Sunday Magazine: The Deciders
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because this election could get wild.
By Daniel Malloy and Nick Fouriezos
America, this could get rough. The outcome of this year’s presidential election looks like it won’t be known for days or weeks afterward as we await the counting of mail-in ballots. Then come the legal challenges, and given the state of things, we can’t exactly expect patience and calm. So what to expect when you’re expecting chaos? Consider today’s Sunday Magazine an early handbook for a messy aftermath, as we introduce you to The Deciders. These 39 people — some of whom you’ll recognize, while others operate behind the scenes — will shape what could be a rocky time from November 3 to January 20. The 150 million or so of you who will vote are still the ultimate Deciders of whether Donald Trump or Joe Biden takes the oath, but the people below will be putting some extra weight on the scale. Read on for a post-election survival guide.
The Entertainers Driving Turnout. Look to celebrities, such as the always outspoken rapper Cardi B., 27, fresh off her W.A.P. success, to take her Bernie Sanders-backing energy and redirect it to Biden with force — a shift she has already begun, in part with a September issue of Elle in which she interviewed the Democratic nominee while sporting some fierce nails. (Plus Twitter beefs with the likes of Candace Owens.) Meanwhile, if you’re wondering how Biden is losing traction with the Latino community, look no further than Hispanic influencers like Cuban American Alex Otaola, 41, in South Florida — a Hillary Clinton voter who switched to Trump in 2018 and has used his influential YouTube show to drive many newer Cuban arrivals to the Trump campaign while organizing car rallies and voter registration events. Read more about Otaola on OZY.
Revenge of the Data Nerds. With the outcome in doubt, the first Deciders on Election Day will be the data experts on both sides, who will use not just election results but also their forecasts of mail ballots to tell their teams whether they are ahead or not — setting expectations with the media and the public. The Trump campaign’s election night data squad includes six people, led by Matt Oczkowski, the former head of product at the controversial data firm Cambridge Analytica, through his company HuMn Behavior. Biden has mostly built an internal data team, led by analytics chief Becca Siegel, a veteran of the Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton campaigns. However, from the outside former Obama analytics chief Dan Wagner has provided guidance in hiring and through his firm Civis Analytics. Meanwhile, the Bloomberg-funded digital firm Hawkfish, headed by CEO Josh Mendelsohn, has done perhaps more than anybody on the left to analyze the impact a mostly mail election will have, and its findings will shape the media discourse.
Foreign Actors. Nov. 3 will be the culmination of four years of behind-the-scenes campaigning — not just by Americans, mind you, but by the governments of China and Russia. A pivotal figure is military intelligence chief Igor Kostyukov, who’s leading Moscow’s efforts to swing the 2020 election in favor of Trump after what was considered a successful 2016 manipulation effort, even as Trump continues to downplay or suppress it. It’s the biggest test for American democracy — and for Kostyukov, whose two immediate predecessors died in quick succession amid rumors Vladimir Putin wasn’t happy. Meanwhile in China, President Xi Jinping has a vested interest in seeing Trump fall or, at the very least, lose more credibility on the international stage, given his public trade war. Microsoft reported this week that Chinese and Russian hackers are targeting both parties. Read more about Kostyukov on OZY.
the immediate aftermath
The Street Leaders. If the mass racial justice protests of this year are any guide, any anti-Trump uprising is going to be largely leaderless — though Black Lives Matter co-founder Alicia Garza, 39, a veteran Oakland organizer, has the group’s biggest platform and could sway plenty of local leaders. Meanwhile, right-wing groups from the Proud Boys to the Michigan Militia could join an explosive frenzy. Keep an eye on the heavily armed Oath Keepers and their leader Stewart Rhodes, a 50-something disbarred Yale Law grad and former Ron Paul staffer who was banned from Twitter last week after calling for violence against antifa and Black Lives Matter. “Civil war is here, right now,” Rhodes wrote.
The Local Officials. After a controversial 2018 midterm election that saw massive vote delays and calls for a recount, Broward County, Florida, elections supervisor Brenda Snipes stepped down … and so the spotlight shines on the man who replaced her, Peter Antonacci, a Republican lawyer with no previous major election experience and who has already drawn ire for a supposed technological mishap that sent a misleading letter to 54,000 voters. What could go wrong? Up north, with Pennsylvania a potential tipping point state, the focus will be on Philadelphia City Commissioners Lisa Deeley, Al Schmidt and Omar Sabir. The state’s biggest population center will likely face serious delays, given the high number of expected mail ballots that can’t be counted until Election Day. Plus, Pennsylvania laws don’t make such voting easy, and they also require election managers to toss out ballots that arrive after Election Day — even if they’ve been postmarked as having been sent weeks before.
