What if Everyone is Wrong Again?

Overwhelming evidence supports the idea that former Vice President Joe Biden will win the 2020 Election. Polls from just days before the election have Biden with a commanding lead nationally and in key potential swing states. Left-leaning pundits have spent recent days discussing whether or not Biden could win a true landslide victory.

But for supporters of the former Vice President, there’s reason to temper that optimism, for reasons both circumstantial and historical.

For one, 2020 will be the most unusual and nontraditional election in the last 150 years of American history. Early voting numbers have shattered records in states nationwide, and it’s impossible to predict how day-of voting will stack up to years prior. There’s no telling what day-of voting will look like during a pandemic. Who will stay home? Where will turnout spike or lag?

Even without the pandemic, numerous social and political phenomena make it more difficult than ever to predict the election’s outcome.

Four years ago, pollsters and those who interpret them were famously wrong. While polls were not off by enormous margins, as some have suggested in retrospect, they were wrong enough in key swing states to change the map and undercounted key voter blocs that would prove decisive. Even a small miss — within the average margin of error for collective averages, say — in states like Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Georgia could quickly flip the map to favor President Trump’s reelection. Some polls — cutting against the grain of the expert consensus — predict just such an outcome.

Much has also been made of the “shy” Trump voter: those who will vote to re-elect the President but won’t talk about it, to pollsters or otherwise. This phenomenon is an outcropping of a broader cultural trend where more and more people are uncomfortable expressing their political views. A recent study from the Cato Institute found that fully 62 percent of Americans deliberately self-censor out of fear that their opinions won’t be tolerated or accepted.

And all of these considerations come before we get into state-specific factors that could drive lower voter turnout (what will the weather be like in Michigan? Will there be enough polling places in Texas?) or could explain why current polling in certain states is simply unreliable. In many cases, this also includes recent legal rulings that could further complicate returns.

Should President Trump pull off the upset, we can anticipate some immediate consequences. Businesses in Washington, DC, Los Angeles, and other locations are already starting to board up in anticipation of violent riots and looting should Biden lose the election.

That sentence should chill you. Elections in the United States should not engender violence. Under normal circumstances, Americans would be appalled at that prospect from even the most tenuous of Democracies. To see it here at home is jarring. To see this phenomenon go largely unremarked among the media who reach and the politicians who serve the overwhelmingly blue cities and states that are boarding up — in fear not of Trump, but of their neighbors — is troubling.

Unfortunately, there are additional, longer-term concerns as well.

For starters, public faith in the legitimacy of the election will be cratered, perhaps irreparably so. We’ve seen this before. The outcome of the 2016 Election resulted in a three-year campaign, led by Democrats and many voices in the media, to suggest that Donald Trump coordinated with Vladimir Putin and the Russians to steal the election. After multiple investigations — from former FBI Director Robert Mueller, both branches of Congress, and beyond — the existence of this allegation has been impossible to prove.

In the case of a second electoral victory, we should also anticipate wide swaths of the country refusing, under any circumstances, to accept the results of the election. We saw this in a more muted way in 2016; we should expect it will be far more common and far more severe should President Trump win an even more unexpected, even more contentious election.

Even beyond the election, traditional safeguards will disappear. The Trump era has seen institutional norms take a beating from all sides — often the result of direct attacks from the president in response to what he and many others see as “the Deep State” or other bureaucratic resistance. Should President Trump earn a second term amidst the tribal hatred we see today, this trend will only intensify.

This will create a feedback cycle that leads each team to take steps the other sees as provocations. Where once many lamented the elimination of the filibuster for Supreme Court nominees and the coarsening of the political dialogue, we could soon see the filibuster scrapped all-together, an attempted expansion of the Supreme Court for the first time since the Great Depression, or even an abolition of the Electoral College.

Public polling as an institution will be forced to reevaluate many of their base assumptions. The 2016 Election was far from a banner moment for the industry. If poll results don’t track with actual votes cast in 2020, it will likely be for many of the same reasons: failing to account for “silent” Trump voters; failing to properly weight voter turnout across different demographics; etc. The American people’s confidence will be further undermined as a result.

This might be unfair to pollsters: there are certain, believable conditions that could result in Trump winning and the polls not being off by all that much. But it won’t matter. Media outlets will also be forced to rethink the ways that they rely on polls, particularly as stand-alone analysis, when discussing elections.

And, lastly, 2022 and beyond will get a lot worse. If President Trump is re-elected, many of the loudest voices on the Left, in the media, and beyond will likely handle the news worse than they did in 2016.

We should anticipate yet another impeachment — something Speaker Pelosi has already threatened even before the end of Trump’s first term. Our traditional notions of political gridlock will seem quaint compared to what is to come. Government will grind to a halt at a time where many parts of the country can least afford it. The cascading impacts across every level of political and social life could be disastrous.

These predictions do not — and cannot — anticipate what other consequences could come in a rapidly evolving and changing world. A President Biden could embolden our enemies, from hostile foreign powers to terrorists. It could result in radical policy changes — from the Green New Deal to Medicare for All and beyond. It’s impossible to predict the full range of potential impacts.

We may not have to. By all conventional estimates, the expectation still holds that Joe Biden is likely to be the next President of the United States and that he will come into office on a surge of Democratic momentum that also gave him a unified Democratic Congress empowered to pursue progressive legislation.

But if the last presidential election taught us anything, it’s that conventional estimates — especially where certain victory is concerned — often aren’t worth the paper they’re printed on. Polls are fluky. Clear-eyed predictions are hard to find. Unexpected outcomes have a way of happening on Election Day. If that is the case this year, things are about to get much, much worse.

Commentary writer with bylines @ The New York Times, National Review Online, The Washington Post, The Federalist, The Daily Beast & more. Guy with the receipts.

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