Why Trump’s Efforts to Stop the Vote Count Have Failed

They have proved hapless even as his authoritarian machinations have grown.

As the final votes were being tallied in battleground states, Joe Biden inched closer to winning the presidency on Friday, pulling ahead in Nevada and Pennsylvania. Donald Trump, reduced to lying about “illegal” votes, watched his chances of reelection evaporate.

The president’s leads in Georgia and Pennsylvania diminished with metronomic regularity on Thursday and into, and Friday as each new round of vote totals was released to the public. Late arriving votes from urban and suburban areas all but buried Trump’s chances in the two states.  Philadelphia votes, which ran around 80-20 for Biden, were tallied amidst protests from Trump supporters and news reports of a thwarted attack on a vote-counting facility by the president’s backers. Atlanta and its suburbs seemed to put the kibosh on Trump’s chances in a state that’s been solidly red in presidential contests since 1992. Georgia’s secretary of state announced that there would be a recount after the final tally.

Recounts seemed certain in other states, too, possibly delaying a declaration of Biden’s victory into next week. Much depends on if and when news organizations decide to call one or more of the remaining states. Even with recounts, the possibility of a Trump victory seems almost implausible, requiring the president to win almost every outstanding contest.

So far, Trump’s efforts to change the vote count have proved hapless even if his authoritarian fulminations grow more shrill. His lawsuits have been largely swatted away by the courts. On Thursday, he took to the White House Briefing Room to declare that he was already the winner of the election when “legal votes” were counted. That is a lie. He also offered what can only be called crackpot theories, including the accusation that the nation’s polling firms had conspired against him to depress his vote. Late-night comics lampooned the president’s conspiratorial rantings, noting that it would be quite an accomplishment, indeed, for Democrats to plan a Biden victory in multiple states while losing Democratic house seats and floundering in the Senate.

Trump’s remarks, timed for the broadcast evening news but which most networks cut away from before he was finished, were a continuation of a tirade that began at 2:00 AM on Wednesday when the president appeared in the East Room of the White House, a venue usually reserved for bestowing medals or press conferences with visiting heads of state. There, he led an insomniac’s political rally and claimed an imaginary lead: “Frankly, we did win this election.” That was a brazen lie.

Trump’s determination to go to the Supreme Court, which he repeated on Thursday, ignored the justices’ inability to issue a single ruling that would stop balloting nationwide. (Each state has its own election law.) Counting ballots past midnight is commonplace in American elections for all offices, including the presidency. In 2000, 2004, and 2016 no winner had emerged by the stroke of midnight, and even when winners are projected earlier, counting and certification can take days or weeks.

Senate Woes

In the Senate, Democrats who were heavily favored to take the chamber are despairing that they’ll very likely remain in the minority. Democrats will need to pick up North Carolina to have any shot of taking the Senate, but that seemed increasingly unlikely, and incumbent Thom Tillis saw his lead widen against Democratic challenger, Cal Cunningham. Democratic hopes also rest on two Georgia Senate races that have yet to be determined. At least one is likely to be settled in a runoff later this month. On the other, incumbent Sen. David Purdue, a Republican, may yet reach the 50-percent threshold to avoid a runoff.

The week had proved profoundly disappointing for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer as he watched one Democratic candidate after another falter. Once considered among the most vulnerable Republicans, Maine’s Susan Collins kept her seat, easily beating Maine House Speaker Sara Gideon. While Mark Kelly, the former astronaut, knocked off Republican Martha McSally to win the U.S. Senate seat in Arizona, other paths to Senate control disappeared for Senate Democrats. Joni Ernst,  the Iowa Republican, kept her Senate seat.  Democrats picked up a U.S. Senate seat in Colorado, where former Gov. John Hickenlooper handily beat incumbent Cory Gardner. But Democrats lost in South Carolina, where the lavishly funded bid of Jaime Harrison was dashed, and Lindsey Graham won a fourth term. In Montana, Gov. Steve Bullock, whom Democrats recruited to run, lost to Steve Daines, who won a second term.  Meanwhile, Sen. Gary Peters of Michigan, a one-term Democrat, managed to hang on against John James’s surprisingly strong challenge.

