Anxious wait as Trump, Biden contest tightens

Thursday, November 5th, 2020 00:00 | By
Election judges verify and count ballots at the Denver Elections Division building on in Denver, Colorado. Photo/AFP

Washington, Wednesday

After months of nerve-jangling campaigning that at times appeared to be tearing the world’s oldest constitutional democracy apart, the US presidential election finally reached its climax and entered the comfortingly familiar bubble of TV news election night.

But there was nothing familiar about this election, not in pandemic 2020.

From the start of the night, presenters from CNN to Fox News had two words ringing in their ears as they tried to hold on tight to a long and nail-biting night: patience and caution.

Patience because of the vast pile of more than 100m early votes cast and caution because of the unprecedented stakes of the race.

“The level of anxiety! The level of emotional fatigue!” said CNN’s Van Jones, expressing the heartfelt yearning of millions of Americans. 

“If you are a Muslim family, if you are from an immigration community, if you are vulnerable in any way, this has been an horrific four years, so people would vote for Kermit the Frog over Donald Trump at this point.Fox News recognised the exceptionally twisty nature of the night.

“The results as they come in are going to be a little bewildering because we will be looking at a peculiar blend of votes that have and have not been counted,” said the channel’s senior political analyst Brit Hume.

“We should prepare our audience to bear with us, because it’s getting very complex.”

At least Wolf Blitzer, the CNN anchor whose prime skill is making drying paint sound breathlessly like world-shattering news, kept in character, throwing all caveats to the winds.

“It’s a bit of a surprise,” he screeched when results started coming in from Kentucky showing Joe Biden ahead.

Blitzer had to be gently nudged by a colleague, who pointed out that only 8% of votes were in at that time.

Kentucky was soon after called for Trump, which was not a bit of a surprise – the state has clung to the Republican in every race since 1996.

Even before election night began, the country had witnessed nationwide scenes of determined voting at astonishing levels.

The sleeping giant of the US electorate – traditionally among the most laggardly at voting among the developed countries – had suddenly stirred.

Snow squall

From the critical swing state of Florida, through the rust belt states that in no small part delivered Trump his victory four years ago, amid a snow squall in New Hampshire, and right across to the vast Democratic stronghold of California, Americans turned out to vote in record numbers. The rate at which they did so was set to surpass all presidential elections since 1908.

After all the fears of armed intimidation at the polls, of militia groups descending on polling stations to wreak havoc, election day was overwhelmingly orderly and calm.

Sporadic local squabbles over voting machine breakdowns and scurrilous spam calls were recorded, as they regularly are in US presidential races.

State after state broke voting records. Texas, which last voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in 1976, received more early votes than the entirety of the poll in 2016.

Florida recorded 9m early votes, some 63% of the total – another jaw-dropping showing.

It may come to be seen as one of the great paradoxes of the 2020 cycle that an election that brought American democracy to the brink of collapse triggered an outbreak of democratic participation unlike any in modern times.

It was in Florida that the first true drama of the night erupted. The state, with its track record of razor-close presidential elections, was a must-win state for Trump.

As the results poured in from 7pm, the president’s numbers appeared to be promising.

Fear mongering

In particular, Trump’s fearmongering message that Biden was going to destroy the country by dragging it into socialism received a predictably warm response from Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade county.

Elsewhere in the state, Biden was doing well in suburban areas around Tampa in central Florida and Jacksonville in the north, but his prospects of grabbing back Florida looked slim. By 12.35am ET, the Associated Press had called the state for Trump.

For the millions of Democratic Americans for whom election night 2016 continues to cause night sweats in a bad case of PTSD, Trump’s performance in Florida was like being forced to live it all again.

By around 10.30pm local time, the sinking feeling that the country might be repeating the shock of four years ago had begun to spread jitter and alarm among the nation’s liberals and progressives, even though they knew that the mass of mailed votes could complicate the story.

Just as Fox News said, this was going to “get very complex”. While Democrats were fretting over Florida, Virginia quietly and almost unnoticed was called by Associated Press for Biden.

When Barack Obama won Virginia in 2008, it was considered a Republican state that was shifting leftwards.

The last time it had backed a Democrat was in 1964 with Lyndon Johnson. - Guardian and other agencies

More on News