Trump’s chances hinge on a polling screw-up way worse than 2016

President Donald Trump still has a path to a second term. But it would take a polling debacle that would make 2016 look like a banner year.

According to a series of battleground state polls conducted and released in the week following the last Trump-Biden debate, the president’s chances of winning a second term now require winning states where he still trails with only days to go until voting concludes.

In most of the core swing states, Joe Biden has maintained a stable — though not overwhelming — lead over Trump in polls over the past few months, continuing into the final week of the election. Some of the state polling averages have tightened slightly since the last debate, though Biden remains consistently ahead. In three live-interview polls of Florida all released on Thursday, Biden led Trump by between 3 and 5 points.

In some of the potentially decisive states, like Pennsylvania, the polls would have to be wrong to a significant greater — greater than the errors in 2016 — for Trump to win. The latest polling averages show Biden with a 5-point lead.

It’s not impossible, but you have to squint to see how Biden’s lead won’t hold up on Election Day. Even signs that were more apparent four years ago — whether in real-time or in retrospect — are more ambiguous this year.

In 2016, the larger-than-usual share of voters who said, even in the late stages of the campaign, that they were undecided or preferred a third-party candidate was a flashing warning light that Hillary Clinton’s lead was not secure. Clinton was not well-liked, even if she was running against a historically disliked opponent. And Trump was garnering momentum in the closing two weeks of the race.

None of those is happening this year: There are generally fewer undecideds in the polls. Biden is viewed favorably by a narrow majority of voters in the country. And surveys conducted since the debate last week have not showed as large of an uptick for Trump.

“The thought that maybe things would tighten in the last week doesn’t appear to be happening,” said Lee Miringoff, the director of the Marist College Institute of Public Opinion, which released a poll with NBC News on Thursday showing Biden ahead by 4 points in Florida. “I think, if anything, things are holding for Biden, or maybe even providing him an opportunity to go into some states” outside of the core battlefield.

But there are some red flags about the polls, even if it’s not clear how they would affect the outcome. More voters than in previous elections are refusing to tell pollsters for whom they’re voting — or have voted, in the case of the tens of millions of Americans who have already cast their ballots.

And in the closing days, that phenomenon is only increasing. Charles Franklin, who runs the Marquette Law School poll in Wisconsin, told National Review Online that his surveys show increasing numbers of respondents who refused to disclose their vote choice in his polls.

Similarly, Patrick Murray, the director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, told POLITICO Thursday that the number of voters refusing to name their candidate “has ticked up.”

But both men said that won’t necessarily redound to Trump’s benefit. Franklin told National Review that in the Wisconsin poll he released Wednesday — Biden had a 5-point lead in the critical battleground state — that those who refused to disclose their vote preference were split evenly between those who had a favorable opinion of Biden, those who had a favorable opinion of Trump and those who had either favorable or unfavorable opinions of both men.

Murray has crunched the numbers in his survey, looking at those who refused to answer by measurements such as party registration and race. He found that it was “slightly biased toward Democrats. Meaning, a slight indicator of a ‘shy Biden’ vote, if anything. Rather than a ‘shy Trump’ vote, it seems like it could be more of a ‘shy Biden’ vote.”

Then there are Biden’s image ratings, which compare favorably with Trump’s — and Clinton’s in 2016. According to a RealClearPolitics average, Biden’s net-favorable rating is positive-6 points, meaning his average favorable rating is 6 points higher than his average unfavorable rating.

Trump’s net-favorability? Minus-13 points. In the 2016 exit poll, Clinton’s net-favorable rating was minus-12 points, while Trump’s was minus-22.

Of the six core battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — the FiveThirtyEight polling average is closer now than it was a week ago in four of them, but has only slightly tightened in each of Arizona (0.7 points closer), Florida (1.6 points), North Carolina (0.9 points) and Pennsylvania (1.2 points closer). Biden still leads by at least 2 points in each state.

The polling average in Michigan is unchanged, and Biden’s lead has grown by nearly 2 points in Wisconsin — mostly thanks to an ABC News/Washington Post poll that shows Biden with a much larger lead than other surveys.

That some people overlooked the warning signs in 2016 wasn’t the only problem with the polls. The national polls were mostly accurate, but some state polls routinely understated Trump’s support four years ago. Pollsters say many of those issues have been addressed, and national outlets have commissioned far more expensive, high-quality surveys at the state level than in 2016.

While Trump hasn’t closed enough of the gap coming out of the final debate last week, another comeback Electoral College victory by the Republican president would be the latest black mark for the polling industry. And pollsters know they’re on the hot seat over the next five days and beyond, as the votes are counted.

“One thing you know about polling for elections is there is accountability,” said Miringoff, the Marist pollster.

“There’s always that, ‘Yeah, but 2016’ in the back of everybody’s minds. But I think this is a very different election. Trump is now the incumbent. It’s a referendum on him. He has not been able to make it a choice.”

A Journey into the Heart of America’s Voting Paranoia

LUZERNE COUNTY, Penn.—Shelby Watchilla leaned forward, her amber hair brushing against the plexiglass barrier, lowering her voice so that it was barely audible from behind her blue mask. “Listen, there’s nobody in the world who wants the truth out there more than I do,” she said.

A kind-eyed woman in her mid-40s, Watchilla glanced around nervously. She nodded toward the cameras overhead and the employees glancing in our direction. “The investigation is technically ongoing,” she said, her tone equal parts caution and desperation. “I don’t know why. But I’m not allowed to talk until it’s over.”

Three weeks earlier, Watchilla had been just another obscure civil servant. As the director of elections for Luzerne County, a federation of hill country hamlets in northeastern Pennsylvania, she was one of the thousands of local officials across America responsible for running elections. Watchilla, who had been on the job just under a year, circulated details on rules and regulations and deadlines; registered new voters; collected and counted ballots; and as a general matter did whatever necessary, in a year plagued by confusion and disinformation surrounding elections, to distinguish fact from fiction.

Until she was no longer allowed to.

The trouble began on September 16. Watchilla, who was predictably short on help during the home stretch of election season, had earlier that week brought on a handful of seasonal workers—“election temps,” as they’re called in clerks’ offices—to help with processing incoming mail. One of these temps, Watchilla discovered, had wrongly discarded nine absentee ballots into the trash.

Authorities have disclosed little information about the episode. But based on the few public details made available, as well as my interviews with local county and party officials, the contours of the incident are clear enough. Watchilla, a Republican, immediately launched an internal inquiry on September 16 and alerted her superiors, who contacted the Luzerne District Attorney’s office (who also happens to be a Republican), who in turn contacted the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s unclear whether this last step was necessary; given the long tradition of local election oversight, calling in the feds over nine discarded ballots struck many here as curious. By day’s end, law enforcement had locked down the inconspicuous brick building in downtown Wilkes-Barre, searching every office, closet and garbage can on the premises for evidence.

They found the damage was limited to the nine ballots Watchilla had already discovered, and the explanation seemed obvious. These were not standard absentee ballots; in fact, the absentee ballots that most Pennsylvanians applied for had yet to be mailed out. Instead, these were special military absentee ballots, and whether it was due to their unfamiliar appearance, or because they were not returned in the appropriate envelopes, or some combination of these and other factors, they were mistakenly tossed out. According to numerous sources here, this was the salient (if still unofficial) conclusion of the investigators—it was a mistake. The temp was let go, but no charges have been filed. While cooperating with law enforcement, Watchilla and her employees got back to work. They thought it was behind them.

And then, on the afternoon of September 24, the Department of Justice detonated a bomb over Luzerne County.

Issuing a press release announcing “an inquiry” into Watchilla’s elections bureau, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Middle District of Pennsylvania declared that it had discovered nine discarded military ballots—and that “all nine ballots were cast for presidential candidate Donald Trump.” Watchilla and other county officials were stunned. Until that moment, none of them had known whom the ballots were cast for; not only was this information irrelevant to the investigation, but the disclosure was a violation of the privacy standards elections officials are sworn to uphold.

Nobody here knows exactly how a call about nine discarded ballots that were recovered by the office boss turned into a press release from the Department of Justice; the U.S. Attorney’s Office did not respond to my request for comment. But the sudden escalation of events, and the extraordinary unmasking of voters’ ballot preferences, made for a media feeding frenzy. Local and national news swarmed over the story, the coverage blowing wildly out of proportion the events that occurred—which, in retrospect, seemed to be the point.

“I was a journalist here for many years. I saw a million press releases from the Middle District office, and there was never a single good detail you could pull out of them. Those statements were always so vague that it made you crazy,” said Kathy Bozinski, chair of the Luzerne County Democrats. “So, to see a press release with those very specific details, not to mention all the speculative language, it was a huge red flag. It was pretty obvious what was going on.”

Hours before the DOJ release, Trump raised the incident on Brian Kilmeade’s Fox News radio program, complaining of “eight ballots in an office yesterday … in a certain state and [they] had Trump written on it, and they were thrown in a garbage can.” A short while later, White House press secretary Kayleigh McEnany teased reporters about an imminent blockbuster story coming out of Pennsylvania. Finally, minutes after the DOJ published its statement, Matt Wolking, a spokesman for Trump’s campaign, tweeted, “BREAKING: FBI finds military mail-in ballots discarded in Pennsylvania. 100% of them were cast for President Trump.”

Wolking concluded the tweet: “Democrats are trying to steal the election.”

History will record that in the summer and fall of 2020, at the peak of the most unusual and bitterly contested election in modern times, the president and his team made a sport of plucking minor incidents from local news feeds and distorting them into data points of a grand conspiracy to deny him a second term. History will also record that their efforts have been wildly successful.

While visiting places like Luzerne County that were targeted by the president’s campaign and his administration—as well as dozens of other towns where I spoke with voters about their faith in America’s system of elections—I have been struck by a glaring disconnect. Voters who still believed enough in their own local voting system to cast a ballot had become convinced that the national system was irredeemably corrupt. Despite incredible advances in technology that have afforded voters more security and more transparency than ever before, a rising tide of distrust has swamped an institution that has kept our democracy afloat for a couple of centuries. At the same time, the most manifest reasons to be skeptical of American elections—absurdly long lines, a perpetual lack of funding, nonsensical laws and last-minute rule changes—were pushed to the periphery of the conversation.

That our dialogue around voting has become so wildly disproportional owes primarily to the whims of the president. Trump has spent much of this year railing against absentee balloting, alleging historic fraud, but he has been starved for actual proof of corruption. (He disbanded his own voting fraud commission after it spent $500,000 and uncovered no evidence of any scalable cheating.) The DOJ’s sudden interest in a little-known elections office in America’s most pivotal swing state gave the president a useful new tale of woe to peddle.

In a healthy, informed democracy, we might have a different reaction to the facts that emerged from Luzerne County. Instead of making partisan allegations, we might ask why the people entrusted to count our votes can’t be trusted to count them as they arrive; why an institution that is a bulwark of our democracy is starved for adequate resources. Instead, both Fox News and the Fox affiliate in Wilkes-Barre are getting big ratings showing us B-roll of a dumpster behind the local elections office, intimating that some Tammany Hall-style trickery is going down in a county that Trump carried by nearly 20 points.

Naturally, the people preoccupied with voter fraud are upset that it’s downplayed in the media, that we don’t take it seriously enough. Let’s be clear: Any cases of double voting or dead people casting ballots are newsworthy. But every data point we have suggests that voter fraud does not occur on any sort of scale that is altering election outcomes. At the same time, there is real evidence of other flaws in the system; 550,000 ballots were disqualified during the presidential primaries this year, according to an analysis by National Public Radio. This sort of sweeping disenfranchisement—most often the result of missing signatures or improperly sealed envelopes—should concern anyone who believes that every vote should count. But Trump’s agenda is not to fix our electoral problems; Trump’s agenda is to scare away enough voters to win or sow enough doubt in the minds of those who do vote to preemptively justify a loss.

It’s why he called the chairman of the Iowa GOP, on the night he lost the 2016 caucuses, and urged him to throw out the results. It’s why he felt the need, after winning the presidency but losing the popular vote, to concoct a fantasy about millions of illegal ballots being cast. It’s why, one week before Election Day 2020, he suggested that no ballots should be counted after November 3—and proposed nullification of tens of millions of legitimate votes. It’s why Wolking, a spokesman for Trump’s reelection campaign, felt comfortable weaponizing a temp’s screw-up at a random elections office, attracting hundreds of thousands of eyeballs and sparking countless conspiratorial fires across the internet before finally deleting it nearly a day later.

It’s also why on September 29, five days after the DOJ statement about the Luzerne County investigation, Trump used the first presidential debate to disparage the entire electoral system with a litany of vague claims of malfeasance around the country and suggesting he might not accept the outcome.

“They’re sending millions of ballots all over the country. There’s fraud. They found them in creeks. They found some—just happened to have the name Trump—just the other day in a wastepaper basket. They’re being sent all over the place,” the president warned. “This is going to be a fraud like you’ve never seen.”

When Joe Biden scoffed, insisting there was no substantiation of any of this, Trump shook his head.

“This is not going to end well,” the president warned.

Academics talk fondly of “mediating institutions,” the proverbial glue that holds a nation and its society together. But the plural noun is misleading. There is only one institution that truly possesses the authority to mediate our disputes, to settle our most important scores, to deliver a verdict that is irreversible. That institution is the ballot box. And it is under siege.

Skepticism of the electoral process is as old as the republic itself. From the mass disqualification of ballots in the 1792 New York governor’s race, to the imported voters who swung the Bleeding Kansas election of 1855, to the generations of Black voters whose franchise was stripped away in the Jim Crow south, to the hanging chads in Florida at the turn of the 21st century, America’s electoral history is strewn with episodes that have spoiled public confidence in the integrity of our elections.

Historically, efforts to sow doubts about the validity of the vote started on the ground level and worked up. Citizen groups have spent hundreds of years petitioning the government, with varying degrees of success, to acknowledge and remedy the shortcomings of the system. These movements have gradually, if incompletely, improved an institution that will never be perfect. Americans are rightfully outraged over purges to voting rolls, and justifiably concerned about the possibility of cheating. (They might be heartened to know, though, the number of convictions for voter fraud over the past four years has dropped 73 percent, from 53 cases nationwide in 2016 to 14 cases so far in 2020.) Because of these concerns—not in spite of them—the ballot box today is largely accessible and historically transparent and secure.

And yet, in the year 2020, there is a campaign to delegitimize the ballot box—and it is coming from the top. The chief executive of the United States, the head of state of the world’s most powerful democracy, insists that his country’s election results cannot be trusted. It is part of a pattern: Over the past five years, Trump has methodically loosened the lugnuts on America’s system of voting, using the credibility of the presidency to sow doubt that incidents like the one in Luzerne County are not mishaps but proof of a conspiracy. The precipitous decline in voters’ trust shows that the message is taking hold.

Just 59 percent of Americans say they are confident that votes this year will be accurately cast and counted, according to a recent Gallup poll. That’s an 11-point drop in overall confidence from the 2018 election. Driving this downward trajectory is a 34-point drop among Republicans and Republican-leaning independents over the past two years. Today, just 44 percent of GOP-aligned voters are confident in the legitimacy of the election, “a record low for either party,” Gallup reported.

