Just 50 days until a US election both sides see as an existential struggle

The election to decide whether Donald Trump will serve a second term as president has already begun, with voters in North Carolina filling out absentee ballots, Minnesotans preparing to start early in-person voting on Friday and other states revving up their election machinery.

But for most Americans, today marks 50 days until election day, 3 November, when voters will take varying degrees of health risks – and face hurdles to voting of varying heights – to cast their ballots in person for Trump or his potential Democratic successor, Joe Biden.

It is difficult to draw the lens sufficiently far back in US history to assess the high stakes of the 2020 election. Former president Barack Obama recently joined the ranks of public figures advising Americans to “vote like your life depends on it – because it does”.

Obama was talking about the wildfire apocalypse in the western US, and climate change. But he might also have been talking about other stakes: the coronavirus pandemic, the fate of the democracy, foreign threats, domestic fury.

It is an election in which each side seems to view a victory by the other as an existential threat, said Brad Bannon, a Washington-based Democratic strategist.

“It seems to me that the stakes are about as high as you can get,” Bannon said. “We have a president who has proved incapable of fighting the pandemic, which has killed almost 200,000 Americans now, and could cause irreparable damage to the economy. We are facing a climate change crisis, we have a racial crisis.

“And I think the main question is, which of the two men do you want to have, to deal with the major problems in the United States?”

To believe the polling, a majority of the country, including a winning proportion of swing-state voters, are ready to answer that question by casting ballots for Joe Biden. The national polls have been remarkably stable throughout the election, tracking a consistent and seemingly stable lead for the Democrat that now hangs between seven and eight points.

But after the polls missed Trump’s 2016 traction with undecided voters and white people without a college degree, Biden’s apparent lead has given Democrats precious little comfort, especially because of headwinds that Biden faces in the electoral college.

A recent analysis by Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight indicated that Biden could win the national popular vote by three points – as many as 5m votes – and still have a less than 50-50 chance of winning the electoral college.

“I’m not going to be confident about Joe Biden’s winning this election until he’s inaugurated on January 20,” Bannon said.

Joe Biden holds backyard conversation with union members during campaigning in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.
Joe Biden holds backyard conversation with union members during campaigning in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Photograph: Adam Schultz/Biden/Zuma Wire/Rex/Shutterstock

Fifty days is not a lot of time, but it leaves plenty of space for the race, and the polls, to change. While certain key markers in the 2020 race have come and gone – the selection of a vice-presidential candidate; the national conventions – other major events are yet to come, including three face-to-face debates, the first of which is scheduled for 29 September.

In the background is the grim tally of coronavirus deaths in the United States, which have climbed to about 200,000 and could accelerate through the fall as schools open and close, mitigation measures are relaxed and the flu season unfolds.

The Trump campaign is betting on a strong performance in the debates to help turn the race around. If that doesn’t work, Trump has been whispering out loud about a potential “October surprise” in the form of an announcement that the United States has a coronavirus vaccine.

But a vaccine announcement might not be the political ace that Trump appears to think it is. Public health officials and pharmaceutical companies have been warning that they would not go along with the premature rollout of any vaccine, and a premature announcement by Trump could backfire.

The coronavirus has other implications for the election. An unprecedented number of voters are expected to cast absentee ballots this year, leading some analysts to warn that election results will be unusually delayed, as states work through unaccustomed piles of paper.

But predictions of election results delayed by days, weeks or longer might not necessarily be borne out. Ironically, the state of Florida, where a recount in 2000 kept the country waiting for a month for the election result, could deliver a decisive, early result in the 2020 race – if Biden wins the state.

“Unless we get into an Al Gore-George W Bush situation, we’re almost certainly going to know who won Florida by about 10 or 11 o’clock at night,” the former Obama press secretary Robert Gibbs said recently on his podcast. That’s because Florida is used to counting large numbers of absentee ballots, and the state counts them as soon as they come in, as opposed to waiting until election night to begin counting.

If Biden can win in Florida, most analysts believe, an electoral college victory is probably his. But the added uncertainty of mail-in voting creates an extra opportunity for Trump to sow chaos, his critics believe, envisioning scenarios in which Trump declares premature victory or denies the election result outright.

The Biden campaign announced in July that it had hired an army of 600 lawyers to fight any election night “chicanery” by Republicans.

The Trump campaign has struggled to respond, in part because it is running low on money. Last week it was revealed that after raising nearly $1bn, the campaign had spent most of it, apparently dumping hundreds of millions of dollars last spring into online searches for potential future donors. In multiple swing states, the Biden campaign is outspending the Trump side by millions on influential TV ad spots.

Many red hats were on display at Donald Trump’s rally in Freeland, Michigan, last week but few face masks.
Many red hats were on display at Donald Trump’s rally in Freeland, Michigan, last week but few face masks. Photograph: Dominick Sokotoff/Rex/Shutterstock

A stream of bad headlines for Trump could also define the home stretch as much as any other factor. For example, he recently told a journalist that he understood the coronavirus was dangerous even as he told Americans it was not, and the Department of Homeland Security ordered officials to stop producing reports about Russian election interference, according to a whistleblower.

To begin to hit back against Biden, analysts say, Trump needs to escape the series of blows that have kept him on the defensive. He has attempted to do so using his favorite tactic: hosting big campaign rallies, as he did in Michigan on Thursday night.

The assembled crowd wore a lot of red hats – but not many face masks. When CNN’s Jim Acosta asked one rally-goer why he was not wearing a mask, the reply captured the divided American reality as election day approaches.

“Because there’s no Covid,” the Trump supporter said. “It’s a fake pandemic. Created to destroy the United States of America.”