The Case for Panicking

Polls may be showing a substantial Biden lead—but it’s not just about the numbers this time.

Joe Biden is on a giant screen that's playing to a packed crowd. Donald Trump is in the foreground.
President Donald Trump watches a video of Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden on Tuesday in Erie, Pennsylvania. Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts for the full episode.

Four years ago, when Donald Trump was first running for president, Slate senior politics writer Jim Newell wrote an article titled “Of Course You Should Be Panicking About the Election,” single-handedly dismissing the idea that Hillary Clinton had the race in the bag. As he told me, “Around September, I kept running into people who were like, ‘There’s no way Trump’s going to win, right?’ What are you talking about? It’s a polarized country. Democrats have been in power for eight years. The other side could be psyched. Hillary Clinton is not popular.” He’s repeating similar warnings this time around, in spite of all the polls showing a solid lead for Joe Biden: “This election too, people ask me, ‘Should I be worried that Trump could win again?’ Of course!” On Wednesday’s episode of What Next, I spoke with Newell about the election data, especially the parts that make us uncomfortable, and why he encourages you to channel your inner dread and put it to work by mobilizing everyone you know. Our conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.

Jim Newell: There have been some interesting metrics this year showing that even when Biden is up 10 points or so in a presidential preference poll, pollsters then ask, “Who do you think will win your state? Who do you think will win the election?” And Trump is leading in those polls, even though Biden is looking in better shape than Clinton was. There’s still a kind of cautiousness among operatives, pundits, campaigns, and reporters about saying Trump can’t win.

When I say you should panic, it’s not because I’m seeing a rational reason from the data to be panicking specifically. I’m just thinking it’s a good ethos heading into an election where Trump could win another term. On an intellectual level, if you look at the data, it’s maybe even a little more in Biden’s favor than it was a month ago.

Mary Harris: But there have been these little engine lights blinking if you’re a progressive. I’ve been reading a bunch of stories about the fact that Republicans have been able to register more voters in the past few months than Democrats have. Can we talk about that and how it might affect who wins this election?

This is something I have tried to ask people about. It’s difficult to get a clear answer on what precisely it means. I mean, look at a couple of things that happened earlier this year: Republicans did invest a lot more in the field early on, and also, during the early COVID period, Democrats pretty much ceded the field. Republicans kept knocking on doors, going out in person, trying to register voters, whereas Democrats kind of took a hiatus and tried to do as much as they could digitally. Last month, the Biden campaign reversed itself. It started letting people go door-knocking and do door-to-door canvassing—

It seems a little late.

It does seem a little bit late. I mean, if the miracle Trump comeback happens, this is something about which they can get a lot of retroactive criticism. I mean, they kept saying that everything we’re doing digitally is fine, it more than makes up for in-person canvassing, which is overrated to begin with. Maybe that is true and they just felt like they had to do canvassing because they want to cover themselves in case something goes wrong in order to show that they put everything else on the field eventually. But it is something that gave Republicans a little bit of help registering new voters.

Part of the reason strategists seem to be paying so much attention to these voter registration numbers is that Republicans seem to be up in swing states like Florida.

Florida, Pennsylvania, yeah. When we say “up,” I think both of those states are narrowing the gap that Democrats already had. I don’t think they’ve surpassed Democratic registrations. Some of this could also be ancestral Democrats, who’ve been registered as Democrats for a long time, reregistering as Republicans.

But those voters were already going to vote for Trump.

Exactly. So it could just be registration numbers getting up to speed with the way the political realignment has been happening. I think it’s the one bright spot for Republicans in an otherwise gloomy situation, but I don’t think this meaningfully shows something that polls aren’t displaying. I think it’s one of these ground-game things where, in a close race, it could maybe make a half-point or so difference. It’s not going to help much if—if—the polls are correct and Trump is down by as much as he seems to be.

Another thing that could possibly help Trump is that he’s making inroads with voters Republicans have been trying to attract for years.

One of the really interesting things that maybe isn’t as remarked upon is that the racial voting gap between the two parties is changing. You’re seeing Joe Biden doing better with not just white seniors and white college graduates, but also with the white non–college graduates who make up Trump’s base. But also, Trump is doing better with Black and Latino voters, specifically Black and Latino men, specifically Latino men in Florida. We’re talking about Trump hitting maybe 10 percent among Black voters, but it is one of his only real areas of improvement. And in Florida, his improvement is concentrated among Cuban Americans and Venezuelan Americans, but he’s also narrowed the gap a little bit with Puerto Ricans. That’s part of what’s keeping him really competitive in Florida.

Another place where you can really see Republicans using their energy to get the outcome they want is in the courts, because we have this record number of cases moving forward where Republicans in various states are trying to block folks from being able to turn in ballots for a variety of reasons. I wonder which of all of those cases you’re paying especially close attention to.

What does keep me awake is the unique nature of this election, the pandemic, the mail-in voting. I think what causes me to panic is that the verdict voters have reached may not be represented in the ultimate count because legal cases get in the way, absentee ballots get chucked everywhere, or Trump sues to stop the counting. That whole realm of things really worries me.

The Supreme Court declined to take up a case from Pennsylvania, where the Pennsylvania Supreme Court had decided mail-in ballots could be counted if they were mailed by Election Day, or postmarked by Election Day and received up to three days later. What concerned me about that, even though Democrats were celebrating that the Supreme Court had not overruled this—

Because they technically won.

It was 4–4, the three liberals and John Roberts versus the four conservatives. That terrified me because you have four conservatives ready to overturn a state Supreme Court decision to allow ballots to be counted for a few more days—and they’re going to get another conservative justice a week from now. The general scenario that people are worried about is Democrats are going to have a very strong lead with early voting and mail-in ballots, but Republicans are going to take up a big Election Day in-person vote lead. So the fear is that if Trump is leading in Pennsylvania at midnight on election night, he could then try to say the election’s rigged and sue to try to stop the counting of ballots.

And the election’s over.

And the election’s over. He could try to declare victory and push it through the courts. It makes me nervous that there were already four conservative justices who are willing to side with Pennsylvania state Republicans who don’t necessarily have democracy’s best interests in heart here, and there’s going to be a fifth conservative vote. I don’t know how [Amy Coney Barrett] would vote. She certainly did not want to talk about how she would vote in any case, especially an election-related case, in her confirmation hearings. I don’t have a behind-the-scenes look, but the Supreme Court was sitting on it for a couple of weeks and didn’t have any long opinion that came out with it. It just seemed like there was a lot of negotiating going on there with John Roberts, trying to work a deal that didn’t ruin the legitimacy of the court. You throw one more judge into the mix and these things could come out a different way in another week.

Because cases like this will be coming long past the election, we assume.

Oh, yeah.

Subscribe to What Next on Apple Podcasts

Get more news from Mary Harris every weekday.