As Americans adjusted to a scenario that had loomed during the last days of the presidential campaign, with a president declaring victory as vote counts pointed toward his defeat, the first days of protests were limited, confused and often small — less a street fight for the presidency and more street theater. The action plan from President Trump's supporters is erratic and, in some cases, apocalyptic, everything from low-key efforts to get voters to correct absentee ballot errors to break-the-glass tweets about rejecting the vote count altogether. The response from Democrats, who've spent most of the past four years in a panic, has been to watch, hold some rallies and mobilize only if things turn dark.
“They’re going to do everything they can to slow things down,” said Sen. Robert P. Casey Jr. of Pennsylvania, of Republican activists rallying outside vote-count sites this week. Casey, who like other Pennsylvania Democrats is confident that the final vote count will deliver the state to Joe Biden, said it wasn't necessary for them to match every protest. “People have been working night and day for so long to get the votes we need, so I’m not going to suggest they go out again.”
Twenty years after the Florida recount, which Democrats believe they might have won had they anticipated Republican tactics, liberals are largely holding their fire. Since Tuesday, “count every vote” rallies have been organized in major cities, though rarely with buy-in from the Democratic Party. Some were organized by Refuse Fascism, an offshoot of the Revolutionary Communist Party founded after the 2016 election
FreedomWorks scheduled “protect the vote” rallies on Thursday morning, arriving at vote-counting sites that read “Count Legal Votes” and “Biden Got Beat,” and the conservative group Turning Points USA Action organized one for Friday morning. Others, such as an ongoing rally outside Philadelphia's Convention Center, were organized by groups that focused on preventing potential voter intimidation before the election, and never went home. Election Defenders, a coalition that has organized a hundred or so protesters at a time in Philadelphia, transitioned right away from “Joy to the Polls” rallies, with music and dancing, to more music and more dancing across the street from pro-Trump protests.
“We knew that the right would be out here intimidating people,” said Nelini Stamp, the director of strategy for the Working Families Party, a left-wing group in the coalition. “When people were voting, we had music and art and we wanted to continue that. We’re going to continue to keep the eye out and bring joy until every vote is counted.”
That's less than many liberal groups had planned for key moments in Donald Trump's presidency — the Women's March, protests of a ban on travel from majority-Muslim countries, and flash mobs after the firing of James B. Comey as FBI director. There's an organization ready to do this: Protect the Results, formed by groups such as Indivisible and Stand Up America, both launched after the 2016 election. But Democrats expect the counts in key states to put Biden over the top, which has them waiting to see how the president responds.
“The Protect the Results coalition is making official plans on calling for a nationwide mobilization on a day-by-day basis,” Indivisible spokeswoman Emily Phelps said. “Like yesterday, [we're] officially not mobilizing today. That said, local leaders, many of them Indivisible leaders, are making their own calls about what they think makes sense in their communities.”
The story in Trump's “army,” as his campaign labeled its bands of citizen poll watchers, is very different — and stranger than Democrats expected. As of Thursday afternoon, the president had not spoken on camera about the vote count since the night of the election, when he baselessly declared victory. He has tweeted “stop the count,” echoing the slogan used by supporters in the two states (Georgia and Pennsylvania) where he has a vote-count lead with enough uncounted ballots to reverse that lead. His campaign has dispatched allies to Nevada and Pennsylvania for news conferences on legal challenges that, so far, have either been dismissed or allowed more observers to watch the count. (When Trump campaign attorney Pam Bondi spoke over loud music in Philadelphia, she was speaking over the Election Defenders' sound system.)
Already, a gulf has formed between the president's most loyal activists and Republicans who are wary of attacking the vote count. In fundraising messages, the campaign has repeatedly claimed that resources are needed to prevent outright theft. But prominent Trump allies, and some but not all of his children, have gone further.
“It is increasingly clear that Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania are all being stolen by Democrats and the research is almost certainly going to yield far more votes stolen than Biden’s current margins,” Newt Gingrich tweeted Thursday, citing no “research” in particular.
“Dear GOP Republicans: if you ever want to be featured @cpac or grow this movement get out now and defend the counting of every compliant ballot w full transparency,” tweeted American Conservative Union President Matt Schlapp after he joined Richard Grenell, who was briefly the acting director of national intelligence, to claim that at least 10,000 votes in Nevada might have been cast by people who don't live there. “We need every one of you.”
