Here’s the Election Day nightmare scenario that should terrify you
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THE MORNING PLUM:
The new Washington Post/ABC News national tracking poll finds Donald Trump leading Clinton by one point in the four-way match-up, 46-45, while Clinton leads in the head-to-head by 48-47. You shouldn’t overreact to individual polls — instead, keep focused on the national and state polling averages.
But plainly, the race is tightening, and it’s increasingly possible we’ll see a very close finish. Which means that it’s time to start pondering an Election Day nightmare scenario that is made up of two parts. First, the tight finish produces an outcome that is contested well beyond Election Day, with Trump (should he lose) claiming the results are rigged. Second, Trump supplements his claim about the rigged outcome by continuing to point to the FBI’s latest discovery of emails as proof of an ongoing cover-up of Hillary Clinton’s criminality.
This morning, election rules expert Michael McDonald argues that if the outcome is close, the election could very well “go into overtime,” adding that “in this environment,” this could “rip this country apart.”
McDonald posits that in a very close finish, Trump could be favored on election night, but over subsequent days, as the vote counting continues afterwards, Clinton might then edge into the lead:
“A Democratic shift from election night to the final tally of votes is predictable. All states count some ballots late, and those tend to break towards Democrats. Nothing nefarious occurs: the casting and counting follow procedures laid out in state law. Some of the states that count more late ballots are key battlegrounds, magnifying the suspense on Election Night.
“Mail ballots are one of two types that can shift election results. Many states require mail ballots to be received by election officials on Election Day. Others continue to accept ballots postmarked on Election Day, up to two weeks following the election. Among these states are Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and Wisconsin.
“These late ballots may break towards the Democrats. My analysis shows more Democrats than Republicans in Iowa and North Carolina have yet to return their mail ballots. Why? These voters tend to be younger people who tend to return their ballots later. If Trump is slightly ahead in a late mail-ballot return state, he could fall behind after all the mail ballots are counted.
“Then there are provisional ballots. States are required under federal law to provide them to anyone with a problem at the polls — a voter who doesn’t have the required form of ID, for instance, or whose name is missing from the voter registration rolls. Election officials review provisional ballots and allow voters to clarify their eligibility after Election Day. In the four states that re-port separate results for provisional ballots, the voters who cast them broke strongly for the Democrats. So if the presidential race is particularly close, provisional ballots could tilt it.”
There’s still more in the link, but you get the idea. Meanwhile, Bloomberg Politics reports that both sides are now gearing up in a serious way for the possibility of a legally contested outcome.
All of that is worrying enough, because as you’ll recall, Trump has refused to say that he’ll accept the outcome if he loses. Even when he clarified this, he explicitly left open the possibility that he would legally contest the outcome if the result is “questionable,” reserving, of course, the right to define what counts as “questionable” for himself. It’s Trump’s right to contest a close, legally murky loss. But, given his continuing insistence that the election is “rigged,” it’s plausible he may go a lot further, and launch a sustained campaign well outside of conventional channels to cast Clinton as an illegitimate president, no matter what our political norms and the electoral and legal realities actually dictate.
What’s more, you cannot mull this possibility without also connecting it to the ongoing battle over the new emails discovered by the FBI. As I’ve noted, Trump is now explicitly arguing to his followers that FBI director James Comey has two choices — either he discovers new evidence of Clinton’s criminality in the discovered emails, or Trump will revert to casting Comey as a participant in a cover-up of that criminality that is designed to deliver the election to Clinton.
And there is no obvious way for Comey to resolve this pro-blem. Or, at least, there is no obvious way to resolve it — short of turning up something new and incriminating in the emails, which can’t be ruled out — that would avert an outcome that Trump casts as corrupt and illegitimate. If Comey announces before the election that he has found no new grounds to revisit his July decision not to recommend charges against Clinton — and if Trump loses — Trump will claim that Comey’s finding was rigged to help elect her president. If Comey does not announce any new finding from the emails — and if Trump loses — Trump will claim that Comey’s failure to produce anything in time was rigged to help elect her president. And then, if and when Comey does eventually clear her, that, too, will constitute still more evidence that the system is rigged, and thus more grounds for grievance.
Many Republican voters will accept whichever of these explanations is relevant. See how this works?
Add to all of this the fact that Trump and his campaign CEO Stephen Bannon are reportedly looking to convert the campaign into a vehicle for sustaining a post-election following. All of these narratives could then converge and become the fuel to drive that vehicle forward. And so, it’s not hard to see a close finish producing an aftermath that gets very ugly and destructive. Which is exactly what Trump would relish.