My conversations with voters throughout this cycle convince me that we’re facing a crisis of confidence from every angle—people frustrated with outdated technology at polling precincts, people furious with naked attempts at voter suppression, people alarmed at confusing court rulings and mass ballot disqualifications. All of this angst is real and worthy of examination. But the most immediate source of anxiety—the subject of the most urgent and impassioned discussions I’ve had with voters, particularly over the past few months—is the question of whether results can be trusted at all.

“If Trump loses, the Supreme Court needs to call a new election. They should investigate all these ballots that have been thrown out and give him four more years on that basis alone. They’re trying to cheat him out of office,” said Frank Kibler, a 51-year-old Trump supporter I met outside the Luzerne County building.

He nodded up in the direction of the second-floor elections bureau. “Don’t tell me they didn’t throw them away on purpose. The ballots were for Trump, and they don’t want Trump getting reelected—it’s as simple as that,” said Kibler, who was on crutches after a motorcycle accident. “There’s obviously someone in that office who doesn’t like him, and they’re trying to stop him. It’s nothing new—same thing that happened with Russia, and the whole Mueller investigation, and then the impeachment thing. This is just the latest way to try and cheat him out of the job.”

A minute later, 37-year-old James Moore stopped and fixed his gaze on the backside of the building. “That’s the dumpster right there,” he said, pointing to the hulking bin of green metal. “That’s where they were throwing all the ballots. Everyone was talking about it.”

Over the course of three days spent in Luzerne County, I had any number of conversations that followed a similar rhythm. Supporters of the president were outraged. They were appalled. They were paranoid. They could not, in most cases, bring themselves to believe that what happened in their own backyard was not a sinister plot to overthrow the president.

The scary part? These sentiments were not limited to your everyday, low-information voter.

“I’m sorry, but it was no accident. It was on purpose. We all know that,” Lynn Bartz, the district chair of the local GOP, told me outside the Luzerne Republican Party headquarters. “It’s the way they’ve been playing this game, the way they’ve been trying to set up Trump since day one. Whether it was Russia, or the impeachment, or now Covid, it keeps on coming. And now they’re trying to beat him any way they can.”

I asked Bartz, who is 65 years old and outwardly warm and pleasant as could be, whether she believed there was any scenario under which Biden could win the presidency fair and square.

She shook her head. “No. I don’t think there’s any possibility that President Trump can lose fairly,” she said. “If he loses, it’s because he was cheated. I’m sorry. That’s just what I believe.”

Bartz was quick to clarify something: Up until now, she had trusted our system of elections.

“Obama won fair and square, but that election was held under the old rules,” she explained. “This new way of voting, all these mail ballots, I don’t trust it. You don’t know where they are coming from and who’s filling them out.”

This has been the breaking point in most of my conversations with voters: mail balloting. Because of rule changes in numerous states—some of which predated the pandemic, and others that were adopted because of it—an unprecedented number of absentee ballots have been requested in 2020. An estimated 80 million mail ballots have been requested this year, compared to 33 million cast in 2016. This onset of mass voting by mail has provided a perfect straw man for Trump, who intuitively knows that because the system is relatively new to much of the country, it is ripe for fearmongering and disinformation. The irony is that Trump himself has for years voted absentee by mail claiming residency in Florida.

Before I could bring that up, Bartz wanted to make another thing clear.

“Now, I voted absentee in the primary here,” she said. “The problem is, who else is doing it?”

Reynaldo “Rey” Valenzuela tried to calm himself, but to no avail. The man gets excited talking about elections. He gets especially excited talking about mail voting. And if you challenge the integrity of his system, one of the largest and most sophisticated in the country, well, Valenzuela is going to explain a few things.

“It didn’t used to be like this,” said Valenzuela, a heavyset man in his fifties, slapping his palm against a conference table. “We’re a red state, and mail voting was always a bipartisan issue.”

Valenzuela is elections director for Maricopa County, home to two-thirds of Arizona’s population. He came to the county recorder’s office 30 years ago as a college intern, assigned to sort mail and stack boxes in the warehouse. He never left. For the past three decades, Valenzuela, a nonpartisan public servant, has helped Maricopa County construct what is widely regarded as one of the premier vote-by-mail programs in the country.

When he started, Maricopa County “used a typewriter to print about 1,000 absentee ballots for each election,” Valenzuela laughed, “and we mailed them out one at a time.” Costly and inefficient as this was, the county was getting by. But the challenges of administering elections in Arizona’s sprawling and scarcely populated outer counties were daunting. As lawmakers weighed their options, a push for “no-excuse-absentee voting”—which allows anyone to request a mail ballot—was gaining momentum in other states. With a decisiveness that feels alien today, a large bipartisan majority of Arizona’s legislature voted in 1991 to adopt no-excuse-absentee voting. (In 1997, lawmakers swapped the term “early” for “absentee,” clearing up the misconception that absentee voting was only for old folks and Americans living abroad.)

There were growing pains. Maricopa County went from printing 1,000 absentee ballots in one election cycle to 10,000 the next. The typewriter couldn’t keep up. For the next few years, as the number of absentee requests in America’s fourth-most-populous county kept ballooning, officials tinkered with various technologies to scale up their operation. After a couple of elections, Maricopa had worked out the kinks and was running a massive vote-distribution machine. The only problem? “Everyone had to re-request a ballot, in every single election,” Valenzuela moans. “Every primary we would get a request, and then we’d get a request from the same person for the general election. It was nonsensical. We were getting 500,000 repeated requests, and those requests were costing us enormous resources, human capital, to handle it.”

In 2007, the Arizona legislature—again with broad bipartisan support—voted to create the Permanent Early Voting List. This made sense on every level. Hundreds of thousands of dollars that was spent on postage was now being saved. Citizens no longer needed to jump through the same hoop twice in every election cycle. And elections officials, rather than spending their days “acting like Lucille Ball on the assembly line,” as Valenzuela joked, could devote their time and resources to securing the system on the back end.

This is the great irony: Election integrity costs money. States that limit mail voting are spending most of their budgets on logistics and personnel and inefficient repeat expenditures, whereas states that embrace mail voting have freed up countless millions of dollars to invest in cutting-edge security programs that safeguard the ballot box. This explains why Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey, a Republican, gently rebuked Trump this summer after the president disparaged mail voting during a visit to the state. “In Arizona, we’re going to do it right,” Ducey told Trump. “It will be free and fair. It will be difficult if not impossible to cheat—and it will be easy to vote.”

Ducey’s confidence is a direct reflection of the system Valenzuela and his colleagues around the state have perfected. It’s the closest thing to foolproof you can find in the world of modern elections. Valenzuela said there’s only been one documented instance of sophisticated voter fraud in his 30 years—a couple who falsified ballots—and they were caught without breaking a sweat. (Maricopa County saw 11 convicted cases of double voting in the 2016 election.)

Here’s how it works. Every person who applies to vote is vetted—their records checked against the Motor Vehicle Department, Immigration and Naturalization Service, the Social Security Administration and Office of Vital Records—before they are confirmed and registered to vote. At that point, if the voter wants to join the permanent list, as almost all applicants do, he or she is placed in a voter database that is continually syncing with the databases of those agencies and others. Any activity in any of those linked databases places an immediate hold on the voter file; if someone changes their address, for instance, or is convicted of a felony, their file is frozen. When a death is reported, the file is terminated.

The most commonly voiced concern with mail voting is that some ballots end up in the wrong location, either because the postal service made a mistake or because the intended recipient moved elsewhere. Valenzuela has a ready answer for every possible scenario. If someone moves, he said, “99.999 percent of the time they file a change of address with the post office, and that flags our system.” If someone doesn’t file that change of address, or if they do but the ballot winds up elsewhere by mistake, there’s nothing a stranger can do with it anyway.

“Signature verification is the heartbeat of the security process,” Valenzuela explained. He walked me over to his computer and demonstrated the forensic software technology they use to match signatures on the ballot return envelope with the voter’s signature on file. If it doesn’t match, he said it’s flagged with a “Q” (“Questionable”) and moves to a new phase of verification. Attempts are made to contact the voter—by mail, phone call, even a home visit—to confirm their identity and signature. If those repeated attempts are unsuccessful, the ballot is disqualified.

How often does this happen? In 2016, there were 1.2 million mail ballots cast in Maricopa County, and a total of 20,000 envelope signatures were flagged for further verification. Of the 20,000 that were flagged, 307 were disqualified due to failed attempts to confirm identity. This means 0.025 percent of mail ballots that year were disallowed, leaving little doubt the balance of them were legitimately cast and counted.

But that’s not good enough for everyone. Not in this political environment.

The same day I visited the Maricopa County recorder’s office, I attended a rally in nearby Peoria, Arizona, headlined by Vice President Mike Pence. The vice president does not typically engage the notion of mass voter fraud in his stump speech; he leaves that to the top of the ticket. Still, because the discussion with Valenzuela was fresh on my mind, I had planned to ask voters about their experience with Arizona’s mail-voting program.

But I didn’t have to. When asking the folks I met to identify their priorities and concerns in this election, several of them raised the issue of mail voting unsolicited. One such voter was Lynn Roberson, a retired law clerk who lives in north Phoenix. A staunch conservative and active supporter of the president, Roberson moved to Arizona from California during the Obama presidency because she couldn’t tolerate the liberalism of the Golden State. The one thing she did like: California’s mail-voting system. “It was easy to vote absentee, and I took advantage of that,” Roberson said.

She continued this practice—voting by mail, although she called it “absentee,” which is a distinction without any real difference—upon arriving in Arizona. It was quick and convenient, just like in California. Roberson didn’t think much of it. And then came 2020. The pandemic. The massive expansion of mail voting. The president’s allegations of widespread voter fraud committed through the post office. Now, Roberson is telling everyone she meets—the people at her church, the neighbors whose doors she knocks for the Trump campaign—to go to the polls in person.

“The problem is, they’re sending out ballots to everyone. And I don’t trust that. I don’t trust the postal service anymore—this stuff I heard on the radio this morning, I couldn’t believe it,” Roberson said. “It was Sean Hannity, he was on AM radio 550, talking about how they found all these ballots in the trash and in the river. It’s just horrible. We can’t even trust the postal service anymore.”

If Roberson is at one end of the cynic’s spectrum—a former believer in mail voting who now denounces it—then Daniella Martinez occupies the other pole.

I met Martinez that same week, on the first day of early in-person voting at a Phoenix precinct. A 29-year-old grocery store manager, Martinez was casting a ballot for the first time in her life. After she explained her animus for Trump—detailing his lies and fearmongering—I asked why she wasn’t taking advantage of Arizona’s mail-voting program. She cocked her head sideways.

“That would defeat the purpose,” she said. I asked her to elaborate.

“Most of my friends and family, they don’t vote because they don’t think their vote would get counted in the first place. It’s definitely not getting counted if you take it to the post office,” Martinez smirked. “I keep hearing Biden and these people say, ‘Mail in your ballot, mail in your ballot.’ But it’s like, I don’t even trust the bank with mobile deposits. Why would I trust the post office with my vote?”

If Valenzuela can’t convince you that the system is secure, Jeff Ellington will.

Ellington, a Midwestern transplant and product of Purdue University, is the president and COO of Runbeck Election Services. Located just down the road from Valenzuela’s office in Phoenix, Runbeck is America’s largest publisher of election materials. The company has printed more than 200 million ballots since Ellington joined the company in 2011—and more than 75 million ballots this year alone.

Stepping inside the Runbeck warehouse is something akin to looking under the hood of a spaceship. The intricacy of the equipment and the technology is almost too much to comprehend. The deafening roar of machinery—tens of millions of dollars’ worth—is the sound of democracy having its wheels greased.

When Runbeck agreed to let me visit the headquarters, I wasn’t sure how much access they would grant. The company takes security seriously, and for good reason: Runbeck has in its care the constitutional right of tens of millions of Americans. The premises are heavily protected, around the clock, by a combination of cameras, armed guards and prison-style fencing. Employees are subjected to strict background checks. The semi-trucks that deliver the finished product—12 of them departed the day of my visit, each carrying 220,000 ballots—are weighed to the ounce, locked with a security seal and affixed with GPS tracking devices.

None of that kept Ellington from walking me straight down to the floor of the warehouse. For the next 90 minutes, he gave a primer on election security that few voters will ever see, answering no fewer than three dozen questions I posed about the integrity of the mail-voting process. What made the answers so persuasive was that Ellington wasn’t just telling me; he was showing me.

Ballot paper, for instance, has a very specific texture, weight and thickness. He handed it to me. Tabulation machines, Ellington explained, require a very specific stock and automatically reject any paper that does not conform. The same goes for dimension. Ellington picked up a small stack of test ballots that were the exact right texture, weight and thickness—but missed the dimensional mark by fractions of an inch. They were rejected. His point: Producing counterfeit ballots isn’t like producing counterfeit money, because any cashier can accept a fake $20 bill. The only way to process ballots is with a tabulation machine—which are formatted to accept exactly one form of paper.

The same concept applies, in reverse, with the production of the ballots. Ellington described how the company manufactures hundreds of thousands of variations of ballots—depending on state, county, congressional district, state Senate district, state legislative district, city or township, school district, not to mention language. I wanted to know how they kept them all straight. Surely, I told him, there had to be occasional mix-ups. Ellington shook his head and walked me over to the nucleus of the operation: Runbeck’s inserter machines.

Think of these machines as 30-foot-long robotic assembly lines. (These are well-paid robots; each machine costs $500,000.) The machine, he explained, takes its orders from a computer file. That file instructs the machine on precisely which ballot type to assemble. Because each ballot type has a designated barcode, the machine reads not only what materials to include in the ballot packet—instructions, literature, the ballot itself, and critically, a return envelope—but also the exact weight, thickness and dimensions of the finished packet. Lifting up the lid of the machine, Ellington showed me the leveling lasers that measure the outgoing product. “If there’s an extra ‘I voted’ sticker in one of these packets, the machine detects it and shuts down,” he said. Ellington pointed to a couple of discarded packets in a bin. “Literally.”

But what about those packets? Does that mean someone isn’t getting their ballot? Or does it mean there are now duplicates? Could someone get multiple ballots and vote twice?

Ellington pulled up the machine’s computer screen. Because each voting jurisdiction is ordering a specific number of ballot packets for a specific number of voters, and paying Runbeck to assemble and mail them, it’s pretty easy to track production. Let’s say a county in Utah orders 3,001 ballots of a specific type for one of its townships. The machine sets up for a “run” of 3,001 packets. As each of those 3,0001 ballots enter the inserter, its barcode is read by cameras and the machine pulls down from the database all the materials needed for that voter’s packet. After it’s assembled, a second barcode—a barcode for every individual voter, printed on the return envelope being stuffed inside their packet—is scanned by the cameras and checked against the database. This is done to confirm that the address matches the ballot. If the individual voter barcode matches the ballot type barcode, the packet is complete and ready to be shipped.

Sometimes there’s a misfire. If an address doesn’t match a ballot type, the machine shuts down. If a barcode is read and does not belong to the programmed run, the machine shuts down. If an assembled packet is too thick, or too heavy, the machine shuts down. This doesn’t happen much—and when it does, it’s easy to pinpoint what went wrong. This is the genius of the individual voter barcode: If a person’s ballot packet is discarded for any reason, that barcode is flagged as bad, voided from the system, and a new individual voter barcode is created. This way there can be no fear of duplicates. It also prevents against any ballots being left behind. If there is a single one missing—if the inserter spits out 3,000 packets instead of 3,0001—the entire run is flagged as incomplete. The run cannot clear the system until 3,001 identical ballot packets are placed inside 3,001 mailing envelopes with 3,001 unique return envelopes tucked inside.

