In 2016, I couldn’t wait for Election Day in the United States. Finally, I thought we would be done with Donald J. Trump’s braggadocio after he had made the campaign period such an ugly, divisive affair.
But, at 5 am, as I sat in my Dubai apartment, the results came in announcing that Trump, the Republican candidate, had defied the odds and would win the Electoral College votes required to win the presidency.
Although he ended up losing the popular vote to Democrat Hillary Clinton by almost three million, he had secured his win via 77,000 people from three states, fewer than the number of voters in our own Lembah Pantai.
Conventional wisdom says this kind of upset is unlikely to repeat itself, even with many of the same factors: micro-targeting of swing voters via social media to depress turnout, assistance from a foreign power to tarnish Trump’s 2020 Democratic opponent Joe Biden, among other things.
Now that the 2020 Election Day is here, I worry whether we will see a repeat of 2016, even when most state and national polls predict former Vice President Biden winning by a large margin.
In Wisconsin, one of the states that tipped the presidency to Trump in 2016, polls released by data intelligence company Morning Consult on Nov 2 has Biden winning it by 13 points. The company also has Biden winning Michigan and Pennsylvania, the other two swing states that helped Trump win in 2016, by more than five points.
This and other polls added up to Biden having an 89 per cent chance of winning with an average of 348 electoral votes, according to political aggregator FiveThirtyEight. Throw in Trump’s botched response to the pandemic, the many corruption scandals and the worst economy since the Great Depression, which has put millions out of work, Biden’s victory should be all but assured.
COVID-19 and the economy
Lest one thinks whoever wins the U.S. presidency does not affect the world, it does. The global economy is unlikely to recover fully until the United States gets its COVID-19 outbreak under control, according to economists in an Associated Press report in August. Till now, despite nine million infections and over 230,000 Americans dead, Trump has kept downplaying the disease.
Biden, on the other hand, has a federal plan to combat COVID-19.
As far as the experts, including 13 Nobel Prize-winning economists, are concerned, Biden needs to be president to fix the global economy.
And yet, many Americans and election-watchers like me are still nervous, still considering the elections as a toss-up despite all national polls favouring Biden.
“I really hope I’m proven wrong, but I’m fully expecting the worst,” my friend told me on Twitter.
The anxiety, making this arguably the most dreaded election in my lifetime, can be traced to various factors, some old and some unusual to US elections in modern times.
Can we trust the polls?
When Hillary Clinton gave her concession speech in 2016, it was the second time a popular vote winner had to do so within two decades. In 2000, Al Gore conceded to Republican George W. Bush, who had won half a million votes fewer than Gore.
What pushed Bush and Trump over the top was the Electoral College, an archaic method of choosing the president and vice president enshrined in the U.S. Constitution.
According to the Constitution and the Twelfth Amendment, a candidate must win the majority of a state’s electors to become president. U.S. voters do not cast their ballots directly for the candidates, but for the electors.
Each state has a specific number of electoral votes, which is the same as its congressional representatives. For example, California has 55 congressional representatives and therefore 55 electoral votes. In most cases, to get a state’s electoral votes, a candidate has to win the popular vote in the state.
Two hundred and seventy electoral votes are needed to win the presidency.
In other words, you can win the small handful of states to become president. Which is why national polls are not much of an indicator of a presidential win.
In the past, the popular vote had been in tandem with an electoral college win. National polls therefore accurately predicted the presidential winner.
But 2000 changed that, thus beginning my and others’ anxiety and distrust of polls. The polls showed a tight fight between Bush and Gore, and so Gore’s 0.51 per cent popular vote win over Bush was within the margin of error. The electoral college victory was a bit of a shock (the last time a popular vote winner failed to become president was over a century ago), but I and many could accept it as an anomaly.
Hillary Clinton’s win of the popular vote was not that far off from what polls predicted either. Although FiveThirtyEight and other pollsters put her expected share of the national vote at three points higher, she ended up with 2 per cent more votes than Trump’s, with almost three million more votes than his.
