Dispatch from the Front Line: JFC, America! (The F is for Florida.)
Joe Biden was leading the electoral college, but not by nearly enough to prevent a period of protracted uncertainty in America.
As The Line gave up last night, Joe Biden was leading the electoral college, but not by nearly enough to prevent a period of protracted uncertainty in America. Donald Trump will take Florida and, maybe, Georgia, both of which he needs to eke out a win. He also needs to maintain a lead in North Carolina; but the real race now rests with Pennsylvania and Michigan — both states that are unlikely to return definitive results for days. Biden still maintains a slightly higher probability of winning overall, but we cannot rule out a Trump victory at this juncture. In short; someone killed the butterfly. We are through the looking glass. If there is any good news tonight, it’s that the situation is so muddled that Trump cannot do what many feared and claim victory. All he and anyone else can do is wait.
The Line decision desk — which is actually an increasingly misshapen couch covered in dog fur and pizza crumbs — has released its final call: to hell with this, we're going to bed. We aren't going to know anything for days. At best.
Well, actually, that's not quite true. One thing is abundantly clear. Joe Biden may well win the presidency. Your Line editors did a quick informal poll of their own unscientific predictions tonight and concluded that Biden still has the better shot, but it's a damn near thing — we'd guess Biden over Trump if you put a gun to our heads, but not without our lives flashing before our eyes while we did so. But even if Biden puts together a way to win, tonight has shattered — irrevocably — many soothing lies that Americans and others across the free world have told themselves over the last four years.
Donald Trump's victory in 2016 was not a fluke. It was not a Russian intelligence coup. It was not the result of a particularly dreary and inept Democratic candidate or bad decisions by her campaign. All of these things contributed to his win, to be clear, but none of them caused it. Trumpism is a fact of American political life. It will be for years to come.
Other things that we now cannot further indulge the luxury of refusing to accept: America's polling industry is shattered and should be taken out behind the nearest barn and shot; the flailing American COVID-19 pandemic response that has so horrified the world did not doom Trump; nor did his impeachment or frequent embarrassing outbursts. The gradual debasement of the office, the increasingly open acceptance and tolerance of extremist fringes of the American body politic, the appalling handling of the children of would-be migrants ... we could go on, but the point is made. All of those are a matter of record, and yet Trump can only be defeated by the narrowest, flimsiest of margins. There's still a chance, in fact, that he wins.
What this means for America, and the world, will only become fully apparent in the fullness of time. But the one thing that is clear right now is that even if Joe Biden wins the presidency, the entire Democratic narrative of the last four years died tonight. There was no blue wave. No massive break to Biden. No collapse in GOP support among key voting blocs. No widespread repudiation of MAGA. The GOP didn't need to burn ballots to win — they got their vote out. There was no groundswell of yearning for a purer, more decent American politics. No horrified recoiling away from the speedy appointment of Amy Coney Barrett. And the strong support of Cuban-American voters for Trump in Florida also puts a torpedo in the side of one of the most popular myths of all: that Trump is a candidate of shrinking white demographic, a last spasm of frustration among a voting bloc sliding into irrelevance.
The progs may win the White House, but their fundamental version of the last four years is destroyed.
We at The Line are no fans of Donald Trump, as you've probably noticed, but we will say this for him — he is plain about what he is. The constant lying about this, that and the other thing doesn't obscure the deeper truth about his nature: Trump is Trump. He always has been, and cannot help but be. For the last four years, Americans have had their noses rubbed in it, and ... well, at time of writing, he's basically tied in the popular vote.
One thing that has baffled your Line editors these last four years is the sheer persistence of surprise among American progressives and centrists, and those anti-Trump conservatives who dared stick their heads up. Every new Trump scandal, every dog whistle at a rally, every nudge-and-wink to white nationalists, every eye-rolling suggestion that one combats a virus by aspirating household cleaners, has been met by shock.
Shock is no longer a luxury Americans can afford. The inability of the American left and centre to plainly and clearly see the political reality for what it is threatens the entire American project, and the stability of the Western world along with it. We at The Line do not have any specific advice to offer those Americans who wish to defeat Donald Trump, but any winning strategy must start with this: see him for what he is, God damn you. See your country for what it is becoming. Get over your shock and awe and stop tweeting about how Trumpism can't "become normal." It is the new normal, you idiots. And if you don't shake off your cultural jetlag and wake the fuck up lickity split, it's gonna stay that way for a good long while. We are counting on you to contain the Cult of MAGA, and you are letting us down.
Trump is not a fluke, nor is he the problem. He is a symptom of the problem. And you won't have a shot at fixing it until you realize what you're up against.
Lastly, as the Sum of all Fears comes to pass, it strikes us at The Line that those who had been following most media narratives about this election would not be prepared for what we're seeing now. Sure, we all knew that the extraordinary early ballot and mail-in votes would ensure a long night, and perhaps many long days or even weeks of uncertainty. That scenario seems all-but-certain now, which will put America in a state of interminable limbo; one in which any number of previously unthinkable scenarios become possible. Trump may declare victory prematurely. Militias and activists may take to the streets in a race to see who wins 2020’s Gavrilo Princip Prize for Unforeseeable Consequences. Cthulhu may arise from its deep and predatory slumber beneath the sea.
But what none of us was entirely prepared for the prospect of Joe Biden losing.
The polls showing a Biden lead have simply been too consistent for too long. Biden’s lead had nationally ranged from 5-10 points for literally months, with shockingly little variation. State-level polls in the various battlegrounds were closer, but all seemed to provide a clear picture: Biden was slightly outperforming Clinton, at the worst, in all the areas he needed to win. It wasn’t likely to be a Biden blowout, but it was likely to be a Biden win.
That’s not what is shaping up tonight, at least not necessarily. As noted above, we still think the odds favour Biden, but only by a thin margin. The polls were off, again. Particularly in Florida. Like, JFC. Look at frickin’ Florida!
This seems to be the error that we in the media can't stop making: we frame too much of our understanding of narratives around polling — polling that seems to becoming increasingly unreliable.
There are reasons why this has happened. As newsrooms collapsed and fewer resources could be devoted to travel and reporting, polling offered a cheap and convenient alternative. The rapid consolidation of major media outlets into a few major cities — entirely a consequence of a massively disrupted legacy media economic model — has created news deserts across much of North America, but that was OK, we told ourselves, because you didn’t need a few dozen reporters in a small region if you could just call a few hundred local residents and apply a weighting formula to what they told you. We fell for the idea that this was somehow a more scientific approach to political journalism.
But when did it become the media's job to predict an election result rather than to simply cover the election, and the issues fought within it? When polling data were first introduced to political coverage, they were careful, expensive additions to news stories, and buttressed by all kinds of caveats about their predictive limits.
At some point, that caution dissipated. We stopped using polls to illuminate issues and trends, and instead allowed polling to become an end in and of itself. We also grew oblivious to how manipulative polling could be; it's not uncommon for campaigns to release skewed polls to generate stories about a "momentum" that they are trying to fabricate.
Math feels certain, and reassuring. It now shapes the kinds of stories we tell, and where. Perhaps it's time to put polling back in its rightful place in our political coverage: it should have a role, but not a defining one. Polls should be tangential at best to stories about policy, politicians, and, most especially, the people who elect them. The problem, of course, is that doing so would require a much larger, much more robust and vastly more local media ecosystem.
And if we had that, The Line wouldn’t exist, would it?
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