If signature verification is the heartbeat of Rey Valenzuela’s verification process, then barcodes are the key to Ellington’s security system. The answer to almost every question I asked was answered by the rectangle of black stripes printed on every ballot and each return envelope. Not only does the individualized nature of the ballot types and return envelopes make double voting impossible; it makes tracking ballots effortless for both the voter and the election administrator. (Almost every jurisdiction now enables voters to track their mail ballots, from the time they’re dropped at the post office to the moment they’re received by election officials.) Meanwhile, if something goes wrong with a specific ballot type—an ink smear, perhaps, or a misspelled name—the jurisdiction knows exactly who got them, how many have been returned, how many are outstanding, and which ballot barcodes should be invalidated from the system while replacements are being ordered.

“That’s the awesome thing about mail voting. When mistakes happen with the ballot, you can get them fixed really fast, and it doesn’t create huge problems like it would on Election Day,” Ellington said. “Like, just this week, 2,100 voters in L.A. County got bad ballots. The county forgot to list the presidential race on one of their 239,000 ballot styles, and it affected about 2,100 ballots. As soon as they realized the error, those ballots were invalidated, and new ones were shipped. The people affected already got the new ballots.”

I asked Ellington about the president putting mail voting in the crosshairs. He arched an eyebrow.

“I’m not a partisan. I work with elected and appointed officials all over the country, Republican and Democrat, and all they want to do is run good elections,” he said. “Historically, people love mail voting. People in red states like Utah. People in blue states like California. It’s never been a partisan thing. Nobody cared until this year.”

He allowed a chuckle that sounded more like a groan. “Maybe after we get through this election cycle, after we get some normalcy back in our lives, it won’t be such an issue anymore.”

It was a biting cold October afternoon in Appleton, Wisconsin, when Dave Nelton walked into the headquarters of the Outagamie County Democratic Party.

I was discussing the state of the race in Wisconsin with Benjamin Wells, a local campaign strategist, when Nelton came in hoping to buy a yard sign. As the three of us made some small talk, I could tell that Nelton wasn’t a fierce partisan. I asked him why he’d come to get the Biden décor.

“I’m worried,” he replied.

A retired businessman, Nelton, 69, has lived in Appleton for 30 years. He raised a family, built a community and lived in peace. But now, he said, it felt like things were coming unglued. There was a “layered system” of justice and economics that was perpetuating a stark class divide. There was a “sudden lack of confidence” in the institutions he’d spent his life leaning on. There was a sense of “exhaustion, total exhaustion” with the political climate of 2020.

And yet, Nelton wanted a yard sign. Because the thing that really worried him—the concern that tied his other concerns together—was the deliberate undermining of American elections.

“Look, voter fraud is a legitimate concern, I think, but it’s been exploited by Trump for these obvious political purposes. And the fact is, there’s very little evidence of it occurring the way he says it does,” Nelton said. “We don’t have any examples of systemic voter fraud. But you know what we do have examples of? Systemic voter suppression. It’s everywhere. It’s gotten worse. You want to talk about lack of confidence in the system? Look no further.”

Wells, the local operative, jumped in. He described the “constantly shifting goalposts” over the past year with endless changes and challenges to voting laws, followed by court rulings, followed by appeals, all of which serve to confuse and sometimes disenfranchise people.

“That’s the problem I see, as far as people not having confidence in the system, and it’s gotten really bad over the past six months,” Wells said.

Dave threw up his arms. “And then you’ve got all these issues with the postal service!” he exclaimed. “As if the real issues aren’t bad enough, with the delays and whatnot, you’ve got people making up stories about postmen throwing ballots in creeks!”

We all had a good laugh over that. But it was gallows humor. The president’s insistence that mail ballots had been dumped into a creek, or a river, or a riverbed—his wording has changed several times—has no apparent basis in truth. Despite breathless Fox News reports and social media postings perpetuating the initial claim by a local sheriff that ballots were found in late September among three trays of mail found just off State Road 96, near Greenville, an investigation by the Wisconsin Elections Commission found none of the state’s ballots were among that mail.

By this time, the county party chairman, Matt Lederer, had joined us. He had his own thoughts on the scandal that wasn’t.

“The problem is, the news is moving so fast, and there’s so much stuff out there, that unless you’re in tune with every new thing, every single day, you’re working with bad information,” Lederer said. “Everyone was already on edge because of this election, and then you add in this thing that never happened.”

Lederer, 43, a mild-mannered stay-at-home dad, thought his biggest challenge this cycle would be handling the flood of questions about mail ballot guidelines and post office procedures. If only.

“Think about it: How many people who saw the first story about ballots being found in a ditch outside Appleton, Wisconsin, saw the follow-up story that there were actually no ballots found at all?” he asked. “Probably a very small minority of the first group, by comparison. The first one went nationwide, and I’m pretty sure the correction to the first one didn’t reach anyone outside the Fox Valley.”

Nelton, for his part, was a bit nervous about voting by mail. But he had just come from dropping off his ballot—and raved about the experience.

“I had already filled out the ballot, and it happened to be in the car as I drove past city hall just now, so we pulled in,” he said. “And I have to tell you, it was absolutely slick. They had three or four ballot boxes set up. Didn’t even have to get out of the car. I dropped it in and drove away. I don’t know why we don’t do this every election. It was really slick. Really, really smooth.”

Of course, not everything has been smooth with Outagamie County lately. As if the ballots-in-the-ditch buzz wasn’t enough, local elections officials were hit with more trouble just before I got to town. The cause? While testing some sample mail ballots in their tabulation machines, they discovered an ink blemish that caused them to be rejected. When officials traced the production run to the local printer, they concluded that thousands of ballots had been affected by the error. Now they were scrambling to get a ruling from the courts on what to do. The options: election workers could fill in the blemish with a black marker, an easy way to meet the tabulation machine’s requirement without tainting the integrity of the ballot; or they could transfer the selections from the rejected ballots onto new, acceptable ballots, a move that would consume more time and introduce far more risk of error.

Whatever the eventual verdict—the Wisconsin Supreme Court punted the case Thursday, likely forcing Outagamie County to transfer the ballot selections—the episode captures the best and the worst of our voting system. On the one hand, it’s unfortunate that a mistake is further eroding voters’ confidence in the election. On the other hand, the fact that the mistake was caught, that the damage was limited, that a fix is being made, is proof that the system is working.

“This process utilizes human labor and mechanical equipment, both of which may have minor mistakes in it,” said Lori O’Bright, the Outagamie County clerk. When we spoke, a few days after the misprint was announced, she sounded depleted of good cheer. I could understand why. Although she tried to project confidence, local officials in both parties told me they’d been flooded with calls about the misprint issue. After all the negative attention associated with the phony post office story, the last thing Outagamie County needed was a @realdonaldtrump tweet about more bad ballots in northern Wisconsin. (The president has not yet tweeted about the ink stain; local officials are holding their breath.)

I asked O’Bright, a Republican, whether she worries about what the public believes—and where they get their information. “We are the reliable source,” she said. “People rely on us to get press releases out to the public and to be transparent, and that’s what we’ve done here. And the state government is doing that as well. They’re making sure to tell the public they need to look at reliable sources for information, not”—she took a long pause—“not their social media.”

In the effort to battle disinformation and keep the public calm, O’Bright got an important vote of confidence from Matthew Albert, the chairman of the Outagamie County Republican Party. When I visited the GOP headquarters, Albert, like his counterparts at the Democratic Party, was waiting for clarity on the misprint issue. But he didn’t betray any real concern about it. “I’m very confident in the clerks here. They have been on top of things,” he said. “Obviously we’re going to have poll watchers, like both parties always do, but we feel good about the process and the clerks here.”

I asked Albert about the source of his confidence—and how he feels about the voting system more broadly.

“When people ask me, what’s the surest way for them to make certain that their ballot is counted, I tell them to take it to the clerk’s office—either go drop it off early or vote in-person. Because once it’s there, it’s safe. There’s very little risk of anything happening to a ballot once it’s inside that clerk’s office,” Albert said, motioning toward a list of ballot drop-off locations that he keeps handy.”

“The other thing I try to tell people,” he continued, “is that clerks don’t run these elections. Republicans and Democrats do, in numbers that are about even. Clerks provide all the logistical support and make sure everything’s running on time. But Republicans and Democrats, they’re the ones counting, they’re the ones supervising, they’re the ones making sure it’s done right.”

When we got to talking about the deeper issue of institutional confidence, Albert, a 33-year-old whiz kid who ran the state party’s field operation in 2016, argued that Trump’s broadsides—however exaggerated—are making the system stronger. Kind of like the way a virus spurs the body’s immune system.

“What the president has been saying about election integrity, that’s something a lot of people have been worried about for a long time. And now there’s a spotlight on it like never before,” Albert said. “Even if you believe Democrats are busing people in from Chicago—which may or may not have happened in the past—even if you believe there’s ballot tampering or ballot harvesting going on, I don’t think there’s any way people are getting away with that right now. The Trump campaign is on it like white on rice. They’re watching everything. … And by the way, so are the Democrats.”

The other thing everyone is watching: how quickly the mail ballots can be tallied. In Wisconsin, as well as Michigan and Pennsylvania, clerks are not allowed to count any votes until Election Day. Given the historic number of mail ballots piling up, these critical swing states face an unprecedented backlog of votes. Because these ballots will take much longer to count than the ones cast in-person on Election Day—and because Democrats are voting by mail at double or triple the rate of Republicans—there is a live possibility that Trump will race out to a large lead on November 3, only to watch it dwindle over the ensuing 72 hours. This is what’s keeping many county clerks up at night: If Trump comes out and declares victory with only a fraction of the results in, only for their prolonged count to bring Biden into the lead after three or four days, how does the president react? How does right-wing media react? How do Trump voters react?

“People’s lives are the most important thing to me,” O’Bright said. “I don’t say that tritely, but some people, they sometimes take things to violence. That would be my nightmare. I don’t want to see anyone getting hurt due to an election.”

Albert smirked when I brought it up. “We’re preparing people for a shift in votes to the left, with those mail ballots being counted after Election Day,” he said. “The thing that’s going to make people nervous is if they see, in tandem, that large shift in votes, which we expect, with a bunch of election problems. If those things happen together, you might see a lot of people questioning things.”

He added, “But this idea that Republicans are going to take to the streets and do what the left has been doing for months—I don’t see us doing that.”

The man who brought me to Albert’s office was Ramon Fernando. In addition to driving for Uber and Lyft, Fernando works as a delivery man for WalMart. He told me the pandemic has made 2020 difficult, but that the highlight of his year will be casting his first-ever vote in an American election. After being in the U.S. for two decades, Fernando, an immigrant from Central America, earned his citizenship last year.

I asked him whether he trusted the election to be conducted honestly. He was silent for an uncomfortably long period. Then, at a red light, he turned around.

“People in America have no idea how lucky they are,” he said. “When you have lived in third-world countries, where there is nothing but cheating and corruption, then you appreciate how America is a place where things are fair. Do I trust it here? Yes. Absolutely.”

A few weeks earlier, in Arizona, I had spoken with another proud immigrant—one who expressed a similar sentiment yet held a diverging view of certain American institutions.

When I met Dragan Razmilovic, a 73-year-old lab technician, outside the Pence rally in Peoria, he had just celebrated a milestone. “Last week was my 50th anniversary of coming to this great land,” Razmilovic beamed. “I was 23 years old and just finished with my years of mandatory military service in Yugoslavia. I had to get the hell out of there as quickly as I could; all I’d ever wanted was to emigrate to the United States. People who were born here, they will never understand how marvelous this country is.”

Compared to the oppression and unceasing conflict that has defined much of eastern Europe, Razmilovic said, the American tradition of representative government and peaceful, egalitarian rule by popular consent is a utopia. There is just one thing he doesn’t trust: the ballot box.

“After 50 years, the one thing I know is crooked in this country is the elections. I know because I have seen it firsthand,” Razmilovic said. “I became a citizen at 28; my first election was in Chicago. I went up to a precinct captain and said, ‘How do I vote?’ And the guy took me over, filled out the ballot and stuck it into the machine. He said, ‘That’s how.’ And I said, ‘OK, now where is my ballot?’ And he said, ‘You just casted it. Congratulations.’”

Razmilovic, a tall man, his face covered in salt-and-pepper stubble, furrowed his brow in exaggerated confusion. “That was my first time voting in this country. And I believe the same sort of cheating happens every election, everywhere, depending on which party controls the area,” he said. “This is not about Democrats or Republicans; I hate all the politicians. But I do believe each side is always trying to cheat.”

When Trump first launched his candidacy five years ago, Razmilovic had no appetite for it. He has liberal domestic priorities—“health care for everyone, education for everyone, pensions for everyone”—and did not like Trump’s “brash” demeanor. But he became a supporter, first casually and then emotionally, largely because of the president’s hardline stance against illegal immigration. (“People sneak in, refused to learn the language, we pay for their school and health care and food stamps, and they call me a bigot for being mad about it?” he fumed.) On this day, Razmilovic was decked out in American flag shorts, a MAGA hat and a t-shirt that showed a map of Trump’s national vote share versus Clinton’s in 2016. The caption read: “Can you hear us now?”

I asked Razmilovic whether he thought Biden could defeat Trump in a fair election.

“Not a chance,” he shook his head.

His response reminded me of so many conversations I’d had with voters over the past year, particularly since Covid-19 swept the nation and triggered a historic rush toward mail voting.

It reminded me of Deborah Fuqua-Frey, a retired GM worker who lives in Willis, Michigan, and claimed to have witnessed her old comrades at the United Auto Workers union “stuff the ballot box” on Election Days past.

It reminded me of Hunter Kaufmann, a 21-year-old Navy enlistee and self-described “queer socialist” who told me at a Columbus, Ohio, watering hole that he felt 100 percent certain Trump “would cheat to win another term.”

Most of all, it reminded me of Lynn Bartz, the district Republican chair in Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, who insisted the only way Trump could lose reelection was if the system was rigged against him.

The morning after talking with Bartz, I met her superior, Luzerne County GOP chairman Justin Behrens, for coffee at a local bookstore.

When I relayed to Behrens what Bartz professed to believe—not just about a corrupt election broadly, but about those nine ballots in Luzerne County being intentionally thrown away as part of a scheme to beat Trump—he leaned back in his chair and winced. Behrens, a military veteran and social worker who runs two large homeless shelters in the area, was never much of a MAGA enthusiast. He has supported the president’s policies but gets visibly uncomfortable when pressed to explain Trump’s behavior and rhetoric.

“Look, I have a lot of concerns with Luzerne County’s election bureau,” he said, measuring his words. “What happened was human error, and Shelby caught it. I don’t blame the county for this, by the way. I blame the state for throwing all this at them. We expect all these counties to run a presidential election under new rules, and the fact is they’re unequipped, undermanned, totally unprepared for this. And that’s not OK. Like, we could have done this on an off-year election to make sure that we got all our ducks in a row before a presidential election.”

