That’s once the dust settles, mind you. In the interim, President Trump is doing his best to kick up dust, to claim that the outcome of the election is uncertain and that he has a path to victory. He has had trouble articulating precisely what that path looks like, arguing alternately that the courts would weigh in to invalidate the results or that recounts or fuller tallies of the votes cast will reveal a sudden shift.
None of that is true. Trump lost his bid for reelection, and he has no path to victory. The only way in which Trump will serve another four years in office will be if he’s the beneficiary of some extraordinary legal or legislative intervention — or if he runs again in 2024.
Where things stand
Nine days after Election Day and five days after it became clear that Biden would win Pennsylvania and the presidency, Biden maintains leads in six of the seven states where the margin of victory was closest. Nevada, Wisconsin and Michigan have all been called for him.
His cumulative lead in those six states is 291,000 votes. If he were to somehow lose Pennsylvania and lose Georgia, he would still be president-elect. He could lose Nevada, Arizona and Georgia and still win. But there’s no indication that he’ll lose any of those states.
There aren’t enough votes for Trump to move past Biden
Since Election Day, the primary focus of the Trump campaign has been to argue that calling states for Biden was premature, given the outstanding vote. Campaign surrogates and campaign manager Bill Stepien claimed that the math was on their side, that as the votes were counted Trump would either maintain his existing leads (as in Pennsylvania) or eat into Biden’s (as in Arizona).
That didn’t happen. Trump’s margin in Pennsylvania eroded methodically, a function of the state’s slowly counting mail-in ballots that its Republican legislature insisted be tallied only after Nov. 3. It was obvious hours after polls closed that Biden had the votes to flip the state, a reality that Trump’s team fought hard to downplay.
In Arizona, the pattern was reversed: Biden’s margin did keep narrowing as more votes came in — but not by enough.
The math is pretty simple. Imagine that Trump led by 100 votes in Pennsylvania and Biden by 100 in Arizona with 10 groups of 50 ballots left to count. Each candidate would need to win 60 percent of what’s outstanding to catch up, an average of 30 of those 50 ballots: winning 300 votes to his opponents’ 200 and closing the margin.
In Pennsylvania, Biden consistently wins an average of 40 votes out of those 50 while, in Arizona, Trump wins 25. After five batches are in, Biden's already in the lead by 50 votes (since 40 minus 10 times five is 150). Trump, though, is still down 100 votes since he keeps splitting the vote. Now he needs to win 175 of the remaining 250 votes, or 70 percent of them. The longer he goes without closing the gap, the harder it becomes to do so.
This is essentially what happened in each state. Biden overperformed, relative to what he needed, and Trump underperformed.
In Pennsylvania, there are fewer votes left to count than Trump needs to win. In Arizona, there are fewer than 25,000 votes outstanding, with Trump trailing by more than 11,600. He would need to win nearly three-quarters of those votes to match Biden in a state where he is earning 49.1 percent of votes overall. The race hasn’t been called by many outlets out of an abundance of caution, but it’s very unlikely that Trump will manage to wring so many votes out of what’s left.
We’re waiting for calls in North Carolina and Georgia, too, but Trump leads in the former, and Biden doesn’t need the latter. As it stands, the race is over.
Recounts almost certainly won’t flip any of those states.
So Trump’s team has shifted to the idea that recounts in close states will lead to the results being overturned. On Thursday morning, Trump tweeted that an audit of the totals in Arizona would lead to his being declared the state’s winner.
Again, even if he won Arizona and Georgia, he would still lose the election. But it doesn’t matter, because a recount is almost certainly not going to overturn a margin of more than 10,000 votes.
There have been recounts that shifted the results of major elections. A Senate race in Minnesota in 2008 flipped from red to blue after a recount — but that involved a margin of a few hundred votes. That’s the normal scale at which a statewide recount might affect the margins: hundreds, not tens of thousands, of votes. George W. Bush’s Florida win in 2000 came down to 537 votes, not 10,000.
Consider Georgia, where a recount will be conducted after being triggered by the narrow margin of victory. Let's say that the recount determines that there's one extra Trump vote out of every 10,000 ballots cast, a remarkable finding.
Trump would gain about 500 votes, narrowing Biden's lead to about 13,600.
Don't believe us that recounts in states like Wisconsin can shift the results? Believe former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker, who saw a few recounts in his day.
Or believe Republican strategist Karl Rove, who worked on Trump’s campaign in an advisory role and addressed the subject for the Wall Street Journal.
“[T]he president’s efforts are unlikely to move a single state from Mr. Biden’s column,” Rove wrote on Thursday, “and certainly they’re not enough to change the final outcome.”
