and more Democrats voting by mail, Trump could be in the lead on election night and, according to his former adviser Steve Bannon, seek to prematurely declare victory and argue that the mail-in ballots yet to be counted are fraudulent.
Such a scenario could lead to chaos and disagreement about the results of the election even if election officials do everything by the book and there is no significant fraud or mismanagement of the election. It could even lead to litigation ending up at the United States Supreme Court, where Trump has said he’s been rushing to confirm his nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, in part to help decide any election dispute.
We don’t know which of these three scenarios will come to pass, but it is clear that a replay of the 2000 election dispute culminating in Bush v. Gore, but this time with President Trump fanning unsubstantiated claims of fraud on social media, is about the worst of the possible outcomes. It calls to mind the Election Administrator’s prayer: Lord, let this election not be close.