Let us suppose the Washington groupthink on the 2020 election – that US President Trump is cooked – is wrong. And Donald Trump wins a second term.
The belief that Trump may well lose this election is held even by staunch Republicans. Former President George W. Bush's wunderkind, Karl Rove, has written: “The situation today is more dire for Trump. Four years ago, he needed a straight – and drew it. This time he needs something like a royal flush. In such a bizarre year anything is possible. But possible doesn’t mean likely.”
So what would be the drivers of a Trump renaissance? As Gallup has reported, 56 per cent of Americans say they are better off economically than they were four years ago. That key rating is higher than when Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and even Ronald Reagan were re-elected.
Political scientist Thomas Edsall has also flashed bright caution lights: Trump has enjoyed a surge in voter registration of non-college-educated white men and in Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Republicans are way ahead of Democrats in voter registration.
Hispanic support for Democratic candidate Joe Biden is also lagging, especially in Florida and Arizona because of Trump’s deep antagonism to the dictators in Cuba, Venezuela and Nicaragua.
Finally, support for the Democrats from black women, notwithstanding Kamala Harris being on the Biden ticket as the vice-presidential candidate, is down five points from Hillary Clinton's margins four years ago.
So if the Biden blue wave does not crest in the pivotal swing states, he will probably still beat Trump by 5 million votes nationally – and lose in the Electoral College, just as Hillary Clinton did.
If Trump wins, what happens next? He has not outlined a second-term agenda. Every time Trump has been asked about it, he has demurred, aside from promising a vaccine that will end the pandemic and saying that 2021 will be the greatest year of economic growth in history.
We know that in victory, Trump is not magnanimous. Everyone should be prepared for a reprise of what happened after Trump won the fight over impeachment. Back then, there was no reconciliation. Trump turned on and punished all those he adjudged responsible for bringing on the witch hunt. He had them purged from the government. He had the Attorney-General launch an investigation into the investigators of Trump’s conduct, in order to rewrite the narrative so that all his torment was due to an Obama-Biden conspiracy to spy on his 2016 campaign in a treasonous attempted coup.
Trump has never let go of his rage and fury. He has ordered his Secretary of State to release more damning Hillary Clinton emails. And said of his Attorney-General with respect to Obama and Biden: “Unless Bill Barr indicts these people for crimes, the greatest political crime in the history of our country, then we’re going to get little satisfaction unless I win ... because I won’t forget it."
The half-lives of these officials, and others, will be shorter than ever. There will be even fewer senior advisers around Trump able to say: “Mr President, you cannot do this.”
Trump's No. 1 enemy is now China. To Trump, it is China that inflicted the “plague” on America that has threatened his presidency. And he will exact vengeance. The virus, Trump told Washington Post journalist Bob Woodward, “Got away from them and he [President Xi] didn’t want to contain it from the rest of the world because it would have put him at a big disadvantage.” Woodward was shocked that “Trump would think President Xi had intentionally let the virus spread” to give China a competitive advantage in a COVID-afflicted world.
If China receives Trump justice for this alleged offence – including a decoupling of America’s economy from China – Australia will be caught right in the middle. Trump will want his allies to be all in for the hotter Cold War with China.
So how can we tell what will happen as we watch the returns in real-time on the night of the election? The two most pivotal states this year are Florida and Pennsylvania. A victory in one will be decisive for Biden; in both, conclusive. If Biden is ahead in one or both of those states in the live counting on the night – and other states that Trump won in 2016, such as North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia – victory is imminent.
The key thing to watch is where the counting stands on the night, with the votes from early and election day polling. Democrats will have a higher share of postal votes cast than Republicans. For Australian viewers, the postal ballot counting can be seen as mimicking what we have here in the distribution of preferences: they will round out the primary vote we see on our screens.
Conversely, if Trump is ahead, there will be a hellish fight over the legitimacy of the postal votes and how they are counted – a contested election fought out in the courts, the state legislatures and Congress, threatening a peaceful transfer of power. The election, held on November 4 (AEDT), will be one of the tensest election watches in history. Nothing is certain - until it happens.