No surprises, really. So why do the early election returns feel like a punch to the gut?

Photo (cc) 2008 by H2Woah!

Previously published at GBH News.

Four years ago I was watching CNN as John King poked and prodded an interactive map of Florida while Wolf Blitzer looked on. King was explaining why the state was likely to go for Hillary Clinton. And then it happened — the map flipped red. Donald Trump was on his way to victory in Florida and to a narrow Electoral College win nationwide.

So it was with a deep sense of foreboding Tuesday night as I watched King and Blitzer pore over the same map. The early lead Joe Biden had built up over President Trump in that state was beginning to fade. And sure enough, Trump moved ahead in Florida while the two were talking, just as he had in 2016.

But this is not 2016. As I write this, in the early-morning hours on Wednesday following a sleepless night, the race has not yet been decided. The headline on The New York Times home page reads “Election Turns Into Nail-Biter That May Extend for Days.” Moments after I crawled out of bed and turned on the TV, a lead that Trump had maintained in Wisconsin all night suddenly went Biden’s way. The election could go in either direction, and Biden is still very much in the running.

Among those of us who are appalled by Trump, the sickening feeling we experienced last night was based entirely on Biden’s inability to break through in solidly red states that had seemed to be within his grasp. Texas was never ridin’ with Biden. Nor was Florida — not quite an all-red state, but one that has been trending increasingly Republican in recent years, a trend that has been boosted by voter suppression. Nor was Georgia (or so I thought; at the moment it’s actually trending toward Biden).

In fact, if you strip away the fantasies of a Biden landslide, the map looks very much like what we had expected, with the race coming down to the industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Last night it struck me that the only real surprise was there hadn’t been any surprises. So I was reassured to see Boston College History Professor Heather Cox Richardson confirm that judgment. In her daily newsletter, “Letters from an American,” she wrote, “Tonight, we wait, as returns from this year’s election are about what we expected. … This is the scenario we all foresaw.”

As Cox and others have pointed out, the reason that the mail-in votes are taking so long to tally in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin is that Republicans fought tooth and nail to prevent them from being counted before the polls closed. As the liberal economist Dean Baker put it, Republican complaints about the slow pace “is pretty thick hypocrisy even for Republicans.”

This is also the moment when Trump, cornered and desperate, will be at his most dangerous. Trump is attempting to capitalize, railing against the media in a middle-of-the-night speech and — as we all knew he would — falsely claiming that he’s won and threatening to take the election to the Supreme Court on some unspecified grounds.

“This is an extremely flammable situation, and the president just threw a match into it,” Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace told viewers.

In the hours and days ahead, the media must exercise all the discipline it can muster and keep reminding viewers, listeners and readers that the election isn’t over until all the ballots have been counted. We all know what happened this year — about 100 million ballots were cast early, many by mail, because of the COVID pandemic, and that has created delays and confusion. Republican leaders need to speak up for a fair election as well, but I’ve pretty much given up any hope that they’ll do the right thing.

A couple of other points.

First, Democrats must be shocked to see Hispanic voters shifting toward the Republicans. As The Texas Tribune reported, “Even as Biden performed well in large suburban counties that used to be reliably Republican, he failed to notch wide margins of victory in some critical Democratic strongholds, massively underperforming Hillary Clinton in the mostly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. For example, Trump was leading in unofficial results in Zapata County — where Clinton won with 66% of the vote in 2016.”

Noting there were also signs that Black voters were not as monolithically with Biden as had been expected, the conservative pundit Byron York said on Fox News: “This is something the Republican Party has been trying to do for a long time.”

And yet Trump has shown in word and deed that he’s a racist, going all the way back to his earliest days as a real-estate developer. As the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson tweeted, “No matter what happens tonight, we will have to reckon with the millions of people who chose Trump after seeing his racism, bigotry, and xenophobia over the past 4 years.” Democrats have some serious soul-searching to do as to why that’s the case.

Second, although it’s too early to pass judgment given that millions of mail-in ballots have not yet been counted, it may be that the long-predicted polling apocalypse is upon us. A lot of observers said that four years ago, too, but the polls then really weren’t that bad. Clinton’s victory in the popular vote was within the margin of error, and Trump barely squeaked by in the Electoral College.

This time, though, it feels different — although, if you look at the final RealClearPolitics polls of battleground states, it may turn out that the numbers aren’t that far off. Even so, it wasn’t supposed to be this hard, and hopes that the Democrats would take back the Senate appear to be hanging by a thread. The wildly optimistic forecasts published by polling analysts like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight (see this and this) are a separate problem, and too complex to be dealt with at the moment.

For those of us who believe that Trump is a would-be authoritarian who poses a threat to American democracy, the results so far have been shocking. But we need to get out of our bubble. It looks like Biden may have just barely accomplished what he needed to do to win, which was all we could have realistically expected. He’ll win the popular vote by a lot. The Electoral College, on the other hand, is increasingly becoming a bulwark of Republican minority rule. A huge Biden win was probably never in the cards.

In the hours and days ahead, it’s important that all of us — not just Biden supporters, but Trump supporters as well — stay calm and wait for the final result to become clear.

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No more debates? Following Tuesday’s fiasco, some call for just that.

Not an image from Tuesday night’s Biden-Trump debate.

Previously published at GBH News.

