As the coronavirus frenzy reaches a fever pitch, there have been plenty of hot takes about Trump’s mismanagement, and how it’s sinking his chances of reelection. His approval numbers related to the epidemic are plummeting faster than the stock market. [Update: One poll did show his numbers going up significantly, during the week of March 16–20.] This is now becoming a true black swan event for Trump, worse even than Katrina was for George W. Bush. Economists are beginning to say we’re already in a recession, and Trump’s own Treasury Secretary warned that unemployment could go as high as 20%, although he tried to backtrack a day later.
Trump had very little to keep him competitive except the economy up to this point. If he loses that, he may be doomed before he even knows his opponent. But what if coronavirus turns out to be the thing that saves him?
There are at least two ways that it could happen. Maybe Trump will turn things around and contain the virus, and save the economy from collapse. Probably no one whose name is not Trump or Hannity believes there’s a real possibility of that — but if it happened, Trump could cruise to a landslide victory.
There’s a possibility much scarier than that. It could turn out that we’re not prepared to hold elections in November, if workplaces continue to shut down and public gatherings keep getting canceled. Trump doesn’t have to issue an executive order to postpone the election and save his own skin. If enough local and state governments close polling places due to an ongoing public health emergency, we might not get the voting done before the Electoral College convenes. If any polling places close down, we’re likely to see big court battles in those states over how the electors will be chosen. There are no constitutional guidelines in place for a situation like this, and few if any guidelines for individual government agencies overseeing elections and vote counting.
Less than six weeks go by between Election Day and the formal Electoral College vote. That’s not a lot of time for makeup days, if some votes don’t get cast on November 3rd. And if the vote is postponed in some areas, no one has a plan for how to get it resolved before Inauguration Day. The 20th Amendment tells us the newly elected Congress will vote to determine the President, if no one gets a majority of the Electoral College votes. But if voting isn’t completed in time, or the results are being disputed in the courts, we won’t have a new Congress either.
So what’s to stop President Trump from delaying the inauguration and remaining in office? Maybe it would only be temporary. But it might be long enough to change how people feel about another Trump term. Or it might be long enough to get him through most of his second term without anything getting resolved. Sometimes it takes more than four years to get a case up to the Supreme Court. There’s nothing to force the federal courts to review cases any faster than they feel like doing it. Some of them now feel like supporting President Trump, since he’s appointed so many judges to them.
The longer Trump remains in the White House, the more he gets used to the idea of being there forever. And every extra day gives him more time to come up with any number of unconstitutional plans to give it a try. He doesn’t need any plan to succeed forever; he only needs one of them to delay a transfer of power long enough for his approval numbers to change. Once he’s looking at an election he knows he can win, he’ll certainly hold one. He loves to win elections.
This year’s election must happen on time, if we are to preserve whatever is left of our trust in our election processes. Now is the time for local and state governments to make plans to administer the entire election on an absentee basis, if that’s what it takes. If President Trump deserves to win, let him win. If not, let him lose — but in every detail, the process must be fair and just, and beyond reproach, whether we’re fighting an epidemic or not.