Protests to spread this message have not been organized by Republicans, officially, though they've shown up at them. The tea party group FreedomWorks organized small “protect the vote” rallies Thursday morning, arriving at vote-counting sites with signs that read “Count Legal Votes” and “Biden Got Beat,” and urged supporters to text “stolen” to be added to its list. The youth-focused conservative group Turning Points USA is organizing an Arizona protest for Friday morning; that will follow an ad hoc protest that unfolded outside a counting center last night, where protesters chanted “fake election, fake news” and “Biden's a pervert,” according to Post reporter Hannah Knowles.
Easily debunked theories about stolen votes have mushroomed online, then made it into protests, almost instantly. In Phoenix, protesters fretted about “Sharpiegate,” a false theory that fat-tipped pens were given to Trump voters to disqualify their ballots. In Detroit, a rumor spread that a wagon that brought a news camera into the counting center was smuggling ballots. And online, meanwhile, a false theory that turnout had been artificially, fraudulently high in Milwaukee spread from Fox News contributor Harlan Hill to a Wall Street Journal columnist who remarked that the turnout was “not feasible” to Eric Trump, who labeled the result an “absolute fraud.”
For a supporter of the president, it can be confusing, because it is confusing. One text message urges a donation to an Official Election Defense Fund for Trump; Facebook groups quickly organized “Stop the Steal” rallies which, unlike protests in Florida in 2000, have not stopped the counting of any ballots. Democrats haven't mobilized a response, opting instead to trust the process; in Pennsylvania, that has meant watching a steady count of mail ballots, which are being counted late after Republican legislators declined to process them early, and believing the Democrats who say they'll put Biden ahead.
The result has been a clash of realities, one of many over the past four years. If it ends with Democrats leading the vote count in enough states to take the presidency — that would be true if all counting stopped, illegally, today — there is already speculation among Trump allies about how to overturn that. In an essay published by the conservative Claremont Institute, Michael Anton, a Trump administration veteran, argued outright that state legislators should consider appointing their own pro-Trump electors if the popular vote in key states flips. That same argument was made by Mark Levin, a conservative radio host and Fox News talker; that was retweeted Thursday by the president's other son, Donald Trump Jr. The X-factor: a need for the president to condemn the count.
“Convince the people that if in fact the election is in the process of being stolen, the president and his allies are going to fight the steal on their behalf,” Anton wrote. “If middle America wants to prevent this election from being stolen, it will have to be willing to act — now. I know they are willing, but they need to hear from the President and his best surrogates. I’d get Trump on Tucker, tonight, to explain his plan.'
As the count goes on, Democrats watch and refuse to consider that outcome, unless they have to.
“If there’s a sustained effort by the president to contest this, even after the consensus is that it’s over, and that he’s got a strategy to rally people?” Casey said. “Sure, there has to be a counterpoint to that. That kind of a move could cause long-term, permanent damage to their party.”
“Trump and his allies boost bogus conspiracy theories in a bid to undermine vote count,” by Isaac Stanley-Becker, Tony Romm, Elizabeth Dwoskin and Drew Harwell
A deeper look at election-fraud messaging.
“2020’s polling miss? These Republicans say they saw it coming,” by Alex Roarty and Dave Catanese
The autopsies begin.
“Joe Biden wins Wisconsin and Michigan, nearing victory as Republicans threaten legal challenges,” by Toluse Olorunnipa, Matt Viser and Anne Gearan
Explaining the court cases that aren't changing votes.
“Florida Democrats call for new party leadership and strategy after yet another GOP rout,” by Steven Lemengello and Gray Rohrer
A Sunshine State reckoning.
“Democrats lose ground with Latino voters in Florida and Texas, underscoring outreach missteps,” by Jose A. Del Real and Arelis R. Hernández
The big miss on the Latino vote.
“Donald Trump drives voter turnout in Iowa, lifting Republicans down the ballot,” by Brianne Pfannenstiel
Why Joe Biden didn't flip any “pivot counties.”
“Where votes are still being counted,” by Harry Stevens, Adrian Blanco and Dan Keating
What to watch next.