I asked Behrens about the realities imposed by Covid-19 and whether he sympathized with people wanting to vote by mail.

“Not unless they’re sick or compromised, no. I really don’t,” he said. “If you can shop for groceries or go to dinner, you can vote in person. The mail balloting is why we’re in this mess. Do I think anything malicious happened in Luzerne County? Not at all. But the mail ballots are confusing everyone. They caught nine this time. But who’s to say there aren’t a thousand, or ten thousand thrown away by mistake somewhere else?”

He continued, “All I want is to make sure there’s a process for everyone’s vote to be counted. That’s a sacred responsibility. And that’s why both parties have poll watchers. The majority of the stuff that goes wrong is going to be human error, which can be prevented with poll watchers, because their job is to make sure all the rules and processes are followed. Their job isn’t to make trouble or level accusations. I tell our poll watchers, you better not interrupt the people counting—no yelling, no screaming, no stopping the process. You report it, and we go from there. We have a system set up to challenge things.”

All of this sounded reasonable enough. And yet, as our conversation went on, and I pressed Behrens for answers on specific questions about specific statements from the president and specific scenarios that could play out in November, his answers took on a darker and more conspiratorial tint.

He used the word “manipulation” no fewer than a dozen times. He said he agreed with Trump that millions of ballots had been cast illegally in 2016. He told me that he watched buses full of people from New York pull into West Hazleton, Pennsylvania, on Election Day that year, pouring into a polling station and casting votes they should not have been able to cast. When I asked, incredulously, for further details on this story, Behrens said he would put me in touch with the town’s former mayor, Frank Schmidt, who could corroborate all the details. “He was standing there right next to me,” he said.

Behrens did not respond to numerous follow-up messages asking for Schmidt’s contact information. When I reached the former mayor by phone at his home, he told me he never saw any buses in West Hazleton in 2016. He did say, however, that “maybe eight or ten” people from New York tried to vote in his precinct. “But we turned them all away,” Schmidt told me. “We have safeguards in place for that kind of thing, you know.”

As our conversation wound down at the bookstore in Luzerne County, I shared with Behrens my confusion at his contradictory sentiments—emphasizing human error and legitimate oversight in one breath, then floating mass manipulation and wild conspiracy theories in the next.

Behrens shrugged his shoulders. “There is great doubt in this country right now,” he said.

Trump and Biden teams prep for once-outlandish election standoffs

The 2020 election has come to this.

Lawyers for Donald Trump and Joe Biden are poring over arcane federal law to prepare for the possibility that a close or contested election might trigger two little-understood and barely tested scenarios.

First, there’s the chance that officials within a closely contested state might send two different results to Congress, one giving Trump the win, the other giving Biden the win. It’s a scenario that almost happened in Florida in 2000, and one that would leave the country without an obvious path to determine who won the state — and possibly the country.

Second, there’s the chance that the House of Representatives has to step in if no candidate clears the 270 electoral-vote threshold needed to win the presidency. While more clear-cut legally, this situation would still create a confusing moment in which each state delegation gets to cast just one vote for president. So even though Democrats control the House, they wouldn’t necessarily have the advantage, angering swaths of the country.

The possibilities are remote, but under a norm-busting administration, in a norm-busting year, with a hyperbolically divided public, the two parties are not taking any chances. Republicans and Democrats have already placed thousands of lawyers across the country to study the law in battleground states and prepare for these potential fights.

Democrats are worried Trump — who has already repeatedly refused to commit to conceding defeat — will cast suspicion on swing-state vote counts or even pressure state lawmakers to certify his desired results if there is a drawn-out counting process.

“We need to prepare for everything. Absolutely. We have invested too much time, money, energy,” said former Virginia Gov. Terry McAuliffe, who served as chairman of the Democratic National Committee. “Let me be clear. There is no low that Donald Trump will not go to, so we have to be prepared for that. … We don’t know what this guy is going to do.”

While the Republican National Committee said it is more focused on its $20 million effort to legally challenge pandemic-era voting rule changes, Trump’s team has discussed the possibilities that Congress might step in to determine the election, or that a state tries to certify two conflicting results, according to three people familiar with the conversations.

“Having been in a close election before, you have to have the lawyers lined up,” said Pat McCrory, the former Republican governor of North Carolina, who lost his 2016 reelection bid by 10,000 votes out of more than 4.6 million ballots cast. “Everybody should prepare for everything. They have no choice but to do that.”

Trump has predicted the Supreme Court could end up determining the winner and even publicly mused about a deadlocked Electoral College making its way to Congress. In turn, Speaker Nancy Pelosi has even asked Democrats to consider a possible House fight for the presidency as they determine where to spend election money.

While most polls show Trump lagging behind Biden in the swing states he needs to secure a second term in office, some key states, including Pennsylvania and North Carolina, remain extremely tight.

“In a close election, especially this close presidential election, whatever side is down is going to try everything they possibly can,” said Benjamin Ginsberg, a nationally recognized elections lawyer who represented four of the past six Republican presidential nominees and has blasted Trump’s rhetoric on voting.

While the country has become accustomed to declaring a winner on the evening of Election Day, close races can linger for days or even weeks as states finalize vote tallies — rounding up overseas ballots, for instance — or conduct recounts.

In 2020, the chances of a delayed result have gone up because of the pandemic. A record number of voters — more than half — are expected to cast their ballot by mail as Americans avoid the polls, possibly lengthening vote-counting time frames in battleground states where the margins are expected to be razor thin.

Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — which Trump narrowly won in 2016 after years of Democratic presidential victories — could be the slowest to determine a winner because election officials are not allowed to start processing remote ballots days or weeks early like other states.

“We are well prepared for any scenario,” said Biden spokesman Michael Gwin.

Republicans argue it’s Biden’s team that will never concede. “Here’s a possible outcome we should be concerned about: Joe Biden doesn’t accept the results when President Trump wins reelection, following Hillary Clinton’s call for Biden not to concede ‘under any circumstances,” said Trump campaign spokesperson Thea McDonald.

But some worry that Republicans haven’t prepared enough. Tom Fitton, president of Judicial Watch, a conservative group that has filed lawsuits over the accuracy of voting rolls in some states, said he’s frustrated the Republicans haven’t taken the possibility of a House fight seriously enough.

“Nothing is off the table,” he said.

Election observers worry the mutual suspicion could quickly turn ugly in the election’s aftermath if there is any question about the results. In June, the Transition Integrity Project, a bipartisan group of 100 experts, including former federal employees, pollsters and strategists, simulated what could happen the day after Election Day if Trump contested the results. They took into consideration the potential lawsuits and recounts that would result, according to a person familiar with the exercise.

“Virtually all ended with street-level violence and a constitutional crisis,” the person said.

All states are under a set timeframe to sort through all the anticipated 2020 mail-in ballots.

By Dec. 8, each state must certify its results to Congress, giving each only five weeks to navigate any disputes and recounts. In the contested 2000 election, Florida was still conducting a recount just days before that year’s Dec. 12 deadline when the Supreme Court stepped in to stop the process. And this past summer, it took longer than five weeks to count all ballots in a Democratic primary for a U.S. House seat in New York.

For the fall election, several states have extended deadlines to receive ballots due to fears the beleaguered U.S. Postal Service won’t be able to deliver millions of extra ballots on time. As a result, it could take longer than usual to tally some results. One candidate could declare victory in a state on election night, while another claims victory after more mail-in ballots have been counted.

Concerned about these possible delays, Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.), proposed a bill that would move the Dec. 8 deadline back to Jan. 1. It has not gone anywhere.

Traditionally, each state’s electoral votes go to whoever wins the popular vote in that state, but the process to get there is not always simple. Once the popular vote winner is determined in a state, the state appoints electors from the prevailing party to the Electoral College.

But if a state reaches the deadline without a winner, it becomes unclear which electors should be appointed. And it’s possible that in such a scenario, a state’s legislature may appoint electors to certify the result they want. But that wouldn’t necessarily stop a governor or secretary of state from appointing a separate set of electors to certify a different result.

“This would be incredibly unlikely,” said RNC Chief Legal Counsel Justin Riemer. “We believe a recount or election contest would dispose of those issues.”

Yet in 2000, just days before the Supreme Court essentially ended the race between George W. Bush and Al Gore, the Florida legislature was poised to send Republican electors to certify the election, regardless of the result of an ongoing recount. Part of their reasoning? The looming deadline to give results to Congress.

“The legislatures’ efforts to intervene in this rather radical way gets more and more plausible if the count is taking longer and longer and you’re edging up to the deadline,” said Paul M. Smith, vice president for litigation and strategy of the Campaign Legal Center, which supports unrestricted access to voting, and a member of the National Task Force on Election Crises.

Four swing states have Republican legislatures and Democratic governors — North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. One state — New Hampshire — has a Democratic legislature and Republican governor. Both setups could lead to a governor and state legislature disagreeing about who won the state, and trying to appoint competing sets of electors.

Pennsylvania is garnering the most attention, as it’s likely to be the tightest of these states.

“It would be negligent for the state’s legislature not to appoint delegates, especially when you consider the amount of resources that went into the race,” said Bryan Lanza, a 2016 Trump campaign official who is close to the 2020 team.

While the Constitution and federal law give legislatures the power to pick electors, each state has established its own process to follow, and many of them are vague.

It could get messy.

“If they aren’t confident that they believe the result, some legislatures will be tempted to take the authority and appoint electors directly,” said Barry Burden, founding director of the Elections Research Center at the University of Wisconsin, Madison.

If Congress is presented with two sets of elections, it would be forced to decide which to choose, with almost no playbook to follow. And if the two chambers of Congress are divided — likely because they are controlled by different parties, as they are now — it’s unclear what would happen, according to experts.

The scenario has played out just once before, in 1876, arguably the most contentious election in U.S. history. That year, three states — Florida, Louisiana and South Carolina — produced different sets of electors. Congress created a commission, which voted along party lines to select Republican Rutherford B. Hayes as president.

Just over a decade later, Congress passed a law that established a procedure for counting electoral votes, and the issue has never again been crucial to an election’s outcome. Hawaii did once submit two sets of electors in 1960.

Another crisis could come a few weeks later, when Congress meets to certify the presidential election on Jan. 6, 2021.

Normally, the process is a formality. But if the election is so close that neither Trump nor Biden has secured 270 electoral votes, the fate of the presidency ends up in the House of Representatives — a phenomenon that has only happened in 1800 and 1824, when no candidate won a majority of electors.

In this scenario, every state’s delegation gets a single vote based on an internal tally of each lawmaker in the delegation. It means the presidency may not be decided by the party that controls the House itself, but by the one that controls more state delegations in the chamber.

Currently, Democrats control the House, but Republicans control more state delegations. But since the final certification will occur after the newly elected Congress is sworn in, the 2020 House races could affect the delegation balance.

Because of this possibility, Pelosi has urged her Democratic colleagues to consider the House’s possible role in determining the 2020 election when choosing where to focus resources on winning seats in November. Flipping just a few seats in states like Montana and Alaska, for instance, could change the majority control of those state’s delegations.

Currently, Republicans control 26 delegations, Democrats have 22. Pennsylvania is tied and Democrats hold a 7-6 advantage in Michigan, with one seat held by independent Justin Amash.

“The idea that the United States of America — one of the oldest democracies and a long standing democracy — which has not had such a problem in years is now going to have a problem just because Donald Trump is inventing it is outrageous,” said David Lublin, an elections expert at the government department at American University.

‘We’ve got to stop the bleeding’: Democrats sound alarm in Miami

MIAMI — Democrats are sounding the alarm about weak voter turnout rates in Florida’s biggest county, Miami-Dade, where a strong Republican showing is endangering Joe Biden’s chances in the nation’s biggest swing state.

No Democrat can win Florida without a huge turnout and big winning margins here to offset losses elsewhere in the state. But Democrats are turning out at lower rates than Republicans and at lower rates than at this point in 2016, when Hillary Clinton won by 29 percentage points here and still lost the state to Donald Trump.

One particular area of concern is the relative share of ballots cast by young voters of color and less-reliable Democratic voters. Part of the problem, according to interviews with a dozen Democratic elected officials and operatives, is the Biden campaign‘s decision to discourage field staff from knocking on doors during the pandemic and its subsequent delay in greenlighting — and funding — a return to door-to-door canvassing.

“We did not get the kind of funding for different vendors who would do that type of work until late in the campaign,” said Rep. Frederica Wilson, a party institution who represents Miami’s heavily Black congressional district.

Wilson said the good news is that Biden’s running mate, California Sen. Kamala Harris, is working with her on a turnout event for this weekend geared toward young Black men. But the veteran congresswoman said there are still skilled operatives in her district who excel at turnout work who have yet to get approved by the campaign, a puzzling delay for an operation that raised a record $363 million the month before.

“I screamed. Hollered. I called. I lobbied from the top to the bottom,” Wilson said of her efforts to get turnout operations started in the community, including sending written proposals to Biden’s campaign and having virtual Zoom meetings with his advisers.

In a sign of the state’s importance, Biden and Trump both campaigned in Florida on Thursday. Biden held an event in Broward County, which is located within the Miami-Fort Lauderdale media market, and then held a rally in Tampa, where Trump held his own event to boost early voting turnout.

Wilson and other Democrats aren’t panicking yet. They take comfort in the fact that huge swaths of Democratic voters cast absentee ballots by mail statewide, and that Biden narrowly leads in most Florida polls, including a Monmouth University likely voter survey released Thursday that put the former vice president up by 6 percentage points. That margin is far bigger than in Democratic internal polls.

Party officials also point out that Black churches are planning “Souls to the Polls” events Sunday that encourage voting after church. However, in the era of coronavirus, church services are virtual and organizing those events is more difficult than in the past election years.

The NAACP is helping Wilson produce a video for the virtual church services that talks about the dual threats of coronavirus and not voting.

“There is not the turnout here [Miami] in the black community that I’ve seen in the past. I can speculate about the reasons, but the fact is it remains concerning,” said state Sen. Oscar Braynon, a Black Miami Democrat who held a get-out-the-vote event Wednesday with rapper Fat Joe Wednesday.

To date, Republicans have turned out 59 percent of their voters in Miami-Dade and Democrats have turned out 53 percent, a 6-point margin. That’s twice the margin Republicans had at this point in 2016.

Among Hispanic voters, who make up nearly 70 percent of the county’s population, the deficit is even bigger — 9 points.

“Democrats have a big turnout issue in the Hispanic community in Miami-Dade,” said Florida-based Democratic data analyst Matt Isbell. “Hispanic Democrat turnout is only 48% while the Republican Hispanics are at 57%. This large of a gap doesn’t exist in Broward or Orange. It is a Miami problem.”

Polling of Florida’s Hispanics has been all over the board. A Mason-Dixon poll conducted for Telemundo and released Thursday showed Biden leading Trump 48-43 percent among Florida Hispanics, a margin that could be disastrous for Democrats.

A Univision poll released one day earlier painted a different picture: It showed Biden faring much better among Florida Hispanic voters, leading Trump by 20 points, 57 to 37 percent.

Most polls show Cuban-Americans, who comprise about 74 percent of the registered Republicans in the county, have broken hard for Trump, although Biden might be clawing some of them back. Voters with roots in Puerto Rico and other places in Latin America support Biden by big margins.