The Secretaries of State. Trump won Michigan in 2016 by 11,000 votes out of some 4.8 million — but Michigan Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson (pictured), 42, a Democrat, has made voting easier than ever, in part by implementing automatic voter registration and a robust vote-by-mail system. Michigan election experts believe turnout could reach 6 million people, by far a record amount that would likely lead to a Biden victory. Meanwhile, Florida Secretary of State Laurel Lee, a former judge, faces an immense test in her first election after assuming office in January 2019, and she’s been implementing controversial policies such as voter roll purges and a disputed law forcing ex-felons to pay off their fines before they can vote.
The Party Lawyers. The Democrats know their go-to guy: Marc Elias (pictured), 51, who represents nearly every Democratic campaign arm and was the attorney of record for both the John Kerry campaign in 2004 and the Hillary Clinton campaign in 2016. But while Elias typically may deal with voting-related lawsuits in one or two states in most cycles, this election could see a half-dozen “Floridas” given the surge of mail ballots. Will the Democrats regret putting all their hopes on one man’s shoulders? The Republicans are counting on a more diverse effort, which will focus on state-based legal experts matched with national stalwarts like Jessica Furst Johnson, who served as general counsel to the National Republican Congressional Committee every election cycle from 2010 to 2016, and William Consovoy, a veteran Supreme Court litigator and a personal lawyer for Trump who has handled a number of legal actions for GOP campaigns.
see you in court
Badger Brawl. If there are a half-dozen “Floridas,” one of them is sure to be Wisconsin, home to some of the closest elections and nastiest partisan trench warfare of the past decade. Given that the electoral buck stops with a state Supreme Court, you should watch Chief Justice Patience Roggensack, who commands the court’s conservative majority. Roggensack, 80, has foiled Democratic Gov. Tony Evers time and again this year, from tossing out his stay-at-home order for the coronavirus to blocking his request to delay the state’s April primary election to reversing his ability to issue partial vetoes. Roggensack also found herself in hot water this year for a stray comment in open court that meatpacking workers who got COVID-19 were not “the regular folks.”
Injunction Junction. To the Trump administration’s chagrin, national injunctions — in which power-happy federal district court judges can issue an emergency order that applies to the entire country — have been a growing feature of America’s legal life. If a messy election aftermath involves the deployment of federal personnel to put down riots or stop ballot counts, there’s a decent chance that a judge somewhere will pull the emergency brake. And litigants will be shopping around to find such a sympathetic jurist. Who might fit the bill? On the left, Judge Marsha Pechman in Seattle issued a national injunction blocking Trump’s ban on transgender servicemembers in the military. GOP attorneys, meanwhile, might be wise to target Judge Reed O’Connor in Texas, a former aide to Republican Sen. John Cornyn who briefly gutted Obamacare in 2018.
The Supremes. But all of that is just foreplay. A serious legal challenge would end up at the U.S. Supreme Court — and quickly. In Bush v. Gore, it was a mere four days between the Florida Supreme Court ordering a hand recount and SCOTUS issuing its infamous 5-4 decision. In the 2020 version of this movie, the star is Chief Justice John Roberts, appointed to the bench by the 2000 election winner as a stalwart conservative — but one who’s been something of a resistance hero this year, spurning Donald Trump on everything from abortion to immigration to access to the president’s financial records. Given how the court’s reputation was damaged by Bush v. Gore, Roberts will be doing backflips to try to avoid any appearance of partisanship if the election ends up in his hands. Good luck with that.
the court of public opinion
The Influencers. If the Supreme Court does decide the outcome, who will potentially stoke the flames of discontent? Tucker Carlson, with his vast Fox News audience, and Ben Shapiro, who reaches more people on Facebook than just about any commentator (conservative or liberal) in the country, have tremendous megaphones. On the left, Shaun King (though he’s come under fire for misusing funds) or Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez could easily use their massive social media followings to highlight social justice abuses and nefarious Trump election tactics, fueling a backlash so large that it would make the Black Lives Matter protests look like backyard barbecues.
The Calming Voices. Who could douse these flames? A speech from Barack Obama urging voters to accept a (lawfully won) Trump victory would likely go a long way with many liberals — although progressives would claim, rightfully, that Obama has already quieted activist voices for too long, including advising NBA players to avoid a strike. Should Biden win, a surprising call for peace could come from Sean Hannity, the Trump golf-and-phone buddy who nonetheless has shown moments of contrition — particularly in 2012, when he said days after Mitt Romney’s loss that the GOP needed to “get rid of the immigration issue” — and whose requests for voters to accept the election results would carry the trust of his nearly 25 years on conservatism’s biggest platform.
The Gatekeepers. While Mark Zuckerberg has promised to ban new political ads in the week before the election, many have noted that politicians will be allowed to continue to spread lies up to Election Day … so long as they paid for the honor before that arbitrary deadline. And if the election were contested, Facebook would likely see its status as a Trump-supporting election disinformation center ratchet up. But if a communication clampdown comes, what about those resisters who want to communicate undetected? Belarus offers an example of a surge for the highly encrypted messaging app Telegram, run by Russian founder Pavel Durov. Read an argument for temporarily shuttering Facebook on OZY.
