Closing Arguments

Donald Trump and Joe Biden are making their closing arguments as the campaign enters its final week, which is a bit strange to say because as I write these words the election is already over for about 40% of the likely electorate. Through early voting and mail-in ballots, over 60 million people have locked in their preferences, and as the week progresses that figure will continue to rise. Between the pandemic and off-the-charts enthusiasm to render a verdict on this most abnormal of administrations, early voting is progressing at an unprecedented rate. By Monday morning, Texas had already seen turnout in excess of 80% of its total vote in 2016. That’s not a typo. North Carolina and Georgia have reached 66%. In Florida it’s 63%. Say what you will about Trump, he’s the best thing to happen to civic participation since before the invention of television. Not bad for a would-be autocrat.

It’s possible to over-interpret the fact that early voting is on a pace to break records, because there is enthusiasm on both sides and we don’t yet know how people are voting. As anticipated, Democrats are dominating the early vote because Trump convinced his supporters that mail-in voting is corrupt and because, generally speaking, Biden supporters are more likely to believe the pandemic is serious. This means Republicans are certain to dominate the Election Day vote, but we don’t know by how much.

Despite this uncertainty, there are important tea leaves to read. Because Democrats are voting early, we have enough data to see the contours of the coalition that Biden is assembling. There was a big question-mark around whether young people would vote. We now know they are. The share of the early vote composed of voters under 30 is up 31% from 2016 and is especially pronounced in key states like Michigan, Pennsylvania and Texas. Black voters are turning out. Latino voters are turning out. New and sporadic voters are pouring into the electorate. After taking off the 2016 election, we are seeing the reemergence of the Obama coalition of young people, women and voters of color, and if polling is accurate, Biden is expanding that coalition to include seniors and white suburbanites — reliable voters that historically have provided winning margins to Republicans. We won’t know for certain until their preferences are revealed, but should this coalition continue to emerge over the next week and into Election Day, it will bring about the political realignment that has been brewing  since the massive Women’s March on day one of the Trump administration, anticipated by years of demographic change. 

Against the backdrop of tens of millions of Americans silently casting judgment on the Trump years, the incumbent is making his case for a second term by going to rallies in swing states and telling people they better vote for him or they will never see him again. While this would be received as welcome news for many, it feels more like a threat than a promise when delivered to cheering crowds of disciples dependent on him to keep the other half of America at bay. But like everything else about Trump, the message is really about him. Unable to offer voters a vision for a second term, he travels around the country spouting grievances as widely as he was shedding Covid during the days after his hospitalization.

Four years ago, he narrowly attained the presidency by channeling the grievances of the people he said Washington did not hear. This time, it’s all about Trump — about how he is mistreated by the media, how his allies failed to hand him the October surprise he craves, how he cannot abide losing the election to the person he calls “the worst candidate in history.” He preaches now to a smaller choir, a trapped figure in twilight projecting his fears for his freedom when he brags about how his post-Covid immunity could last, “I don’t know, maybe a long time, maybe a short time.” Kind of like Trump’s immunity from prosecution — it depends on the outcome one week from tomorrow.

In stark contrast, Joe Biden is ending the campaign where he began it, with a message about values and who we aspire to be as a nation, summed up at the close of last Thursday’s debate. “You know who I am. You know who he is,” Biden said, pointing to his opponent. “You know his character. You know my character. You know our reputations for honor and telling the truth . . . The character of the country is on the ballot.” This is the framework that the Biden campaign has labored to establish as the election’s central choice, the 2020 equivalent to Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election-eve acknowledgment that Americans who were better off than they were four years ago should vote for the incumbent. Reagan knew that a minority of the country would be in that camp, just as Biden knows he wins the argument if people vote on character. 

While polling points to a comfortable Biden win, the election could still turn out closer than the polling predicts —  or it could be a blowout. These are the three possible scenarios I wrote about two weeks ago. In a few days we will have a better sense of the composition of the early electorate and may be better positioned to determine which scenario we will most likely encounter on Election Day. Stay tuned.