Republicans were on track to pick up at least six seats in the House, putting an ax to the promising Congressional careers of freshman Democrats elected in the 2018 blue wave. In New York, Max Rose, a high profile Army veteran, lost his Staten Island-and-Brooklyn district. In Florida, former Health and Human Services Secretary Donna Shalala lost her bid for a second term, another victim of the Democrats’ surprisingly weak performance among Hispanics in South Florida.

Even if Biden prevails, his agenda could be on life support. The Senate, likely controlled by Mitch McConnell, the GOP leader from Kentucky, puts dreams of liberal reform–an end to the filibuster, statehood for the District of Columbia, and new seats on the Supreme Court–in peril. Biden’s progressive tax and spending plans seemed doomed. Should Biden win, it’s hard to think of another president in the modern era who took office during a crisis with such little strength in Congress. Even if Democrats can claw their way to a 50-50 tie in the Senate–making a Vice President Kamala Harris the tiebreaker–it would require lockstep unity in a Democratic party not exactly know for it.

Not Since LBJ

The anxiety-producing presidential race shows that Americans remain deeply divided as they faced the starkest presidential race since Lyndon Johnson squared off against Barry Goldwater in 1964. Biden heads the most progressive Democratic ticket since LBJ’s landslide election. His party’s platform touts massive expenditures, like Green New Deal style-investments in alternative energy and a bold public option to bolster the Affordable Care Act, as well as cultural changes like the end of the Hyde Amendment—which prohibits federal funding for Medicaid (Biden has supported the latter since 1979). The Democratic Party’s platform doesn’t fulfill all of the wants of its ascendant left-wing. Still, there’s enough there to keep them happy—for now.

By contrast, the GOP had no platform this year, reflecting the Republican Party’s subservience to the president. The triangulation that Trump hinted at in 2016—echoing Democratic priorities like protecting Social Security, investing in roads and bridges—never materialized. The Trump of 2020 is pushing for an end to the payroll tax, which would end Social Security. Famously and laughably, “Infrastructure Week” proved to be a mirage. Trump is a standard, donor-class Republican with an inhuman face. His anti-immigrant fervor, disdain for defense alliances, and multilateral trade pacts were a patina on traditional Republican faith in the trinity of tax cuts, conservative judges, and deregulation.

For Trump, the underdog, his coalition was paved with states with large populations of white working-class voters, including the Great Lakes states. His 2016 victories in Ohio, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan cut off Hillary Clinton’s seemingly inevitable path to victory. His hold on Florida, Texas, North Carolina, and Georgia doomed her chances in states with growing Hispanic and suburban populations.

Thanks to his Pennsylvania roots—and doubtlessly owing much to his gender, perceived moderation, and maybe his age—Biden proved to be in a  much stronger position than Clinton. His party is more unified, sobered by the lessons of 2016 and even 2000 when the Green Party bid of Ralph Nader doomed Al Gore.

It’s likely Biden’s low-key, some say lackadaisical, campaign was brilliant. One upside for Biden: it kept the focus on Trump, making the election a referendum on the president. Conversely, Biden’s making fewer campaign stops may turn out to have been too cautious.

The Ferrari Campaign

The mismanagement of Trump’s campaign is one for the ages. Hundreds of millions of dollars ill-spent, a campaign manager with a Ferrari who was only dispatched when it was too late, an inability to master small donor online fundraising—all of it made this campaign the gang that couldn’t shoot straight. In the final days of the race, Trump was forced to jet to California, a state where he stands no chance, to hustle money the old fashioned way—with a pricy fundraiser that’s far less efficient than merely collecting dollars online without any waiters or canapés.

Biden was simultaneously the most likely and least likely Democratic nominee this cycle. His 50-year tenure in electoral politics made him well known, and his eight-years as Barack Obama’s wingman transformed him from a Senate lifer into presidential timber.

