Josh Cowls
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Josh Cowls

A nervous onlooker’s guide to the 2020 presidential election, which will be fought in four dimensions

On the evening of November 8th 2016 I was sitting with friends in a Somerville, Massachusetts apartment feeling nervous but hopeful. For all Hillary Clinton’s flaws as a candidate, here was an opportunity to watch history happen, just eight years after America’s string of white men serving as president had first been broken.*

That is of course not what happened. And in retrospect, we can’t say we weren’t warned — Clinton’s polling lead was clear but not concrete, her popularity ratings were poor, and an unprecedented last-minute intervention in the election by FBI director James Comey had upended the race in a way that neither polls nor pundits had had time to digest. As the “blue firewall” in the rustbelt flashed red, suddenly the Clinton campaign’s decision to aim high for states like Arizona at the expense of visiting Wisconsin seemed hopelessly misguided.

Hindsight is 2020, in more ways than one. This year few on the Democratic side could be accused of hubris, or even the merest hint of excitement about a victory. This is in part because Joe Biden is not a terribly exciting or path-breaking candidate — though I do think we are underestimating the possible optical impact of an Indian- and Jamaican-American woman reciting her own oath of office mere feet from a man whose only consistent political creed (besides trashing the environment) has been the vilification of people not like him.

Mostly, though, nobody dare get too excited this time because of two distinct risks. First, there is the possibility of another major polling miss, most likely centred on Pennsylvania, that could see Trump win the Electoral College outright. Scandalously this would be the third election of the past six in which the popular vote loser had won the White House. Second, more darkly, is the risk that Trump refuses to hand over power legitimately. It is entirely possible that a combination of friendly federal judges, Republican governors and Trump’s control of the executive branch could conspire to steal the election, by disputing legitimate ballots or suspending vote-counting outright. The spectre of the Covid-19 pandemic has already made this a fundamentally different kind of election, in ways that may be superficially positive for Democrats, who have already “banked” millions more votes than Republicans, but which could be exploited to shatter public confidence in the process as a whole. And then there’s the two Fs — Fox News and Facebook — whose editors and algorithms have a track record amplifying the sort of misinformative and extremist rhetoric which could bring violence to the streets.

For this reason it is best to think of the 2020 race as America’s first four-dimensional presidential election. On paper the election appears to be fought geographically and arithmetically, with the electoral college votes of 50 states plus the District of Columbia up for grabs. But this election is not just about where — it’s also about when. When states report votes — and which votes are reported first— is likely to have a considerable impact on the perception of who is ahead at any given time.

The two most important states in the election exemplify this fourth dimension well. Florida is the perennial bellwether of American presidential politics — the site of the dramatic (and judicially decided) 2000 election and perhaps the most politically heterogenous state in the union, with its “panhandle” resembling the conservative Deep South but its major cities like Miami representing the most racially diverse square miles in the continent. Its demographic heritage also subverts simple binary left-right assumptions, with its large Cuban-American communities typically voting much more conservative than other Latinx groups.

This year, Florida is an absolute must-win for Trump, given the likelihood that he will lose Michigan and Wisconsin; FiveThirtyEight gives him a less than 1% chance of winning the White House without it. Notably, Florida reports its results quickly, and its mail-in ballots first (results expected by 8:30pm Eastern Time). This is extremely significant, because there is an overwhelming gulf in how supporters of different candidates intend to vote: Biden voters are much more likely to mail-in ballots whilst Trump voters are more likely to vote on the day. This means that the early Florida returns should be very good for Mr Biden — how good, of course, is yet to be determined. But chronologically, it means that the Biden camp will have a significant “lead” in Florida as soon as the first results are reported. Similar trends are possible in other southern Trump more-or-less-must-win states like North Carolina and Arizona.

This is absolutely crucial because Pennsylvania, a likely-must-win state for Mr Biden, is the opposite. Per state law officials in Pennsylvania cannot even begin to process mail ballots until Election Day itself, likely leading to considerable delays reporting results — and a significant disadvantage to Mr Biden, as in-person votes are likely to be reported first. This artificial Trump lead, the so-called “red mirage”, may last until Friday at the earliest. Since Pennsylvania is so likely to be the “tipping point state”, i.e. the state that is most likely to give the winner his 270th and crucial Electoral College vote, it will also be the most intensely litigated in the hours and days that follow, with Republican lawsuits alleging voter fraud likely as soon as the polls close.

If the polls are roughly right, Biden should get the most votes in Pennsylvania, and that should be enough for him to win the White House. But because of the timing by which states report results, the picture of the race could be murky for several days — and that’s without the full force of Trump-controlled executive agencies, Trump-appointed federal courts, and Trump-symbiotic cable news and social media platforms boosting his prospects through subpoenas, lawsuits, misinformation and dog-whistles to right-wing extremists.

