The story so far: Voting day in the U.S. presidential election is November 3, 2020. However, millions of votes have been cast already, primarily through absentee and mail-in ballots , made available on a scale that is unprecedented in recent times, owing to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic . Indeed, the pandemic, and the trail of economic destruction that it has left in its wake, have become arguably the top election issues in 2020, with the Republican incumbent, President Donald Trump, defending his approach as the one best suited to a quick recovery, and his Democratic challenger, former Vice-President Joe Biden, attacking the administration’s pandemic response as unscientific, inconsistent and responsible for the deaths of more than 222,000 Americans to date . While Mr. Biden is leading in most federal and regional opinion polls, analysts have been cautious about making bold election predictions given the outcome of the 2016 election . In that election, Mr. Trump defied the odds with his win , even more so because his Democratic rival, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, won the popular vote by a margin of around three million votes.
Given that the U.S. has, to date, had one of the worst COVID-19 numbers of any nation, why is Mr. Trump still in the reckoning?
Mr. Trump enjoys an approval rating of a little more than 42.5%, considered to be low relative to recent U.S. Presidents at a similar phase of their term in office. Nevertheless, his ratings have been somewhat stable over the course of nearly four years in the White House, the principal reason for which is the intensifying polarisation of the U.S. electorate along party lines. This means that on average, a far greater percentage of registered Republicans support Mr. Trump (around 87%), relative to Democrats, whose approval of his performance is at 6%. This partisan split in support has bestowed the Trump campaign with an inherent electoral advantage, because it translates into a disproportionate share of electoral college votes when compared to the popular vote.
Why does the electoral college matter to Mr. Trump’s campaign?
The electoral college refers to a process, wherein, based mostly on a winner-takes-all rule, each U.S. State chooses its electors, who then go on to pick the President and the Vice-President. The college also encompasses counting of the electoral votes by the U.S. Congress. For example, if more than 50% of the voters in the State of New York vote for the Democratic Party, then all the potential electors allocated to that State will be Democratic. Each State has the same number of electors as it does members in its Congressional delegation, namely one for each member in the House of Representatives, and two Senators. Nationwide, there are 538 electors, and to win the presidency, a candidate would be required to secure 270 votes in the electoral college.
A caveat is that Maine and Nebraska appoint individual electors based on the winner of the popular vote for each Congressional district, and then two electors based on the winner of the overall State-wide popular vote. Even though it is rare for either State to have a split vote, Nebraska had one in 2008 and Maine in 2016. The result of this system of representation is that surprisingly few voters truly matter in an election. The reason is that except for a handful of ‘swing States’, which have the potential to flip from one party to the other, all the others have historically only voted one way and are likely to do so this time too. The States that are traditionally considered to swing include Florida (29 votes), Iowa (6 votes), Michigan (16 votes), Nevada (6 votes), New Hampshire (4 votes), North Carolina (15 votes), Ohio (18 votes), Pennsylvania (20 votes) and Wisconsin (10 votes). However, if opinion polls are to be trusted — and that is a questionable assumption — Arizona (11 votes), Georgia (16 votes), Minnesota (10 votes) and even Republican-leaning Texas (38 votes) might be in play.
What happens if there is a tie in the electoral college?
This scenario — of both candidates winning 269 electoral college votes – is not inconceivable. For example, if Pennsylvania, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, Virginia, Maine (except for its Second District), Colorado, and Nebraska’s Second District went to the Democrats along with the firmly ‘blue States’, the Democrats would have 269 electoral college votes. This would require Mr. Trump to win, in addition to all the traditionally ‘red States’, Arizona and Wisconsin (10 votes) — which he did carry in 2016. But polls show that Mr. Biden is ahead considerably in both the States. Mr. Trump would also have to carry Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio.
In such a case of an electoral college deadlock, a ‘ contingent election ’ will be held, wherein the election of the President will pass on to the House of Representatives. Here, the election of President will be decided by each State delegation casting one vote for its preferred candidate. The Congressional record shows that only two Presidential elections, in 1800 and 1824, have been decided in the House.
When will the election result be known?
In ‘normal’ years, most ballots are counted by the end of the voting day, with the result being known late in the night. This despite a small number of mail-in and absentee ballots coming in later, small enough in number that they would not change the overall result.
However, given the need for social distancing and concerns over in-person voting due to the COVID-19 pandemic, up to 80 million Americans will likely vote via mail, and in nearly a third of States, votes only need to be postmarked, not received, by the election day. With the U.S. Postal Service facing slowdowns through the pandemic, the likelihood of a decisive number of ballots being counted by November 3 is low.