But his age—he turns 78 this month—was always a looming burden, and his long history in the U.S. Senate is both a bragging right and an albatross. When Biden was sworn into the Senate in 1973, just days after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident, the chamber had deep roots in the past. Three World War I veterans were still serving, as were multiple former segregationist Senators who chaired powerful committees, forcing him to work them and charm them alongside other young liberals. Ted Kennedy, who came to the Senate in 1962, ten years earlier, had the same work-with-segregationists history when he ran for president in 1980. Still, the Democratic Party of that year didn’t hold it against him, perhaps because he was a Kennedy. Biden got no such break this year. When Kamala Harris whacked him on school busing to achieve racial desegregation, it smarted.

But Biden played the long game. He didn’t jerk too far to the left during the primaries. He didn’t embrace single-payer health care, even while he jettisoned pro-corporate stances on bankruptcy reform and antitrust that unsettled the many financial institutions that make Delaware home. His long cultivation of Black voters—Delaware is the state with the ninth largest Black population, he often noted—and his unswerving loyalty to a younger Black president made him ripe for the endorsement of James Clyburn in South Carolina. The powerful House Democratic Whip used his Palmetto State machine and Black voters’ ready enthusiasm to push Biden to a resounding victory over minority candidates like Cory Booker or the party’s left stalwarts, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders. The party gathered around Biden quickly; endorsements from rivals such as Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar poured in. The moment of Sanders’s inevitability proved very short, snatched by the Black voters in the state that launched the Civil War. Warren faltered quickly, coming in third in her home state.

Trump’s Republican party was unified from the start. He never faced a serious primary challenge. Those who put up a fight with the president like Republican Senators Bob Corker and Jeff Flake walked away rather than facing uphill battles in primaries dominated by MAGA devotees. The president could have used his unified party to reset his unpopular presidency, returning to infrastructure or easing back on the constant Twitter invectives. But he didn’t.

Trump Blows His Chance For a Reset

And that was before the pandemic. Perhaps the gravest national crisis in 100 years or at least since World War II and the Depression, COVID-19 could have been Trump’s lifeline. But a negligent response sent the death toll higher than it should ever have been. He turned mask-wearing into a political statement instead of a prophylactic. His blathering made him seem more idiotic than Churchillian. His continued self-indulgence amidst death—complaining about not getting a fair shake from Fox News of all places—made him seem, if not AWOL from the pandemic fight, then like he was cosseting the enemy. Even his illness, which might have provided a moment to right his campaign, was only a fleeting photo op. Still, the fact that he remains an underdog with a chance is testimony to his grip on rural America, traditional Republicans, and white-working-class men.

In Harris and Mike Pence, each man has found a running mate that matches their party perfectly. The California senator represents the Democrats’ diversity, with her Jamaican and Indian ancestry, Jewish husband, and Jewish stepchildren. Hailing from the Bay Area, although now living in Brentwood, she’s pure West Coast blue. If elected, she’ll be the first woman to occupy the vice-presidential mansion in Washington, D.C. The first president or vice president since Warren Harding not to have had their own children. Pence raised a Roman Catholic, and a Democrat in Indiana is a fundamentalist Christian and a rock-ribbed Republican. What differences he had with Trump on immigration or foreign policy are gone along with his once lonely crusade for a shield law to protect journalists’ confidential sources. (Pence was a radio host with some empathy for the news before it was fake.)

Trump and Biden are the oldest nominees to run. Their combined ages are 151. John Kennedy and Richard Nixon’s combined ages were 90. If Biden wins, he’ll be the second Catholic president, elected 60 years after JFK. He will be the first widower president since Woodrow Wilson. If Trump holds on, he’ll join Barack Obama and George W. Bush in a special club: Every president in this century will have won two-terms. It now seems possible we’ll never have a president born in the 1950s, a decade big on babies but not babies who grew up to be president. This election’s eventual victor will be a product of the 1940s, a decade every bit as turbulent as ours.

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Matthew Cooper

Matthew Cooper is Guest Political Editor at the Washington Monthly. He is also contributing editor of the magazine and a veteran reporter having covered politics and the White House for Time, The New Republic, Washingtonian, National Journal and many other publications.