Despite the president’s personal unpopularity as measured by polls, Trump’s side possessed—and used—important tactical advantages.
Those advantages start with the institutional powers of the presidency, notably the power to federalize the National Guard and take military control of state voting sites. They include also the asymmetry of the U.S. party system, and especially the fiercer team-mindedness of Trump loyalists and pro-Trump media.
The most persistent and powerful advantage, however, was the overconfidence of the legally minded Biden team that the Trump team would respect some norms and limits on its behavior. That expectation was again and again refuted by experience.
All of this, again, was just a tabletop exercise, specifically designed to test extreme scenarios—not a prediction of how things will play out. Perhaps everything will go smoothly. But as the president suggests postponing the election, it’s important to understand the hazards ahead, and the timelines and decision points that may prove crucial.
The voting period
The days of early voting, Election Day itself, and then the period of vote-counting that will follow offer fruitful possibilities for mischief.
In one of our scenarios, the attorney general sent federal marshals backed by the National Guard to seize vote-by-mail ballots, triggering a constitutional catastrophe that delayed the outcome of the count for weeks.
Local Republican officeholders have wide scope to burden voting by what they deem undesirable voters, especially ethnic minorities. The Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department has more or less entirely abandoned the field of voting rights. In the Trump era, the division has shifted its effort toward litigating in support of claims of religious discrimination.
In the exercises, when the vote went against Trump, his team tried to convince his supporters that they had been robbed—and that they were therefore entitled to take extreme, even violent, actions. In our exercises, however, the game-winning strategy was to goad the other side into violence. This was particularly true for Team Trump, whose supporters already fear violence from anarchists and antifa.
The meeting of electors in the states
Under current law, all disputes over vote-counting are supposed to be resolved by December 8, 2020. The electors are supposed to convene on December 14 in their state capitals, where they will sign their electoral ballots. The days from December 8 to December 14 offer Team Trump the last clear chance to alter the outcome.
In some of our scenarios, local Republican officeholders sowed enough confusion to justify sending two slates of electors to Washington to be adjudicated. That was a high-risk tactic that did not usually pay off, but could tempt some pro-Trump state governments.
The meeting of electors in Washington, D.C.