None of this, however, is certain. On one hand, the polls could be wrong, and Trump could win outright. This outcome would be relatively clear relatively early on, particularly if mail-in ballots look shakier than expected for Biden in Florida, and if signs are bearish in earlier-reporting midwestern states like Iowa, Ohio and Minnesota. (Trump will probably win Iowa and Biden will probably win Minnesota, but much can be inferred from how comfortable these victories are.)

On the other hand, there could be early, more genuine signs of a good night for Biden *relatively* early on. It is unclear exactly when states like Georgia and Texas will report results, and which votes will be reported first, but early evidence of Biden running close in either would be an extremely promising sign for his wider prospects. But for the night owls, perhaps the most reliable signs may come from the southwestern state of Arizona. Polls don’t close there until 9pm ET, but mail-in ballots are likely to be reported first, which will likely show an inflated lead for Mr Biden. This lead may of course evaporate as on-the-day votes are counted and reported, but after Pennsylvania and Florida, Arizona is possibly the most important state in the election because it provides Biden a solid back-up plan were he to lose (legitimately or otherwise) the state of Pennsylvania. FiveThirtyEight gives him a 98% chance of winning the election if he wins Arizona, and he maintains a small but stubborn lead there. A second viable path to 270 votes takes the pressure off Pennsylvania, and makes it harder for the Trump apparatus to allege voter fraud in what is a geographically and politically very different state (Arizona has voted for Republican presidents every year since 1996). And unlike Pennsylvania, the earlier results are likely to skew towards Biden.

Besides the significance of its 11 electoral votes, a win in Arizona would be notable for more symbolic reasons. Though it marked the hubris of Clinton’s campaign, shifting demographics have made it more fertile ground for Democrats, who won a Senate seat there in 2018 and are likely to win another one this year, in a race between a fighter pilot and an astronaut (only in America!). It was also the home state of Senator John McCain, 2008 presidential candidate and until his death in 2018 probably Trump’s greatest nemesis within his own party (which, to be fair, is quite a low bar.) Arizona is, in short, the most appropriate place for a political fumigation of Trump and Trumpism.

These plausible rosy scenarios aside, it remains the case that neither when we go sleep late on Tuesday night, nor when we wake early on Wednesday morning, are we likely to know who has won. That spells danger, because every hour that passes without a clear picture of the race adds to an information vacuum that is all but certain to be exploited by the president and all those whose career prospects either rested on his first victory or depend on another.

I have been following American politics closely for more than a decade, and 2020 will be the first even-numbered year since 2008 that I haven’t spent at least some time on the campaign trail in New Hampshire. Whatever happens in the coming days and weeks, it is striking how much the tenor of American politics seems to have changed in the past twelve years. American democracy, it must be emphatically stated, is in truth better seen as a privilege than a right, and a privilege that has hardly been equally available to all of the country’s citizens during any era of its history. Nonetheless, coming from the UK — with its minimalist five-weeks-every-five-years general election campaigns, shockingly narrow and deeply furrowed path to political power (which runs, as reliably as the River Thames, through both Eton and Christ Church Colleges), unfair voting system, and (until recently) aversion to great outward shows of fealty to particular candidates or ideas— American elections were, for all their illusoriness, nonetheless the greatest political shows on earth.

The trick, however, is now wearing rather thin, and the shining city on the hill has lost much of its glint. Deciding to promote the least nuanced political actor to lead it has clearly hastened much of its demise, but in truth Trump has merely fallen into the driver’s seat of a train rapidly running out of track — and decided to accelerate. The partisan polarisation that makes mask-wearing an ideological issue, the permanent veto for the minority in the Senate, the continued disenfranchisement of D.C. and Puerto Rico, the abuse of the judicial nomination process, the firehose of money thrown at even the unlikeliest of local campaigns, systematic voter suppression, the fully-fact-free right-wing media and complicit social media: all are huge challenges that a president Biden would be well-advised to set about fixing, even — especially — as all these challenges are perfectly arrayed to ensure each other’s survival. And this is of course not to mention, inter alia, the deadly infectious disease that the current president has become quite bored of since himself recovering from, a list of geopolitical quandaries too long to enumerate, rampant economic inequality, the all-too-frequent killings by police of Black Americans, America’s military and prison industrial complexes, and increasingly biblical climate change. Americans will soon decide whether or not to grant four more years to a man who has spent the previous four at best ignoring and at worst consciously exacerbating each of these challenges. We may not know all that much by the end of the night whether America’s latest long national nightmare is coming to an end or just getting underway. But nobody can say that the alarm bells aren’t ringing.

* Two days earlier, on November 6th, I actually met Hillary Clinton on a rope line at a campaign event in New Hampshire, asked for an obligatory selfie, and confidently told her that she was going to be a great president. Mea culpa.



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Josh Cowls

Josh Cowls


Writing about the ethics of data and AI; political communication; civic technology; food.