While polling of Miami-Dade and Florida Hispanics has fluctuated wildly, Democrats long ago resigned themselves to the fact that Trump was making inroads with them and that Biden would not perform as well with them as Clinton, who won 65 percent of the state’s Hispanic vote in 2016, according to exit polls.

One positive trend, however, is the fact that Biden is doing better statewide than Clinton with seniors and white voters, who make up about two-thirds of likely voters.

Miami-Dade County was a bright spot for Democrats in 2016, when Clinton rolled up historic margins and raw votes in the county. But it wasn’t enough to help her carry the state because of Trump’s strong performance in many other counties, especially those with older white suburban and rural voters.

Miami-Dade is home to nearly 634,000 registered Democrats, or 41 percent of the county’s total. Republicans comprise 27 percent and independents 32 percent.

As of Thursday morning, 337,000 Democrats had already cast early and absentee ballots in Miami-Dade, nearly 80,000 more than the 253,000 Republicans. Independent voters, namely those with no party affiliation, have cast an additional 219,000. Polls indicate they’re leaning Biden, which Democrats point to as a potential saving grace if Republicans once again cast more votes overall in the election.

While the Miami-Dade numbers look robust at a glance, the turnout rate is too low for Democrats to feel comfortable as Republicans statewide have steadily eaten into the Democrats’ margins in the days after in-person early voting started Oct. 19.

The share of vote cast by Black voters in the county is a point lower today than at this point in 2016, while the overall Black vote statewide is only negligibly higher, according to the Democratic data firm TargetSmart.

Overall, statewide, 7.4 million of Florida’s 14.4 million active registered voters had already cast ballots by Thursday morning: 41 percent from Democrats, 38 percent from Republicans and 22 percent from independents. The Democrats’ lead in total ballots cast was a record 206,000 as of Thursday morning, but that’s down 57 percent from its all-time high last week.

In-person early voting ends Sunday, which is when Democrats are massing for a final push.

Though election officials count ballot returns by party, they don’t tabulate the votes until Election Day.

“I would rather be in our position than theirs,” said Joshua Geise, Florida director for America Votes, an independent organization coordinating with 50 groups on the ground to turn out voters for Biden.

Geise acknowledged some of the turnout issues in Miami-Dade and said his group ramped up in the past week and had 100,000 conversations at people’s doors in the county, a third of all the face-to-face interactions they had in the entire state. He said Democrats will make a huge push this weekend to halt the Republican gains in early voting.

“We’ve got to stop the bleeding,” Geise said.

One veteran Democratic organizer from South Florida expressed concern that winning Florida looks more difficult by the day as Republicans turn out in big numbers and the pace of Democratic momentum in casting early ballots slows. It’s a sign the party is exhausting its high propensity voters — and the hard-to-motivate voters are tough to turn out.

“Look, our people hate Trump and they like Biden. But not enough of them love Biden,” the organizer said. “It also doesn’t help that the campaign reacted so late here and they didn’t help us with voter registration when we needed to be doing it.”

Steve Simeonidis, Miami-Dade’s Democratic Party chair, contended the GOP is running out of voters and Democrats have far more — and they are just beginning to turn out. Considering how independents are breaking, he said, “we’re going to continue building on our lead down here and if we keep working, we will have more record Democratic turnout on Sunday and Tuesday.”

Braynon, the Miami state senator, said that Biden isn’t doing as well as Clinton because the Clintons had a special “bond” with the region that was built over decades.

“You have to remind people Biden was Obama’s vice president and have to tell people he has policies similar to those supported by Hillary and Obama,” Braynon said. “It’s important to emphasize it’s the same type of platform.”

Beyond presidential race intrigue, Miami-Dade is home to five down-ballot races for Congress, state senate and county mayor. In each of those races, Republicans have fielded Cuban-American candidates.

State Sen. Annette Taddeo, a Miami Democrat, said she wasn’t too worried about Hispanic voters in the county because, she said, they’re notoriously late to cast ballots.

“We are Hispanics, we leave everything for ¡mañana!,” she said. “Also, if the 80 percent turnout in Miami-Dade being predicted by our supervisor of election comes through, that is great news for Democrats.”

But in Rep. Wilson’s congressional district, there’s still worry. She knows many have voted by mail and therefore aren’t at the polls. Still, she would like to see more voters showing up at the polls before in-person early voting ends Sunday night.

“I’ve been going to the different polling places,” she said, “and you know, I never dreamed that Black people would be reticent at this point in Mr. Trump’s administration about voting.”

Exclusive: Warren will make case to be Biden’s Treasury secretary

Elizabeth Warren wants to be Joe Biden’s Treasury secretary and will make her case for it if he wins next week, according to three Democratic officials who have spoken with her inner circle.

“She wants it,” two of them said matter-of-factly.

Warren’s moves could set up the marquee fight between the party’s left and its center over what will be one of the most consequential Cabinet roles in the next administration. The Treasury Department will be tasked with steering the U.S. economy out of a deep recession, even as the country continues to struggle with the coronavirus pandemic.

Other leading contenders for the Treasury slot include Federal Reserve Governor Lael Brainard; Sarah Bloom Raskin, a former Treasury Department official; and Roger Ferguson, former Federal Reserve vice chairman and current CEO of financial services giant TIAA.

Tapping Warren would rally progressives who have been pushing — some quietly, others loudly — for her to get the role. But it would also likely draw strong opposition from Wall Street and some moderate Democrats.

“It’s 5 days out, we’re focused on the election and encourage everyone else to be as well,” said Warren spokesperson Kristen Orthman. The Massachusetts senator is set to campaign for Biden in New Hampshire this weekend.

While Warren has frequently been mentioned as a candidate for Treasury and she has developed a relationship with Biden as an economic adviser since ending her own presidential bid last spring, there has been uncertainty about her ambitions. She could stay in her safe Senate seat and still be a prominent national political voice.

But Warren allies say that the job is appealing because it is a once-in-a lifetime opportunity to enact some of the “big structural change” she talked about during the presidential primary, rather than just pressuring Cabinet officials from her Senate perch. Much of her life’s work has revolved around the intricate rules and levers of power in the executive branch.

Warren also sees an opportunity amid the economic crisis wrought by Covid-19 to rectify what she thinks were mistakes in the Obama administration’s response to the Great Recession — namely, not doing enough to change the underlying systemic problems or focus on the most vulnerable.

That history could hurt her with Obama administration veterans who saw her as a populist grandstander. But it could also appeal to Biden, who is eager to put his own imprint on his administration and not just be Obama 2.0.

“She’d be the person to meet the moment,” said Sara Nelson, president of the Association of Flight Attendants labor union, who added that she doesn’t know anything about Warren’s plans and is focused on electing Democrats next week. “She understands all the failed strategies in the past in terms of how to rebuild the economy and how to shore up average Americans.”

A fourth Democratic source who spoke with former Warren staffers said if Warren does not get the Treasury spot, she would likely want to stay in the Senate and push for a seat on the chamber’s influential Finance Committee, which oversees the agency.

If Warren gets the nod, the pushback from Wall Street would likely be swift, given some banking executives’ fears that Warren would spearhead harsher regulations on the financial sector. It’s a reputation Warren herself embraced during the Democratic primary, touting reports that financial industry leaders were concerned about the possibility she could win the Democratic nomination.

The Massachusetts Democrat’s opponents in the business world are also whispering that her nomination to lead the Treasury Department could spook the markets, particularly the bond market, at a perilous moment — just as Biden is going to ask Congress for a multi-trillion dollar stimulus package.

Such warnings have effectively cowed past Democratic presidents. “I used to think that if there was reincarnation, I wanted to come back as the president or the pope or as a .400 baseball hitter. But now I would like to come back as the bond market. You can intimidate everybody,” James Carville said during Bill Clinton’s presidency.

Other critics in the financial sector have questioned whether Warren would be ready for the job: Despite her economic expertise, she has little direct experience with financial markets. Her allies counter that few people know more about both the markets and the executive branch than Warren, herself. They also point out that despite the apocalyptic rhetoric directed at her, she impressed centrists and progressives alike when she set up the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau.

Another potential obstacle for Warren: Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, a Republican, would appoint her successor under current state law. Democrats, however, hold a supermajority in the state legislature and could decide to amend the current rules — for example by requiring the governor to choose a replacement from the same party as the previous senator, as seven states already do.

The man who created the modern presidential transition now faces an extraordinary one

The man who literally wrote the laws on presidential transitions is now running one — and it could be the country’s most difficult handover of power since the Great Depression, with dueling health and economic crises as well as an unpredictable incumbent who may throw wrenches into the process.

Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff in the Senate and head of his 2020 transition effort, likely has more control over a future Biden administration than anyone other than the Democratic presidential nominee himself. That makes him one of the most popular men in Washington now, as job seekers angle for potential posts and lobbyists try to divine his intentions.

Kaufman has his fans on the left, thanks to his tough stance on the banks during a short stint as a senator after the 2008 financial crisis. He has friends in the center, who say he and Biden share the same strand of moderate politics. Kaufman’s animating force, however, is an almost quaint belief in the American government’s institutions, friends and allies say.

As head of Biden’s transition team, his ambitions go beyond just an efficient hand-off of power and extend to proving that the federal government can actually work — and that bipartisanship isn’t extinct.

A bomb thrower he is not, and he is unlikely to hire many, either. Given the myriad crises facing the country, Kaufman is likely to favor competence and experience over ideology, allies say. That could disappoint some of Sen. Elizabeth Warren and Sen. Bernie Sanders’ left-wing allies, who are hoping to join the administration but might lack the governing experience of those who worked under former President Barack Obama. His disposition could similarly freeze out swampy strivers looking for a resume line.

“He is going to be looking to avoid people who give off the impression that they are first looking out for themselves — people who want to work for the administration for a year or two and then go monetize their service,” said Alexander Mackler, Kaufman’s deputy chief of staff in the Senate and now Delaware’s chief deputy attorney general. “He has been clear for a long time that he doesn’t look kindly upon the revolving door.”

Kaufman, a wiry 81-year-old with a receding but still unruly head of hair who one former aide compared (admiringly) to Rafiki in The Lion King, was appointed to Delaware’s Senate seat in 2009, filling the vacancy created by his boss’ election as vice president. He was a placeholder, serving only until a special election was held in November 2010. But he carved out a legacy that continues to reverberate today, at least inside the Beltway, in the wonky world of the federal bureaucracy.

Kaufman regularly gave speeches on the Senate floor singling out obscure bureaucrats for a job well done as part of a larger “Great Federal Employees” initiative. In his farewell address, he warned against altering the Senate’s filibuster rules as the left wing agitated for changes — calls that have only gotten louder since. ”The existence of the filibuster remains important to ensuring the balanced government the Framers envisioned,” he said at the time. Asked if he still supported keeping the filibuster, Kaufman did not respond.

At an event hosted by the Wall Street Journal over the summer, Kaufman argued that the country’s polarization is not a permanent state. “The problem we have is a lot of people that are covering this [moment in politics] haven’t been covering the country for long. They think it’s always been like this,” he said. “It hasn’t always been like this. This is a relatively recent thing, like, really in the last 10 years. I mean, back before that we really did get along.”

Some on the left and the right appreciate the sentiment but believe it’s naive or too nostalgic for a past that is now out of reach.

“In 2010, [Senate Majority Leader Harry] Reid was still defending the filibuster … and a lot of people’s views have changed since then including Reid’s,” said Adam Jentleson, Reid’s former deputy chief of staff and the author of an upcoming book on the modern Senate. “The formative experience of people like Kaufman was an anomalous period. That was a different time and it’s not coming back.”

Kaufman drew similar eye rolls when he suggested this summer that Democrats would not be able to spend money on a lot of new initiatives because the “pantry is going to be bare” after the Trump administration’s spending. He even seemed to be at odds with Biden’s longtime economist Jared Bernstein who said this month that “we must fight tooth and nail against the return of austerity politics.”

Kaufman’s belief in functional, bipartisan governance is at the core of his work on presidential transitions, which requires cooperation across agencies and parties. Indeed, Kaufman’s leadership of Biden’s 2020 transition team is the culmination of more than 10 years aimed at forcing presidential candidates to take transition planning more seriously: requiring they start preparations for a transfer of power earlier and providing more financing for staff and other needs.

“Campaigns grew concerned about the negative impact it could have on their winning, to be seen as preparing publicly,” said Max Stier, the president of the Partnership for Public Service, a nonprofit focused on the civil service. ”It makes, from a public policy sense, not a lot of sense. But it was a political reality.”

In 2010, Kaufman’s bill, the “Pre-Election Presidential Transition Act,” was enacted to law, authorizing more government resources to transition teams before the election. After leaving the Senate, Kaufman teamed up with Stier and the head of Mitt Romney’s 2012 transition team, former Utah Governor Mike Leavitt, to help pass another law in 2016 that further formalized the transition procedures.

Congress even named the law after them — the ”Edward ‘Ted’ Kaufman and Michael Leavitt Presidential Transitions Improvements Act.”

“He was most passionate about the needs for candidates to understand that it’s not an option, it’s an obligation,” Leavitt recalls. “That was the fundamental shift, that candidates know it was an obligation.”

Biden, an old-school pol, was one of those candidates who has needed convincing. As the vice presidential candidate in 2008, the then-Delaware senator had been wary of jinxing the election by focusing on what would come after victory, Democrats around him at the time recall.

“Before the election, Biden was more superstitious about not wanting to get too much information,” recalls John Podesta, who was leading Barack Obama’s transition effort at the time. “He just wanted to be out campaigning.”

So Biden delegated the vice presidential transition work to Kaufman and longtime aide Mark Gitenstein, who is now on the transition’s advisory board. For Kaufman, it was a life-changing experience that would lead him to become something of an obsessive in the obscure world of presidential transition work.

“At the time, we were in the financial crisis and so I think he had a real appreciation for the fact that a successful transition was critical to successful governing,” Podesta said.

Kaufman seems to have gotten through to Biden since then, at least a little — the Democratic nominee has appeared less skittish this go-around, and regularly gets briefings from the team.

“If you could clone Joe Biden for this job, you would create Ted Kaufman,” said Gitenstein. “They are very similar with their values and upbringing.”

So it was almost a given that Biden would tap Kaufman to lead preparations for his potential administration. He started early, calling people as recently as March to get started. On top of the many public crises, he’s also having to organize most of it via Zoom, although transition officials are impressed by the octogenarian’s tech savvy.

Yohannes Abraham, who runs the transition’s day-to-day operations, said that, “He can sit on a group Zoom call and tell, with extraordinary accuracy, when someone is upset, or doesn’t agree, or has something on their mind.”

‘Helping the president’: HHS official sought to rebrand coronavirus campaign

The Trump appointee who steered a $300 million taxpayer-funded ad campaign to “defeat despair” about the coronavirus privately pitched a different theme last month: “Helping the President will Help the Country.”

That proposal, which came in a meeting between Trump administration officials and campaign contractors, is among documents obtained by the House Oversight Committee that further illustrate how political considerations shaped the massive campaign as officials rushed to get public service announcements on the air before Election Day. The committee shared the documents with POLITICO, which first detailed the campaign in a series of reports last month.

