We knew it was going to be this way. America has long been bracing itself for a drawn-out, tortured Election Day that would very likely turn into Election Week, perhaps even Election Month or beyond.
We expected the coronavirus pandemic to create electoral chaos: The New York Times wrote an article in June with the headline, “A Winner on Election Day in November? Don’t Count on It.” Between a historically high number of mail-in ballots and a byzantine tangle of election rules that vary by state, it was all but certain we wouldn’t have a conclusive answer on November 3. We also knew that the GOP was preparing to wage multiple legal battles in court to try to keep ballots from being counted in multiple states, not unlike its strategy in the 2000 Bush-Gore election; in September, Trump flat out told us he was relying on the Supreme Court to decide the election in his favor.
Now, the day after “Election Day,” these predictions are coming to pass. The race is still too close to call: The crucial battleground states of Michigan and Pennsylvania are still counting votes, and may need up until Friday — or longer — to do so. Joe Biden seems to have cinched other necessary electoral votes in Nevada and Arizona, but the margins are razor-thin. Results may also potentially be delayed by litigation from both sides of the political spectrum; Republicans filed multiple lawsuits on Tuesday in Pennsylvania regarding the validity of certain kinds of ballots. Trump’s campaign announced it will be seeking a recount in Wisconsin. And, true to form, he’s already preemptively declared victory over the whole contest, with millions of votes still uncounted.
I knew all of this was coming. I knew more Democrats voted by mail, that several states were not allowed to count early ballots until Election Day, and their in-person results would make it look like Trump was in the lead. Still, general numbness turned to panic as Election Night went on, increasing with every ominous MSNBC bell that announced a new state’s electoral votes being called for Trump, and the bells that tolled for “too close to call.” “This is bad,” I texted friends. “Fuck,” they texted back. We continued this way for hours, a grim back-and-forth expressing nothing new, because what new was there to say?
Now, with the dust not at all settled, but with some clarity on how everything is still pretty much what we expected, I still feel sick, and I’m thinking about why. For one thing, the frenzied political media forgot its own advice. There was a mad focus in the last few weeks on new polling that prompted hope of a “Biden blowout” — a landslide victory, a nationwide rebuke against Trump’s racism and xenophobia and total failure to handle the coronavirus pandemic. Suddenly Florida, even Texas, were in the realm of possibility. None of that, obviously, really happened. And just like 2016, as results came in, pundits were left scrambling to reflect the difference between the wild projections and reality.
The Times had replaced its infamous, jittery election-prediction needle with three ostensibly less stressful ones, each depicting who was the likely victor in three battleground states. The new system did little to mitigate the sense of dread and confusion this time around. As all three needles inched redder, cable-news anchors jockeyed to call states. Networks displayed the results with the usual sportslike stats and graphics, even as state officials announced they would need more time to count ballots. We all knew this Election Night would not be “normal” by any standards, and that it could not be televised in a single night, and yet, network TV tried to televise it in a single night anyway. A day later, with Biden’s path to 270 electoral votes largely still in sight, everything still feels so unsure, suffused with the night’s desperation and inaccuracy.
It isn’t just the experience of watching the returns that has cast a shadow over the week(s) to come. Though it remains likely that Biden will win the presidency, the circumstances around his win make it hard to feel genuinely optimistic. A “Biden blowout” may have always been a fantasy, but the fact that the vote remains this close, after the past eight months especially, is a horrifying wake-up call for the Democratic Party. It shows that Biden and the party could not craft effective messaging, even amid a deadly pandemic and subsequent economic collapse, and despite Trump’s catastrophic mishandling of both.
Down ballot, Democrats have performed so disappointingly that, if Biden wins, he might not be able to accomplish much of anything in office. Republicans in all likelihood still have control of the Senate, which means a period of austerity looms ahead, with renewed fractious debate over economic relief. Democrats flipped seats in Colorado and Arizona, with a runoff scheduled in Georgia, but also they poured staggering amounts of money into some races that were total disasters — particularly Amy McGrath’s against incumbent Mitch McConnell in Kentucky. Though McGrath did little to distinguish herself in any way, adopting a cautious platform with milquetoast appeals to things like “bipartisanship” and “patriotism” instead of meaningful policy reforms, the party sunk an astonishing $80 million into her campaign. She didn’t even clear 40 percent of the vote last night.
The worst part of all of this guessing and gaming is that it shows just how broken the whole system is. It is possible that Joe Biden could get more votes than any other presidential candidate in American history and still lose the election. Who can scrape by with just enough Electoral College votes — whether by actually winning in those states or even, horrifically, by a court order that helps them win those states — is the person who will actually win. If that candidate aligns with the person for whom most Americans cast their ballots, that’s good, but that doesn’t make it fair.
The gloom shrouding this next period is doubled: There is the fact that we know we will be waiting, but what are we even waiting for? If the best-case scenario is that Trump is out of office, but his right-wing Supreme Court remains, along with the conservative Senate, while the virus rages and with no stimulus in sight, can we even call that hope?