With less than seven weeks to the general election, both Democrats and Republicans are preparing for a drawn-out fight to decide who serves the next four years in the White House — with at least some of the fighting taking place for an unknown duration after Election Day. There are some practical reasons for this: The contest will see an unprecedented number of absentee ballots and is occurring in the midst of a pandemic; there’s also the fact that the sitting president is, on an almost daily basis, making false and outlandish claims of voter fraud. But this election is also different in that increasingly both parties seem to be expecting chaos and uncertainty after votes are cast — and preparing for that chaos, with the hope of emerging triumphant, has become a key part of the overall campaign strategy. It’s a new political world in which November 3 doesn’t necessarily mark the end of the campaign but the beginning of a new phase.
Trump violates political norms on a daily basis, and the damage that his rhetoric and tweets have done to democratic institutions has altered American politics in fundamental ways. But top Democrats have now also begun talking about strategies for winning the post-election period that in the recent past would have fallen outside standard political norms for a presidential election. Recently, Hillary Clinton advised that “Joe Biden should not concede under any circumstances.” She continued: “I think this is going to drag out, and eventually I do believe he will win if we don’t give an inch and if we are as focused and relentless as the other side is.” A study group featuring Clinton’s former campaign manager, John Podesta, floated a scenario where Democratic governors of states that went narrowly for Trump might try to flip their Electoral College votes to Biden.
Campaigns have always prepared for legal issues. Ben Ginsberg, a veteran Republican election lawyer, told Intelligencer, “In normal times, campaigns approach Election Day and what comes after in terms of preparing for recounts and contests in terms of state law and federal overlay. They’ll still have to do that in 2020, but the reality is 2020 is going to be completely different because of the onslaught of absentee ballots, which stands to throw off the timing of election results.” (Ginsburg, who recently retired from the active practice of law, drew attention recently for his Washington Post op-ed that pushed back on Trump’s claim that elections, specifically those using absentee ballots, were “rigged” and noted that there are minimal cases of voter fraud in the U.S.)
What makes the fight over absentee ballots particularly thorny in 2020 is the expected partisan skew to them. Traditionally, there is a relatively minimal partisan variation to the mail vote, but the higher level ofconcern among Democrats over the pandemic combined with cries of fraud — particularly from Trump and Fox News — have changed the composition of the electorate that votes early. So far, in states that report absentee-ballot requests by partisan affiliation, over 7 million more Democrats than Republicans have requested ballots. In the August primary in the swing state of Michigan, between 70 and 80 percent of Democrats voted absentee, while only 45 to 55 percent of Republicans did the same.