Less than a week before Election Day, more than 74 million votes have already been cast. The presidential candidates are making their final sprints through the swing states. And it’s hard to anticipate any development changing the overall dynamics of the race at this point. (Though it’s not impossible. It is, after all, 2020, the year we wore out the word unprecedented.)
For months, this race has been going in Joe Biden’s direction. He’s ahead in all the averages of national and swing state polls. But in these final days, I find myself thinking less about the voting trends and more about the unknowns that could still knock things off-kilter. Here are three of the biggest things we can’t predict:
The polls could be wrong, and in ways that we don’t yet understand.
When we discuss politics, we spend so much time focused on polling. But the reality is that it’s a highly imperfect measure — a snapshot of the electorate at a given time, not a prediction of what’s to come.
Still, Mr. Biden has some room for error. As our friends at The Upshot have been reporting for weeks, even if the polls turn out to be as wrong as they were in 2016, Mr. Biden would still win the White House. (More on that below.)
But what if the polls are wrong in a totally different way?
We are holding an election amid unprecedented (there’s the word, again!) conditions. We’ve never voted for president in a pandemic. We’ve never voted so much by mail. And, as a result, our election has never been so dependent on a Postal Service that is still reporting delays.
Factoring all that uncertainty into polling is difficult, particularly given that polls often miss the mark even in “normal” times.
Keep up with Election 2020
This isn’t just a 2016 problem. A smart analysis published yesterday by David Wasserman, at the Cook Political Report, found that state polling in 2016 and 2018 underestimated Republicans’ strength in the Midwest and Florida, and underestimated Democrats’ strength in the Southwest.
Polling can miss the mark in all kinds of ways. And this year, we definitely have to be ready for the unexpected.
We don’t really know what all this early voting will mean for the outcome.
There’s no question that banking votes as early as possible is a smart political strategy. But the Democratic advantage in early returns may not tell us that much about the eventual outcome of the election.
The record-breaking numbers of early votes should indicate a high-turnout election. Traditionally, that would benefit Democrats, who tend to pull more support from infrequent voters. But again, this election is anything but typical.
We don’t know whether Democrats are bringing in new voters or simply racking up votes that would have been cast on Election Day. But according to estimates by TargetSmart, a Democratic data firm, more than 16 million people who didn’t vote in 2016 have cast ballots in 2020. Of those voters, 49 percent are estimated to be Democrats and 37 percent Republicans.
Republicans argue that they are bringing in new voters of their own and will run up their margins in conservative areas by bringing out white, working-class voters who skipped the 2016 election but now want to support President Trump. After months of Mr. Trump’s spurious attacks on voting by mail, large numbers of Republicans are expected to wait and vote on Election Day.
If the results are close, there could be a whole new endgame.
Forget about Election Day, it’s now election szn, bro. (That’s “election season, friend,” for the olds like me.) The question is how long election season might run after voting ends.
In the final months of the race, Mr. Trump has spent a lot of time questioning the legitimacy of the election in advance, going so far as to decline to commit to a peaceful transition of power.
These charges are not completely new: He made similarly baseless accusations in 2016, refusing to promise that he would accept the results of the election when pressed during the third debate. Hillary Clinton’s defeat meant his threat was never tested.
A decisive victory by Mr. Biden would make it harder for Mr. Trump to mount a justifiable claim to the presidency, the kind that could gain political traction among his fellow Republicans. But if he appears to have lost by a narrower margin, would Mr. Trump actually press his argument of a “rigged election” through lawsuits or other means?
It’s another question we won’t be able to answer until we have results. But if Mr. Biden wins, it might end up being the one we’re all discussing weeks from now.
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Young man! The long and winding road of the Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.”:
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