FOUR YEARS ago Democrats groused that Donald Trump had secured victory in the presidential election through razor-thin victories in three states, meaning that 77,774 voters in effect swung the election. This time, regardless of a lopsided popular vote in the Democrats’ favour, the electoral-college margin was even thinner. The final, certified results show that had just 43,560 voters, or 0.03% of the total, in three states (Arizona, Georgia and Wisconsin) changed their minds, there would have been a tie in the electoral college. The outcome would then have been decided by a still more arcane, less-majoritarian election in the House of Representatives, probably in Mr Trump’s favour—making it the third time in 20 years that Democrats would have lost the presidency despite winning the popular vote.
That nightmarish scenario for Democrats has been narrowly avoided, however. All states except Wisconsin finalised their results by December 8th. On December 14th the electoral college will meet and elect Joe Biden as the 46th president of the United States. It will do so by a pledged margin of 306 votes to 232. This is exactly the same as Mr Trump’s margin four years ago, which he described as a “landslide” back then and now decries as pure fraud.
The full picture of the election has emerged only slowly. Early on the evening of November 3rd, Mr Trump won the crucial state of Florida with unexpected ease. He looked stronger than anticipated in Georgia and North Carolina. Rather than leading by ten percentage points in the popular vote, as some polls had predicted, Mr Biden appeared to be nearly tied with the president on election night—a thin margin of 1.5 points, or just 1.9m votes. Given the electoral college’s inherent advantage for Republicans, Democrats struggled with their traumatic recollections of Mr Trump’s seemingly unimaginable defeat of Hillary Clinton in 2016.
In the end, the popular vote was not nearly as close as that (see chart). The picture changed partly because of the perennial slow vote-counting in populous Democratic strongholds such as California and New York, and also because of the unusually large numbers of (mostly Democratic-leaning) Americans who voted by post in this cycle because of the covid-19 pandemic. Mr Biden’s popular-vote margin has swelled to 4.5 points, or more than 7m Americans.
That is a good bit healthier than Hillary Clinton’s margin of 2.1 percentage points. Even so, Democrats came surprisingly close to losing the election as a result of America’s byzantine electoral-college rules, which inflate the value of small, typically Republican-leaning states and allocate votes on a winner-take-all basis.
The president is still denying defeat, refusing to concede or to go gently into that good night. His legal team has racked up an impressive record of one win and nearly 50 losses challenging election results in state and federal courts on its quixotic quest to overturn the outcome.
On December 8th Mr Trump got the especially sobering piece of news that the Supreme Court, which he had been “counting on” to look at the ballots and deliver him a second presidential term, had stamped out a wild lawsuit that sought to reverse his loss in Pennsylvania. The plaintiffs sought to toss away the state’s entire mail-in ballot, which would have disenfranchised 2.6m voters. The end came in a whimper: a one-sentence order issued merely 34 minutes after the plaintiffs, a group of eight Pennsylvania Republicans, filed their last brief. No justices noted their dissent.
As preposterous as this contention was, it attracted the support of 23 House Republicans and Senator Ted Cruz, who had offered to argue the case before the court. And the brusquely rejected case did not even take the prize for the wackiest and most anti-democratic lawsuit. That honour goes to the state of Texas, which sued four other states—Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—in an attempt to throw out Mr Biden’s victories on the day states were required to finalise their results. The Supreme Court will entertain this chutzpah-laden request no more than it did the other last-ditch effort. In the words of Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California at Irvine, the move is merely “a press release masquerading as a lawsuit”. ■
This article appeared in the United States section of the print edition under the headline “Final countdown”