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Who will win ... and when? U of T political scientist unpacks a nail-biting U.S. election

Ballots are counted and verified in Denver, Colo on Nov. 3. As of midday Nov. 4, the winner of the 2020 U.S. presidential election had yet to be decided (photo by Chet Strange/AFP via Getty Images)

Ryan Hurl
While the outcome of the U.S. presidential election remains unclear, the results so far suggest a shift in the political geography of the United States and raise questions about the future direction of both major parties.


That’s according to Ryan Hurl, an assistant professor of political science at the University of Toronto Scarborough who says that, from his perspective as scholar, the unexpectedly close election has already given him plenty to study.

After watching the results trickle in until midnight, Hurl spoke to U of T News Wednesday morning about when to expect a definitive result, whether the Supreme Court will become involved and what the nail-biting contest means in general for each party and the country.


When do you think we will know who won?

That's a difficult question. We should know relatively soon if there is an outcome sort of beyond the bounds of controversy. I'm thinking that maybe by Friday.

Here's the thing with American elections and election law. Not only is the law different in many cases from state to state, but the administrative capacities differ and people might make very different choices about the way in which votes are being counted.

There can be errors and sometimes unusual things can happen. Sometimes people may just screw up. They weren't prepared for dealing with the number of mail-in ballots and so forth. I think it would have been nice if there could have been a calm discussion about this prior to the election because if things are looking very tight and things drag on, I think unfortunately people will start thinking there are shenanigans going on when it's just a very difficult problem.

When invariably some mistakes are found – I mean we're dealing with a pretty high number of states that can be very close – this will be interpreted in the least charitable way possible. It could get difficult, but we will see.

What I'm looking ahead to now is whether we will have a Florida 2000-type of situation where there is a crucial state, or set of crucial states, where the decision is being made by a relatively small number of ballots. Once you get to a situation where an election is turning on, say, fewer than 5,000 or 10,000 votes, the struggle can get difficult. In many cases there could be questions over what constitutes a valid ballot. Again, the rules are different from state to state.

Beyond that, there are issues with verifying signatures and I wonder if the country is in an emotional state to deal with a situation where you have Republican and Democratic lawyers battling over how to interpret whether a [voter’s] signature matches or not.

I still think it looks like Biden will have a narrow victory. Or, if it’s a razor-thin victory for either side, we might move to the next stage which is essentially “lawfare.”

U.S. President Donald Trump has threatened to stop the count and settle the election in the Supreme Court. Can he do that?

No. I don't think that is likely. The Supreme Court has laid down a bewildering variety of decisions in the last few weeks on the question of state regulations about vote-counting. But what it seems to come down to is this: If state courts have extended ballot counting days, the Supreme Court by the narrowest of margins has suggested that this is fine, that state courts are the final interpreters of states’ election laws.

I don't think President Trump is likely to find much help at the Supreme Court level – even if a state court were to extend the counting timeline. The only situation would be if, for some reason, the Democratic Party had tried to go to federal court. The Supreme Court would overturn a federal decision that clearly alters the state legislative scheme. But the Supreme Court, even with a conservative majority, doesn’t seem willing to wade in on this issue.

As an editorial comment: I really, really hope it doesn't get to that [the Supreme Court]. The time to figure out the exact rules of your election is before the election, not after the voting has occurred.

It's difficult for Americans to find common ground on any issue, but if there's one issue where there has to be acceptance of the rules of the game, it's with elections.

So, in short, you don't expect the Supreme Court to have a decisive influence, as it did in 2000?

It's hard to say. But if you look at the court in a purely political manner and consider its voting decisions over the last few weeks in response to state court decisions, you see that the Supreme Court does not want to be the arbiter of this. Some justices, like Clarence Thomas, don’t engage in judicial statesmanship. But John Roberts does. And he, I think, is looking at this and he is more concerned with maintaining the long-term legitimacy of the court.

It would be shattered under contemporary conditions if you had again a repeat of something like the 2000 election and Bush v. Gore. You can understand their reasoning if they say: we want to leave it in somebody else's hands. If this means we leave it in the hands of state courts, we will leave it to them.

The pre-election polls suggested Biden was in the lead nationally and in battleground states for a long time. The election has turned out to be a nail-biter. What do you make of that?

I haven't had a chance this morning to look at how off the mark the polls were. In 2016 the typical response was the "poll are so erroneous," but if you looked a little bit closer, at least at the national level, they were in fact fairly accurate. What you had instead were polling errors in a few states that were in many ways under-polled. The real errors were in places like Minnesota, which was much closer than expected; Wisconsin and Michigan – the famous “Blue Wall” states.

I'm not 100 per cent sure the story is simply going to be: the polls were entirely erroneous. We'll have to wait until all the votes are counted. On one level you could say the polls were suggesting Biden was going to win and it looks like he's going to win. Perhaps polls can't get much more accurate than that. That's one perspective. The other perspective is that people are really not co-operating with polls and the general distrust of institutions is extending to the polling industry. In some ways, that is worse than the pollsters making mistakes in terms of how they model the electorate. I don't think any pollster has any other incentive except to be as accurate as possible. I don't think anybody wants to be wrong or would engage in some kind of political calculus.

Did it help Democrats in Florida that so many Democrats were predicting a victory? I don't think it helps Democrats. I think they were just wrong. Why were they wrong? I think it's possible people aren't co-operating. I think it's possible people are choosing not to answer pollsters. There could be some lying to pollsters. You have the famous social desirability thesis – the shy Tory thesis. I think all of that is in play now.

This might have broader implications for political science. Using polling as an instrument for examining a public – whether you're talking about opinion polling or opinions in regard to voting – that becomes less legitimate a tool if people are evading pollsters, if people don't want to be surveyed in that way.