That’s an important distinction: Even if a recount allowed Trump to overcome a deficit of more than 10,000 votes — an utterly unprecedented occurrence — it would have to happen in multiple states. People get hit by lightning. People do not get hit by lightning three times by the same storm.
There’s no evidence of any significant fraud
All of this is why the Trump campaign is mostly focused not on contesting vote totals but, instead, implying a grand conspiracy involving scores or hundreds of actors aimed at committing voter fraud in multiple states.
Trump telegraphed this strategy for months, saying that he could lose reelection only if there was fraud involved in the voting. It was a ridiculous claim as he made it, relying on goofy allegations that things like a mail-truck fire were somehow indicative of efforts to throw the results of the presidential contest. In the days since Nov. 3, the allegations have become more common but no more believable.
Since shortly after Election Day, state officials — both Democrats and Republicans — denied that there was any evidence of significant fraud in their elections. The New York Times called each state; in none was any significant fraud indicated. Republican officials who buck the Trump campaign’s allegations have been targeted for abuse, including Georgia’s (Republican) secretary of state, who became the target of death threats. When Arizona’s (Republican) attorney general told Fox News’s Neil Cavuto that there was no evidence of fraud and that Biden would probably win the state, Cavuto praised the bravery required to offer what should have been an anodyne insight.
Predictably, Trump’s legal team has been unable to provide any evidence of significant fraud in its various legal challenges. To bolster the president’s claims, his allies have instead tried a two-pronged strategy: fiddle with the numbers and simultaneously generate a blizzard of dubious-seeming allegations in an effort to make it seem as if maybe something might have happened.
The former effort is manifested in things like campaign adviser Steve Cortes’s “Statistical Case Against Biden’s Win,” published Wednesday. It makes four points, including that turnout was unusually high in some places, that Biden got more votes in some places than Obama and that a lot of people voted only for Biden and not other candidates.
Each of these is easily explained. The “unusual turnout” and overperformance relative to Obama are functions both of massive interest in the election (and, among Democrats, in ousting Trump) and same-day voter registration in states such as Wisconsin. The votes for Biden but not other candidates is something that happens in every election.
Elizabeth Harrington, the Republican Party’s national spokeswoman, tried to similarly suggest that something weird was happening with the numbers in a lengthy Twitter thread this week. CNN’s Daniel Dale has an adept evisceration of it. Or, if you wish, journalist James Surowiecki has a broader debunking of the entire effort to use similar analysis to call the results into question.
Fundamentally, this ploy is meant to do little more than create a sense that something was iffy with the election results. The attempt to point to statistical analysis is meant to imply complexity and seriousness to neophytes that a close examination of the claims belies. In that way, then, it’s quite similar to the campaign’s more robust effort to whip up evidence that fraud occurred.
Multiple times this week, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany has appeared on Fox News bearing stacks of documents that she claims are affidavits alleging wrongdoing at vote-counting sites. On Tuesday night, the affidavits related to Wayne County, Mich., where Trump did better than he had in 2016. A review of the affidavits makes clear that there’s no actual evidence of fraud or wrongdoing, but that’s not the point. The point is to make it seem as if there was simply by virtue of having so many affidavits. But a stack of sworn statements that the city of Detroit properly describes as being “grounded in an extraordinary failure to understand how elections function” are just stacks of paper, not evidence.
Even if one were to assume that McEnany’s presentation of what the affidavits showed didn’t exclude important caveats, and even if the affidavits themselves unquestionably showed actual proof that something illegal had happened, the number of cases cited by McEnany would have been in the dozens, not thousands of votes. If all of that were true, the result would have been to call into question a microscopic fraction of Biden’s 150,000-vote-plus margin of victory in the state. But again, the affidavits show no such thing anyway.
It’s all obvious and ridiculous chicanery. The goal is not to prove that fraud occurred, because the campaign has been unable to offer any such proof at even a small scale. The goal is to leverage the credulity of Trump’s base to maintain leverage over Republican elected officials on the off-chance that the campaign can break the system, resulting somehow in a second term. The goal is also to continue to making fundraising appeals ostensibly aimed at uncovering fraud but primarily going toward a Trump political action committee.
Trump and his team will apparently continue to do everything in their power over the short term to whip up smoke in an effort to imply that there’s fire. They may finally get lucky and find some example of fraud in some state. (They’re certainly working overtime to do so.) But even that is unlikely to result in election results being overturned in one state, much less several.
Put simply, Trump lost. He has no path to victory that involves counting votes. The only viable path lies outside the democratic process, relying on sympathetic courts or officials to simply disregard the will of the electorate. The only way Trump is still president on Jan. 21, 2021, is if the presidential election process itself is willfully dismantled.
The question that remains isn’t whether he can overcome Biden’s leads. It’s whether he could gin up enough support to make such a dismantling possible.