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Essential Politics: The GOP’s calendar problem

The White House is shown Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Washington.
The White House is shown Thursday, Nov. 12, 2020, in Washington.
(Associated Press)

Republicans took a key lesson away from the 2020 election: Winning for their side requires keeping their traditional voters and adding in the extra dose of support that President Trump’s backers can deliver.

In 2018, when Trump wasn’t on the ballot, many of his supporters failed to show up, and Republicans lost 40 seats in the House, giving Rep. Nancy Pelosi a second stint as speaker. Something of the reverse happened in key areas this year in the presidential election: Trump turned out a huge number of his supporters, but in traditionally Republican suburban territory from Atlanta to Philadelphia to Milwaukee to Phoenix, he lost ground — and ultimately key states.

Republican congressional candidates were able to get the benefit of all those extra Trump backers without losing their usual backing from suburban and rural voters. That allowed them to cut deeply into the Democratic majority in the House.

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In less than two months, Georgia likely will decide control of the Senate, and until then, Republicans want nothing that might anger or discourage those die-hard Trump supporters whose support they urgently need. And so, for more than a week, we’ve seen Republican leaders find ways to avoid contradicting Trump’s repeated, groundless efforts to cast doubt on Joe Biden’s victories in key states.

The strategy of avoiding a conflict with Trump has a certain cynical political logic to it. Its central vulnerability, however, may be the calendar.

A ticking clock

In the months leading up to the election, political figures and outside experts painted all sorts of potentially disastrous scenarios: The Postal Service might be unable to deliver hundreds of thousands of ballots on time, voters uncertain about mail-ballot rules might make errors that would disenfranchise themselves, an absence of elderly poll workers might lead to huge lines on election day.

In the end, none of that came to pass — perhaps all the repeated warnings helped fend off trouble, perhaps not.

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The “system was melting down” during the primaries this spring, but “election administrators did an unbelievable job” of retooling their systems for the general election, Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford Law School expert on elections, said during a presentation Thursday sponsored by the Citrin Center for Public Opinion Research at UC Berkeley.

A few states had long lines during the opening days of early in-person voting, mostly the result of eager voters wanting to record their choices as soon as possible. But those quickly dissipated, and thanks to the widespread use of mail-in ballots and early in-person ballots, the delays that have marred U.S. elections in the past, especially in Black and Latino communities, were largely avoided.

The smooth running of the election is all the more remarkable since a record number of Americans — likely just short of 160 million — cast ballots.

Now, much of the anxiety that hovered over the election has shifted to nervousness about the vote count. Trump has caused millions of people to question whether states will be able to complete their count and whether, in the end, he will find some way to overturn Biden’s victory. Short of that, he’s already disrupted the transition to a new administration.

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So far, although Trump’s lawsuits are “feeding the frenzy of conspiracy theories,” as Persily noted, there’s been no indication that they will change any results.

For the last week and a half, states have been in the counting phase of the election. More than 150 million ballots have been tallied, with several million more to go, especially in California and New York — two big, Democratic states that count ballots slowly.

As of Thursday evening, Biden led the vote count by about 3.4 percentage points, and he’ll likely end up with a margin of between 4 and 5 points — smaller than President Obama’s victory in 2008, but larger than the other four popular vote margins this century.

The counting phase of the election will start to end next week as the first major states hit deadlines set by state law to make their election results final. Florida’s deadline comes Tuesday, and over the ensuing two weeks, one state after another will formally certify their returns.

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That’s the remaining window in which Trump could try to reverse or delay the result in a key state. Once the final certification takes places, overturning it becomes a nearly impossible task. By law, all state recounts and challenges to the count must be finished by Dec. 8 as states move quickly toward the electoral college vote, which is set for Dec. 14.

So far, none of Trump’s court challenges has demonstrated fraud, let alone widespread problems. In Nevada, for example, Republicans alleged they had evidence of “thousands of examples of voter irregularities,” but so far, they have turned up just one example of an actual suspicious ballot, as Chris Megerian wrote. As of Thursday night, Biden’s lead in the state stood at 36,866 votes.