Dems in disarray
The scale of the GOP's good year down-ballot is coming into view now: Democrats heading toward a narrow House majority; Republicans delivering on their goal of creating a larger, more diverse conference; and a conservative vote surge that drew a map with more resemblances to 2016 than 2018. Here's how it looks now, with dozens of races not called:
Diversity. Very early in the cycle, House Republicans made two key recruiting decisions, shaped by the ways they'd lost the midterm. Democrats had elected a crop of non-White and female candidates, some recruited by the party, some who impressed the party after being activated by Hillary Clinton's surprise defeat. That led to oodles of free, positive media, all part of a story line about the “year of the woman” and a backlash to President Trump.
First, Republicans ignored most of the members who'd lost their 2018 races, many of whom were caught flat-footed by Democratic recruitment and fundraising. Just three of their defeated incumbents from last cycle won their nominations; just one of them, California's David Valadao, is in a position to win again, aided by scandals surrounding the Democrat who beat him. Second, Rep. Elise Stefanik of New York reverse-engineered the Democrats' 2018 recruitment drive, launching a PAC (Elevate) specifically for boosting female Republicans in primaries, a project that struggled at first but paid off as the cycle went on.
“The story of the 2020 congressional elections is this is the year of the Republican woman,” Stefanik said on “Fox & Friends” on Thursday. “We are going to increase our ranks. There will be more Republican women serving in the United States Congress than ever before in our nation’s history.”
That was going to be true even if Republicans had a bad night, as female and non-White nominees won primaries in places where White, male nominees were retiring. As of Thursday morning, all seven Republicans who'd defeated incumbent Democrats, or appeared on their way to, were women or Latino men: Oklahoma's Stephanie Bice, New Mexico's Yvette Herrell, Minnesota's Michelle Fischbach, Iowa's Ashley Hinson, Florida's Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Gimenez, and South Carolina's Nancy Mace.
More Trump voters. It's dangerous to analyze national exit polls or popular vote totals until everything's counted, sometime in the next month. But it's almost certain that in every race Republicans won, Democrats ran far ahead of their raw vote from 2018. Democrats did a lot right that year, but they also benefited from something, frankly, that this newsletter underrated: Even that historically high-turnout midterm failed to attract conservative voters who could be activated by a presidential campaign.
Take the race for Iowa's 1st District, which Democratic Rep. Abby Finkenauer won back for her party in 2018, after Republicans won it in 2014. In 2016, a weaker Democratic candidate got just 177,403 votes, while an incumbent Republican won with 206,903 votes. In 2018, Finkenauer won 170,342 votes; enough for a comfortable win amid lower overall turnout. When the race was called this week, Finkenauer had pulled in 200,814 votes, putting her nearly 10,000 ballots behind Rep.-elect Ashley Hinson.
Finkenauer ran more than 23,000 votes ahead of the party's 2016 number; Hinson ran 4,000 votes ahead of that number. Democrats made inroads, but Republicans found more votes. Hinson, a TV reporter-turned-legislator and star 2020 recruit, pulled that off in part by improving her vote in her political base: the Cedar Rapids area. But her team knew how the election was going when Finkenauer, a Dubuque native, was effectively tied in that county, one that had seemed prime to vote for Biden and where she had been running ahead of him.
“I'm furious. Something went wrong here across the entire political world,” said Rep. Cheri Bustos of Illinois, the chair of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, on a call with members reported by The Post's Erica Werner. “Our polls, Senate polls, gov polls, presidential polls, Republican polls, public polls turnout modeling and prognosticators all pointed to one political environment: that environment never materialized.”
A sharper conservative message. This newsletter tries to avoid first-person anecdote, but as the numbers rolled in this week, a little moment from 2019 kept returning to me. The Texas Tribune's annual festival in Austin brought Bustos together with Rep. Tom Emmer of Minnesota, the chair of the National Republican Congressional Committee. Bustos's presentation focused on the Democrats' plans to compete for half a dozen House seats in Texas; Emmer, within 30 seconds, began explaining that his party would run against “socialism.”
