Signs of the apocalypse are everywhere. It’s not just the worsening pandemic and Donald Trump’s determination to hold superspreader events in every swing state, but also the daily end-is-nigh stories about nightmare election scenarios, no matter how outlandish.
The Atlantic has released a slew of these pieces ever since it published Barton Gellman’s late-September article, “What If Trump Refuses to Concede?” As Gellman wrote before launching into the details of his doomsday chronicle of remote possibility, “Close students of election law and procedure are warning that conditions are ripe for a constitutional crisis that would leave the nation without an authoritative result. We have no fail-safe against that calamity.”
The opening line of a recent BuzzFeed article by Paul McLeod evokes the same level of liberal hysteria as it conjures up an election in which “the losing party refuses to concede, triggering a chaotic free-for-all in which Congress, the courts, and, in the most extreme case, the military could determine the winner.”
The Atlantic has also been brooding about “The Fox News Power Keg,” a headline from a late-September article in which John Hendrickson mused that Fox News commentators like Tucker Carlson could prematurely and inaccurately call the race for Trump because, as he put it, “It doesn’t matter how CNN and MSNBC play this election: Fox will control the narrative.”*
Even political science professors have unleashed their inner Chicken Little as they shout, “The sky is falling.” Writing in The Guardian, 20 eminent academics warned that “if, as many predict, the mail-in vote is heavily Democratic and the in-person vote is heavily Republican, Trump may lead in many states with only a partial vote count. If so, Trump will probably declare himself the winner and Fox News will announce this immediately.”
Outlandish scenarios about democracy in peril flourish on the left in times of stress and uncertainty like today. The early 1960s, an era defined by Cold War panic and then the Kennedy assassination, was the heyday of bestselling nightmare novels about the presidency. Classics of the genre included a nearly successful military coup in Seven Days in May (1962) and a paranoid, nutcase president in Night of Camp David (1965).
The current widespread dystopian forecasts about Election Day and beyond are also rooted in PTSD from the 2016 election. Having endured the most dire electoral outcome in American history (even worse than the pre–Civil War victory of the hapless James Buchanan in 1856), Democrats are afflicted with constant anxiety that once again defeat will be snatched from the jaws of victory. By treating remote possibilities like near certainties, desperate Democrats inadvertently downplay the Election Day realities of voter suppression.
The current spate of alarmist journalism is rooted in a widespread misunderstanding of how TV networks will call states on November 3. With Democrats disproportionately voting with absentee ballots, the fear is that the initial election night tallies will show Trump with hefty leads based solely on voters who cast their ballots in person. With on-screen network maps depicting swing states in Republican red, based on these premature returns, Trump will declare victory before most ballots for Joe Biden are counted. And the networks, led by Fox News, will go along with this Trumpian deception, leading to massive conspiracy theories and violent outbreaks when Biden belatedly takes the lead a few days later.
The biggest factual problem with this common electoral nightmare scenario is that networks have never called swing states based on fragmentary—and misleading—early returns. In fact, only two of the last five presidential elections were even decided on election night. After 2000’s long count, the cautious networks only called the 2004 election for George W. Bush at midday on the Wednesday after the election, when Ohio finally went to the Republicans. Even Trump in 2016 was not anointed as the forty-fifth president until well after midnight.
With the conspicuous exceptions of Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, swing states begin counting absentee ballots before Election Day. What that means is that many mail ballots will be reflected in the counts released immediately after the polls close. This is particularly true in states that backed Trump four years ago like Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, and Georgia, all of which begin tallying absentee votes well in advance of Election Day. If Biden is winning in, say, two or three of these battleground states on election night, a second Trump term becomes close to a statistical impossibility.
Orson Welles during the downslide of his career made a series of TV ads for Paul Masson pledging to “sell no wine before its time.” That comes close to the mantra of the decision desks at all the TV networks, including Fox: “We call no state before its time.” In an online panel discussion last week, sponsored by the writers’ organization Pen America, election night data crunchers for CNN, Fox, and the Associated Press made this very point. As Arnon Mishkin, who heads the Fox News decision desk, put it, “This will be a high-visibility election, on which there will be a competition to try to tell the story as accurately as possible.”
There will be no rush to judgment—and no states prematurely colored red on the electoral maps. Sam Feist, CNN’s Washington bureau chief, was unequivocal about an unnamed candidate (hint: It isn’t Joe Biden) having the temerity “to declare victory on election night before they had actually won, before the news organizations had projected winners.” If that were to occur, Feist said, “We will all note that the facts do not support this declaration.… You have to get to 270 electoral votes. That means you need a certain number of states. And if you don’t have those states, you haven’t won.”
Sure, Trump can declare a historic victory. But it won’t matter much as long as the only place that accepts this Trump triumphalism as truth is the One America News Network.
Gelman’s alarmist piece in The Atlantic also raised concerns about GOP state legislatures awarding electoral votes to Trump even if it were clear that Biden would carry these states once absentee ballots were tallied. “According to sources in the Republican Party at the state and national levels,” Gelman wrote, “the Trump campaign is discussing contingency plans to bypass election results and appoint loyal electors in battleground states where Republicans hold the legislative majority.”
But this diabolical GOP plot makes little sense on close examination. Take Pennsylvania, which will lag behind many of the other swing states in counting absentee ballots. Pennsylvania Republicans have only a narrow edge in both chambers of the legislature—and the Democrats hope to deprive the GOP of its majority in November. For Gelman’s scenario to make sense, the Trump forces would need nearly unanimous votes by the GOP in both chambers. Remember, this isn’t a vote on a Supreme Court nominee or a tax bill. This would be a legislative coup to overturn a presidential election. Republicans have often refused to stand up to Trump, but the Gelman nightmare requires an entire state party marching in lockstep to overthrow the Constitution.
Equally telling is the way that Gelman has apparently misread election law and constitutional precedents. As Michael Waldman and Wendy Weiser from the Brennan Center for Justice (where I am also a fellow) make clear in a recent Politico article, the final arbiter of a state’s electoral votes is not the legislature but the governor (or some other state official). Even frightened anti-Trumpers lying awake at 3 o’clock in the morning can take comfort from the reality that the governors of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina are all Democrats.
This phantasmagoria of fears about a stolen election is more than a window into the fragile psyches of downtrodden Democrats. It also serves as an unwelcome distraction. Instead of hyperventilating over the Twelfth Amendment and the antiquated 1887 federal law governing vote-counting, liberals ought to be focusing instead on real-world challenges to democracy as Election Day nears. Challenges like long lines for early voting in Black neighborhoods in states like Georgia; ludicrous restrictions on the number of ballot drop boxes in Texas; and partisan court decisions by Trump-appointed federal judges to limit the counting of absentee votes.
Trump may never concede, screaming about a “rigged election” for so long that members will avoid sitting near the ex-president during his exile at Mar-a-Lago. Or maybe Trump will crumple like a deflated balloon and spend his last days in the Oval Office hate-watching cable news. But, in any case, if the polls hold up on election night, Democrats can say with confidence and joy, “Our long national nightmare is over.”
* The characterization of Hendrickson’s column has been updated.