The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Could Trump end up going quietly? Here are 5 ways that might happen.

(Tasos Katopodis/Getty Images)

No other human being has had a closer-up view of President Trump’s corrupt machinations than Michael Cohen, so when Trump’s former fixer says Trump won’t give up power even if he loses reelection, it’s worth entertaining.

“There will never be a peaceful transition of power under Donald J. Trump,” Cohen told MSNBC on Sunday, adding that Trump is desperate to retain the immunities he enjoys from ongoing legal threats, including possible prosecution for tax crimes.

We already know Trump hopes to prematurely declare himself winner while invalidating millions of mail ballots, which could unleash a sustained post-election struggle.

But if you squint, you can discern various scenarios in which Trump ends up going quietly — or relatively so. Presuming for now that Joe Biden wins, here are five such possibilities:

Biden wins by a landslide. This is the most obvious: Biden wins in a rout so convincing that there is literally no avenue open for Trump to contest or resist it. This might seem a bit more plausible with new polls finding Biden up three points in Texas and up by one point in Georgia.

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To be sure, a landslide win is unlikely. Trump is still narrowly favored in Texas and Georgia. But as Harry Enten notes, Biden is closer to winning places like that than Trump is to winning Michigan and Wisconsin, which makes a landslide as plausible as a Trump victory.

If so, there would be no possibility that post-election litigation in, say, Pennsylvania could rescue Trump. And large swaths of Trump’s supporters might accept the inevitable, leaving no support base for holding out.

Biden wins Florida on election night. Because Florida’s voting rules permit mail ballots to be counted well in advance of Election Day, an election night call here is likely.

This means avoiding a scenario in which Trump declares himself winner even as enormous numbers of mail ballots remain outstanding in key states. Since Trump has no plausible path without Florida, it would probably mean a winner is called on election night.

Also: Because Florida has had years of experience using mail balloting, a process often run by Republicans, it will be much harder to contest the result with “voter fraud” lies.

These people told us in 2016 why they voted for Trump. Here’s how they’re voting in 2020.

Indeed, Trump himself has praised Florida’s absentee balloting at “Safe and Secure,” because he thinks it will benefit him there (while claiming it’s fraudulent where he thinks it’ll hurt him). Given how corrupt this duality is, it would be poetic justice if this made it impossible for him to contest the results.

Wendy Weiser of the Brennan Center warns that the president is doing the work of our foreign adversaries by undermining the legitimacy of the U.S. election. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Evan Vucci/AP/The Washington Post)

Biden wins Arizona and runs strong (enough) in the Rust Belt. Arizona is another state that begins counting mail ballots well before Election Day. As the New York Times notes, it may end up boasting the smoothest election process of any battleground.

If Biden is called winner of Arizona on election night or early the next morning, it might be very apparent early that he’s winning the electoral college. Biden can get to 270 with the states Hillary Clinton won plus Arizona plus only two of the three “blue wall” states Trump swiped. (Even if Biden wins Michigan and Wisconsin but loses Pennsylvania, he gets there with Nebraska’s 2nd District, where he leads).

It’s plausible Biden could be called winner of Arizona even as early tallies in the three “blue wall” states (where mail ballot counting is expected to be slower or more prone to litigation challenge) show that Biden will win at least two of them no matter what happens with those challenges. Republicans would continue litigating, but at this point the real outcome couldn’t be obscured.

Vote-by-mail goes well for Biden in Pennsylvania. Once Amy Coney Barrett is seated on the Supreme Court, Republicans will try again to overrule a lower ruling allowing for the counting of absentee ballots that arrive after Election Day. (They failed when the eight-justice court deadlocked.)

It’s unlikely that will succeed. But either way, early voting has been so explosive in Pennsylvania — nearly 1.5 million people have already voted by mail there — that it’s plausible late-arriving ballots might not be pivotal.

“It does appear that people are returning their ballots sooner than in 2016,” Michael McDonald, who runs the U.S. Elections Project, told me. “It reduces the chance that those late-arriving ballots would be decisive.”

It’s true that in the state, counting might drag out for days after Election Day. And if it’s very close, Republicans might be able to make up the difference through litigation invalidating mail ballots in small numbers.

But the state Supreme Court just ruled that non-matching signatures can’t be used for this, depriving Republicans of a big weapon. And it’s plausible Biden could win by a sizable enough margin that even if litigation does continue, it won’t make the difference. This is even more true if the numbers of late-arriving ballots aren’t big enough to matter.

If Biden is leading in Pennsylvania, it’s hard to imagine him losing Wisconsin or Michigan, meaning he’d be on track to winning the electoral college.

Fox News behaves responsibly. Fox News’s decision desk is one area of the network that’s reportedly immune to pressure from Trump and his propagandists. So it’s plausible that Fox News might call the election against Trump before he and his supporters are willing to surrender.

Fox News-trusting Republicans are overwhelmingly more prone to believe vote-by-mail will be fraudulent. Which means Fox News has played a major role in helping lay the groundwork for Trump to contest the results even if he’s losing.

The flip side is that, if Fox News’s decision desk handles this responsibly, educating viewers about the realities of Trump’s pending loss, it could badly cripple such efforts in the minds of his supporters.

None of this is meant to sound sanguine about avoiding serious bedlam. All kinds of terrible outcomes in the courts remain possible, as does serious violence.

But there are ways this could end with a relative whimper (and a barrage of ALL CAPS tweets) as opposed to something far worse. And there’s one way to make these scenarios more likely: Vote in enormous enough numbers to make them happen.

Read more:

David Byler: Nobody can predict this election. Here’s why.

Greg Sargent: Court defeat for Trump boosts chances of avoiding election disaster

Edward B. Foley: Could Trump contest even a landslide? That depends on his fellow Republicans.

Jennifer Rubin: With a resounding victory, Democrats can protect us from the next Trump

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