Politics

Everything You Need To Know About The 2020 US Presidential Election

Shitshow at the clusterfuck factory.

US election explainer

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With everything that’s been happening this year, we don’t blame you for not being across all of the details in the absolute mess that is the 2020 US presidential election. But, as the cliché goes, this might just be the most important election in living memory.

On the one hand, we have Joe Biden, an uninspiring-yet-completely-safe old white man, taking on a genuinely terrifying, borderline-fascist, old orange man in the form of Donald Trump. This election campaign has been held in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic, there’s been a surge in early voting that will test the limits of America’s shaky electoral system, and the spectre of mass violence looms on the other side of election day, no matter the result.

It’s a complete mess, but it’s a very important mess. So with that in mind, we’ve tried to answer some of the most important questions about the 2020 US Presidential election.

When Is The US Election And How Can I Watch It In Australia?

The polls in the US begin closing at around 6pm local time, which is 10am AEDT here, although things won’t get interesting until around midday AEDT. Depending on the results, we may have an idea of what’s happening at around 4pm (if it’s a Biden landslide), or we may not know for weeks.

All of the major free-to-air networks, including the ABC and SBS, will be covering the results live. Most of those networks will begin their coverage at 11am as results start to trickle in. And of course, we’ll be keeping a close eye on things right here at Junkee dot com.

Who’s Going To Win The Election?

Look, if there’s one thing we learned last time, it’s that we shouldn’t try to predict the results. That being said, all of the polls indicate that former US Vice President Joe Biden will emerge victorious. The best guide to look at is polling and analysis website FiveThirtyEight, which currently gives Biden an 89 percent chance of victory. That means that when you feed a bunch of different factors into an algorithm — polls, economic news, pandemics — and simulate the election 40,000 times, Biden wins 89 percent of the time.

Still, that means Trump has a 10 per cent chance of winning (there’s also a one percent chance of a tie), and that’s not nothing, but it’s not nearly as good as his chances looked at this stage of the 2016 election cycle.

But Weren’t The Polls Wrong Last Time?

Yes and no. The 2016 polls showed that Hillary Clinton was marginally more popular than Donald Trump, and that turned out to be true — a lot more people voted for Clinton than Trump in 2016, but those votes weren’t case in the right places for Clinton to secure a victory in the electoral college, and that’s what really matters (more on that below).

Donald Trump won the election because he managed to secure the slimmest of victories in a few key states, giving him a small electoral college majority. And in those battleground states, yes, the polls were wrong by a couple of percentage points. Since then, pollsters have learned a lot of lessons about how they do what they do, and they’ve adjusted their methods accordingly.

There are reasons to feel optimistic. Biden’s lead has been steady for months, unlike Clinton’s, which ebbed and flowed as events unfolded, and Biden’s polling lead on election day will be much bigger than Hillary’s was.

And sure, the polls may be wrong again, but they’d have to be extremely wrong to deliver Trump a victory, and they’d have to be wrong in the right direction. It’s impossible to predict, because if pollsters knew how and why they were going to be wrong, they would fix their methods. It’s entirely possible that this time the polls are underestimating Biden, and he’s actually going to crush Trump on Wednesday. Fingers crossed.

How Does The Electoral College Work?

Ok, this is a tricky one, but it’s important. When Americans vote, they’re not technically voting for a candidate. Instead, they’re voting for an elector, who will vote for a candidate on that person’s behalf. There are 538 electors, meaning a candidate needs to secure 270 electoral college votes to win.

Each state has a certain number of electors, roughly proportionate to the size of their population. So large states like California (55) and New York (29) get more electors than smaller states like Vermont or Wyoming (three votes each). There are other quirks to the system, such as ‘faithless electors’ and states that split their electoral college votes by district, but it’s not worth going into that here. If you’re really interested, here’s an eight-minute explainer from Vox.

… Welcome back. Hope you enjoyed that. Anyway, the electoral college is a deeply imperfect system, that means a person in California’s vote is worth less than a person in Wyoming’s. The ‘winner takes all’ model also means that a person’s vote can count for nothing, even if their state only narrowly votes for a candidate not of that person’s choosing.

All this means that a candidate can still win even if they don’t secure more votes than their opponent. As silly as that may seem, it’s exactly what happened in the US in 2016, and in 2000 when George W. Bush ‘beat’ Al Gore (incidentally, it happened in Australia in 1998 when John Howard defeated Kim Beazley but lost the two-party preferred vote).

So, y’know, it’s a bad system, but it’s the one America is stuck with for now.

Isn’t The Whole Thing A Bit Of A Mess?

‘Mess’ is putting it lightly. The US electoral system could politely be described as a clusterfuck. Unlike Australia, where voting is compulsory and our elections are run by an independent, centralised body, America’s 50 states all get to set their own rules for who can vote, how and when. Those rules are generally set by whichever party controls the state legislature, meaning there are wildly different rules about voting from state-to-state. In recent years, courts have also rolled back landmark voter protections that were first enacted during the civil rights era.

And because America is a hyper-partisan nightmare, some parties (*cough The Republicans cough*) aren’t shy about trying to suppress the votes of people who are less likely to vote for them. The sheer breadth of ways that Republicans try to suppress or manipulate the vote is truly mindboggling. There’s racist lawmakinggerrymandering, voter intimidation, and literally hundreds of frivolous lawsuits aiming to have legitimate votes thrown out — the general chicanery, tomfoolery and straight-up cartoon villainy of it all is frightening.

