The Lucky Breaks That Prevented an Election Meltdown

Trump had a plan to to disrupt the vote. Here’s why it didn’t work.

An election worker handles a stack of ballots.
Votes are counted by staff at the Maricopa County Elections Department office on Thursday in Phoenix. Courtney Pedroza/Getty Images

The main thing that went right for Joe Biden in this election was, of course, that he won more votes in the Electoral College than Donald Trump. But nobody really expected it to be that simple.

For weeks, there have been fears that even if Biden won the election, Trump’s refusal to concede would spark a constitutional crisis if not a full-on violent democratic meltdown. The nightmare scenario usually went something like this: Because of the pandemic, more votes were cast by mail than ever before, and the vast majority of people casting those votes were Democrats. A number of key states had little to no experience dealing with that quantity of mail ballots, and some had been prevented by Republican-controlled legislatures from counting them ahead of time. This would create a “red mirage,” where Trump would appear ahead in key battleground states on election night, before the Biden votes were counted. Trump would use this initial lead to challenge the legitimacy of the election and use the courts to block the count. Several Supreme Court decisions prior to the election indicated the court’s conservatives would look favorably on such a challenge and newly minted Justice Amy Coney Barrett was arriving just in time to back them up. This strategy depended on Trump controlling the narrative to convince a significant enough slice of the public that the election was being stolen. Trump’s tweets and remarks disparaging mail-in voting and suggesting that the counting should be wrapped up on election night itself laid the groundwork for this narrative, as did a yearslong Republican campaign to hype up the extremely minor issue of voter fraud.

As expected, Trump is refusing to concede and is alleging fraud. But no one is taking him seriously. Even normally sympathetic right-wing media outlets have been backing away from his claims and prominent Republicans have made only half-hearted moves to support him, much to the Trump family’s irritation. Even as the vote counting was excruciatingly slow in Pennsylvania and Arizona, the president’s postelection legal strategy looks haphazard and ineffective, and failed to stop votes from being counted before Biden’s victory in Pennsylvania put him over the top.

Does this mean that we were all just being hysterical about the possibility of an electoral crisis? Not necessarily. Trump’s own statements made it pretty clear that he was willing to go to extraordinarily dangerous lengths to maintain his grip on power. But there were a few lucky breaks that prevented him from doing so.

1. The Upper Midwest Wrapped Up Early. Much of the preelection fretting and litigation focused on Michigan, Minnesota, and—especially—Wisconsin, states that were essential to a Biden victory and seemed to have a high potential for mail-in ballot–induced chaos. But all three states wrapped up counting relatively quickly, allowing the AP to make calls in all three on Wednesday. There’s still potential for a recount in Wisconsin, but Biden’s lead looks pretty safe.

2. No Red Mirage in the Southwest. The fabled “red mirage” did appear in some states, but the opposite happened in others. In Nevada and Arizona, Biden jumped out to an early lead. This threw a wrench in Trump’s “the early vote is the only real vote” narrative. Trump tweeted “STOP THE COUNT!” on Thursday morning. But if counting actually had stopped nationwide at that time, Biden would have won 270 votes and the presidency thanks to his slim leads in Arizona and Nevada. This put Trump in the awkward position of calling for every vote to be counted in some states but stopping the count in others. Even for him, this was tough to pull off and it seemed to leave some of his supporters confused about tactics: Armed Trump supporters forced officials in Maricopa County, Arizona, to close their ballot-counting facility to the public on Wednesday night, even though that county was Trump’s best hope of taking the lead in the state.

3. The States Biden Lost Were Just Close Enough. Biden lost the big battleground states of Ohio and Texas, but was just competitive enough in both of them—particularly early on—that the AP and other outlets didn’t call them until after midnight, when the safe Democratic states on the West Coast had already come in. This meant that Biden jumped out to a large lead on Tuesday night and held it, making it harder for Trump to sell the line that the election had been stolen from him via late-arriving ballots.

4. Fox News Has Been More News Than Fox. It was clear that Fox News would be key to Trump selling the public on the storyline of a stolen election. But while some of the network’s talking heads are backing up the president, its news anchors have been relatively professional, often pushing back on the talking points coming from the White House and its surrogates. More importantly, the network’s crucial decision desk has been showing its independence. If anything, the decision desk may have been a little too aggressive, making what now appears to have been a premature early call of Arizona for Biden. Not surprisingly, the president is reportedly furious at the network and its owner, Rupert Murdoch, but has failed to bully them back into line.

5. They Weren’t As Ready for This As We Thought They Were. Remarkably, considering how long they had to prepare for this, the Trump campaign seemed to have no strategy or team in place to contest the results after Election Day. According to the New York Times, the president’s son-in-law, Jared Kushner, was working the phones on Wednesday to try to find a “James Baker–like” figure to lead the effort to challenge the vote, a reference to the former secretary of state’s role leading George W. Bush’s team during 2000 Florida recount. One problem with Trump’s systematic degradation of the Republican Party is that there really aren’t any more James Baker figures, with the gravitas and bipartisan appeal to sell something like this. So they have to settle for Rudy Giuliani addressing the nation from the parking lot of a Philadelphia landscaping company.

This isn’t over yet. The risk of a constitutional crisis won’t be gone until Trump gets on a helicopter on Jan. 20, and some of his die-hard supporters will no doubt believe the election was stolen long after that. The fact that we came so close to such a dangerous crisis should make everyone uneasy about the state of American elections. But for the moment, Trump looks very isolated, and the country seems to be moving on.