A similar problem affects Trump’s hopes of overturning state results through recounts, such as the one currently underway in Georgia (technically an audit, per officials), where Biden’s lead stood at 14,102: In the era of machine-based vote counting, recounts just don’t overturn margins that big.

As the Republican strategist Karl Rove wrote in the Wall Street Journal, only three statewide election results in the last half-century have been overturned through a recount. In those three, the biggest margin reversed was 355 votes. The other two were 261 and 215 votes.

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In Wisconsin, where Trump has said he wants a recount, officials did one four years ago at the behest of Green Party candidate Jill Stein. It turned up a discrepancy of 131 votes in Trump’s favor. Biden’s margin in that state is currently 20,546. (The 2016 recount cost Stein’s campaign $2 million; Trump will have to pay for this one if he goes through with his demand for it.)

By early December, Trump’s lawsuits likely will have run their course, and states will have certified their returns. There’s still a remote chance that a Republican-majority state legislature might try to change its state law to appoint pro-Trump electors in defiance of the popular will. But there’s no sign that any are seriously contemplating that, and it’s far from clear they could do it if they wanted to.

Once the electoral college meets and casts a majority of its votes for Biden, the constitutional requirements will have been met.

That’s where the Republican dilemma will become acute. At that point, Trump may still refuse to acknowledge his loss, but will Republican leaders continue to insist that the result is in doubt? Or will they belatedly acknowledge Biden’s victory, even at the risk of angering the Trump die-hards?

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The Senate outcome in Georgia is not all that will be at stake in how they answer that question.

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The truth (about Latinx voters) is out there

The Los Angeles Times’ new newsletter the Latinx Files highlights stories that capture the multitudes contained in Latinx communities — from culture to sports, from the pandemic to politics. But right now, as with nearly every other aspect of American life, it’s all about politics.

In the newsletter’s first edition, author Fidel Martinez spoke with Latinx voters about the 2020 election and the frustration of feeling unheard. We spoke with him about what the media and the campaigns missed and what’s next.

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A note about language: There’s no one agreed-upon term for these communities, as Fidel notes in explaining the newsletter’s name. The Times’ style in general is “Latino.” Because the newsletter prefers the gender-inclusive “Latinx,” that’s what we use here. Our conversation has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.

Laura Blasey: How do you think 2020 election coverage has compared to past years in its treatment of Latinx voters?

Fidel Martinez: I think more news outlets did a better job at exploring the nuance of the Latinx vote this time around, and much of what we saw take place on election day confirmed a lot of what the good reporting done by the likes of my colleagues Brittny Mejia and Melissa Gomez — and other journalists elsewhere, many of them Latinx — told us: We are not a monolithic electorate.

If people had been paying attention, that Trump improved his margins with Latinx voters in places like southern Florida, along the Texas border and even parts of California shouldn’t have been too much of a surprise. And yet a lot of people were still shocked that we didn’t vote uniformly.

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LB: What do you think were some of the most important story lines to come out in this election?

FM: The Latinx turnout in Arizona was such a huge deal — to me it felt like the culmination of a community resoundingly clapping back to the passage of SB 1070 of 2010. As much as people want to give credit to Cindy McCain for Arizona going blue, the state doesn’t flip without the Latinx and the Native American vote.

Another big story line I felt was well covered was the Biden campaign’s underperformance with Latinx voters. Politico’s Sabrina Rodriguez reported that Trump was winning over Cuban American voters in Miami back in October, and in March, James Barragan of the Dallas Morning News wrote about Biden’s struggle with Latinx voters during the Texas primaries.

Even Julián Castro, who phone banked in the Rio Grande Valley along with Beto O’Rourke and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez days before the election, warned his party about its approach to targeting Latinx voters back in August. All the clues were there.

