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Election Day Blues


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Election Day Blues

By Steven A. Smith

UPDATE (November 8): The election predictions in this Nov. 3 column generally played out. The race was much tighter than polls ever indicated (a column for another time) and the contest was decided by a few thousand voters in a handful of battleground states. Regardless of the outcome, I predicted President Trump would still be in office on Jan. 20, the result of legal challenges if not the vote. I happily back away from that prediction. It appears he has neither the resources nor the will to challenge results in five states. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris should be taking office in January.

It may be over tonight. More likely, it will not be over for weeks, maybe months. Or maybe it never will be over.

When did we start to seriously concern ourselves with the 2020 presidential election?

For me, it was the morning after the 2016 election.

In January of that year I had told my Mass Media and Society class at the University of Idaho that Donald Trump would be our next president. No votes had yet been cast in any presidential primary. But a careful reading of the national mood and a total disregard for polls and the shoddy journalism that too often misreports them led me to conclude that Trump would win. My students thought I was crazy. So did my wife. She forbade me from talking about any of it.

The morning after the election I had to scrap lesson plans in all my classes. Students wanted to talk about the outcome, to vent, to cry, to worry.

I told them I was confident the nation would survive, that election outcomes often disappoint, that even reality-star presidents would have to respect our democratic systems and that Trump might rise to the office.

I might have been right about his victory, but I was so, so wrong about everything else.

It is true that tens of millions of Trump supporters think he has done a great job. They accept his flaws because he seems to speak for them – to speak to their fears more than to the aspirations in my view. I must accept such people are sincere in their beliefs, but it is increasingly difficult to be respectful or even tolerant.

For me and tens of millions of others, the president has been the sower of chaos, a bigot, a bully, and a racist who poses an existential threat to our democracy. I am fully sincere in that belief.

So, like so many others, I started thinking about the 2020 election as soon as the 2016 campaign ended.

Some of my friends have made Trump-era politics an obsession that dominates much of their waking life. Others have completely tuned out, limiting their political intake to preserve personal mental health.

I have tried to find a good middle ground, following developments in print but turning off cable news, the term “news” being an oxymoron.

During the spring 2019 semester, beginning in January of that year, I taught a special course called Mass Media and Presidential Politics. It was a joy. I had 36 intelligent, engaged students who began tracking 2020 election cycle developments, including the emergence of 22 legitimate Democratic presidential candidates.

Most of my students saw themselves as Democrats, progressives who were excited by women and minority candidates. There were a handful of Trump supporters who, sadly, tended to keep quiet during class discussions. You would hope a university classroom would be where respectful disagreement would be possible. But as much as I tried to foster a respectful classroom environment, the Trump backers believed they would suffer at the hands of the progressives, so they mostly kept their opinions to themselves.

One class assignment required students to produce their own election memes, a medium with which they were comfortably familiar. The results were terrific – and funny. One controversy early in the cycle involved allegations that Joe Biden tended to be a bit too touchy-feely. The best memes poked fun at that or at Bernie Sanders’ alleged decrepitude.

Memes from Smith’s class assignment

But in all seriousness, the students did not think much of Biden or Sanders. They were energized by the prospect of a new generation of candidates. They spoke well of Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg even though I could never properly pronounce his last name.

Hanging over all discussions was the possibility of another Trump win.

I worked hard to keep my personal political views to myself though my students clearly understood my discomfort with Trump and particularly his relentless campaign against journalists. Classroom neutrality is required by the university and is an ethical obligation, in any event.

But eventually my students asked me to predict the general election winner not yet knowing the Democratic challenger.

I did not hesitate. Donald Trump will win a second term, I said.

That opinion has not changed much in the intervening months. Joe Biden has run a better campaign than Hillary Clinton. With the help of his running mate, he has reenergized the traditional Democratic base while tapping into the desperate Trump opposition. Polls in the last few days give him good odds to win the White House.

Memes from Smith’s UI class

But…nothing about Trump conforms to expectations. The closing 2020 polls are nearly identical to those at the end of the 2016 campaign and those were historically wrong.

I believe Trump will lose the popular vote by a historic margin. But the race for Electoral College votes will hinge on a handful of swing states and a few hundred thousand voters.

What happens if Biden wins a majority of those electors? All hell will happen. The president has made clear he will not accept a defeat as legitimate. Between voter suppression efforts, challenges to absentee and mail-in ballots, and a stacked court, the president could well manufacture a win or throw the result to Congress where all bets are off.

We may not know who will serve as president until Jan. 20, 2021. And if you ask me to bet money on the outcome, I believe that person will be Donald Trump.

And all hell will still break loose. In that respect, it does not matter who wins. There will be blood on the streets. Frustrated Trump supporters will be better armed. But frustrated Biden supporters will take to the streets, too.

No one is predicting a new civil war, though the president has hinted at such. But a period of intense civil unrest, and occasional, shocking violence is all but certain.

What is more certain is that the 2020 election cycle will extend far beyond tonight.

And it is equally certain that most American will start worrying about 2024 beginning Wednesday morning.

Steven A Smith
Steven A Smith
Steven A. Smith is clinical associate professor emeritus in the School of Journalism and Mass Media at the University of Idaho having retired from full-time teaching at the end of May 2020. He writes a weekly opinion column. Smith is former editor of The Spokesman-Review in Spokane, Washington. As editor, Smith supervised all news and editorial operations on all platforms until his resignation in October 2008. Prior to joining The Spokesman-Review, Smith was editor for two years at the Statesman Journal in Salem, Oregon, and was for five years editor and vice president of The Gazette in Colorado Springs, Colorado. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Newspaper Management Center Advanced Executive Program and a mid-career development program at Duke University. He holds an M.A. in communication from The Ohio State University where he was a Kiplinger Fellow, and a B.S. in journalism from the University of Oregon.

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