Opinion

5 way-too-early general election scenarios

From a 2016 repeat to a Biden blowout, this is the realistic range of possibilities for November

At the risk of sounding like one of those people who writes articles in January with headlines like "20 predictions for Michigan's offensive line in 2020" (which definitely aren't occupying half the tabs in my browser at the moment), I would like to suggest that it is worth talking about the election. Not the primaries that will continue through June, but the one in November that will pit an incumbent Donald Trump against Joe Biden, the now-inevitable Democratic nominee.

What's going to happen in the fall? Here are five scenarios arranged in order of, well, I won't say plausibility but how far removed they are from what happened last time.

Scenario 1: The map looks the same

I think it's worth starting here because, well, it's familiar. The biggest obstacle to this taking place is that Trump would need to hold on to Wisconsin (very doable, especially with hundreds of thousands of voters newly purged from the rolls), Michigan (possible but likely to be a damn near-run thing), and Pennsylvania (ditto). Biden's strong showing in Michigan on Tuesday is already being taken as confirmation that he will be a strong candidate there in November. He probably will be, but this will depend upon strong turnout from African-American voters, whose participation in this year's primary did not scale with other Democrats in the state. Getting black voters to the polls will be the single most important issue for Biden in Michigan. The same will be true in Pennsylvania, the state in which Trump's victory surprised me most in 2016. Electoral College result: Trump 304, Biden 227.

Scenario 2: The Rust Belt turns blue again (sort of)

Here we have another re-election scenario for the president. Much of the discussion of the 2016 election results focused on Trump's historic reclamation of states like Michigan and Wisconsin. But the truth is that it was Arizona and, especially, Florida, with its 29 electoral votes, that really cemented his victory in 2016. If he had won Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, and Pennsylvania but lost both these two states, Hillary Clinton would be president right now. Fortunately for Trump, it is much easier to imagine a world in which Michigan and Pennsylvania go back to the Democrats but Wisconsin and Ohio remain red, along with Arizona and Florida. It would be an exceedingly narrow victory, mind you, but like Robby Bobby said, "If you ain't first, you're last." Electoral College result: Trump 270, Biden 268.

Scenario 3: The Rust Belt turns blue again (for real this time)

Above I mentioned the possibility that Trump could still win if Michigan and Pennsylvania go for Biden. This is true, but not if Wisconsin reverts as well. Since these are widely considered the three most competitive states in 2020, it's certainly not unthinkable. It would have to be all three, for Biden though, if he doesn't break through elsewhere: the defections of any two of these three would not cut it. Electoral College result: Biden 278, Trump 260.

Scenario 4: The red tsunami

This is probably a right-wing fever dream, so I'm going to be brief: Imagine that Trump wins all the states he did in 2016, plus Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Nevada, all of which were very close last time. What exactly is the path here, though? I don't know, maybe The New York Times gives Biden a 90-percent chance of winning and a lot of voters in these places stay home. Or maybe Trump fulfills his ambition of suspending payroll taxes for a year and people are really happy. Electoral College result: Trump 326, Biden 212.

Scenario 5: Building the blue wall and making Mar-a-Lago pay for it

Basically the mirror-image of the former. In this scenario, the Democrats return the map to what it was in 2012, plus Arizona, with the exception that Ohio, which is essentially a red state now, sticks with the GOP. Again, this seems fairly unlikely to me, but it is definitely what the party that nominated Biden as an Obama-era throwback candidate is hoping to achieve. Good luck! Electoral College result: Biden 318, Trump 220.

Bonus scenario: The pundit special

Okay, this is one of those things like "brokered convention" or "Evan McMuffin wins Utah" that is so dumb only a pundit could even entertain it as a possibility — right? Well, it turns out that there are 64 different ways of arriving at an Electoral College tie. Many of the technically possible combinations are absurd and many involve the weirdness inherent in Nebraska and Maine splitting their electoral votes, but late the other night I found one that struck me as not only plausible but at least as likely as some of the scenarios sketched above. Unfortunately I can't remember what it was. The closest thing I can suggest now is that if Trump loses Michigan and Wisconsin up north while managing to hold on to Pennsylvania, but Arizona turns blue for some reason, boom: 269-269, baby.

As you might recall from high-school civics (or your no-doubt exhaustive study of the 1824 presidential election), when there is a tie in the Electoral College the president is chosen by the House of Representatives. But instead of a straight vote by the current membership, the House delegations of each state would be asked to vote. This would give Republicans a slight edge because they control 26 states to the Democrats' 23 (Pennsylvania is currently tied). As an added bonus, the Senate would pick the vice president separately.

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