For instance, contractors vetted at least 274 potential celebrity contributors for their stances on gay rights, gun control and the 2016 election before allowing them to participate in the campaign. One promised public service announcement, which would have also featured infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci, was nixed because the celebrity who was set to participate with Fauci had been critical of President Donald Trump, according to documents.

The official overseeing the campaign — Michael Caputo, who Trump personally tapped as the health department’s top spokesperson — also sought to overrule the career civil servants assigned to the campaign, directly urging contractors to rush production of ads with celebrities like Trump-supporting actor Antonio Sabato, Jr.

“We must film them ASAP — we need content in the can now,” Caputo wrote in an email to contractors on Sept. 13, three days before he took a medical leave from the health department. A federal official subsequently removed Caputo from the email chain and reiterated that only two career civil servants on the chain could provide “actionable direction” to the contractors on how to proceed.

Caputo also pitched the idea of framing the ad campaign around helping the president. He made the suggestion in a meeting with communications firm Burson Cohn & Wolfe, positioning it as an effort to encourage Trump’s base to buy into public health concepts like wearing masks, according to notes dated Sept. 17 and provided to the committee. “Caputo speaks in ‘taglines,’ and high level concepts,” the contractors noted.

Burson, which is a subcontractor on the campaign, did not respond to a request for comment.

Although Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar has since ordered a review of the campaign — which two HHS officials told POLITICO is no longer slated to run before the election, if at all — House Oversight leaders said that the administration had failed to comply with repeated demands to produce separate, internal documents related to the campaign.

“Your failure to provide the documents we requested — especially in light of the information we have learned from the contractors — appears to be part of a cover-up to conceal the Trump Administration’s misuse of hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars for partisan political purposes ahead of the upcoming election, and to direct taxpayer funds to friends and allies of Trump Administration officials,” Reps. Carolyn Maloney (D-N.Y.), Jim Clyburn (D-S.C.) and Raja Krishnamoorthi (D-Ill.) wrote to Azar in an accompanying letter.

HHS did not respond to specific questions about whether Caputo’s interventions were appropriate, who directed the vetting of celebrities’ political stances and other questions about the scope of the campaign.

“The review is ongoing,” an HHS spokesperson said in a statement. “The plan has always been to only use materials reviewed by a department-wide team of experts including scientists from CDC who will ensure the latest scientific information is used to provide important public health, therapeutic and vaccine information.”

The spokesperson said that Azar was not aware of Caputo’s close involvement in the campaign. The spokesperson also said that “HHS has maintained an open line of communication with members of Congress and we will continue to regularly and proactively update members and their staff.”

All but one of the documents released by the House committee Thursday were uncovered by their probe of the health department’s work with Atlas Research, which POLITICO revealed had won a separate $15 million contract about one week before a $250 million contract was awarded to strategic communications firm Fors Marsh.

Atlas did not respond to a request for comment.

“The American public can be assured this public education campaign is being developed based on the best available science and public health strategies to slow the spread of Covid-19,” said Fors Marsh CEO Ben Garthwaite, who drew a line between the contract awarded to his firm and what he said were separate efforts to enlist celebrities. “Fors Marsh Group was not involved with that work,” Garthwaite said.

The planned campaign — with contractors racing to produce ads with celebrities to air before the election — collapsed following a POLITICO investigation last month, with actor Dennis Quaid and gospel singer CeCe Winans withdrawing their participation and other celebrities pulling out. Both Quaid and Winans posted videos insisting that their participation was solely focused on promoting public health and was not intended to be political.

The campaign was the brainchild of Caputo, who was installed as the health department’s top spokesperson in April and who abruptly requisitioned $300 million from the Centers for Disease Control to fund the campaign this summer. The health department then recommended that contractors hire one of Caputo’s business partners, Den Tolmor, to film the celebrity videos, although the Russian-born filmmaker had no prior experience with U.S. public health campaigns.

Caputo declined comment, citing his treatment for cancer. Tolmor did not respond to a request for comment.

One document obtained by the committee, “PSA Celebrity Tracker,” includes details about the politics of hundreds of celebrities considered for participation in the campaign, including whether the performers had been personally critical of Trump.

For instance, actor Zach Galifianakis was flagged because he “refused to host President Trump on talk show.” Director and performer Judd Apatow “believes Trump does not have the intellectual capacity to run as President, want[s] him to be removed out of office in 2020,” read another line item.

At least 22 other performers were flagged for their previous support of former President Barack Obama. Singer Adam Levine was labeled a “liberal democrat who supported Obama and fights for gay rights”; singer Christina Aguilera “is an Obama-supporting Democrat and a gay-rights supporting liberal.”

Some celebrities were flagged for policy stances unrelated to the president. The document lists actress “Julianna Moore [sic.]” as a “Liberal Democrat, pro-choicer, LGBT rights supporter, gun control campaigner.”

Two of the performers who eventually sat for interviews with administration officials, gospel singer Winans and Hasidic singer Shulem Lemmer, do not appear on the “PSA Celebrity Tracker” obtained by the House committee.

While it’s not clear from the documents how many of the celebrities were ultimately approached — or even aware of the administration’s interest in their participation — at least 22 performers are listed as “declined,” including singers like Britney Spears, Carrie Underwood and Luke Bryan, and actors like Dwayne “the Rock” Johnson and Hugh Jackman. Restaurateur Guy Fieri is listed as “overcommitted.”

According to a separate document identified as “Celebrity Participant Status Chart,” only 10 celebrities were ultimately approved to participate in the campaign, including Quaid, singer Garth Brooks and television host Dr. Mehmet Oz.

Meanwhile, comedian George Lopez had committed to appearing in the campaign, having been promised a sit-down with Fauci, according to separate documents reviewed by POLITICO. But Atlas’ notes of a Sept. 29 meeting with Trump officials states that the Lopez ad was “not moving forward due to previous concerns regarding his comments regarding the President.”

The ad campaign has been viewed as an expensive boondoggle inside HHS, with millions of dollars set aside to arrange and even film some celebrity sit-downs that may now never air.

Trump confronts his 50 percent problem

Donald Trump won the presidency with 46 percent of the popular vote. His approval rating, according to Gallup, has never hit 50 percent. He remains under 50 percent in national polling averages.

The president’s inability to capture a majority of support sheds light on his extraordinary attempts to limit the number of votes cast across the battleground state map — a massive campaign-within-a-campaign to maximize Trump’s chances of winning a contest in which he’s all but certain to earn less than 50 percent of the vote.

In Philadelphia, his campaign is videotaping voters as they return ballots. In Nevada, it’s suing to force elections officials in Nevada’s Democratic-heavy Clark County to more rigorously examine ballot signatures for discrepancies that could disqualify them. The Trump campaign has sued to prevent the expanded use of ballot drop boxes in Ohio, sought to shoot down an attempt to expand absentee ballot access in New Hampshire and tried to intervene against a lawsuit brought by members of the Navajo Nation in Arizona which sought to allow ballots received from reservations after Election Day because of mail delays. And that’s just a few of its efforts.

Never before in modern presidential politics has a candidate been so reliant on wide-scale efforts to depress the vote as Trump.

“What we have seen this year which is completely unprecedented … is a concerted national Republican effort across the country in every one of the states that has had a legal battle to make it harder for citizens to vote,” said Trevor Potter, a former chair of the Federal Election Commission who served as general counsel to Republican John McCain’s two presidential campaigns. “There just has been this unrelenting Republican attack on making it easier to vote.”

Potter, who now heads the nonpartisan Campaign Legal Center, added, “It puzzles me … I’ve never worked for a Republican candidate who thought it was a good idea to make it hard for people to vote.”

For Trump, however, the math makes sense. In 2016, he won Arizona, Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — five of this year’s most important swing states — with under 50 percent of the vote. In two others, Georgia and North Carolina, he captured exactly half the votes. Having failed to expand his base beyond a committed — and sizable — core in his first term, the president stands to gain from a diminished turnout, particularly among voters of color.

Elections have long been marred by legal and illegal forms of voter suppression. But the coronavirus — and Trump’s baseless warnings about widespread voter fraud — shifted a once-ancillary feature of campaigns into overdrive. Democrats pushed to ease voting rules amid the pandemic, and Trump pushed back.

It wasn’t just in court, either. For more than three decades, the Republican National Committee had been hamstrung by a consent decree limiting the RNC’s ability challenge voters’ qualifications at the polls, after the committee was accused of efforts to discourage African Americans from voting. After the order was lifted in 2018, Trump and the RNC began assembling a massive poll-watching operation. And Trump is heavily invested in its success.

Outraged after a court in Pennsylvania rejected litigation to allow poll watchers at satellite elections offices, Trump wrote on Twitter late Sunday night, “How terrible is this? We are just seeking a fair vote count. This can only lead to very bad things. Bad intentions much??? Disgraceful!!!”

On Tuesday morning, he tweeted, “Philadelpiha [sic] MUST HAVE POLLWATCHERS!”

The RNC and the Trump campaign bristle at the idea that they are engaging in voter suppression or that there are strategic motivations behind their actions. They frame it as resistance to a Democratic assault on election integrity.

By May — fully six months before Election Day — the Trump campaign and the RNC had committed at least $20 million to legal efforts they cast as necessary to maintain voting safeguards and an orderly election.

Nick Trainer, the Trump campaign’s director of battleground strategy, called it “the height of hypocrisy that Democrats call our election transparency efforts ‘voter suppression’ — they’re the ones who scared voters away from the polls for months.”

Courts have been resistant to Republicans’ claims about voter fraud in cases to restrict voting, if not outright rejecting them. But Republicans have found victories in rolling back Democratic-initiated changes on two principles: That federal courts should not change election laws close to the election — also known as the Purcell Principle — and, increasingly, that the judiciary should defer to state legislatures.

Most recently, the U.S. Supreme Court declined to reinstate a lower court’s order that extended the ballot return deadline in the battleground state of Wisconsin, meaning ballots would be due by Election Day.

Rick Hasen, an election law expert at University of California Irvine School of Law, said “trying to make voting harder during a pandemic is pretty tough to justify,” suggesting instead that “the Trump wing of the party thinks keeping the electorate smaller helps Trump.”

The effect is often to disadvantage Democratic-leaning constituencies. In swing state Florida, the state’s Republican-controlled legislature slapped additional restrictions on felons trying to register to vote after voters in 2018 approved a measure designed to restore most felons’ voting rights.

In Texas, Republican Gov. Greg Abbott limited ballot drop-off sites to one in each county, a measure with outsized effects on the most heavily populated — and more Democratic — areas like Harris County, which includes Houston.

And then there is what’s coming on Election Day. Following Trump’s call in his first debate with Biden for “my supporters to go into the polls and watch very carefully,” some far-right groups have said they will be out monitoring polls. Last week in Minnesota, a company that had been recruiting former Special Operations members to guard polling places backed off after the state’s attorney general, Keith Ellison, opened an investigation.

Recruiting volunteers for his Election Day operations, Trump calls what he’s building an “Army for Trump.”

“They’re open about it,” said Stuart Stevens, who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012 and who is now working against Trump’s reelection. “They’re not even pretending not to rely on voter suppression.”

Every politician understands the benefit of his or her opponents’ supporters turning out in lower numbers. But Trump is the rare candidate who has openly expressed the value of addition by subtraction. Shortly after the 2016 election, Trump acknowledged in a private meeting that lower Black turnout that year benefited him, saying “it was great.”

Trump’s public comments about the electoral system in the years since have been no more encouraging for voting rights activists. He has repeatedly asserted that voter fraud is rampant and that the election will be “rigged,” despite no evidence of widespread voter fraud. That is significant because there is evidence that lowering trust in the electoral system itself depresses turnout.

Benjamin Ginsberg, a nationally recognized elections lawyer who has represented past Republican presidential nominees, said it is Trump’s language that makes his approach to voting unique.

“What’s different about this election is the president’s rhetoric,” he said. “We’ve never had a president who has said our elections are fraudulent or rigged, and based on all the years I was doing Election Day operations, there’s just no proof to support that.”

Ginsberg said, “The real problem is that fraud and suppression has become part of each party’s get out the vote operation,” noting that such rhetoric could be an animating factor for the bases of each party, but could depress turnout among low propensity voters.

It is not clear that the GOP’s efforts to reduce turnout will work. Early votes have surged past 75 million, according to the United States Elections Project, and Democrats have used concerns about voter suppression as a tool to motivate voters.

Still, Democrats remain wary of the possible effects of Trump’s efforts to shrink the electorate in his favor. In a memo circulating among Democrats late last week, one party strategist described Trump’s narrow path to an Electoral College victory as relying on “a surge in support from voters who skipped 2016 and the midterms and a substantial relative depression in Democratic turnout.” Among reasons for concern, the strategist said, “the scale and scope of the Trump campaign’s unprecedented voter suppression activities.”

“It’s the only way they can win or at least come close to winning,” said Andrew Feldman, a Democratic strategist in Washington. “We’ve seen them continuously try legal means — however unfair or grotesque the legal means are — that are nothing short of voter suppression.”

While Republicans are trying to limit ballot access, Democrats are in an equally furious effort to expand it — and to answer Trump’s poll-watching effort with a counterforce of their own. And Republicans say Democrats brought many of this year’s legal fights on themselves.

“Democrats in a lot of states tried to change the rules that governed an election 90 days before an election,” said Trainer.

Poll watchers, he said, “will be trained to ensure all rules are applied equally, all valid ballots are counted, and all Democrat rule breaking is called out — and if fouls are called, we’ll go to court to enforce the laws, as rightfully written by state legislatures, to protect every voter’s right to vote.”

45 Self-Evident Truths About Donald Trump

Ever since he rode down that escalator, Donald Trump has been the most paid-attention-to person on Earth. Perhaps no other political figure in American history has generated such reams of coverage trying to decipher patterns of behavior.

It has been well-documented that the 45th president operates with evident disregard for norms and rules. But over the past 5 ½ years of reporting I have determined that he abides by a firm code of conduct as predictable as it is confounding. In more than 60 stories in the Politico Magazine oeuvre that came to be known as “Trumpology,” I documented how his unswerving allegiance to a certain set of principles, unprincipled as they might seem to some, elevated him to the pinnacle of global power. If widespread polling holds true on Election Day, these same traits and tics, and rock-ribbed beliefs, might also be the reasons he’s ousted from office.

Much has been made recently of this election as a referendum on the president not just as a politician with a set of policies, but as a person. This list—compiled using excerpts from my pieces and my interviews with sources who have known him most of his life—is the distillation of his worldview, a condensed sketch of Donald Trump as a man. And no matter what happens, and whether or not he retains his grip on the White House or decamps in defeat to Mar-a-Lago, these truths will continue to guide his behavior—and the way we perceive it.

1. Attention is power.

“He is of the mindset,” according to the late Jim Dowd, who did public relations for Trump, “that the more his name is dropped, the more a kind of hypnosis, for lack of a better word, there is to the American public.”

“If people pay attention, that’s what matters,” Trump once said. “You can be a horrible human being, you can be a truly terrible person, but if you get ratings, you are a king.”

The central gambit of Trump’s entire life is that there’s no such thing as bad publicity—“that,” as I once wrote, “if you’re watching, he’s winning.”

