Were we not thoroughly spooked by what happened in 2016, we’d find it easier to say out loud that all signs point to the defeat and removal of Donald Trump on 3 November. Superstition and a desire not to tempt fate hold us back, but the signs are plentiful. The most obvious is the polls, which show not only that Joe Biden is ahead of Trump by double-digit margins, but also that 72% of Americans believe their country is on the wrong track – a number that spells ruin for any incumbent.
Of course, we learned four years ago that national polls don’t matter – after all, Hillary Clinton led in those – and what really counts are the contests in the battleground states: the likes of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. Biden is handily ahead in all of those, too. Could those polls be wrong? One expert reckons Biden is so far in front that even if the polls are as wrong now as they were in 2016 he will still win.
More important, these numbers reflect something solid. Naturally, liberals have been appalled by Trump’s behaviour since day one, but mere outrage and scandal have proved insufficient to sink his presidency. Now, though, he is associated with genuine catastrophe. More than 130,000 Americans are dead from coronavirus, with caseloads rising in 41 of 50 states. Trump’s handling of this disaster has so obviously made it worse – whether playing down the threat, urging premature easing of lockdown or calling on Americans to inject themselves with bleach – that he has made the case for his own removal more powerfully than any rival. His one hope was a healthy economy, but that too now lies in ruins (though, troublingly, Trump still leads Biden by 12 points on economic competence). His racial dogwhistling is also costing him: surveys suggest that, outside his base, Americans recoil at Trump’s widening of the country’s most enduring divide. It means Trump’s unpopularity is not ephemeral – the kind of thing that might be fixed by sacking a campaign manager, as the president did this week – but rather anchored in facts that will be hard to shift.
Given all that, surely the rational response is to look forward to Trump’s imminent departure from office? To which the right answer is: not so fast. To remove Trump, it will not be enough for Biden to win. He has to win big.
By that, I don’t mean that thanks to voter suppression – fewer polling places in majority-black neighbourhoods and the like – Democrats have to be several points ahead merely to draw level, though that is true. Nor do I mean that Biden can only overturn Trumpism by riding a wave so big that Democrats take back the Senate and therefore avoid being thwarted by Mitch McConnell for four gridlocked years, though that is also true. Or that Biden needs a wide enough margin to withstand the foreign hacking and disruption efforts in Trump’s favour that most monitors expect, having concluded that when Russian agents poked around voter registration databases in 2016, they were merely “casing the joint” for a more sustained offensive in 2020 – though that too is true.
No, what I have in mind is a threat more fundamental. The danger is that Trump will lose – and refuse to go.
He’s already laid out his rationale. “Rigged 2020 election,” he tweeted last month. “Millions of mail-in ballots will be printed by foreign countries, and others. It will be the scandal of our times!” Here’s the scenario Trump is planning for. On the evening of 3 November, he loses the popular vote by a margin even greater than the 3 million votes by which Hillary beat him in 2016 – but the count of votes cast on the day puts him narrowly ahead in one or two key states. He promptly declares victory, claiming that the millions of votes that were cast as absentee ballots – by voters anxious to avoid polling stations because of Covid-19 – should be disqualified as fraudulent. He has a motive to do that, since mail-in votes often skew Democratic. And he has a precedent for it: in a tight senate race in Florida in 2018, Trump urged the state to stop counting the votes and go with the election night results, which favoured Republicans.
Let’s say he makes that same move in the three midwestern battlegrounds in November. Republicans are in charge of the state legislatures in all three. Now here’s where it gets nerdily arcane, but bear with me. Those Republican legislatures could refuse both to certify their state results and to send a slate of representatives to the electoral college, which has to meet by 14 December. Biden’s lawyers would plead his case all the way to the supreme court, but that court likes to stay out of elections. It could plausibly instruct the electoral college to meet on 14 December, with or without the disputed states. If it meets without them, and neither Trump nor Biden can reach the 270 electoral college votes required to win, then the constitution throws the question to the House of Representatives. Democrats control that body, but here’s the thing. Under the rules, the house would make its decision state-by-state, with one vote per state – so that tiny Republican Wyoming would have as much say as populous, Democratic California. By that count, Republican states would outvote Democratic ones by 26 to 24 – and Trump would remain president.
There are variations on that theme. Some imagine a standoff in which, say, Pennsylvania’s Democratic governor certifies the state’s vote for Biden, while the state’s Republican assembly certifies it for Trump: the result is deadlock. Former senator Tim Wirth can picture Trump’s pliant attorney general ordering a bogus investigation, on grounds of national security, into foreign meddling, thereby giving Republicans an excuse not to ratify a Biden victory in their state. But it’s just as easy to imagine a situation where, with next to no legal or technical justification, Trump simply stays put and refuses to leave – and Republicans stand by him. After all, they’ve tolerated his every other assault on the republic: why would they change now?
Granted, these are nightmare scenarios, but if these past four years have taught us anything, it’s that nightmares can come true. There’s only one guaranteed defence against such a possibility, and that is for Biden to win a blowout victory. Which is why efforts such as those by the Lincoln Project and Republican Voters Against Trump could be significant: they make it legitimate for conservatives, independents and, yes, lifelong Republicans to lend their vote to the Democratic candidate, just this once. It’s also how Biden’s weaknesses can become a strength: he is sufficiently inoffensive that millions of non-Democrats can back him, in a way they could not bring themselves to do for Hillary Clinton. It goes without saying that Democrats, whether of the left or centre, also have to turn out in colossal numbers, if not to elect Biden then to remove Trump.
Every vote will count this time because of the unique nature of this president. Make no mistake, it will take a landslide to get Trump out.
• Jonathan Freedland is a Guardian columnist