The 2020 election has proven to be the stress-test for American democracy that we expected. Donald Trump has been a historically unpopular president. According to FiveThirtyEight, the approval rating of every president since Eisenhower sank underwater—with more people disapproving of their job in office than approving—at some point in their first term, but Trump was the only one in modern history to do so within his first three weeks in office. The next fastest to hit that mark was Bill Clinton in his fifth month. Clinton rebounded and enjoyed positive ratings for most of his presidency. Trump remained around ten points underwater throughout his first term.
But partisanship is a powerful force, and he closed that gap by several points in the final days of the race. There is some evidence that late-deciders may have broken for him as they did in 2016, although they were fewer in number. And what matters is who votes, and whose votes are counted. Biden may have enjoyed the largest, most stable lead of any challenger in the modern polling era, but as Tuesday turned into Wednesday, we still don't have a winner.
As of this writing, Trump is overperforming his poll numbers, and doing better than expected among Hispanic voters. Biden is doing significantly better among educated suburban whites than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. As a result, both candidates have a couple of paths to victory. The election probably won't be decided for days.
The resounding rejection of Trump and his movement that many Democrats had hoped for won't come to pass. The maps people shared on social media with Biden winning a 400-Electoral College blowout proved to be wishful thinking. It appears that Trump juiced both bases' turnout numbers.
But the numbers crunchers warned us that we might see a "red mirage" on Election Night, with Trump jumping out to a lead that then shifts toward Democrats as tens of millions of absentee ballots are counted. The crucial Rust Belt states that propelled Trump to victory last time—Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin—all report Election Day ballots first, and then tally mail ballots.
Trump's plan to eke out another term despite being historically unpopular has been clear for some time. He demonized mail-in balloting so Republicans would be less likely to rely on it. His hand-picked Post Master general bogged down the mail, causing ballots to arrive late. And a herd of Republican lawyers will challenge late ballots, and any ballots collected via special accommodations for the pandemic. Late Tuesday night, Pennsylvania Republicans filed a lawsuit seeking to stop election officials from "curing" deficient ballots.
Democrats made a concerted effort to get their voters to send in their absentee ballots early. While Republicans painted a dark picture of roving gangs of antifa destroying the suburbs during their convention, Democrats devoted quite a bit of time to explaining the importance of voting early. The mechanics of voting has been a central focus of their communications strategy since. After Republicans successfully sued to have so-called "naked ballots"—absentees that weren't enclosed in a security envelope--rejected in the crucial swing-state of Pennsylvania, left-leaning celebrities stripped down to the buff in a series of videos explaining how to avoid the problem. Democrats were encouraged to read instructions and follow them carefully.
They appear to have had some success. In Florida, at least, Democratic voters were more likely than their Republican counterparts to return mail ballots early. As Nate Silver noted, Democrats had a 23-point advantage in absentee ballots that arrived before October 31, but a 7-point lead in those that arrived in the final days before the election.
Voters crossed their Ts. The New York Times reported that "with many voters casting their first absentee ballots, experts feared a wave of disqualifying mistakes," but "with absentee ballots flooding election offices nationwide, the officials processing them are tentatively reporting some surprising news: The share of ballots being rejected because of flawed signatures and other errors appears lower — sometimes much lower — than in the past."
The press has been all over the Postal Service, cataloguing complaints from letter carriers, tracking backlogs and reporting on sorting machines being taken out of service. Democratic Reps. Ted Lieu and Hakeem Jeffries warned Post Master General Louis DeJoy that it's a felony "to intentionally slow the mail to affect a federal election" and asking the FBI to investigate his actions.
On Tuesday, District Court Judge Emmet Sullivan ordered the postal service to sweep all mail processing facilities in trouble areas of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Colorado, Wyoming, Georgia, Texas, Florida and Arizona to "ensure that no ballots have been held up and that any identified ballots are immediately sent out for delivery." DeJoy violated the order, but according to reports, the Postal Service, under pressure, did scramble to deliver as many votes as possible. (A hearing about DeJoy's failure to heed the order is scheduled for Wednesday.)
We don't know if that was enough. We also don't know if Trump will declare victory. But as we wait for the counts to be completed, we can expect every possible vote to be litigated. Both sides have assembled large legal teams, and may fight it out for several days, or longer.
So now we wait. In a country racked with illness and economic pain and divided like it hasn't been since the Civil War, this may or may not be the most important election of our lifetimes, but it is certainly the most stressful.