Why Donald Trump declared victory when he has not won the US election

US president seeks to cast doubt on postal ballots that may hand Joe Biden victory

Donald Trump speaks as votes are counted
(Image credit: 2020 Getty Images)

After a highly unpredictable US election campaign that has been upended by coronavirus and the Black Lives Matter protests, results day is following a familiar script.

“President Trump has told confidants he’ll declare victory on Tuesday night if it looks like he’s ‘ahead’,” US news website Axios reported last weekend. “That’s even if the electoral college outcome still hinges on large numbers of uncounted votes in key states like Pennsylvania.”

This morning, as the count continued in Pennsylvania, Donald Trump did exactly that.

Subscribe to The Week

Escape your echo chamber. Get the facts behind the news, plus analysis from multiple perspectives.


Sign up for The Week's Free Newsletters

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

From our morning news briefing to a weekly Good News Newsletter, get the best of The Week delivered directly to your inbox.

Sign up

“We were getting ready to win this election,” he said from the White House early on Wednesday. “Frankly, we did win this election… As far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.”

Trump’s claim is based on partial results - and even they give Joe Biden the edge. According to latest figures from The Guardian, the Democratic challenger is leading the race for electoral college votes by 238 to 213.

However, states worth a total of 87 electoral college votes are still too close to call, and in these races Trump might suspect that his position will weaken as more ballots are counted.

“Due to the pandemic, many Democratic voters in the potentially decisive states of Georgia, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan cast their ballots by mail,” says Slate. And “it was always expected that a big block of pro-Biden ballots would be counted in the hours and days after election night”.

Yet in what The New York Times describes as “a reckless attack on the democratic process”, Trump has claimed that counting these votes would represent “a major fraud”.

According to Axios, the president and his advisers have been “laying the groundwork for this strategy for weeks”, with the aim of planting the idea that the “Democrats would have ‘stolen’ the election”.

In fact, vote-counting usually drags on long after the polls close, even when the result is decisive.

“Election results are never truly final on the night of the election,” says Business Insider. News networks may project a winner based on partial returns, but “in every election, including in 2016, many states ended up counting a substantial proportion of their ballots after election day”.

What is “remarkable” is that Trump may end up undermining his own victory, says CNN. “It appears that the president has a good chance of winning outstanding states in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia, North Carolina and Michigan, which could hand him a second term.”

Continue reading for free

We hope you're enjoying The Week's refreshingly open-minded journalism.

Subscribed to The Week? Register your account with the same email as your subscription.