Biden Inches Ahead in a Chaotically Normal Election
The former vice president looks favored right now, but don't expect Trumpism to go anywhere.
Social media this morning is brimming with bloodshot snark (when is it not?). Over and over again, variations on the same joke keep getting made: clearly we live in a healthy democracy when Joe Biden is winning the popular vote yet I’m sitting here refreshing the count in Green Bay, Wisconsin.
Well, yeah. That’s how it works. And tormenting journalists by forcing them to pay attention to places like Green Bay might actually be one of the strongest arguments in favor of the Electoral College. Still, America’s peculiar machinery has made this election nothing if not a wild ride. Four years ago, there was a clear narrative of Trump ascendance: Florida fell, North Carolina went next, Ohio was already gone, then into the Upper Midwest. This year had far more hairpin turns: North Carolina is still too close to call, Arizona flipped to Biden yet Florida didn’t, Biden led early in Ohio only for Trump to pull ahead, the fuse continues to burn in the Upper Midwest.
As it stands, if Biden manages to win both Wisconsin and Michigan—he’s inched ahead in both—then he could (narrowly) take the presidency without Pennsylvania, which both campaigns spent the last week gaming. So we’ll see. The advantage right now is with the former vice president, as reserves of votes in Wisconsin’s and Michigan’s urban counties remain uncounted. But it’s also true that the left’s hopes of a landslide, burying Trumpism in history’s rubble, have been dashed. This election is going to be close at a time when partisans are groping about for any space in which to doubt the results. And while presidential legitimacy has been doubted before—2000, 2004, 2016; who isn’t still furious over Rutherford B. Hayes?—the political climate makes the narrow count all the more tense.
Already the president has declared victory. Late last night, he took to the White House East Room for that familiar Trumpian mix of gloating and grievance. Michigan was his, he said, as was North Carolina. “This is a fraud on the American public,” he continued. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.” Declare victory even if you haven’t won—Trump learned that from Roy Cohn, along with so many of his other public relations dark arts. The president also insinuated that he’ll take the election to the Supreme Court, where he’s no doubt hoping a Republican-appointed majority will be sympathetic to his pleas. What basis does he have for suing? He offered only this: “We want all voting to stop.”
That, of course, happened last night. And thus does another one of America’s civic rituals threaten to descend into chaos. The first thing I saw when I turned on my TV this morning was: “You’re watching CNN’s live election coverage…brought to you by Borat 2!” I have little use for Sacha Baron Cohen, whom Declan Leary skewered on Monday, but it does sometimes feel like we’re living through one of his crueler and more comprehensive pranks. Yet whatever lies ahead, the strangest thing about the election was that it felt so normal. There was no widespread social unrest, no Boogaloo Boys showing up to polling places with Super Soakers. The counting wore on through the night, a couple of states hold the balance, journalists are hallucinating from too much coffee—just as it’s supposed to be.
A few other takeaways, in no particular order. Representative Collin Peterson, one of the last pro-life Democrats in Congress, has lost his bid for reelection, as the parties continue to tighten down cultural lines. Louisiana has approved a constitutional amendment stating that abortion is not a right—good news, though mostly symbolic until Roe v. Wade is overturned. Republican Susan Collins is still ahead of challenger Sara Gideon in Maine, signaling hope for that most endangered of species, the New England Republican. Senator Tom Cotton won handily in Arkansas, though his opponent, a Libertarian (the Democrat dropped out), mustered a third of the vote.
Yet America right now is a land of sweeping abstracts not picayune details, bold colors not pale pastels. And the question on everyone’s lips is: has Trumpism been vanquished? The election itself is still too close to call. Yet given the closeness of the tally, given that Trump isn’t about to vanish even if he loses, I think the answer is already clear.