There will be a lot more to be said about this in coming days, but for now let’s attempt a quick summary. Going into Tuesday’s presidential election (see my preview here), there were three questions as to the fate of Donald Trump.
(a) Would he be able to win the mandate that eluded him four years earlier and beat Joe Biden in the popular vote?
The answer to that was almost certainly always going to be no. That answer has been confirmed; Joe Biden has a commanding lead, currently a little more than three million votes. That’s already more than Hillary Clinton won by in 2016, but it’s set to increase substantially, since the largest numbers of outstanding votes are from California, which votes solidly Democrat.
(b) Would Trump nonetheless be able to again win a lawful majority in the electoral college?
For reasons I’ll explain shortly, the answer to that is also no. Although most of the media are still being cautious about it, Biden has won the election.
(c) Would Trump be able to get close enough to an electoral college majority to be able to make a serious attempt to steal the election, as George Bush junior did in 2000?
Last night the answer to that question still hung in the balance, and it is not yet completely settled. But the chance of a stolen election or of serious civil conflict now seems relatively slight.
To recap on the starting point: four years ago the Democrats won 232 seats in the electoral college. They needed to win, net, another 38 for a majority. There is currently one Democrat-held state, Nevada, in some doubt; I don’t think Biden is really in difficulty there, but we’ll deduct its six electoral votes, bringing the target to 44.
From there he has picked up the second district in Nebraska, plus Arizona and Wisconsin. That takes him to a total of 248. He also leads in Nevada and Michigan, for 22 electoral votes, which would add to 270 exactly. (I’m using the results compiled by the New York Times; there is no single official site, but the various media outlets mostly agree.)
Biden’s lead in Nevada is very narrow (about two-thirds of a percentage point) and there are still a few hundred thousand votes to be counted in Michigan. But since late counting consists mostly of postal votes, which have been strongly favoring the Democrats, I don’t think there is any serious doubt about either of those. Funnily enough, if you tell your supporters not to vote by post, postal votes run against you.
Another two states where Trump currently leads, Georgia and Pennsylvania, look more likely than not to flip to Biden when the postals are all counted. We won’t be sure about that for another day or two, but if he wins both of them, that would put Biden on 306 – coincidentally, exactly the same number that Trump won with in 2016. There is also a slim chance of winning North Carolina, which is another 15 electoral votes.
If Trump manages to hold on in both Georgia and Pennsylvania, it would mean Biden’s victory was the narrowest possible, and one can easily imagine Republicans being desperate to find some manoeuvre that would overturn one of the Democrat gains. But it’s hard to see what it could be; the numbers in Wisconsin and Michigan look very robust. The Trump campaign has signalled it will request a recount in Wisconsin, but Biden has won there by more than 20,000 votes: not the sort of margin that changes with recounts.
Trump, of course, has already claimed victory and suggested that late counting that goes against him is illegitimate. But other Republicans have conspicuously failed to endorse his narrative, and the fact that Biden is already ahead in the key states leaves him without any obvious way forward.
This is not Florida 2000. There, the margin was at most a couple of hundred votes either way, fertile territory for shenanigans. These results are already clear enough – and once it’s counted I suspect Pennsylvania will be as well – to be much more attack-proof. That doesn’t mean no-one will try; the president has many supporters who are as crazed as he is. But their chance of success is slim.
My friend Stephen Luntz suggests that the electoral officials of Michigan and Wisconsin should be nominated for the Nobel peace prize, for counting all night in order to get a result and possibly, as a worst case, preventing civil war. It’s an excellent idea; I wish I’d thought of it first.