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How Trump Could Still Pull It Off

His re-election is not likely—but here’s how it could happen.
October 26, 2020
How Trump Could Still Pull It Off
BEVERLY HILLS, CA - OCTOBER 24: Trump supporters attend the USA Freedom Rally in Beverly Gardens Park on October 24, 2020 in Beverly Hills, California. (Photo by Jason Armond/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

Can Trump still win?

In short, yes.

But not because of the worst phantasms conjured by febrile Democrats. Donald Trump has no October surprise. Joe Biden did not implode in debate. COVID-19 is worse, not better. And so is Trump the campaigner.

By now millions of Americans understand that he is a catastrophic president and sick human being. Millions more are simply too exhausted or apprehensive to want another four years. Every fundamental of politics argues that Trump should lose—indeed, Biden’s margin in the popular vote will doubtless surpass Hillary Clinton’s.

Yet Trump is president—and could remain so. For what hasn’t changed since 2016 is that kangaroo court of representative democracy: the Electoral College. Such are its vagaries that one can still imagine Trump’s twisting path to victory through the minefield of his richly deserved unpopularity. Warns Biden’s campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon: “The very searing truth is that Donald Trump can still win this race, and every indication we have shows that this thing is going to come down to the wire.”

Regular readers will know that I’m among those commentators who believe that, with so little time remaining, Biden’s margin has become close to prohibitive. Among the many reasons is that polls in battleground states have remained remarkably static: Biden holds significant and relatively stable leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin and, albeit more narrowly, in North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona. The polls in these states have barely twitched over the last few months, resembling the flat line on a heart monitor—a fair metaphor for the state of Trump’s campaign.

Trump partisans point out that Biden’s lead in all six states has not made the leap from steady to daunting, and that requests for mail-in ballots are not as voluminous as some Democrats hoped. True. But going into the campaign’s final week Biden holds an enormous financial advantage through which to defend his lead.

Republicans are still absorbing that their presumptive money machine—the once-vaunted “Death Star”—has been eclipsed by a Democratic funding apparatus they formerly mocked as moribund. Entering October, Biden’s media spending in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin has more than doubled the president’s, a dominance mirrored in Arizona. Biden now has the luxury of running positive ads which extol his humanity and desire to serve as a healer—balm for voters sick of vitriol and division.

But the GOP has staved off eclipse. The Republican National Committee has stepped up its support of Trump, and his campaign announced a $55 million spending plan for Arizona, Iowa, Ohio, Michigan, North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, and Wisconsin. It should be enough to compete—Trump was outspent in 2016, yet eked out the states he needed.

In the home stretch , Barack Obama is helping rally Democratic base voters. The former president obviously relishes the task, and his maiden speech in Philadelphia filleted Trump with a lacerating combination of humor and truth. That said, both Obamas did wonderful work for Clinton in 2016; surrogates, experience shows, seldom win elections for somebody else.

Still, some Democrats have been quietly dreaming about an Electoral College rout. A recent forecast by Nate Silver—projecting a far greater nationwide turnout than in 2016—provides some encouragement. But these visions rest on imagining that traditionally red states like Texas and Georgia will break the mold by breaking for Biden.

One should remember the downside of attempting to actualize such aspirations, reflected in Clinton’s regrettable decision in 2016 to expand the electoral map at the expense of more assiduous efforts in indispensable states. In 2020, these ambitions could divert resources from the states Biden must win, becoming the equivalent of Lucy and the football. Despite a scheduled foray into Georgia on the way to Florida, Biden’s team seems too disciplined to go full Charlie Brown.

Trump’s reality is this: His victory in 2016 was the political equivalent of filling an inside straight, and after four years of a historically miserable presidency, he needs to draw a straight-flush. So what could go wrong for Joe Biden—so wrong that he could lose?

Start with a falloff in Latino support. Latinos are philosophically heterodox, and are particularly critical in Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina—the states where Biden’s lead is narrow. That Trump is polling slightly higher among Hispanics than he performed in the 2016 exit polls is cause for concern.

In Florida, Cuban-Americans scarred by the legacy of Fidel Castro respond to charges that Biden is a “socialist.” There, and elsewhere, culturally conservative Hispanics may respond to Trump’s pro-life stance, and his castigation of Democrats as the party of civil disorder. Reflecting the gender gap among our populace at large, Trump’s version of hyper-masculinity resonates among a cohort of traditional males.