All of this is happening because the white people who make up most of the Republicans’ voter base are well on their way to becoming a minority in the US. But instead of simply deciding to not be racist, the Republicans have chosen to disenfranchise as many people of colour as possible.

How Is The Pandemic Affecting The Election?

If Donald Trump loses this week, it will be in large part because of his botched response to the COVID-19 pandemic. His country is in the grip of its third wave of COVID-19, and more than 230,000 Americans are dead.

Ironically — and despite some of the things we’ve mentioned above — the pandemic means there are more ways to vote than ever before. As a precaution against COVID-19, many states have made it easier to vote early, and to avoid voting in-person by using postal votes and even drive-through voting. As a result, more than 90 million Americans have already cast their ballots, meaning this election is likely to have one of the highest turnouts on record. That’s probably good for Biden, and it’s definitely good for democracy overall. It’s just a shame it took a pandemic to get there.

Which States Are Crucial To The Result?

There are a bunch of states in the US where the election result is basically a foregone conclusion. We are fairly certain that large states like California and New York will vote for Biden, and southern states like Oklahoma, West Virginia, and Arkansas will almost certainly go for Trump.

We can estimate that Biden already has at least 200 electoral college votes in the bag, and Trump has secured 125. (For context, Trump secured 306 electoral college votes in 2016, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 232.)

That means the focus will always come down to a handful of battleground states, which tend to swing between the Democrats and Republicans from election to election. This time around, those states will be (in no particular order): Georgia, Texas, Iowa, Florida, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Ohio, Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania. That’s a total of 188 electoral college votes up for grabs. If all of those states go for Biden, it will be a landslide. If they all go for Trump, it will be a stunning upset victory. If there’s a fairly even split, it could be a very closely contested election. You can play around with some potential scenarios here.

The pundits seem to agree that the state that could ‘decide’ the election will be Pennsylvania, where polls show Biden narrowly ahead. If Trump loses Pennsylvania, it’s hard to see how he could get to 270. If Biden loses, he has other pathways, they’re just a bit trickier for him, and we’re probably headed for a tight race. Speaking of which…

When Will We Know The Election Winner?

This is a very important point: There’s a very good chance that we will not know who has won the election on the day, especially if it’s a tight race. Because of all the things we’ve mentioned above, (varying rules from state-to-state, many new forms of voting, a huge increase in pre- and postal votes), counting may go on for days or even weeks.

Donald Trump is doing everything he can to undermine the election result by suggesting that the only count that matters is the one that happens on the night of the election. That’s because it’s thought that more Biden voters, who take the pandemic more seriously than Trump voters, will choose to vote early and avoid queueing up for hours (yes, it can take many hours). That could mean that on the night, it looks like Trump is winning, before Biden slowly claws his lead back as postal votes are counted in the following days. In other states, pre- and postal votes have already been counted and will show up in the results almost instantly. That might mean it looks like Biden has a commanding lead, before Trump claws it back through election day votes.

But it’s important to be very clear about this: Postal voting is legitimate, early voting is legitimate, and nothing Donald Trump says will change that.

It’s Not Just About The White House Though, Right?

No, as well as the Presidency, there are hundreds of races for the US Senate and House of Representatives tomorrow. The Democrats are slightly favoured to win the Senate, and heavily favoured to win the House of Reps. That will make a big difference for whoever is President next year as they try to push their agenda through either a hostile or friendly congress.

There are also 20 gubernatorial races, and a bunch of interesting ballot initiatives, if you want to get really nerdy.

What Happens Next?

The best possible outcome is a landslide Biden victory that puts the result beyond any reasonable doubt. That would make it very hard for Trump and his allies to undermine the election process. But don’t get me wrong, they will definitely try. On Monday, Axios reported that Trump plans to declare victory on the night, even if many states remain in doubt and counting continues. On the weekend, a senior Trump adviser said Democrats planned to “steal” the election by counting votes after election day. He is very wrong. Postal votes are always counted after election day. It’s perfectly normal, and anyone who says otherwise is a liar.

But the Trump campaign, which has been behind in the polls for months, has been spending a lot of time undermining a result they don’t expect to like.

If the result is close, the next step would likely be to challenge the result in the courts. This would start at a state level, and pretty quickly make its way to the Supreme Court, where Trump just rammed new Justice Amy Coney Barrett through the confirmation process, giving the court a solid conservative majority. If that happens, it’s anyone’s game.

On several occasions, Trump has declined to commit to a peaceful transfer of power, and he has told a group of thuggish white supremacists to “stand back and stand by”. If Trump loses but refuses to leave the White House, we’d be in unchartered waters.

No matter the result, authorities are already preparing for violence on and after election day. America is so deeply divided that it seems like any result — a massive Biden victory, a small Trump victory, or a drawn-out legal process — will lead to violence in the streets. In fact, authorities in many US cities are already boarding up shop windows in anticipation of widespread violence.

This is what Democracy, Trump style, looks like.


Rob Stott is the Editorial Director of Junkee Media. You can yell at him about US politics @Rob_Stott.