However, state polls were a different story. Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin polls mostly had Clinton winning them, not losing them.
When she lost, pollsters re-examined their modelling and concluded not enough weighting had been done. According to Vox, polls in Wisconsin ended up favouring Democrats and underestimating Republicans. The same was repeated in Florida and the Midwest.
This discrepancy also cemented the anxiety and distrust.
This year, pollsters say they have fixed that mistake and corrected previous assumptions. FiveThirtyEight said state polls would have to be way off for another upset.
“... if polls were off by about the amount they’ve been off in past elections — by around 3 points, on average — and the error favoured Trump, then he’d probably win the Electoral College,” said Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, in his blog.
Polls of the traditional Blue Wall states show Biden as ahead but the average for the swing states, such as Florida, North Carolina and Ohio, to be less than 3 points. In fact, FiveThirtyEight has Trump winning Ohio by 1 point.
But the anxiety is not only due to the toss up status of the swing states; there is real fear among many that Trump, aided by Republicans and his court appointees, will put his thumb on the scales to turn his possible loss into a victory.
Although states have reported record-breaking early voting turnout - as of November 1, more than 91.6 million Americans have voted, surpassing two-thirds of votes cast in 2016 - questions remain whether it will favour Biden.
Higher turnout typically favours Democrats, since racial minorities, and young and poor voters that make up their base, usually do not vote.
However, Trump supporters report higher enthusiasm for their candidate than Biden’s, according to a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics poll in September. This means if there are enough obstacles to voting, Biden supporters will give up.
A cursory search on social media found many reporting anxiety, partly fuelled by reports of voter intimidation and suppression efforts in the past few months in the news and on social media.
One suppression method is by slowing down the U.S. Postal Service. Trump has admitted he declined to fund the agency’s expansion capacity to process mailed-in ballots in a bid to prevent votes from Democrats. Democrats have been encouraging mail-in voting due to the coronavirus.
“That means they can’t have universal mail-in voting. They just can’t have it,” he said in an interview with Fox Business Network in August.
A recent investigation by NBC found that the US Postal Service, crucial to voters who are mailing in their ballots due to COVID-19, has slowed by a few days, possibly invalidating “tens of thousands of ballots in states with strict deadlines,” the news report stated.
Additionally, Republicans have filed suits to reduce the days to accept mail-in ballots in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, and asked a federal judge to invalidate over 100,000 legally-cast votes in a heavily-Democratic county in Texas. Though these efforts have mostly failed, these attempts have driven home the point that Republicans will do anything to restrict voting.
On top of that, videos of purported voter intimidation tactics have gone viral on social media - the latest being a caravan of Trump supporters allegedly trying to intimidate a Biden campaign bus and car on the road on Oct 31, prompting outrage and an FBI investigation.
Reduce and delay the chance of a decisive victory enough, and the Trump campaign thinks it will have space to call the integrity of the election into question, according to New York Times reporters Astead Herndon and Annie Karn in an Oct 31 report.
“Trump advisers said their best hope was if the president wins Ohio, and Florida is too close to call early in the night, depriving Mr Biden a swift victory and giving Mr Trump the room to undermine the validity of uncounted mail-in ballots in the days after,” they wrote.
Pundits and analysts have therefore warned people to ignore exit polls, something media organisations used to rely on to forecast the winner before the vote is fully counted.
All this uncertainty has been fuelling the anxiety.
A huge majority support nationally does not ensure electoral college victory. Early and high turnouts do not necessarily favour the Democrats and Biden. Voting does not necessarily mean one’s vote will be counted.
And now, the winner of the presidency may likely not be known until days later.
One thing is for sure. Whether a winner is called tomorrow or not, whoever it is, the cycle of sleepless nights will continue.
Nina Muslim is senior writer at BERNAMA Special Issue Desk.