Moreover, the Biden campaign was tardy in its organizing efforts among Hispanics. Belatedly, they are advocating and advertising far more intensely, highlighting Biden’s proposals for immigration reform and the toll of COVID-19 in the Hispanic community. But the states where Latinos matter most are those where Biden has the least margin for error.

Another unsettling indicium is a distinct GOP advantage in new registrations among white, non-college-educated voters in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Perhaps some are simply formalizing their prior voting preference. But the key to Trump’s chances is unearthing an appreciable number of new voters roused by his appeals to cultural conservatism and white identity politics. This is particularly crucial in Pennsylvania, which both campaigns view as critical to winning.

But there are several other concerns about turnout. While early voting among Democrats has been heavy, it is impossible to know whether it is sufficient to withstand Trump’s anticipated margin among in-person voters on November 3. The ultimate participation among historically unreliable young people remains uncertain. And because of the pandemic, Democrats—unlike Republicans—lack a robust ground game in swing states focused on person-to-person organizing.

Though many Republican-leaning voters find Trump unappealing, their aversion to Democrats runs deep. It may not take much to bring a lot of them home—they simply need an excuse. For some, Trump’s pseudo-normality in the final debate may be enough.

That brings us to Biden’s one misstep that evening: his inartful pledge to “transition from the oil industry” in response to climate change. The snap polls taken after the debate suggest that Biden won. But among whom?

Trump’s assertion that Biden “is going to destroy the oil industry” may register in industrial states like Michigan, Wisconsin and, in particular, Pennsylvania—where Biden is already vulnerable on the fraught issue of fracking. That last is a worry.

Pro-environmental groups insist that Biden’s remarks will rally those who appreciate the existential threat of global warming. No doubt they have science and right on their side. But what is it, I keep wondering, that makes so many white progressives so politically oblivious?

Any voter who prioritizes environmental issues already supports Biden. It’s the still-persuadable who matter, including folks in Pennsylvania torn between aversion to Trump and their economic connection to the fossil fuel industry. One wishes that Biden had spoken more precisely.

The subject of political obliviousness brings us to the curdled legacy of the otherwise admirable Justice Ginsburg. Her lamentable decision to overstay her health—and the insistence of her acolytes that she was irreplaceable when Obama could have replaced her—has at length come to shadow the Democrats’ fight for control of the White House and Senate. Call it the Ginsburg-Barrett Effect.

A majority of Americans now support Barrett’s confirmation. Those voters for whom the Supreme Court is more salient, social and economic conservatives, are the most likely to be swayed to Trump by his success in delivering the Court for a generation. That is of particular help in North Carolina, but also among pro-life Hispanics in Florida and Arizona. But the ultimate damage may occur in Pennsylvania.

This stems from the vulnerability of mail-in ballots to GOP attacks and sheer mischance. Compared to in-person ballots, their rejection rate will likely be high.

There are several reasons. Most states require that mail-in ballots arrive by election day; the dramatic increase in such ballots during a pandemic means that many thousands of otherwise timely ballots won’t count. Others may be disqualified by technical errors such as a voter’s failure to sign the ballot envelope, or by the subjective decision of partisan election officials that a signature does not match that which is already on file.

The chaos which occurred in Pennsylvania’s primary highlights these problems—which the Republican party, knowing that more mail-in ballots will be cast by Democrats, is eager to exploit. Already the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that ballots received by November 6 must be counted—a ruling which barely survived a 4-4 tie in the U.S. Supreme Court just last week. More GOP lawsuits are certain to come.

Even without legal intervention, the disqualification of mail-in ballots may ultimately affect the outcome in states like Pennsylvania. Then there’s the ultimate Ginsburg-Barrett Effect: Should the counting of mail-in ballots become a legal controversy to be resolved by the high court, there is little doubt that a conservative majority including Justice Barrett would rule for the GOP. In the worst case—where Pennsylvania determines who carries the Electoral College—the Court could deliver a second term for Donald Trump.

I will save the complexities of Electoral College mathematics for my column on election eve. For now, it is enough to say that victory for Trump remains quite improbable. But not impossible: Just take all the contingencies that could break Trump’s way, and put them together.

After all, it has happened before.

That’s reason enough to worry—in 2020 the ingredients are different, but the prospect of mischance remains. All who want Trump gone should make every effort between now and Election Day to consign such nightmares to memory.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.