With the world watching, Donald Trump is about to be the star in the world’s biggest reality TV show. But how the US president behaves tomorrow as the votes are being tallied could put the country in an unprecedented and dangerous position, experts warn.
Despite what the polls say, Trump is talking up his chances and has reportedly mulled a plan to publicly claim victory on election night if he appears ahead in a handful of crucial states. With Republicans more inclined to vote on election day – and those votes being counted quicker than mail ballots – it’s a scenario that has analysts and the US TV networks grappling with some difficult questions.
While Trump has downplayed the claim he will prematurely claim victory, if he did the consequences would be very hard to predict, says Dr Emma Shortis from the Global Studies Centre at RMIT University.
“That is completely unprecedented in American history. No one has ever done that before,” she told Yahoo News Australia.
We could be in for a historic night.
“If he does do that, I think we’re potentially in a very, very dangerous situation, because the constitution doesn’t really anticipate that kind of behaviour,” she said.
“It depends on what people around him do. It depends on how the media reacts. It depends on how Trump supporters react.
“We’ve already seen unrest and violence,” Dr Shortis noted, and the obvious concern is that a premature claim of victory will be heeded by his loyal fanbase.
While legally any claim not supported by the vote count will be meaningless, “whether Trump doing that encourages more of that violence – which he has deliberately been doing” is a concern, she said.
“And it depends on how Republicans behave. Whether they continue the pattern of lining up behind Trump and norms and democracy be damned. History tells us that is what they’re going to do.”
The Trump campaign has made no secret of its plan to try and delegitimise certain postal votes, in particular in the crucial state of Pennsylvania where the courts have dismissed challenges aimed at preventing the counting of postal votes that come in after election day.
“They made a very dangerous situation, and I mean dangerous, physically dangerous,” Trump told supporters at a rally in Pennsylvania ahead of the election.
“They did a very bad thing for this state. They did a very bad thing for this nation. You have to have a date.”
The Republicans have launched similar legal challenges in other states and continue to fight to have more than 120,000 ballots in Texas tossed out. If Trump does claim an early victory in an effort to subvert the process, legal fights like this will be a big part of the narrative.
TV networks face difficult scenario on election night
It’s by far the biggest day on the calendar for the US TV networks who do the heavy lifting in declaring a winner, at least in the public’s mind.
An unfounded declaration of victory puts them in a difficult position. While they’re unlikely not to carry a Trump speech, some have expressed reservations about making such a broadcast.
“I think there's a very tough decision for the networks about taking Trump live on election night, particularly if you know he is going to come out and lie and sow dangerous disinformation about the election,” MSNBC host Chris Hayes tweeted Monday.
It’s something that ABC News chief anchor George Stephanopoulos alluded to in a recent interview with The New York Times about election night.
“I don't think we can censor the candidates,” he said. “But we have to be vigilant about putting whatever comments are made in context, with everything we know about where the race stands, where the law stands, where the votes are.”
Can we trust the polls?
The entire polling industry has a lot riding on this election. National polls have been showing a consistent lead of about eight to nine percentage points for Biden. While it’s all about the battleground states, Biden’s lead in some of them should be enough to get him home if there’s not a significant polling error. But that’s a big if.
“In a normal presidential election cycle, we could be pretty confident that they were right,” Dr Shortis said of the widespread polling that’s been done in recent months.
“But having said that, people are right to be wary of polling. I’m not convinced that the problems that faced polling in 2016 have been righted. I also think they don’t necessarily take into account some of the more unpredictable things,” she said.
That includes the huge voter turnout already seen with close to 100 million votes being cast before the official election day.
“I also don’t think [the polls] capture more unpredictable things like potential unrest that we’re already seeing ... the so-called Trump trains on freeways [designed to intimidate rival supporters],” Dr Shortis said.
“That’s extraordinary that kind of voter intimidation. Those unpredictable things, how people are going to behave over the next couple of days make me reluctant to rely on polling.”
Thankfully, we won’t have to for much longer.
Make sure to return to Yahoo News Australia on Wednesday morning to follow all the results live as they come in.
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