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Trump’s strategy to stay in office

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I recall seeing a memorable newspaper headline in February 1974 when I was covering the British general election. The Conservative Party, led by incumbent Prime Minister Edward Heath, had just lost its majority in parliament. Because of a strong showing by smaller parties, no party was able to claim a majority after the election. The tradition in Britain is for the defeated prime minister to resign immediately after losing an election. But Heath hesitated. The next day, the front page of a tabloid aligned with the opposition Labor Party showed a photo of Prime Minister Heath in front of Number 10 Downing Street with the headline, “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, GO!”  (He did, a few days later.)

We may see that headline in the U.S. this fall if President Trump loses a close election and refuses to concede. A year ago, Trump told a crowd that he might remain in office “at least for 10 or 14 years.” He tweeted that after serving two terms, “Do you think the people would demand that I stay longer?”

Trump’s son-in-law and senior White House adviser Jared Kushner has entertained the idea of postponing the election because of the coronavirus pandemic. The president has no authority to do that. Presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden warned, “I think he is going to try to kick back the election somehow — come up with some rationale why it can’t be held.” Trump conceded, “The general election will be held November 3.” But he added, “I think a lot of people cheat with mail-in voting.”

President Trump is on a crusade to discredit voting by mail. Many states are adopting mail-in ballots as a way of protecting voters from infection. In the April 7 Wisconsin primary, 52 people who voted in person or worked at the polls tested positive for COVID-19. Democrats support mail-in balloting as a way of expanding the electorate to groups that normally don’t turn out in large numbers but tend to favor Democrats, like young people and minorities. President Trump claims that mail-in voting can lead to voter fraud and “thousands and thousands of fake ballots.” The evidence? “I think just common sense would tell you that massive manipulation can take place.”

The president has threatened to withhold government funds from Michigan and Nevada if those states carry out plans to send absentee ballots to voters. “People cheat,” Trump said at a White House briefing. “Mail ballots are a very dangerous thing for this country because they are cheaters.”

Just what is he up to? Very likely, a strategy. If the president loses a state with mail-in balloting by a narrow margin (he won Michigan in 2016 by less than a quarter of a percent), he may go to court to claim fraud and block that state’s electoral votes from being cast for Biden. It would have to be done very quickly. A large number of absentee ballots is likely to slow down the vote count, and the electoral college must meet on December 14. The case would mostly likely be expedited to the Supreme Court, which would have to issue a ruling by December 8, six days before the electoral college vote. President Trump may believe that he commands a 5-to-4 conservative majority on the Supreme Court, but a victory in court is by no means assured.

If no candidate wins a majority of the electoral vote, we have what is called a “contingent election” for president. That has happened only once before, in 1824. The House of Representatives would choose the president from the top three candidates in the electoral college vote. And get this: Each state would have one vote.

Right now, 26 states have a Republican majority in the House and 22 states have a Democratic majority (two states have tied delegations). So a House vote by state would go to Trump, right? Not so fast. The presidential vote would be cast by the new House, elected in November 2020, not the current House. So who knows?

The Constitution is clear on one point: “The terms of the president and vice president shall end at noon on the 20th day of January” following the election. What if the House can’t produce a majority winner by January 20, 2021?  Then the vice president becomes “acting president.” What vice president? The newly installed Senate would elect the vice president from the top two electoral vote winners. And what if the Senate fails to produce a vice president? Then the next in line for acting president would be the speaker of the (new) House of Representatives.

Members of Congress would have to decide whether to vote in line with their party or their state. Voting by state would probably be fine with President Trump. In 2016, he carried 30 out of the 50 states.

Currently the polls show Biden ahead nationally and in all the swing states except North Carolina. Since the Trump campaign can’t rely on a booming economy anymore, it’s relying on its 2016 strategy: mobilize the base. That means demonizing Joe Biden the same way he demonized Hillary Clinton. And then heightening his base’s resentment of the educated elite. Trump’s base is highly sensitive to condescension, i.e., people who call them “deplorables” or who belittle voters who “cling to guns or religion.”

Trump’s base — mostly white voters without a college degree — is not a majority (they were one third of the voters in 2016). But they are strategically located in the battleground states. What the Trump campaign has to do is suppress Democratic turnout. Hence, his attack on mail-in voting. In 2016, polls showing Hillary Clinton as a near-certain winner helped Trump. I heard voters all over the country say, “I can’t vote for Trump and I don’t trust Hillary. But you know, she doesn’t need my vote.” 

If he loses a close election, Trump will still have an army of supporters. He can command them — and harass President Biden — from whatever post he chooses to occupy in the media. And don’t forget, Trump can run for president again in 2024. When he will be the same age as Joe Biden is now.

Bill Schneider is a professor at the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and author of ‘Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable (Simon & Schuster).

Tags 2020 election Coronavirus COVID-19 Donald Trump Donald Trump presidential campaign Hillary Clinton Jared Kushner Joe Biden mail in voting Postal voting Vote by Mail

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