Presidential politics move fast. What we’re watching heading into the final week of the 2020 campaign:
It’s almost over. By this time next week, and hopefully much sooner, we’ll likely know who will occupy the Oval Office for the next four years.
The ghosts of 2016 are keeping Democrats on edge, but they are hopeful that voters will make President Donald Trump the first incumbent to lose reelection since George H.W. Bush in 1992. Democrat Joe Biden is running significantly ahead of where Hillary Clinton was in most polls the day before the election.
Some Republicans are pointing to a shift on the ground in Florida in particular that portends good news for Trump. The problem for Republicans is that Trump must win Florida — and several more battleground states — if he’s going to have any chance to keep his job.
Can Trump pull an inside straight again? Anxious Democrats will be the first to tell you it’s possible. But veteran Republican strategists will also tell you it isn’t likely. There are fewer undecided voters this time, and no strong third-party candidates to siphon votes.
Democrats had an advantage in early voting, but Trump’s vaunted ground game is well-positioned to turn out its voters en masse on Tuesday.
What makes this election different from those in the past are the swirling questions about voter intimidation, lawsuits and counting delays related to the coronavirus pandemic. Trump has already indicated he may reject the result of the election if he loses.
Buckle up. This could get messy.
THE BIG QUESTIONS
Will the loser of this election accept the result?
The stage is set for a chaotic finish no matter what the final numbers say.
Trump has sought to undermine the election results for several months by raising debunked conspiracy theories about election fraud. He has repeatedly refused to say whether he would agree to a peaceful transfer of power if he loses.
Biden has promised to accept the results no matter what, but that doesn’t mean that Democrats won’t end up in an extended court battle in certain states if things don’t go their way — particularly if there are any Election Day disruptions or court rulings that throw out a significant numbers of mail ballots.
Never before in modern U.S. history has there been such uncertainty looming over basic rules of democracy on the eve of an election.
What is the “red mirage” scenario?
Don’t be fooled by the early numbers. Because of the way ballots will be counted by different states, the final vote tally could look dramatically different from the early returns — especially if Democrats look to be struggling.
The so-called red mirage scenario would show Trump having a good night based on the votes cast in person on Tuesday. But pivotal states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin aren’t expected to count all their mail ballots, the preferred voting method by many Democrats, until after in-person votes are counted.
That raises the likelihood that Republicans will look to be having a strong showing earlier in the night than they will once all the votes are in.
Trump has falsely raised just this scenario as an example of voter fraud, but it’s actually a completely legitimate function of the way different states process ballots. And because of complications related to the pandemic, several states, including Pennsylvania, North Carolina and Minnesota, will accept mail ballots received several days after polls close.
Will fewer people vote on Election Day than voted early?
Election Day turnout remains a mystery. As of Sunday afternoon, more than 93 million Americans had already voted. That’s two-thirds of all ballots cast in the 2016 election. Tens of millions more votes are expected on Tuesday, but it’s hard to imagine that Election Day turnout will exceed the early vote count.
Never before have more than 140 million Americans voted in a single presidential election.
Both sides acknowledge that Trump will have an advantage among voters who cast ballots on Tuesday because Democrats were more likely to vote by mail. Presumably, the more people who show up on Election Day, the better the final outcome will be for the Republican president.
Democrats are particularly concerned about turning out their infrequent voters — especially young people, Blacks and Latinos — who historically vote Democrat but aren’t necessarily excited to show up for Biden.
Republicans rightly claim an advantage on the ground in several states. Even before Trump’s first election, the GOP began investing heavily in field offices and staff across the country to build relationships in key communities designed to turn out hard-to-reach voters when it matters most.
Democrats have not made the same investment, and more than that, they’ve largely avoided the door-to-door get-out-the vote operations of years past, relying on texts, phone calls or emails to communicate with their supporters.
Will Election Day be peaceful?
We’re coming to you from downtown Washington, where most local businesses have covered their first-floor windows with plywood. No, there’s not a hurricane on the way.
Washington’s business owners are bracing for the possibility of election-related violence. And given the rioting that has already accompanied civil unrest in several states in recent months, it’s not hard to imagine protests turning violent well beyond Washington this week.
At the same time, there are real questions about the possibility of voter intimidation at the ballot box on Tuesday.
Tensions are high on both sides, but most eyes will be on Republican poll watchers given the party’s history of bad behavior and Trump’s repeated calls for his die-hard supporters to be on the lookout for voting fraud.
This is the first election in decades that Republicans have been allowed to install official poll watchers. The GOP was banned from the practice by federal courts that found repeated evidence in past elections of Republicans intimidating or trying to exclude minority voters in the name of preventing fraud.
We’re all hoping for a peaceful Election Day, but the conditions are ripe for disorder.
THE FINAL THOUGHT
This is probably our last dispatch for a while. We want to thank you for following along over this past year. We’ve tried our best to take you behind the curtain to see the 2020 presidential contest from an insider’s perspective.
And while we’ll all need a break once this election is settled, recent history suggests that the jockeying for the next presidential election will begin almost immediately; 2024 Watch may be just around the corner.
AP’s Advance Voting guide brings you the facts about voting early, by mail or absentee from each state: https://interactives.ap.org/advance-voting-2020/.