Whether Trump wins or loses, nearly 67 million American voted for him this election. What does this say about Trumpism as a force in the Republican Party?

The Republican Party is Trumpism now. Even if he loses, this was a decisive defeat for what you might call the neo-conservative wing of the party. If Trump is able to increase his vote amongst Hispanics running essentially on a populist candidacy, then the argument for neo-conservatism has to some degree been undermined. I think that wing of the Republican Party is going to be weakened and the people who are more aligned with Trumpian populism will say: maybe the [reason we lost] is Trump. If you had a more competent response to the COVID-19 crisis, even just on a rhetorical level, and if you had not tried to politicize this issue and demonize the people you disagree with – if you had, even in a cynical way, said, ‘Let the experts handle this’, maybe then people would have understood to some degree. A lot of Republicans will be saying this is a consequence of Trump as a person, his failure in the COVID-19 crisis, and we just need someone who is going to adopt many of the same policy positions but is just more effective in terms of managing the administration of government.

I think new political options open up for the Republican Party when they look at the Latino vote in this election. Suddenly the possibility of not just talking about immigration enforcement looks attractive, but perhaps some sort of amnesty as well. Perhaps you can thread the needle on this issue. Even if they didn't experience an overwhelming defeat under Trump, I think the nature of this electoral victory will cause the Republican Party to recalibrate a little bit on this issue.

Again, an editorial comment: If the Republican Party's response is: We can succeed as a populist party if we're less racist and xenophobic, that seems pretty good to me. That seems like a decent outcome for the country.

I think one narrative you're likely to hear from Republicans is that Trump lost this because of COVID – end of story. Absent the plague and his disastrous response, there would have been a very different outcome. We can still win with a new sort of political playbook that Trump has introduced.

What were some other surprises in the election results so far?

I was a little bit surprised by Arizona in the sense that this was one of the few states where pollsters suggested that Trump had a very good chance of winning. What you're seeing there is just the way in which the political geography of the country is changing, and how Arizona is perhaps joining the post-industrial category of states that you associate more with California and Colorado, where the economy is leaning toward younger, more college-educated people.

We'll have to dig through the results to assess this, but we're seeing an interesting class divide on some of these questions between the two parties and it's almost like a Brexit vote in a way. It seems to shift toward the Democratic Party on the presidential level. I would guess that this has been led by more middle class, upper-middle class individuals with college educations. And with the Republican Party, it avoided a landslide defeat by doing better among more working class individuals.

Is there still a “Blue Wall” in the rust belt?

No. That's done. Those are the blue battlegrounds now. I think those states are in play. It's interesting to look at some of the differences in the blue battlegrounds. That's an area where I was somewhat surprised. I was talking with students who thought if Trump was going to win at all, he would likely take the “Blue Wall,” Pennsylvania to Minnesota. But we see that, in the case of a state like Minnesota, the results are very different and you have a much clearer Biden victory, greater I believe than Clinton in 2016.

I think at least some of these states are going to be in play for the foreseeable future. Even if Biden takes all of those states, the victory will be relatively narrow.

The Senate and House races look tight. Do you expect the balance of power in either chamber to change hands?

I don't think so. I think the most likely outcome now – and again this isn't something I looked at in detail this morning – I suspect the Republicans are going to hang on narrowly perhaps down one seat or two. Even if I'm wrong on these questions, the Democrats will look at these outcomes and say this is not a realigning election. This is not an election that gives us a clear indication of our mandate. And I think this means they're going to have to tread very, very carefully.

The narrowness of this victory means that all this talk of major institutional change – adding new states, getting rid of the filibuster, getting rid of the electoral college, packing the courts – all of those things that might have been on the table look very different when you've just gotten over the goal line.

Even if they control all three branches, it will be narrow and they will have to seriously consider the policy options available to them.

Why do you think this race was so close given that over 230,000 Americans have died of the coronavirus and the economy is faltering?

You can compare the COVID-19 crisis to the financial crisis. It was very easy in the short term to create a narrative in 2008 that the general Republican worldview was the cause of this crisis, even if some Democrats had played ball on issues related to financial deregulation and by cozying up to Wall Street. The general narrative was that Republicans are suspicious of regulation of the financial industry and look what happens.

The COVID-19 crisis is significantly more complicated, particularly when people can look around and see different types of responses all over the world. I still think the Republicans were still hurt by it, but the narrative is not quite as strong. Responding to COVID-19 has a lot do with how states react, how cities react. The president is not the Wizard of Oz, sitting with a giant machine pushing COVID-19 response buttons.

Now that doesn't mean the president was successful using the tools available to him. It doesn't mean the president was successful in terms of his rhetoric or bringing the country together to deal with what is really not a political crisis but, at root, a natural disaster.

To get back to the economic aspect of the question: The economic crisis was caused by COVID-19. It wasn't caused by the policies of the Trump administration, unless you literally think there was a series of policy options that could have stopped the virus cold. People can look around to Europe and different policy responses around the world and they can see it's hard to know.

Trump has described vote counting as “major fraud” and said the Democrats are trying to “steal” the election. How has this affected the American public's faith in the electoral process?

I'm not certain Republicans are going to be rioting in the street over this, although I think it was irresponsible, of course, for Trump to say that.

What we might start seeing is that the Republican Party is ready to move beyond Trump, and I think what they're probably feeling is enough confidence to say: Our success and future as a party doesn't depend on Trump, even if to some degree it depends on Trumpism. This might be wishful thinking: I'm hoping that he doesn't create a presumption on the part of his supporters that the counting of the ballots cannot be valid. That's what makes it so irresponsible – to raise this issue of fraud to try to undermine the legitimacy of the process even before it occurs.

There can be legitimate disagreements over the way the count is proceeding, but to have that as your first move? I think that was unwise.