Let’s be clear: President Donald Trump cannot lawfully delay the 2020 general election. He lacks the authority to make a unilateral change to the election date, which is set by Congress for the first Tuesday in November. He also has no inherent power to command the armies of state and local officials who actually conduct the nation’s elections. Presidents wield a broad array of constitutional and statutory powers over American life. This is not among them.
These facts didn’t stop Trump from floating the possibility of an election delay on Thursday morning. “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history,” he wrote on Twitter. “It will be a great embarrassment to the USA. Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” Dwelling upon Trump’s individual tweets is rarely a good use of anyone’s time or energy. But this one is a helpful window into the mental and political dynamics that drive the president’s actions.
It’s worth noting that a delay to the election wouldn’t even make sense on the merits. It’s true that some states opted to delay their primaries and local races earlier this year in response to the pandemic. Those delays weren’t designed to affect the outcomes of the races but to ensure that voters could safely deliver the outcomes they wanted. For races scheduled for late March and early April in particular, election officials were effectively caught by surprise and had little time to prepare accordingly. Those factors aren’t at play for the November election: Not only have Congress and the states had ample time to prepare since March, but they still have more than three months to tie up any loose ends.
Trump is not actually concerned about the integrity or safety of American elections in any meaningful sense. His belief in an election’s legitimacy hinges entirely on whether the result makes him look good or bad. Trump spent weeks before the 2016 election claiming that it would be “rigged” against him by shadowy forces, only to abandon the talking point when he defeated Hillary Clinton on election night. When the results later showed that he actually lost the popular vote by roughly three million votes, he falsely claimed that it was only because millions of people had actually voted illegally against him. Appearance, not reality, is his primary concern.
As a result, his opposition to mail-in voting is almost certainly self-serving. Voter fraud is an exceedingly rare phenomenon in modern American elections in general. States where elections are largely conducted by mail don’t experience serious or widespread problems. (Indeed, the biggest issue with mailed ballots appears to be the laborious time it takes to count them.) Attorney General Bill Barr recently made dubious claims that foreign governments could try to fraudulently mail in ballots to affect the outcome, but election experts dismissed those fears as unfeasible. At a congressional hearing earlier this week, Barr admitted he had no evidence to support his claims.
Trump’s claim that mail-in voting is “fraudulent” but absentee voting is “good” is also nonsensical. The distinction only exists because Republican voters, apparently swayed by the president’s rhetoric, are turning against absentee voting in general and imperiling the party’s voter-turnout operation in November. These contradictions are inescapable for a party whose electoral fortunes rely on active and passive voter suppression. Earlier this year, Trump said he opposed a Democratic proposal to expand mail-in voting during the pandemic because it would lead to “levels of voting, that if you ever agreed to it, you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again.”
Trump’s Thursday tweet sparked immediate blowback among those who fear and oppose his illiberal tendencies. “This is straight out of the authoritarian playbook,” the American Civil Liberties Union posted in response. “No, Mr. President,” replied Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders. “We’re not delaying the election. The American people are sick and tired of your authoritarianism, your lies, your racism.” Samantha Power, a former Obama administration official, said the proposal showed that Trump is “terrified of democracy—terrified of being held accountable by the American people.” California Representative Adam Schiff offered a more succinct reply: “Fact check: You can’t do that.”
Despite the practical and legal barriers, Trump’s statement will likely amplify fears that he will mount an extra-legal bid to hold power if he loses the election. Those fears are a sadly familiar experience over the last two decades. As I noted earlier this month, every presidential election since Bush v. Gore came with simmering fears that the incumbent would somehow try to cancel or suspend the upcoming presidential race. Until now, those fears had less to do with any genuine authoritarian threat to the American democratic process from George W. Bush or Barack Obama than with a crisis of confidence in the process itself, especially after the 2000 electoral crisis.
It’s entirely possible that Trump will try to challenge the results of the election if he loses. But the explanation for Thursday’s tweet is likely more mundane. With less than 100 days to go before Election Day, former Vice President Joe Biden holds a substantial lead in both national surveys and in battleground-state polls. Trump’s only path to a second term always rested on another split between the Electoral College and the popular vote; even that may be moving out of reach. The president also originally pinned his hopes for reelection on a growing economy—or, after the coronavirus pandemic struck the nation, at least a rapid recovery. But his failed response makes it impossible for even him to argue that Americans are better off now than they were four years ago.
That’s why the timing of Trump’s post on Tuesday morning is so revealing. At 8:30 a.m. Eastern time, the Department of Commerce reported that the nation’s GDP had plunged almost 10 percent from April to June, which came out to a whopping 32.9 percent drop on an annualized basis. Those are eye-opening, record-breaking figures, and news outlets immediately reported them as such. Along with the unemployment rate and the imminent surge in evictions, they reflect a devastating reality for tens of millions of Americans—and a dismal sign for Trump’s hopes to stay in office. At 8:46 a.m. Eastern time, Trump issued his Twitter post calling for the election to be delayed for the first time.
You don’t have to be Hercule Poirot to connect the dots. The White House spent the last few months confidently predicting that the economy would experience a sharp, sudden downturn and then bounce back into a V-shaped recovery—just in time to help secure Trump’s reelection. This magical thinking appears to be no match for economic reality or for the pandemic that continues to kill thousands of Americans each week. And so Trump, faced this morning with more proof of the recession’s unprecedented damage, called for decisive action—to save him from electoral consequences. The irony is that if he showed as much interest in alleviating Americans’ hardship as he did in holding power, he would have a much easier time at the latter.