It is Wednesday, November 4, and I’m settling into our well-worn sofa to watch the trickle of US election results gradually become a flood. But will it be a sunny stream in which to bathe in rigorous contentment or a raging torrent that sees all scrambling for rock or embankment to save us from Armageddon?
Armageddon is not necessarily the outcome of the election, though some may see it as such, but what may happen if thousands, maybe millions, believe that the outcome is not at all to their pleasure, concluding that it must have been rigged. In that scenario, the hijacking of ballot boxes en route to county vote consolidation centres may be the least of America’s worries.
To prepare for this day, I turned to that old faithful text on American political mores, Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President 1960. In his introductory chapter portentously entitled ‘Waiting’, he wrote: “Good or bad, whatever the decision, America will accept the decision – and cut down any man who goes against it, even though for millions the decision runs contrary to their own votes.” How dated that seems in 2020.
If the past four years have proved anything, it is that Donald J. Trump is so unpredictable and so capricious that that truism of American politics, that the loser accepts defeat graciously in the greater good of national unity, may no longer be a given. I hold my breath.
10.05 am. Footage of Trump emerging from his campaign offices where he had gone to thank his exhausted workers appears on screen. He seems subdued, dare I suggest “broken”, at least to me. Perhaps he has just collapsed in a heap at the end of a gruelling schedule of pit-stop rallies. But perhaps his inner elite has finally got through to him, for the first time in four years, and told him the facts of life: Americans, as a whole, don’t like divisiveness and he may be just about to face a severe comeuppance as a consequence.
But that will require some interpretive skill on the part of the program anchors, and the ABC has selected four who deserve my confidence: Ellen Fanning and Stan Grant plus John Barron and Chas Licciardello from its flagship Planet America program. And everything seems to be going according to the playbook we anticipate.
At 10.35, Biden is ahead where I feel he should be, plus some surprising early figures. Both Indiana and Kentucky, while Trump to the core, are not reporting figures as convincing for the president as he polled against Hillary Clinton in 2016, pointing to a swing to Biden of about 5 per cent. Across the board, that’s a winning margin. I smile.
But by 11.25, with 19 per cent of the vote counted, Trump’s Kentucky margin of 55-43 had widened to 58-41. Yet Florida was looking promising at 51-48 for “Sleepy Joe”, so maybe Kentucky was just one of those aberrations between seats and states that always confound election analysts trying to find a pattern in what is often a mess.
However, the advent of the ABC’s election guru Antony Green soon put the situation into perspective. When the figures told us, for example, that 25 per cent of the vote in a particular state had been counted, we, in Australia, are rightly mystified about what exactly those figures are telling us. Are they city voters or rural voters? Are they voters casting their votes on polling day or, instead, those of the 100-plus millions who voted beforehand? No-one could really tell us.
Therefore you had what, to Australian eyes, were bizarre predictions that a state like Maryland although reporting a majority vote for Trump was allocated to Biden. While that is a state that is invariably “blue”, it would have been nice to be able to draw that conclusion from the figures themselves. But the difficulty, it seems, lies in there being no single US Federal law governing the conduct of elections but, rather, 50 state laws, most of which are idiosyncratically different from each other.
By 11.20, Trump’s margin in Kentucky had climbed to 60 per cent, horribly close to the 62.5 per cent he polled in 2016. It was not looking good, with the early 300,000 margin held by Biden in Ohio unravelling before my eyes. At this stage, the ABC was giving Biden a lead of 203-97 electoral college votes, a figure which barely moved over the next three hours, bringing back uncomfortable memories of Hillary Clinton’s stalled progress before the final train-wreck of four years ago.
By 11.50, I was a train-wreck myself and decided I needed a break. A basket of washing to hang out seemed the perfect grounding for someone lost in the abstractions of psephology, but unfortunately, the pegs were a mixture of red, white and blue. No comfort there.
On my return I found that the ABC had brought in all kinds of specialists who might help us gain some perspective on the unfolding figures, not only in respect of the poll itself, but also what either outcome might mean for li’l ole Australia. They included Dennis Richardson, our former ambassador to Washington, on whether the US was in terminal decline, and Malcolm Turnbull (or President Trumbull as he was once called in America) on what it was like to deal with a bully in the White House.
But, ever so slowly, the hopes of those of us that the narcissist in the Oval Office was about to get his marching orders faded as one by one the swing states slipped into the “red” column. Florida, Texas, North Carolina, Ohio, with the possible exception of Arizona where Biden managed to hold on to a modest lead.
Which left us with the big three that will eventually decide the outcome, just as it was predicted for months: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania. But this time, Antony Green assured us, with his perceptions endorsed by American experts, that the votes being reported on screen, all of which gave a healthy margin to Trump, were almost all cast by voters on election day itself. Overwhelmingly Republican. With millions of pre-poll votes still to be counted.
So, where did it leave us when I threw in the towel at 4.00 pm? My instinct tells me that when the various kinds of pre-poll votes are incorporated in the figures by the week’s end, Biden should pick up sufficient votes to claim all three states and thus the presidency. Best of luck, Joe.
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