2. Words don’t matter.

“He’s always understood it,” Roger Stone once told me. “That how you look is more important than how you sound. How you come across is more important than the words you use.”

3. Everything’s a show.

“Donald Trump is the host of his own show,” longtime Democratic strategist Hank Sheinkopf once told me. “A performance artist,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien said. “He sees himself as a Broadway character,” former “Apprentice” contestant Sam Solovey said. He’d “stage-managed Miss Universe,” Newt Gingrich said. “He’d stage-managed professional wrestling.”

4. People are props.

Men? “Central casting.” Women? “Accessories to his brand.”

5. The crowd knows.

“He’s not a book-reader so much as a room-reader,” I wrote; “an instinctual gauger and tweaker and torquer of crowds,” I wrote. Crowds, for him, are “rolling, roiling, visceral focus groups.”

6. Conflict is the key.

“Trump’s energy,” a former close associate told me, “comes from conflict.”

7. Nothing motivates like fear.

“Trump’s vision for the Penn Yards is really based on a very old idea, one made popular in the 1920s—and since then universally discredited in theory and in fact,” the architecture critic for New York magazine once wrote. “Isolated towers from the ’50s and ’60s survive in most of the world’s major cities as reminders to planners that this brand of angst-inducing exclusivity is nasty to live with. Hard lessons have shown that the way to make a residential complex work is to create some sense of intimacy, or at least communal identity. But for all the adolescent, outdated striving for bigness, Trump is onto something thoroughly contemporary in the life of ’80s New Yorkers. It is fear.”

And he is a product of New York of the ’70s and ’80s:

Trump, who in the ’70s had identified the city’s insecurity and fear and found a way to benefit from it, now tried to do so again. He paid a reported $85,000 to put in four New York newspapers a full-page ad that called for the death penalty. “What has happened to our City?” he wrote in the ad. “What has happened to the respect for authority, the fear of retribution by the courts, society and the police for those who break the law, who wantonly trespass on the rights of others? What has happened is the complete breakdown of life as we knew it.” He seethed about “roving bands of wild criminals” and “crazed misfits” and longed for a time when he was a boy, when cops in the city roughed up “thugs” to give people like him “the feeling of security.” …

“Mayor Koch has stated that hate and rancor should be removed from our hearts,” Trump said in the ad. “I do not think so. I want to hate.”

8. Division works.

And politics, in the estimation of Stone, Trump’s longest-running, off-and-on adviser, is a Machiavellian combination of showmanship and combat—not about “uniting people” but about “dividing people.”

9. Life’s a fight.

It’s one of his most consistent convictions:

That Trump would so quickly in the wake of the Mueller investigation commit a brazen act some critics say represents an egregious and impeachable abuse of power has mystified many observers. How could he have so blithely ignored the lessons of the nearly three-year investigation? But those who know him best say this is merely the latest episode in a lifelong pattern of behavior for the congenitally combative Trump. He’s always been this way. He doesn’t stop to reflect. If he wins, he barely basks. If he loses, he doesn’t take the time to lie low or lick wounds. … Regardless of the outcome—up, down or somewhere in between—when one tussle is done, Trump reflexively starts to scan the horizon in search of a new skirmish.

“The discomfort he feels in the moment of peace that follows a victory is so intense that he will do whatever it takes to find new fights,” biographer Michael D’Antonio told me.

10. Chaos is fuel.

“The prince of chaos,” Trump biographer Gwenda Blair told me. “Chaos creates drama, and drama gets ink,” former Trump campaign aide Sam Nunberg explained. “This is a new kind of presidency. He’s followed the tabloid model, and it got him to where he is, and it’s the model that will be followed until it doesn’t work. And it has worked. He’s sitting in the Oval Office.”

11. There’s no such thing as going too far.

Even if it’s not always helpful:

When Trump is riding highest, he is simultaneously at his most manic and self-destructive. He overreaches and oversells. He doubles down. In the arc of Trump’s life, from his fevered buying spree in 1988 in the wake of the fame-spiking sales of The Art of the Deal to his wild couple of years in the aftermath of the image-laundering launch of “The Apprentice” to his rowdy and improbable political ascent, the craters of his most marked failures follow closely on his most consequential successes. He is this way, say people who know him well, because of his unshakable self-assurance and nerve but also because of his insatiable appetite for attention and conflict.

“It’s true of everything he goes into,” Trump biographer Tim O’Brien told me. “He will hunker down and do something well—and then he thinks he’s Zeus.” And that’s when the trouble starts. “Because he’s not Zeus.”

12. Bigger is always better.

In the ’80s, on the Upper West Side, he wanted to build a “mammoth mall” and a “giant garage” and apartments “above the clouds.”

“New Yorkers want to have the world’s tallest building,” he said. “And frankly, so do I.”

13. The answer to any problem is always more Trump.

It’s part of how the Trump show gets old:

Even as its numbers dipped, he insisted [“The Apprentice”] was still on top; he picked fights with critics and blamed others; and maybe most notably, he took on an even bigger role. Rewatching the show’s first season, he is the star—no question about that—but it’s surprising how infrequently he appears; he introduces the tasks, and then mostly vanishes as his teams bicker and compete until the climactic boardroom scenes when he fires somebody. But in the second season, things change. There’s less team, more Trump. He makes more appearances in the middle, and the boardroom scenes are longer. And it’s not only that he’s there more. The volume is turned up. He’s meaner. More performative. There are more soaring shots of his plane. More over-the-top shots of his scowl. It’s hard to quantify, but it’s hard to miss, too.

14. Exhaust the enemy.

“He sues,” former Trump Organization executive vice president Barbara Res told me.

“He uses it to wear people out, whether it’s financially or emotionally,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me.

“Did he learn from the Television City debacle that he shouldn’t get too big, too fast, too loud? No,” Brendan Sexton, a former president of New York’s Municipal Art Society, told me. “Maybe what he learned is … think big, talk big, make a big splash. And let the other guys fight to keep up with him.”

15. It’s good to be selfish.

“He’s not going to be that concerned with the actual competent administration of the government,” Michael D’Antonio said days before his inauguration. “It’s going to be what he seems to be gaining or losing in public esteem.”

“More than any person I’ve ever met, he’s focused on how things impact him,” former Trump Shuttle president Bruce Nobles told me.

16. Altruism is for losers.

It’s on the long list of lessons he learned from his two most important mentors:

What Fred Trump and Roy Cohn had in common was their deep immersion in patronage politics—old-school, clubhouse-style favor-trading, used to grasp private gain under the guise of public good. “You take care of the boss and the boss takes care of you,” as veteran New York political operative Hank Sheinkopf described it to me. Operating within the Democratic machines of Brooklyn and Queens, Fred Trump for decades made shrewd connections and large, dutiful donations in exchange for preference in properties, pricing and zoning. And Cohn? Cohn was a virtuoso in “the trade of human calculus,” his biographer wrote, “of deal making, swapping, maneuver, and manipulation.” Watching and emulating these two, the canny younger Trump reportedly looked, too, to fabled Brooklyn boss Meade Esposito as a model. Esposito once was caught by an FBI wiretap saying there should have been an 11th Commandment: “Think of Thyself.”

17. Trusting is for losers.

“There’s a wall Donald has that he never lets people penetrate,” a former associate told me. Trump has a dark, dour view of humanity. He considers the world “ruthless,” “brutal” and “cruel.” Through this zero-sum, dog-eat-dog lens, friends aren’t friends—there’s no such thing. “They act nice to your face, but underneath they’re out to kill you,” he wrote in his 2007 book, Think Big. “They want your job, they want your house, they want your money, they want your wife.”

18. Loyalty is for losers.

“Despite Trump’s protestations about the utmost importance of loyalty, biographers and others have said his notion of the concept evokes a cross between the Mafia and the urban political machines of the past,” I once wrote. “You take care of the boss, and the boss takes care of you,” as Sheinkopf put it. Trump’s definition of loyalty is, and always has been, the opposite of complicated, according to those who know him the best. “Support Donald Trump in anything he says and does,” in Stone’s words. “I never particularly thought,” Nobles told me, “that he was loyal to … anybody.”

19. Taking blame? For losers.

“He won’t say anything that happened was his fault,” longtime New York public relations expert Paul Holmes told me. “Every failure he’s ever had,” O’Brien said, “he has blamed it on outside forces.”

20. Losing is for losers.

It’s how he succeeds without succeeding:

He flopped as the owner of a professional football team, effectively killing not only his own franchise but the league as a whole. He blew up his first marriage, married his mistress, and then divorced her, too. He bankrupted his casinos five times over the course of nearly 20 years. His eponymous airline existed for less than three years and ended up almost a quarter of a billion dollars in debt. And he has slapped his surname on a practically never-ending sequence of duds and scams (Trump Ice bottled water, Trump Vodka, Trump Steaks, Trump magazine, Trump Mortgage, Trump University—for which he settled a class-action fraud lawsuit [in 2017] for $25 million). Other risk-taking businessmen might periodically cop to falling short while pivoting to what’s next. Not Trump. He has dealt with his roster of losses largely by refusing to acknowledge them as anything other than wins.

“If you knock Donald on his ass, he will tell you the best position to be in is on your ass,” a former Trump Organization executive told me.

“He knows of no other way,” former New York Daily News writer George Rush told me, “and that is to spin until he’s woven some gossamer fabric out of”—he searched for the right word—“garbage.”

“My main purpose in life is to keep winning,” Trump once said. “And the reason for that is simple: If I don’t win, I don’t get to fight the next battle.”

21. Sometimes winning means not losing now.

It’s how he (with the help of Roy Cohn) “won” the federal government’s suit in the 1970s against him and his father for racist rental practices at the apartments they owned:

The accepted narrative of this case is that Trump and his father lost. The Justice Department did indeed notch what it considered a victory—a consent decree mandated that the company rent to more tenants who weren’t white. But looked at slightly differently, it was every bit a triumph for Trump, too. Typically seen as a not-quite-two-year episode more or less confined to the mid-’70s, the saga actually lasted for almost a decade. The government ascertained quickly that the Trumps had failed to adhere to the terms of the decree and apparently had little intention of ever complying. A revolving-door roster of exasperated prosecutors, stymied by Cohn’s shameless, time-buying tactics, found it practically impossible to enforce the specifics of their “win.” And Trump simply waited them out. He emerged in Manhattan, his reputation virtually unscathed, to wrest unparalleled public subsidies to convert the collapsing Commodore Hotel into the glossy Grand Hyatt and then pry additional tax cuts to erect Trump Tower—the one-two punch of projects that constituted rocket propellant for Trump’s entire adult existence. His monetary wealth. His life-force celebrity. His extraordinary presidency.

“He’s used litigation historically,” O’Brien told me, “to keep hostile forces at bay and to delay reckonings.”

22. Sometimes winning is just winning that hasn’t happened yet.

It’s how he’s used the word “comeback” over the years. “If there’s a moment that you’re not quite a winner, you’re almost a winner. You’re practically a winner,” Blair explained. “It’s a cloak that contains winning as a part of it.”

23. And sometimes winning is whining.

“By claiming victory over and over again, it starts to become a self-fulfilling prophecy,” Trump biographer Harry Hurt III told me.

He believes, because of Norman Vincent Peale, that simple assertion can lead to actual achievement.

“I win, I win, I always win,” he said in 2005. And when he doesn’t? “I keep whining and whining until I win.”

“He’s the most successful failer of all time,” I once wrote.

24. Reality doesn’t matter.

He just rewrites (and prewrites) his own history:

He is who he is, is where he is, is seen the way he’s seen by so many, because of it. He’s self-made! (He’s not.) He’s a businessman with a Midas touch. (He’s not.) He’s an outsider! (He was an insider—thanks to his father’s political connections—the day he was born.)

“He’s been able to create his own reality,” late Trump biographer Wayne Barrett once told me.

“He can build 200 yards of wall and say he built the wall,” old Upper West Side Trump foe Steve Robinson told me. “And the press, which has been so diligent in fact-checking, will say, ‘No, no, no, wait a second, Mr. President. You didn’t build the wall that you said you were going to build. You only built 200 yards of it.’ And it won’t matter.”

25. The past doesn’t matter.

Never has. Not to him:

Trump, according to those who know him best, is not a man given to backward looks—“the most present human being I ever met,” in the words of an intimate. Traditionally, Trump has seen the past as something to be either razed or twisted for expediency.

“Trump has about as much interest in history as he does in literature and philosophy,” O’Brien told me. “Which is to say almost nonexistent.”

26. The future doesn’t matter.

He is the “episodic man.”

27. Nothing, actually, matters.

Whatever happens, happens,” he says.

“I’m very much a fatalist,” he says.

“He’s empowered to be a fatalist,” O’Brien told me, “because he’s been insulated from his failures by wealth, privilege and celebrity—so the impact of catastrophes is more muted in his world than it is in the world of an average person.”

28. Create your own world.

It helps explain his complicated relationship with New York:

For Trump, as inhospitable as he found the city on the street, the parlors of high society were equally problematic—and he created a refuge. It was some 600 feet in the sky, where the faucets were gold, the baseboards were onyx and the paintings on the ceiling, he would claim, were comparable to the work of Michelangelo in the Sistine Chapel. At the top of Trump Tower, biographer Tim O’Brien told me, he could live “at a remove from the city and its amazing bloodstream of ideas and people and culture”—“encased,” added fellow biographer Gwenda Blair, “within this bubble of serenity and privilege.”

“I am the creator of my own comic book,” he once said, “and I love living in it.”

29. Tell your own story.

He started telling his early on:

Trump was, and still is, they say, a confident, competitive, aggressive, impulsive, zero-sum, win-at-all-costs, transactional, unpredictable, often underinformed and ill-prepared, gut-following, ego-driven, want-it-and-want-it-now negotiator. His self-burnished image as a tip-top deal-maker long has obscured an actual record that is far more mixed, pocked with moves and acquisitions that scratched a passing itch but created massive financial problems later. His best work, too, was his earliest work. Trump was at his most patient, his most diligent, his most attentive and his most creative—his most effective—some 35 to 45 years ago, when he was intent on pile-driving into the cultural bedrock powerful storylines on which he would build his career as a celebrity business tycoon.

“Americans are suckers for a good story,” Sheinkopf told me. “Donald Trump is going to give ’em a good story.”

“Donald Trump is an excellent storyteller. It’s like we’re all amazed by his ability to cast himself in the best light possible. And that’s kind of what campaigning is,” Amanda Carpenter, a former speechwriter for Ted Cruz and the author of Gaslighting America: Why We Love It When Trump Lies to Us, told me. “He just does it with staggering audacity.”

30. Shame is for losers.

“He’s not feeling ashamed,” Res once told me. “He’s feeling aggrieved.”

31. There is no subtext.

And there is no filter.

He thinks it, he says it.

He thinks it, he tweets it.

32. Everything’s a transaction.

“Donald Trump,” Barrett wrote, in January of 1979, “is a user of other users.”

“As a contributor,” Trump told POLITICO in a statement in the summer 2015, referring to checks he’s written to [Hillary Clinton’s] campaigns as well as the Clintons’ foundation and Bill and Hillary Clinton’s attendance at his third wedding, “I demanded that they be there—they had no choice and that’s what’s wrong with our country. Our country is run by and for donors, special interests and lobbyists, and that is not a good formula for our country’s success. With me, there are no lobbyists and special interests. My only special interest is the United States of America.”