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LB: This label of “the Latinx vote” is so flattening, but some of your sources in the newsletter also told you it’s frustrating to hear this media refrain of “Latinx voters aren’t a monolith.” What do you think representative language and conversations look like?

FM: I think a lot of that frustration stems from the fact that “Latinx voters aren’t a monolith” feels lazy. Yes, OK, we are not monolithic, but simply stating that doesn’t actually do anything for highlighting the wide array of experiences and political motivators that exist within our community.

A more representative approach would be the same one afforded to the white electorate. I’ve read and heard so much about white rural voters, white uneducated voters, white suburban voters, white Obama voters who became Trump voters. That same level of nuance can be found in the Latinx community.

I don’t think it’s an exaggeration to say that the future will be more Latinx than our present. Our community is younger than all other ethnic groups. We care about issues outside of immigration, and anyone who refuses to see this will likely miss the boat down the line.

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LB: Thanks for chatting! Anything else you want to share about your plans for the Latinx Files?

FM: Yes, I want to be clear that the Latinx Files isn’t me speaking for the entirety of our community. We want to use the newsletter as a platform to let our audience speak for itself. I’ve been inspired by what my colleagues Julia Wick and Houston Mitchell have done in their respective newsletters, Essential California and Dodgers Dugout — carving out a space for readers to share their experiences.

Sign up here to get the Latinx Files. New editions are published on Thursdays.

The latest on the transition

— More than a week after his stinging electoral defeat, Trump spent another day secluded in the White House on Thursday feverishly tweeting, watching television and telephoning allies — focused more on his own future than governing the nation as it struggles with a worsening pandemic, write White House reporters Noah Bierman, Chris Megerian and Eli Stokols.

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— Trump thought downplaying the pandemic would help the economy. But economics reporter Don Lee writes that Biden is betting the opposite with a plan to attack the virus that he’s already setting in motion.

— Biden has chosen longtime advisor Ron Klain to be his chief of staff. Klain is a trusted confidant with a thick resume of government service that contrasts with the inexperience common in Trump’s circle of aides, write Evan Halper and Janet Hook.

More about the election

Georgia has unexpectedly become host to a one-state referendum on a national question — which party should control the U.S. Senate? The outcome will probably shape the ambitions of Joe Biden’s presidency as well as his party’s future, write Jenny Jarvie and Janet Hook.

— From Jennifer Haberkorn: Republicans were poised to take up more pandemic relief after the election. But hopes are fading as Senate Republicans, emboldened by voters’ continued support, resist large spending measures and pressure from President Trump to take action has waned.

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— The Rio Grande Valley, with some of the highest concentrations of Latinos in the country, had long been unfriendly territory for Republicans. But a lot has changed since 2016, and the area’s residents say there’s a lot they like about Trump, writes Houston bureau chief Molly Hennessy-Fiske.

The latest from California

— L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti is facing a personal crossroads: If he leaves L.A. for a possible position in Biden’s administration, as widespread speculation suggests he might, he would be departing the city at a moment of profound crisis, writes city hall reporter Dakota Smith.

— Final tallies are pending. But if California Democrats succeed in flipping four state Senate seats from the Republican Party, they’ll further pad the supermajority status they hold in both the Senate and Assembly, Melody Gutierrez reports.

— California voters have approved a new property tax break for older homeowners in the state, easing their tax burdens if they move, writes Liam Dillon.

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— You’ve probably seen that viral image of Kamala Harris and Ruby Bridges, shared across the internet by Harris’ supporters. Columnist Erika D. Smith spoke to the two Californians who created it.

— Speaking of Harris, and her open U.S. Senate seat, columnist Gustavo Arellano has a modest proposal for Gov. Gavin Newsom: actor, businessman and beloved Angeleno Danny Trejo. He’s not kidding.

Stay in touch

Send your comments, suggestions and news tips to politics@latimes.com. If you like this newsletter, tell your friends to sign up.

Until next time, keep track of all the developments in national politics and the Trump administration on our Politics page and on Twitter at @latimespolitics.


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