In a room full of liberals — the sort of Texas liberals who would pay to attend a policy conference, and attend a wonky panel about an election 14 months away — Emmer got more groans than applause. But this cycle's Republican campaigning relentlessly portrayed Democrats as pawns of the far left, no matter how many times they distanced themselves from it.
Rep. Max Rose of New York's appearance at a Black Lives Matter march became Rose marching with “defund the police” activists. Democrats who'd opposed Medicare-for-all in interviews were accused of favoring it, and thanks to the attention put on the issue in the Democrats' presidential primary, the message focused on Democrats trying to “get rid of private health insurance.” When Biden won that primary, it didn't matter down-ballot: Republican ads and canvassing almost entirely ignored him in these races, and warned that Democratic control of Washington would empower “socialists.”
Raphael Warnock, “Get Ready.” As Georgians waited to learn whether there'll be a second Senate runoff in Georgia, the Democrat poised to be in the runoff with Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler is already up with a TV spot, which warns voters of the negative messaging about to invade their lives over the holiday season. “The negative ads are coming,” Warnock says. “Kelly Loeffler doesn't want to talk about why she's for getting rid of health care in the middle of a pandemic, so she's going to scare you with lies about me.” The ad cops a tactic from Michael Steele's 2006 race for Senate in Maryland, predicting that Republicans will accuse Warnock of “hating puppies,” then showing him cuddling a dog. But the context is different now: Steele was combating previous negative ad buys, while Warnock was ignored by Loeffler and Republican Rep. Doug Collins.
As defeats in key Senate races mounted this week, Democrats cast around for blame and began to ask whether something they'd considered to be a strength turned out to be a waste of time. Namely, money. In every competitive Senate race, Democrats handily out-fundraised Republicans. And in all but a few, they've lost or appear headed for a loss.
Did small-dollar Democratic donors waste their money? Well, yes, but they were wrong in the same way the campaigns were wrong. Take South Carolina, where Democrat Jaime Harrison's challenge to Republican Sen. Lindsey O. Graham raised more than $100 million. Donations surged when Graham made news, such as presiding over the quick confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney Barrett, and they went up when independent polls found the race to be within single digits.
That's not where it ended. With most votes counted, Graham leads by 13 points — a landslide victory, comparable to 2008, when the state's Democratic voters accidentally nominated a far-right candidate they'd later denounce. (That actually happened in 2010, too, when a troubled man named Alvin Greene managed to defeat a credible but underfunded candidate favored by the party.) But Harrison's money also turned out the biggest raw vote for any Senate nominee in their history. So far, 999,047 votes have been counted for the Democrat, more than 200,000 more votes than their placeholder nominee won in 2016, the last Senate race that occurred during a presidential cycle. That year, Trump won 1,155,389 votes; this year he's at 1,363,361 and counting.
The issue: Graham got more votes than ever before. Harrison's campaign did not anticipate the scale of that defeat. Its final internal polling, conducted two weeks before the election, found him up on Graham within the margin of error, and other polls conducted closer to the election found Graham up, but by single digits.
“When Trump's on the ballot, polls don't make sense,” said Harrison's campaign manager, Zak Carroll. “In 2018, they made sense. But there's a Trump voter who's clearly hard to find.”
That was true in nearly every state, but especially true in reliably red ones. In Kentucky, where Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell was on the ballot, Amy McGrath's ability to raise money online both inspired D.C. Democrats to recruit her and, after the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, inspired liberals at Crooked Media to create a “Ditch Mitch” fund for money to be shared by other Senate candidates. (The idea: Too much was being wasted on a hopeless campaign against McConnell himself, but nixing his majority was more likely than unseating him.)
McGrath is heading for around 800,000 votes, not far off the total won by Jim Gray, the party's nominee for the state's other Senate seat four years ago. But the Republican total this year rose from 1,090,177 votes to 1,237,260 votes, as Trump improved his raw total from 1,202,971 to 1,330,080.
Did Democrats who spammed the “donate” button end up giving to a crop of losing candidates? Mostly, yes. But the people paid to make decisions about these races were operating on the wrong assumptions about how big the total vote would be.
… one day until late-arriving ballots stop being accepted in Pennsylvania
… 30 days until runoffs in Louisiana
… 39 days until the electoral college votes
… 60 days until runoffs in Georgia
… 76 days until the inauguration