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Two Months to Midnight!

The election is exactly two months away today, and the upcoming Labor Day weekend marks the beginning of the unofficial campaign season. But between Covid and Trump’s escalating fascist tactics, it also seems like the beginning of an apocalyptic countdown, for the country and perhaps the world. The next nine weeks are not going to be pretty. So what does the Toteboard have to say at this point about the election? How comfortably can we all sleep at night? In general, the numbers look pretty good, but unfortunately the level of uncertainty is still fairly high, in part because there hasn’t exactly been a glut of top-quality polls in the key swing states. What’s more, the electoral college seems to be distorted more than ever in the republicans’ favor, as Biden has been consistently enjoying a national lead of 7 or 8 percentage points, but is only narrowly ahead in the state-by-state battles. Contrast that with George H. W. Bush’s 1988 victory over Mike Dukakis, where Bush won the popular vote by the same 7.8%, but amassed well over 400 electoral votes.  Most importantly, two months is an eternity in the world of elections. The first debate is still almost four weeks away, the country is in an unprecedent phase of social and medical instability, and you all may have heard a little something about the toxic combination of Russian meddling and coordinated republican efforts at voter suppression. But for now, let’s get down to business and discuss the numbers, using the Toteboard’s traditional framework: The Blue Base (205 electoral votes): The 17 states (CA, CT, DE, HI, IL, MA, MD, ME, MN, NH, NJ, NM, NY, OR, RI, VT, WA) and DC, which have been more or less reliably in the democratic column for the last seven elections (205 EV’s). For now, these all appear safe, though Trump clearly has his eye on New Hampshire and Minnesota. Polls currently show Biden leading in those two states by about 6 to 8 points (a new internal republican poll shows it closer in Minnesota), but there really hasn’t been a whole lot of reliable data, so we have to hold our breath a while before we know exactly how safe they really are. And the local democratic organizations better stay on top of things in all of those states, to make sure they don’t get blindsided in their supposed firewall like they did four years ago. The Indigo Three (28 electoral votes): The three purple states (CO, NV, VA) have been blue-ing for the last decade or two, and may soon be absorbed into the Blue Base. If Trump targets any of these, it would probably be Nevada, where Biden is leading but the polling is spotty. These used to be enough to guarantee a democratic victory, but that was before the “Old Blue Base” eroded. . The Wobbly Base (52 electoral votes): The four erstwhile reliably blue states (IA, MI, PA, WI) that Trump picked off in 2016. Both sides will be contesting these states hard, and chances are good that the election really will be won or lost in this upper midwestern cluster. The Burgundy Three (62 electoral votes): The three republican-leaning purple states (FL, NC, OH) that are legitimate battlegrounds. Though this is not necessarily predictive of what happens on election day, Nate Silver’s model currently shows all three within about 2 to 4 percentage points, with Biden slightly ahead in Florida, Trump slightly ahead in Ohio, and a dead heat in North Carolina. The Aspirational Purples (65 electoral votes): The three red states (AZ, GA, TX) that have been blue-ing at different rates, with time eventually telling which ones become purple and which remain aspirational. At the moment, Arizona may have wandered into the genuine toss-up range (or better), and Georgia may be next in line, but the latter does suffer from a dismal cumulative statewide IQ (i.e., ignorance quotient) that may prove hard to overcome during the next round or two. So, where are we now? According to the most reliable and data-driven election analysts (FiveThirtyEight, Cook Political, Sabato’s Crystal Ball, and Inside Elections), it looks like Biden is holding onto his Blue Base and the Indigo Three, which total 233 electoral votes. That is more or less Hillary Clinton’s final tally four years ago, so that’s basically Biden’s floor. More importantly, he has been consistently leading the three biggies from the Wobbly Base by anywhere from 3 to 7 points. That’s still too close for comfort, but it is heartening that Biden is real close to 50% of the vote in all three, and Trump has thus far been unable to pull any closer. If Biden can hang onto those, that would bring his total up to 279, with room to play in the remaining tossups of Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, and maybe even Georgia or Iowa, the first two of which may already be leaning slightly blue in this cycle. These extra states in play also give Biden a little bit of wiggle