Trump, Biden Camps Jockey Over How to Parse Photo-Finish Results
“I Voted” stickers at an early voting polling location for the 2020 Presidential election at Capital One Arena in Washington, D.C. (Photographer: Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)

Trump, Biden Camps Jockey Over How to Parse Photo-Finish Results

President Donald Trump’s and Democrat nominee Joe Biden’s campaigns claimed the inside track to victory on election eve, but girded their supporters to prepare for a photo finish in the hotly contested presidential contest.

Biden’s campaign manager, Jen O’Malley Dillon argued that the former vice president’s success banking early votes and his steady polling lead means any path for Trump would rely on eking out victories in three states where vote counting is expected to take days or longer, despite the president’s repeated statements he thinks a winner should be declared Tuesday night.

And her counterpart on Trump’s team argued on Twitter that voters showing up to the polls on Tuesday could more than wipe out Democrats’ early advantage, and propel the incumbent over the finish line.

Trump, Biden Camps Jockey Over How to Parse Photo-Finish Results

For both sides, setting expectations could prove crucial. The deadly coronavirus pandemic has disrupted the familiar patterns of Election Day, with close to 100 million Americans casting their vote early and turnout expected to challenge historic records. As a result, tallying votes may prove slower and more complicated than in past years - even amid unprecedented excitement and angst for voters.

Biden’s campaign looked to pre-empt any effort by the president to declare victory early, after a report -- denied by Trump -- in Axios saying he would do so if he appeared to be leading key swing states.

“Under no scenario will Donald Trump be declared a victor on election night,” O’Malley Dillon told reporters during a pre-election briefing.

The president may jump to initial leads in many states because early returns traditionally come from rural areas where he’s expected to perform well, rather than cities and absentee votes that likely favor Democrats.

“We’re trying to do everything we can ahead of time to make it clear that just because Donald Trump says something on election night or suggests he might be winning, that is not going to be based in fact. There is no way he will be outright winning on election night,” O’Malley Dillon said.

But Trump’s campaign accused the Democrats of creating “a smoke screen” so that Americans wouldn’t believe a Trump victory. Justin Clark, the president’s deputy campaign manager, criticized Biden’s team for preparing talking points and campaign ads for the possibility of a prolonged vote count or recount.

Trump, Biden Camps Jockey Over How to Parse Photo-Finish Results

“What actually has happened is that Democrats fielded a candidate in Joe Biden who excites virtually no one, and his potential voters are not motivated to go to the polls in person,” Clark said in a statement Monday. “Democrats also made the mistake of spending months frightening their supporters away from voting in person because of the coronavirus, and now they’ve realized that their early vote lead will not be enough.”

But while Clark said Trump “wants every eligible voter to be able to vote, vote once, and have it counted,” the president himself said Sunday that votes counted after midnight should be invalidated because “that’s the way it’s been and that’s the way it should be.” Trump also said that he planned to send his lawyers to battleground states as soon as polls close.

O’Malley Dillon said it often takes days, or longer, to count results in many states and that Trump is “just making that up.” Vote counting, especially absentee ballots from military personnel and others overseas, sometimes take days to count and can delay election results.

Despite the president’s threat of legal action to block some votes from being counted, Trump’s campaign manager argued Monday that he should be able to overcome any early advantage built by Biden.

In a series of tweets, Bill Stepien said that Biden was winning a smaller proportion of the early vote in toss-up states like Ohio, Wisconsin, Georgia and Nevada than Hillary Clinton had in 2016. In Michigan, he said he expected Republicans to win votes cast on Election Day by a margin of more than 400,000 -- enough to defeat Biden by the campaign’s internal projections.

Stepien’s analysis didn’t grapple with the notion that Biden’s smaller early-vote margins could still prove decisive since many more voters elected to cast their ballots early this year due to the pandemic. But he said Trump had “the momentum in this race and the math available to him to win on Election Day.”

Trump himself has made a similar argument, saying “real” polls show him outperforming national surveys. Biden currently holds a 6.8 percentage-point advantage in the RealClearPolitics national polling average.

“They’re very concerned. The vote’s not there. It’s not there for them,” Trump said of Democrats. ”They had to get after that big early lead, and it could be that we’re leading. That’s a little problem.”

But O’Malley Dillon voiced broad confidence about Biden’s chances, pointing to strong early-voting turnout favoring Democrats in key states. In Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin, for instance, she said Trump would have to win more than 60% of the Election Day vote to overtake Biden’s early voting advantage, according to the Biden campaign’s calculations.

“Leads like ours and what we’re seeing will be difficult to overcome on Election Day,” she said.

Biden’s team cautioned that states likely to be both close and decisive in the race -- including Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin -- would likely take days to count.

But a Biden victory in a Sun Belt state like Florida, which counts its votes more quickly, could prove a death blow to Trump’s chances.

“Donald Trump has a very narrow path to win, he needs to win Florida, it is key to his path to victory,” O’Malley Dillon argued. For Biden, meanwhile, there are paths to victory that don’t include Florida if he is able to win either Georgia or North Carolina, she said.

The president has expressed confidence about his chances in his adopted home state, and accused Democrats and media and polling firms of downplaying his success.

“Looking tremendous in Florida so of course they don’t mention that,” Trump said Monday. “We’re really looking good all over in the real polls.”

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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