33. Nothing’s on the level.

Trump was “schooled and shaped by some of the most committed, effective and objectionable practitioners of quid pro quo.”

34. The ends justify the means.

“He stands for what he can get away with,” D’Antonio, the biographer, told me. “Looking for the loophole, pushing it as wide as possible, going through it,” Blair added. “There’s a certain American romance to getting away with it,” said Jim Zirin, a former federal prosecutor and the author of the book Plaintiff in Chief: A Portrait of Donald Trump in 3,500 Lawsuits.

“What he does, he has been successful at,” said Sexton. “It’s important to recognize that, or you go into the next discussion overconfident, thinking that he couldn’t possibly pull this crap off. And you wake up six months later, look around, and wonder, ‘How the hell did he pull that crap off?’ And that’s a real danger. And it keeps happening.”

“Imagine if Roy Cohn were president,” Marty London, one of the lawyers who worked on Cohn’s disbarment, told me. “That’s basically what we have now. We have a Roy Cohn as president. He has no morals. There are no boundaries. He does what he wants.”

35. You can’t be stopped if nobody stops you.

Over and over it’s been true for Trump:

Whether Trump could remain not only financially solvent but reputationally intact was an open question for the entirety of the first half of the 1990s. So many times, he could have been snuffed, stopped, rendered a relative footnote, his place in the history of this country limited to status as a gauche totem of a regrettable epoch of greed. That, needless to say, is not how the tale played out. Trump is many things. A developer. A promoter. A master media manipulator. A grown-old rich kid. The president of the United States. Above all else, though, he is a survivor.

“The ultimate survivor,” former Trump casino executive Jack O’Donnell told me recently.

But it’s not just that Trump has survived that’s important to consider at this moment—it’s how he has done it. Armed with extraordinary audacity, constitutional sangfroid, a stomach for tumult, an acumen for recasting obvious losses into strange sorts of wins, and the prodigious safety net bequeathed by his wealthy, wily father, he has plowed past myriad hazards. And he did it by tying himself tightly to his bankers and lenders in New York and to gaming industry regulators in New Jersey—who let him live large until they couldn’t let him die without fatally wounding themselves. He effectively inhabited hosts, using them to get bigger and bigger in the ’80s until he was practically perversely invincible.

“He’s a magician that way,” said Jennifer Mercieca, a professor at Texas A&M University and the author of a book about Trump’s rhetoric, Demagogue for President. “Other people would stop and recognize that they were defeated. Or that they should be shamed. He refuses.”

“He thinks he’s immune to everything,” O’Brien said. “Always did,” said Res.

36. People aren’t inherently good.

“Man is the most vicious of all animals,” Trump told People in 1981.

“Never make people your heroes,” Nunberg told me when I asked what he’d learned from Trump.

37. People look out for themselves.

“He figures it out,” Blair told me, “so that for people to go against him, it’s going to make them look bad.”

38. People don’t change.

“Can the leopard change its spots?” Blair asked. “The tiger its stripes?”

Not Trump:

Trump has managed in the Oval Office in Washington pretty much exactly the way he managed on Fifth Avenue in New York, say people who worked for him at different points over the past 45 years as well as writers of the best, most thoroughly reported Trump biographies. In recent interviews, they recounted a shrewd, slipshod, charming, vengeful, thin-skinned, belligerent, hard-charging manager who was an impulsive hirer and a reluctant firer and surrounded himself with a small cadre of ardent loyalists; who solicited their advice but almost always ultimately went with his gut and did what he wanted; who kept his door open and expected others to do the same not because of a desire for transparency but due to his own insecurities and distrusting disposition; and who fostered a frenetic, internally competitive, around-the-clock, stressful, wearying work environment in which he was a demanding, disorienting mixture of hands-on and hands-off—a hesitant delegator and an intermittent micromanager who favored fast-twitch wins over long-term follow-through, promotion over process and intuition over deliberation.

39. You are who you are.

“He’s the same Donald Trump as the Donald Trump I knew when I was working with him,” former Trump Organization executive vice president Louise Sunshine, who worked for Trump for 15 years starting in the early ’70s, told me.

“Same guy we’ve known for the last 20 years,” O’Brien said. “Donald being Donald,” said former Trump publicist Alan Marcus. “He’s never going to evolve in how he does things and runs things,” a former employee said. “Because that’s what got him to the Oval Office.”

“People,” Nunberg told me, “knew who they were electing, right?”

40. No slight is too small.

“As long as I’ve known him, he has never been able to take criticism of any kind,” said Nobles, the former Trump Shuttle president. “You’d think at this point you’d be able to roll with the punches. But he never has.”

41. Never turn the other cheek.

Get even!”

Go for the jugular.”

“… as viciously and violently as you can.”

Makes me feel so good.”

42. Nothing worse than weakness.

“Weakness,” Tony Schwartz, the co-writer of The Art of the Deal, told me, “is Trump’s greatest fear.” He can’t show it.

43. The loneliness is bottomless.

Always has been:

The middle son of a stony, workaholic father with whom he had an “almost businesslike” relationship, Trump is a double divorcee, a boss with a professed distaste for having partners or shareholders, a television-tethered, hamburger-eating homebody and a germaphobe who has described shaking hands as “terrible,” “barbaric” and “one of the curses of American society.” He’s been a loner most of his life. At New York Military Academy, everybody knew him but few of his fellow cadets knew him well. In college, he made no friends he kept. After he moved to Manhattan, he lived in a sealed-off triplex penthouse, relied on a small, family-first cadre of loyalists and mainly made more enemies than allies (the mayor was a “moron,” elite “so-called social scene” types were “extremely unattractive people,” and on and on). At his casinos in Atlantic City, he was adamant about not mingling with the gambling masses. Now, in Washington, he’s a two-scoops cable-watcher inside the White House when he’s not weekending at his clutch of protective, name-branded bubbles. Trump, forever, has collected an array of acquaintances, fellow celebrities and photo op props, while friendships mostly have been interchangeable, temporary and transactional.

“He was and is a lonely man,” O’Donnell told me.

“One of the loneliest people I’ve ever met,” O’Brien told me.

44. Everybody needs to be seen.

It’s something I wrote in 2016:

Trump has tried his whole life to address the lack of love he felt as a boy by attracting as much attention as he could as a man. … Trump is an addict. Not of substances. He’s a teetotaler. And he has said he’s never done drugs. “But his drug is himself,” one of his former campaign advisers told me this past weekend. He has put himself on display his entire adult life. He was never some mysterious titan of industry pulling hidden levers of power inside secluded mansions. He has always wanted to be seen, and seen and seen and seen …

It’s something I wrote in 2020: “Donald Trump is the damaged product of an absent mother and a sociopathic father.”

“A black hole of need,” in the words of Mary Trump.

45. Nothing’s ever over.

“He’s always going to have something,” Blair said, “to make you tune in again.”

Facebook missteps stoke fears of long political ad blackout online

When Facebook and Google announced plans to ban new political ads around the end of the election, they left one key thing out of the new policies: an end date.

Now, as Facebook’s pre-election blackout on new ads begins and a total post-election freeze on Google and Facebook ads looms, digital strategists in both parties are worried that ads on the biggest digital platforms may never come back — or, at the very least, they’ll be down so long that they paralyze campaigns in major races set to stretch beyond Nov. 3.

Those fears spiked in recent days after Facebook’s blackout started Tuesday with the social media giant taking down ads that groups in both parties said had been pre-approved. A day and a half later, many groups said they are still struggling to resolve these inconsistencies with the companies’ advertising reps.

Democrats, in particular, are concerned that the undefined timeline for restarting online ads could hamper efforts to raise money and voter awareness around potential Senate runoffs in Georgia and Mississippi in January. Others noted that the policies will make it more difficult for campaigns to raise legal funds for recounts.

One Democratic operative affiliated with a Georgia Senate campaign reached out to Google’s representative for advice on budgeting advertising for the expected January runoff in the state, but Google advised that they should “not budget” for that spending at all — setting off “alarm bells” inside the party that the ban may extend well into 2021, according to a person familiar with the exchange.

“They went from implying it would be a week or so, and [now] they’ve stopped implying that and they are using the words like indefinitely,” said Maddie Kriger, director of digital media at Priorities USA, a major Democratic super PAC that had nearly 600 pre-approved ads taken down by Facebook this week. “It’s super concerning that there [could] be elections happening that we can’t communicate to voters around.”

An official with the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee also said that the tech giants have been “intentionally vague” about when they would start running new political ads again, after initially giving the committee the impression that the bans would be short-term.

“We’re deeply concerned that at this late date, it’s still unknown when and how political ads will resume,” Scott Fairchild, the DSCC executive director, said in a statement shared with POLITICO. “It is their responsibility to share this information with candidates, campaigns and their users, and we expect immediate answers.”

Representatives of Facebook and Google said that their political ad bans were temporary.

“Our intention is to block political and issue ads only for a short period of time,” a Facebook spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “As part of our efforts to protect the integrity of this election, we are temporarily blocking the creation of any new political and issue ads during the final week of the election and all political and issue ads in the election’s immediate aftermath.”

In early October, Sarah Schiff, a Facebook product manager, told reporters that after all “social issue, electoral and political ads” are paused after the polls close on Nov. 3, “advertisers can expect this to last for a week, so this is subject to change and we will notify advertisers when this policy is lifted,” noting that they are “temporarily stopping these ads after the election to reduce opportunities for confusion or abuse.”

For Google, its “sensitive events” policy — which will begin after polls close on Election Day and prevent advertisers from being able to run ads referencing candidates or the election — was also deployed at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic, initially blocking Covid-related ads to prevent misinformation and price gouging. Eventually, Google allowed ads around coronavirus to start running.

“Given the likelihood of delayed election results this year, when polls close on November 3, we will pause ads referencing the 2020 election, the candidates, or its outcome,” said Charlotte Smith, a spokeswoman for Google. “This is a temporary measure, and we’ll notify advertisers when this policy is lifted.”

But without a firm end date, some digital consultants are now privately speculating that the tech giants may be looking to get out of the political ad game, as they confront a public relations headache and concerns about online misinformation. A Senate hearing Wednesday illustrated how deep anger with big tech companies runs in both parties, with Sen. Ted Cruz pressing Twitter CEO Jack Dorsey on whether his platform had the ability to “influence elections.” When Dorsey said no, Cruz shot back: “Why do you block anything?”

A Democratic digital strategist, granted anonymity to speak candidly, said there’s an “extreme level of concern that political ads are going to be banned outright.” Another Republican digital consultant said he’s “surprised” they haven’t already banned political ads to “avoid the headache,” but “if they do, Congress will probably be more willing to regulate them.”

“A total ban on political advertising by Facebook and Google would be catastrophic,” said Eric Wilson, a GOP digital consultant who worked on Marco Rubio’s 2016 presidential campaign. “Together, they account for the vast majority of online advertising. This would shut off candidates, PACs, and issue advocacy groups from reaching voters.”

But Wilson, echoing others, noted that “just looking at the revenue Facebook has generated from political ads this year, it’d be gross malpractice on behalf of shareholders if they shut that off.”

“Ultimately, I think Facebook likes to make money and there’s lots of money in politics,” said Ryan Alexander, a Democratic digital strategist.

Facebook drew sharp criticism from political groups and operatives this week after initiating its pre-election ad blackout. The process arbitrarily removed pre-approved ads from its platform, cutting off key messaging to voters in the crucial final days before the election.

“We are aware that a subset of ads may show as paused,” read a statement Facebook sent to advertisers on Tuesday, which was shared with POLITICO. “Any ads that met the criteria to run during the final campaign will be eligible to run once we’ve resolved any data lags. We apologize for any inconvenience.”

But Facebook has not yet given advertisers any clarity about what caused the removals, acknowledging to them that it was a “technical glitch,” consultants said. Rob Leathern, Facebook’s director of product management, tweeted Tuesday afternoon that the platform was “investigating” issues into “ads being paused incorrectly” and that they were “working quickly on these fixes.” But several consultants and groups said they were still facing challenges in returning their ads to the platform well into Wednesday.

Facebook noted, however, that while some ads may have been pulled because of technical issues, still others may have been pulled down because of “user error” and not complying with their policy.

Campaigns and outside groups scrambled to upload ads into Facebook’s system before the ban on new ads began. Some of them tried to anticipate the future so they could run closer to the election, including ads from President Donald Trump about GDP numbers set to be released on Thursday, or ads from groups like the ACLU encouraging voters to stay in line after polls close.

Nevertheless, many of those pre-loaded ads were among those that got removed.

“This is a clusterfuck,” said Annie Levene, a Democratic digital consultant. “We’ve been communicating with a group of the electorate for persuasion or for [get-out-the-vote] for weeks, millions of dollars have been sunk into it, and when those ads disappear, we lose the ability to communicate with those people, and we’re losing precious hours, potentially days.”

A DSCC official said that “just one week out” from Election Day, “the DSCC, along with several of its most competitive campaigns in Montana, North Carolina and Texas were blocked from running ads,” issues that “still hadn’t been resolved as of Wednesday afternoon.” The official also noted that the “poorly defined policy” has “implications for both fundraising and voter outreach after Nov. 3.”

The effects of Facebook’s pre-election policy are running all the way down the ballot, from both presidential campaigns to state legislative races.

“In a state legislative race that only has 30,000 voters in a media market of more than a million, you can micro-target [on Facebook], so to lose that” is “problematic,” said David Tackett, a Republican consultant who works on a slate of state legislative races in Oklahoma and saw some of his pre-approved ads pulled. “And to find out a week before the election that 15 to 20 percent of your budget can’t be spent on what you planned? That’s extremely frustrating.”

This is a “site-wide issue that’s affecting everyone,” said one Republican working with a major outside group. Facebook, meanwhile, is “going dark on people,” the person said.

Both the Biden and the Trump campaigns confirmed that they had pre-approved ads removed during Facebook’s policy implementation. But the Trump campaign also created new ads after the ban was supposed to go into effect on Oct. 27, HuffPost reported.

The campaign was able to create ads saying “Election Day is today,” which cut against Facebook’s recommendations that advertisers only say “‘Vote on November 3’ instead of ‘Vote Today.’” Facebook removed most of the new ads after being contacted by HuffPost, the site reported.

The political digital ad ecosystem has already faced massive upheaval over the last two years. Google limited the targeting options political advertisers have on its platform at the end of 2019. Facebook declined to take the same step earlier this year, but over the summer, Facebook gave individual users the option to opt out of seeing political ads altogether.

Twitter, a smaller player in the digital ad space, outright banned political ads toward the end of 2019, and Adobe followed suit on its ad platform over the summer. At the time, Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg acknowledged that he’d also considered banning political ads altogether, but chose not to, noting that his platform would “err on the side of greater expression.”

Digital strategists were united in their calls for more clarity from the tech platforms.

“For the sake of both parties, lay down the ground rules and then keep those in place through the general election,” said Tim Cameron, a GOP consultant who also dealt with several ad disruptions. “You’d think they’d have been able to tell us something in the first quarter of this year about how they’d handle this.”

“They’re trying to address issues from 2016, and it’s 2020,” Cameron said.

Steven Overly contributed reporting.

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