Too Close Isn’t Comfort
Whether it’s a pandemic or an election, too close isn’t comfort
Imagine that it’s Election Night, and we’re selecting a president. State by state, the polls close. Then we all wait for the winners of congressional districts and statewide races to be called, including the battle for the presidency. News organizations release their exit polls, where pollsters offer summaries based on voter surveys at polling stations. They don’t draw conclusions about winners. We learn who voted and why they voted the way they did, but not how they voted. And then we wait.
We’ve been waiting since March for the pandemic to be behind us. We’re waiting for a tomorrow that’s different from today and yesterday. Too many of us are waiting for the economy to help us go back to jobs that we’ve lost, fun that we’ve missed, and grandmothers we hug.
Maybe you’re watching the polls right now. Polls before about September include registered voters instead of likely voters, so these polls include nonvoters. Nonvoters are generally less white, less educated, poorer, younger, and more likely to be women. Nonvoters have historically favored Democrats. This means that any Biden/Harris lead in today’s polling includes a lot of unreliable voters. Early leads aren’t permanent. Don’t get overconfident.
Right now, many polls show a close race or have a wide margin of error. Many of the polls show national preferences. For a presidential election, the only thing to watch is the voter preference in each individual state. For most states, the winner in each state gets all the electoral votes. National presidential polls don’t matter. Stop watching them.
Within a state, a single poll is just a snapshot. A single-digit lead in a state is not a compelling predictor. Many factors influence whether a vote gets cast at all, even for likely voters. What’s the weather on Election Day? Is early voting or vote-by-mail available? How many polling stations are there, and where are they? Other than the weather, these questions are decided by politicians who have an interest in the election’s outcome. Take nothing for granted.
The only math that matters is electoral
In the 2016 presidential election, Hillary Clinton received 48.2% of the votes, to Donald Trump’s 46.1%. Electoral math put Donald Trump into the White House against the wishes of the majority of American voters. Based on Trump’s current approval ratings, he is still there against the wishes of most of us.
Razor-thin margins in a few swing states often result in close electoral college totals. In 2016, Trump won Michigan (0.2%), Pennsylvania (0.7%), and Wisconsin (0.8%) by a total of less than 80,000 votes. That’s not a lot in a 140,000,000 vote contest. Often, close results like this precipitate court battles and bad inter-party relationships.
For example, in 2000, George W. Bush finally won Florida by 537 votes after a long court battle. That’s a difference of 0.009%, or 9 votes for every 100,000 cast in Florida. Passions were high during the recount. The Supreme Court decision favoring George Bush didn’t decide the election; our commitment to democracy did. Al Gore conceded, and it was over.
On the other hand, in 1984, Ronald Reagan sailed into his second term with less than 60% of the popular vote, but he carried 49 of the 50 states. This gave him 525 electoral votes to Walter Mondale’s paltry 13, because of electoral mathematics. Two out of five Americans voted against him, but nobody doubted that Reagan won fair and square.
Disruption from the pandemic will certainly change the usefulness of exit polls that rely on counting in-person voting on November 3. Phone surveys of early voters can help, but it isn’t the same. Close elections, especially those with lots of paper ballots, take a long time to estimate and an even longer time to count.
Yet, in 2018, even with significant early and mail-in voting, some congressional elections were called as soon as polls closed. That’s because the winning margins were overwhelming. Early wins are fun on Election Night, but big winning margins are great for more reasons than that.
For one thing, when winning margins are large in a presidential race, the winning party often gets a boost in that state’s Senate and House and local races as well. Those winners might be called early, too. Drink!
“Elections have consequences”, President Obama has said. That’s true for all wins. All wins have consequences. But big wins have mandates.
What’s a mandate? Technically, it means that an election gives the winner the legal authority to conduct governmental business. But after a resounding victory, it means that the winners can be confident that they can implement the policies that elected them.
Run on improving health care or changing the tax structure or addressing the climate crisis, and then win big? Politicians in the losing party might disagree on how to accomplish those goals, but they understand that the majority of Americans have spoken in support of them. The losing party can’t be obstinate; they have to negotiate. Laws will get passed. That’s why you vote, isn’t it?
Here’s another, and unprecedented, reason that the 2020 election needs to be a big win for Joe Biden, and a win in many states. The following is an important sentence about our democracy, from the National Archives:
It is a tribute to our forefathers that a successful election leads, time and again, to a peaceful transition of power to the successor.
Al Gore conceded in 2000 to heal our country. Hillary Clinton conceded early in the 2016 race, even with tiny losing margins in states that had polled in her favor. Regrettably, Joe Biden is running against a petulant narcissist who hasn’t yet decided whether to accept a loss if it should happen. The US Constitution? Peaceful transfer of authority? Pish.
Here’s an exchange Donald Trump had with Chris Wallace on Fox News Sunday on July 19, 2020:
WALLACE: But can you … give a direct answer you will accept the election?
TRUMP: I have to see. Look, you — I have to see. No, I’m not going to just say yes. I’m not going to say no, and I didn’t last time either.
What would encourage a crybaby like this to slither away without a fight? Losing big. It isn’t enough to beat Donald Trump. We’ll need to win a resounding victory and get an overwhelming mandate. We’ll need to win many more states than the 270 electoral votes that are minimally required to put Joe Biden into the White House.
Luckily for America, Donald Trump is probably too lazy to fight the results if he has to do it in multiple states. He’d be laughed out of the courtroom for recounts in some states if Joe Biden wins by a large enough percentage of votes.
Maybe you’re thinking about making a statement by staying home or voting third-party. Your vote against Donald Trump won’t matter unless your vote goes to Joe Biden. Don’t throw away your shot.
We can all control how long we’ll have to wait on Election Night 2020. We make it happen by voting, and making sure our friends and family vote, and winning lots of states and their motherlode of electoral votes.
After the polls close on any election night, noted forecaster David Wasserman ( @Redistrict) looks at the percent of counted ballots in every district and who is ahead so far. He’s the House Editor for the Cook Political Report. Wasserman’s knowledge and experience help him predict what the yet-uncounted ballots are likely to show. He famously tweets “I’ve seen enough” moments before he calls a race.
Haven’t you seen enough by now, too? Vote for Biden/Harris and let’s have a resounding victory and an overwhelming mandate.
Originally published at https://bidenwarroom.org on August 12, 2020.