room, i.e., it’s realistic to consider that if he drops, say, a Wisconsin, he might be able to compensate with an Arizona or a North Carolina. Similarly, he could conceivably lose Pennsylvania, and make up for that in Florida. What this brings into focus is that as the republicans have turned more xenophobic populist, and the democrats have made inroads with white suburbia, the electoral map has changed in slight, but significant ways. A generation or so ago, the country was more or less divided along some fairly clear lines: the republicans had a lock on the south and Plains states, while the democrats had the northeast and the west coast, and most of the contested territory was in the blue-tinged upper-midwest. But now, there are at least three “hot spots” on the map, i.e., clusters of states that are emerging or (or pre-emergent) battlegrounds. Yes, there’s the old Rust Belt Quadrumvirate of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Ohio, and Wisconsin, but there’s also what might be called the Peripheral South (as opposed to Deep South) states of Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina, and the Southwestern Cactus League of Arizona, New Mexico (which is technically blue, but Trump is contesting it), and Texas (which is red, but may not remain that way). Interestingly, if Biden can win any one of these clusters outright, he could lose every state in the other two clusters and still win the election. Now, such a result isn’t really all that likely, as the more plausible scenarios involve various combinations of mix-and-max, but it does bring into focus the breadth of potential tipping points and how the campaigns will eventually have to start making strategic decisions about where to put their time and money. It needs to be said that amidst what is generally good news, there are definite possibilities for some truly nightmarish scenarios, scenarios that may have seemed far-fetched not too long ago, but are very realistic possibilities this November. One of the most horrifying is of Biden winning back Pennsylvania and Michigan, but falling short in Wisconsin (which was already bordering on the precarious even before the events in Kenosha and the rapid politicization of them) and failing to snag any of the other key swing states. This would actually produce a 269-269 electoral college tie, an outcome that Nate’s model currently gives about a 1% likelihood, but could start to go up if Biden’s national lead dwindles and the battlegrounds begin to narrow. So what happens in the event of a tie? Not so fast. There are actually a couple of wildcards that have to be played out before we start negotiating the tie scenario. Specifically, the states of Maine and Nebraska do not assign electoral votes in the winner-take-all method the other states employ. Rather, they divvy some of the votes according to congressional district, and there is actually one swing district in each state, both of which Trump carried four years ago, and an identical result would turn the tie into a 270-268 Trump victory. This time around, Trump seems to be leading the swing district in Maine, while Biden is leading the one in Nebraska . . . though the latter is closer to true tossup status. It’s an appalling possibility that the election really could be decided by a pair of quirky districts. And if there actually is a tie, then there’s the whole national drama of the possibility of faithless electors. And if the tie survives that, the election gets thrown to the House of Representatives, which employs an arcane system of allotting votes by each state’s delegation. And currently the republicans control 26 state delegations . . . but it’s the new congress that decides . . . but if the election is a tie, the democrats probably won’t flip any delegations . . . or will they? And will every delegation just vote by party, or will they consider the will of the state? Or will they respond at all to the national popular vote? We really better hope this doesn’t happen, because it would amount to sheer chaos, though a boon for manufacturers of antacid and Xanax. And speaking of chaos and Xanax, the real nightmare scenario is actually the mostly likely one, i.e., that Trump and his republican enablers will do everything within their power to suppress votes, intimidate minority voters, encourage police abuse, manipulate the press, spread misinformation, discredit results, and otherwise disrupt the democratic process. If and when Trump loses, the real question is not whether he will relinquish power peacefully (he won’t), but whether he will incite his followers to violence. So, brace yourselves for a long and difficult ride. And make sure to donate your time and money to Biden and democratic senate candidates. Make phone calls and stuff envelopes, and vote as early as your states allow you to. Remember, only you can prevent the apocalypse.


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