It makes complete sense that the drama of Donald Trump’s first – and possibly only – presidential term would not with a simple decision on the night of November 3. Especially because that day capped an American election season that saw the highest turnout in a century. This included a massive increase in mail-in votes because of the Covid-19 crisis.
Anticipating this, US officials had warned everyone months ahead of time that counting would take much longer than it usually does.
Still, the state of suspended animation in which the US finds itself is, for many, nerve-wracking – as it is for the millions around the world who are following the contest.
As we await the final numbers then, here is the state of the race as of Thursday afternoon Indian Standard Time, along with a few other takeaways.
Biden at the finish line
As everyone expected, US President Donald Trump took a major lead in results that came in on November 3. This in part was because many of the states counted in-person votes before moving on to mail-in ballots, which were expected to lean heavily Democratic. He even attempted to declare victory at 2 am Eastern Time in the US and said that any votes cast for his opponent were a “fraud”.
Since it had been clear that Trump was likely to do this, rather than setting off a constitutional crisis, the broader response was mostly a collective shrug.
As counting continued, Democratic candidate Joe Biden moved ahead of Trump. He was always expected to get more votes than Trump. As of Thursday he had 50.4% of the national vote to Trump’s 47.9%, a margin of more than 3 million votes.
But in America’s convoluted system, simple majorities earned in individual states, each of which have a certain number of votes at the Electoral College, are for the most part privileged. Voters of the Electoral College then get to decide who will be president. This means the decision often hinges on a few battleground states that could go in either direction.
As of Thursday afternoon, Indian time, Biden had a lead in enough states to potentially win 270 Electoral College votes, which would make him president. Two of those states – Arizona and Nevada – had yet to finish counting their votes and could not yet be decided in favour of Biden. Meanwhile, three other states – Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania – where Trump was in the lead, were also yet to be called and likely to be extremely close in the final count.
If all of these trends hold, Biden would be the next president. If Trump, however, manages to end up in the lead in either Arizona – where Biden’s margin is narrowing – or Nevada, and holds on to Georgia, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, then he will be re-elected.
Trump throws the kitchen sink
The US President responded to being behind Biden in the race in the way he was expected to – by alleging that any result in which he is not ahead would be fraudulent. Trump’s Twitter feed reflected Trump’s state of mind. It also reflected the contested nature of some of his claims, which the social network decided to hide behind a warning that they were inaccurate or misleading.
As mentioned, Trump still has a pathway to victory and it involves votes actually being counted – since at the moment he isn’t ahead in sufficient states to win outright. Yet Trump and the Republican Party have sought to raise questions about the legitimacy of mail-in ballots, which have favoured the Democrats. Trump supporters have even mobilised in an attempt to force officials to stop counting – only to later insist on more counting in the areas where the remaining votes are likely to help their cause.
Elsewhere, the Trump campaign has filed a number of legal challenges in the hope of getting officials to stop counting ballots in battleground states. At the same time, they have been demanding a recount in Wisconsin, which had been declared for Biden earlier in the day.
Legal challenges deciding the outcomes of elections are not unheard of in the US, where – without either state or national election commissions – courts have often had to decided which kinds of ballots and what procedures are valid. Most famously, the outcome of the 2000 election was decided by the Supreme Court. This installed Republican George W Bush in the White House when his opponent, Al Gore won the popular vote. But even though he appeared to have sufficient votes to take the state of Florida, these were not ultimately counted.
The difficulty for Trump is that despite the highly political nature of judicial appointments and rulings in the US, it would still be hard for the courts to outright throw out valid results. This would particularly so since it is generally accepted that Biden is ahead in a sufficient number of states.
Still, the legal challenges may drag out the proceedings, making it uncertain whether a clear result will be known over the next day or two.
‘Red mirage’, ‘Blue wall’
You have probably encountered these two terms if you have been paying attention to the election coverage. Here is what they mean:
- Red mirage: This refers to the broad impression that Trump would be ahead in a number of states early on, because they would be counting in-person votes first. But these would later be eroded because of how heavily Democrats relied on mail-in ballotting. This turned out to be the case in a number of Mid-Western states like Michigan and Wisconsin and may yet end up being true in Pennsylvania and Georgia.
- Blue wall: Broadly speaking, “Blue wall” has usually referred to a set of states that have been reliably Democratic for decades now, such as all the West Coast states. In 2020 specifically, they have been used for Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, three states that had always gone Democratic between 1992 and 2012, but were won by Trump rather than Hilary Clinton in 2016. The expectation had been that if Biden could win back these states, it would put him on a path to victory. As of Thursday, he had won Michigan and Wisconsin, while Pennsylvania had Trump ahead – but votes still being counted.
The final outcome may still be uncertain. But what is clear is that pre-polling in the United States, where hundreds of thousands of dollars are poured into trying to gauge the sentiment of voters every year, is likely to face as much or more questioning than it did in 2016, when Hilary Clinton was widely expected to win the election.
This time around, the pre-election polling suggested Biden would win – which may yet be the case – but most predicted large margins for the former vice president, rather than the extremely tight race that has left the country on tenterhooks.
Many, especially outside the country, have wondered how Americans could possibly want to re-elect Trump after what has appeared to be a shambolic four years, including a ruinous handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and a never-ending barrage of scandal after scandal.
But Americans rarely vote out the incumbent president. There have been only two one-term presidents in the last 40 years. And the one thing we do know, at least if you trust the polls, is that polarisation is so entrenched in the US that voters appear to support the candidate of their party almost regardless of that person’s rhetoric or record.
The polls, however, seemed to predict a very different result than the one that we are actually seeing, which is likely to prompt plenty of soul-searching within the industry. The caveat, of course, is that it will be some time until final results are in. After all, only then can they be compared to the polls to tabulate how bad the errors were.