Eoin Higgins: Yes, Trump could win

The polls may be showing Joe Biden well ahead of the incumbent, but it's far too soon to rule Trump out.

By: Eoin Higgins

President Donald Trump's tenure has been a perpetual motion stress machine for the United States. After decades of increasing anxiety about the political stability of the most powerful country on the planet, people in Canada and around the globe for the past four years have watched the American public descend into a suicidal madness that threatens to take down the entire world.

Nonetheless, most of the world hopes the U.S. is going to send Trump packing in November. This is based in a faith in the country's democracy, a belief that the electorate won't re-elect the man who finished the job of destroying the international reputation of the most powerful country in the world. It’s rooted in a strong disbelief that the people of the U.S. will ignore almost 200,000 deaths from COVID-19, and four years of increasing chaos and instability, to put Trump back in office. 

That hope is misplaced. Trump could easily win re-election. Although he polls ahead of Donald Trump, Americans are unenthusiastic about his opponent, former vice-president Joe Biden, whose campaign is based on being Not Donald Trump. Add to that the general domestic chaos from the coronavirus pandemic and unrest in U.S. city streets as well as an ongoing assault both on voting rights that predates the current administration and new attacks on the Postal Service, there are multiple ways Trump could win the White House for another term — even without winning the popular vote.

The U.S. relies on an archaic structure called the Electoral College that is rife for abuse. Two presidents just in the last 20 years — George W. Bush in 2000 and Trump in 2016 — won their elections while losing the popular vote to their opponents. The system is positioned to, under a number of likely vote total scenarios, deliver the election to Trump should certain factors break the president's way. 

If Trump can sway enough people in swing states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Florida with disingenuous “law and order” rhetoric, even a few hundred thousand votes could win him disproportionate gains in the college, and with them, the White House. Further, the president has a broad base of support that's likely to vote on election day. While that level of support won't be enough by itself to propel him to victory, if Trump can keep enough people away from the voting booth in the right places, he could win re-election even while losing the popular vote — again. 

These static deficiencies of the U.S. electoral system notwithstanding, today's voters are facing even more challenges than usual. With the chaos of the coronavirus forcing many Americans to turn to mail-in voting rather than in-person voting, it is possible that the results of the election could hinge on how many people vote by mail and when— and that's exactly why the president and his allies are mounting a full-on assault on the Postal Service’s reputation. 

Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, a supporter of and donor to the president, has defunded, discredited and demoralized the Postal Service through a series of moves — including removing mailboxes from city streets, cutting overtime, and deprioritizing non-Amazon mail — all aimed at ensuring that the agency's workers aren't seen as capable of handling the level of mail for ballots. These attacks on the post office have led to a fraying of the American people's trust in the institution. In reality, the level of service that would be required for even every person in the U.S. to vote by mail in one day would not challenge the system, but the damage being done to the service's reputation is the real goal here as voting begins. 

Sowing seeds of doubt in the public's mind is the primary aim of Trump's attack on the agency. As University of California Davis law professor Richard L. Hasen wrote for the New York Times last month, it’s an effort "calculated to delegitimize the election results." The president's re-election campaign is also challenging expansions to mail-in voting in five states, a possible precursor to legal challenges to results of mailed ballots that could come after election day.

On election day, Trump may try to hold onto power by use of a long-established GOP tactic: voter suppression. In 2013, the Shelby v. Holder case struck down important provisions of the Voting Rights Act that prevented states with a history of abuse and misconduct from changing voting rules without first checking with the federal government. Since that ruling, the right to vote in the U.S. for people in marginalized communities — particularly those of colour — has been under a relentless attack. The ongoing assault on the right to vote can be traced to countless Republican wins at the state and national level for decades

Add to this mix of unpredictability a looming economic crisis that could put people out of their homes after the end of the year. We can expect police forces to attack demonstrators, whether peaceful or not. If right-wing militia groups and extremists take advantage of the moral support they receive from the Oval Office and escalate their use of violence against the left, you have a recipe for disaster.

As I reported for The Appeal last week, economic instability could lead many potential Biden supporters — or, at least, Trump opponents — to forego voting in November in key states. This would create a path to victory for Trump, even if he loses the popular vote due to the population of blue states like California and New York. 

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Not that Biden's doing much to motivate anyone. The former vice president's campaign has crafted an election strategy appealing to a few dozen so-called Never Trump Republicans. Biden’s position on climate change is not aggressive enough for many Democrats, and he won’t address the need for a universal health-care system in the U.S. — despite the fact that its lack has worsened the effects of the pandemic. Universal health care has widespread support in both the party and the general voting public, with a Kaiser Foundation poll this past May showing 56 per cent of Americans in favour of a government-run system. But Biden has said he would veto universal health-care legislation once elected.

The ramifications of those baffling choices could turn him into Hillary Clinton 2.0. Biden runs the risk of being the second Democratic presidential candidate in a row to destroy enthusiasm for his own ticket. Instead, he’s targeting members of the consulting class and some right-wing former Republicans in the suburbs that now-Senate Minority Leader Sen. Chuck Schumer referred to in a now-infamous July 2016 line: "For every blue-collar Democrat we lose in western Pennsylvania, we will pick up two moderate Republicans in the suburbs in Philadelphia, and you can repeat that in Ohio and Illinois and Wisconsin."

This did not happen, and the Democrats lost every one of those states but Illinois. Tamping down on the enthusiasm of progressive voters sends a message to that base: their interests will remain subordinate to the donor class, and the party's more centre-right establishment figures. An already alienated core of progressives within the Democratic party who feel that Biden represents a party that exists only to bolster its corrupt strategist-donor axis are hardly going to find the outreach to right-wing figures appealing. This, along with the Biden campaign's continuing hostility to progressive policy goals, could bleed lefty enthusiasm come election day — and once again leave the party incapable of defeating Trump.

Efforts to attract conservative voters to the Democratic Party play into a presumption that the U.S. is a fundamentally conservative country. But that idea is not borne out by polling on popular attitudes. Even before the pandemic hit, majorities supported policies like paid maternity leave, Medicare for All, and free state college tuition. Since the crisis began even more Americans are now identifying as liberal, a nominal but important change. Yet the idea of the U.S. as a right-wing nation persists due to a combination of factors including media truisms and the aforementioned voting rights violations that keep certain voters out of the political process. 

Under normal circumstances, all of the above merit their own levels of concern and distress with respect to their application to the voting public and the outcome of a general election. In the midst of a pandemic, with domestic unrest at its highest point in decades and an economic crisis threatening to devolve into a full-on depression, the danger of electoral disaster is even higher. Trump will use everything in his power to his advantage to ensure he doesn't lose the election, up to and including provoking more unrest, and further denigrating and attacking U.S. institutions to provide him with a victory at any cost. Add to this intentional chaos the inefficiency of the American electoral system and another GOP win, even likely without the popular vote, is not only possible, it's about an even bet. 


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