Send in the Tanks. So there’s unrest afoot: Get me the Pentagon. Or specifically get Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Mark Milley, the 62-year-old Princeton grad and Army lifer. In June Milley said it was a”mistake” to join Trump on his Bible-wielding photo op after protesters were cleared from in front of Saint John’s Church across from the White House. Recently reported Trump comments — including publicly accusing generals of being warmongers — have highlighted the heightened tension between the president and military brass. How would Milley handle an order he deemed unconstitutional?
Disputed Electors. It’s time to read up on 1876. That year, both parties were claiming victory in three states — resulting in the election getting thrown to the House of Representatives because no one could claim a majority. Could such chaos happen this time? It’s 2020, so of course. Let’s take Pennsylvania: If the count drags on, or county officials or a judge throw out thousands of mail ballots, you could easily be in a situation where both sides claim victory. Then Pennsylvania’s Republican Legislature — led by the recently elevated boyish Speaker Bryan Cutler — sends one slate of 20 electors to Washington for Trump, and Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf sends another for Biden. It’s up to Congress to sort it out.
House Party. Problem is, the law is painfully vague on what happens in Congress if there’s a dispute between the chambers over seating electors. But if the House can’t certify 270 electoral votes for any one candidate, either because of a tie or because a state’s electors are not seated, they would then vote on the next president — but it’s not a simple majority: Each state’s delegation gets a single vote. At the moment, Republicans have the majority in 26 states — but this could change in November, and it’s the new Congress that certifies the electoral college in January. That’s why you should pay close attention to possible delegation flippers: Florida’s 15th congressional district and Montana’s at-large district, where Republican Rep. Matt Rosendale faces a stiff challenge from Democrat Kathleen Williams, whom OZY’s exclusive election prediction model gives a 39 percent chance of victory.
Deus Ex Pence. But what happens if the state delegations deadlock 25-25? Glad you asked: They keep voting and negotiating until there’s a winner. If they can’t do it by January 20, then power goes to the vice president, who’s selected by a majority vote of senators. So what happens if that vote deadlocks at 50-50, either because of a party-line vote or because, say, Mitt Romney switches sides? The president of the Senate, aka Vice President Mike Pence, breaks the tie. So in our convoluted but very 2020 scenario, Pence could vote himself president. At least until the House agrees on one.
Global Pariah. In the event of a disputed election, other foreign governments can use the chaos to claim that their agreements with the U.S. are not binding because the Trump administration is illegitimate. A Trump administration challenge could then head to the International Court of Justice in The Hague, led by Abdulqawi Yusuf. The ICJ could pave the way for UN sanctions against U.S. officials — just as the UN imposes sanctions on post-coup regimes. The U.S. could then also become a pariah with other global bodies like the WTO and IMF that are legally bound to work only with “legitimate” governments. The likelihood of this happening is low, but it shows just how vulnerable America could be to global pressures if its democracy appears suspect, and would be the ultimate irony given how Washington has repeatedly (and selectively) used this tactic to target its own rivals such as China and Venezuela.
ozy coverage: the road ahead
Our Mantra. OZY is always dedicated to bringing you what’s new and next, with fresh perspectives to get you out of our bubble and out of your comfort zone — and it’s more important now than ever. So join us as we bring you exclusive, multipartisan, global coverage of this wild election from now until whenever it ends. And we want to know what you want to read, watch, listen to and do — so tell us by replying to this email or tagging us @ozy on Twitter or Instagram.
More Magazines. Keep an eye out for future Daily Doses and Sunday Magazines that will go deep on the states to watch, the policies to know and the challenges facing the next administration. We will be reporting from the road and the streets in the leadup to and aftermath of Election Day.
Prediction Game. You can check in each day for the best election predictions in the business, from OZY in partnership with the data firm 0ptimus. Our prediction model crunches 200-plus factors from polls to candidate traits to economic indicators to project the odds of victory for this year’s presidential, Senate and House races. Right now, we give Biden an 81 percent chance of victory — assuming all the votes are counted. Read more about our election model.
Compelling TV. Check out The Carlos Watson Show on YouTube each day for newsmaking interviews with political heavy hitters from Jeb Bush to Pete Buttigieg to Jamaal Bowman — and that’s just the B’s. Also mark your calendar for Oct. 27 to watch The Contenders on HISTORY, OZY’s docuseries taking a deep look at some of the most remarkable campaigns in American history — including Trump’s surprise 2016 triumph. Subscribe to The Carlos Watson Show now.
More Surprises. Watch this space for more to come from OZY on a thrilling new podcast, our election night plans and more.
- Daniel Malloy and Nick Fouriezos, OZY Author Contact Daniel Malloy and Nick Fouriezos