This morning, the day after what was surely the worst presidential debate in our unhappy nation’s history, I have the task of making sense of it through the eyes of the media. What can I say? We all saw what we saw, and if you didn’t see it, count yourself among the fortunate.

I could quote commentary after commentary calling out President Donald Trump for his unhinged performance, in which he lied promiscuously and constantly shouted over former Vice President Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace.

But I doubt anyone is going to top the presidential historian Jon Meacham, a Biden supporter, who tweeted during the close minutes that “the incumbent’s behavior this evening is the lowest moment in the history of the presidency since Andrew Johnson’s racist state papers.”

Meacham appeared to be referring specifically to Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacists. But it could be applied just as accurately to the entire hour-and-a-half fiasco.

The most consistent theme that’s emerged following the debate is that we shouldn’t have any more. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer raised that possibility as soon as it ended, as did former Democratic strategist James Carville on MSNBC.

“I never thought I’d say this, but Vice President Biden is going to have to think long and hard whether they want to put the country through this again,” said Carville, according to an account at the pro-Trump website Breitbart. “This accomplished nothing for Trump, and I think Biden did fine. But it was not a very good night for American democracy at all.”

Blitzer and Carville were far from alone. At The Bulwark, Never Trump conservative William Kristol called Trump’s behavior a “disgrace” and “sickening,”and wrote that Biden “should not put the nation through another ordeal like that.” Added liberal columnist Frank Bruni of The New York Times, “I wasn’t in the crowd of people who believed Joe Biden shouldn’t deign to debate President Trump, but put me in the crowd that believes he shouldn’t debate him again.”

Will the remaining debates be canceled? It seems unlikely. The Biden campaign put out the word Tuesday night that the former vice president would stick to the schedule. And one of the headlines at the aforementioned Breitbart this morning was “Media Push Biden to Cancel Future Debates,” an indication of the pounding Biden would take if he says he’s had enough.

Still, the Commission on Presidential Debates needs to take a hard look at what, if anything, can be done to put the next encounter back on track — or if it’s even possible.

A few other observations:

• Wallace, the Fox News anchor who only recently earned praise for a tough interview with Trump, got called out on multiple fronts for failing to keep the proceedings under control. For instance, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Chris Wallace was utterly disgraceful as a moderator, constantly letting Trump interrupt Biden and allowing him to spout gross and anti-democratic lies about the legitimacy of the election.”

Of course, we wouldn’t want to ignore the alternative-reality crowd. Noted Mar-a-Lago Club member Howie Carr, writing at the currently homeless Boston Herald, accused Wallace of teaming up with Biden. “Two on one is Democrat fun,” Carr sneered, “and that’s what the president was up against last night.”

I’m usually pretty hard on moderators, but I thought Wallace did as well as anyone could given that Trump was completely out of control. Wallace was perhaps a bit too passive early on, but, starting about halfway through, he repeatedly called out Trump for his abusive behavior. You have to ask yourself: What could Wallace have done other than walk off?

• Biden’s performance came in for some criticism as well, and not just from the Trumpist right. The Boston Globe’s James Pindell gave Biden a “C” (and Trump a well-deserved “F”), writing, “Biden wasn’t able to instill confidence that he is up for the job…. While he didn’t get rattled, the former vice president often struggled to find his own lines throughout the debate. He seemed tired and unsure what to do. He was not crisp.”

At The Atlantic, David A. Graham, a harsh Trump critic, was nevertheless underwhelmed with the former vice president, writing that “tonight saw the return of the Biden who stumbled his way through debates in the Democratic primaries. Answers took left turns, then right turns, then U-turns, feinting in several directions and ending nowhere.”

But given that Biden constantly had to talk over Trump and keep his train of thought, it seemed to me that he had a pretty good debate. So I’m with Josh Marshall of the liberal website Talking Points Memo, who put it this way: “Biden did fine. Not great. But fine. I’d say he had a B performance with some B+ or even A- minus moments. But for him that’s fine. He’s ahead. He’s not running as best debater. He’s not running as most dynamic figure. He’s not competing for most unstable affect. He’s running as the guy who will end the nightmare. If that’s the goal he turned in just the right performance.”

Besides, Biden managed to get off the line of the night: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”

• Finally, we shouldn’t forget that debates don’t matter. Polls showed that viewers thought Hillary Clinton won all three of her debates against Trump four year ago, and that John Kerry bested George W. Bush in 2004. CBS News reported that its snap poll of Tuesday’s proceedings gave the edge to Biden, 48% to 41%, which seems to be nothing more than a reflection of his and Trump’s standings in national polls.

And in certain far reaches of Trumpland, the president did just fine. At the Washington Examiner, Rob Crilly quoted several pro-Trump observers and ended with this: “During the event, he may have lacked Biden’s crafted zingers, but he knew exactly what he wanted to say.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page called the debate a “depressing spectacle,” but called out Biden as much as Trump. At least Michael Goodwin of the New York Post — like the Journal, a Murdoch property — was honest enough to admit that Trump’s “boorish” behavior undermined his cause.

We witnessed something truly awful Tuesday night, and yet little has changed.

“Much like the Trump presidency, it was a national embarrassment,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham. Yes, and we have two more presidential debates to go, plus a vice presidential debate next week.

The fundamental dynamic remains intact. Biden has led consistently since January. Trump supporters support Trump, which means he’s going to make it close and create post-election chaos if it appears that he has lost.

God help us all.

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