Spoilers for House of Cards season five, episodes one through nine, ahead.
Most of the fifth season of House of Cards was written prior to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, but the events of the show’s fictional election are now streaming for the first time in the close shadow of postelection America. It’s difficult, impossible even, to watch the show without drawing parallels to both the daily news cycle and recent, fraught memories of this country’s own latest election. New showrunners Frank Pugliese and Melissa James Gibson told Vulture that episodes 10 and 11 of the season were filmed on Election Day, with the story line for each already set in the aftermath of the show’s election, so any similarities to the way that day actually occurred were an unavoidable “response to the same conditions” that ultimately won Trump the election.
But that doesn’t mean that the outcome of Frank Underwood’s bid for reelection on the show — now with his wife, Claire Underwood, as his running mate, against the Republican military-veteran candidates New York governor Will Conway (no relation to Kellyanne, probably) and his running mate General Ted Brockhart — mirrors Donald Trump versus Hillary Clinton. What we see instead are different, twisted paths to a similarly unfathomable end. Let’s take a close look at how the 2016 Election Day unfolded on House of Cards.
Voter turnout is also low.
Like in real life, the polls are a huge problem for the Underwoods. Voter turnout is low, like 30 percent low, in key states like Pennsylvania, for both candidates. But the unexpected numbers end up tipping the election in Conway’s favor, as it puts Ohio in his winning column, costing Underwood crucial electoral votes. By the night’s supposed end, Conway wins the popular vote and the Electoral College votes — and, wow, it sure does seem like the democratic process worked to elect him president fair and square. But then, when has anything on House of Cards been what it seems?
The Underwoods obviously rig the election.
Enraged at the thought of a loss, the Underwoods get down to dirty politicking and set in motion a seedy and definitely illegal plan to rig the election. It starts with Frank faking the threat of a terrorist attack at a polling center in Knoxville, Tennessee, while voting is still underway — because he’s still president and can abuse that kind of power — all so he can pressure the state’s governor to declare a state of emergency and close the polls. (Little does Conway know, his campaign manager Mark Usher is on the phone with the Tennessee governor pushing him to do the same, so the Republicans can also use the faux attack for political gain.) Frank then twists the Ohio governor’s arm into closing his state’s polls, too, and gets the Underwoods’ hacker “friend” at the NSA to create fake data that suggests another terror attack, this time at an Ohio polling center, could be imminent. But wait, if voter turnout is low, why would the Underwoods want polling places closed? Precisely so they can play the victims, and giving Underwood time to then sue Ohio for (his own!) voter intimidation. While all that paperwork is getting filed, the exit polls and major news outlets still predict Underwood losing, just as he planned — knowing full well the results will be invalid because of his tinkering behind the scenes, Underwood calls poor amateur Conway to concede.
Voter suppression comes into major play.
The fact that voter-ID laws might’ve prevented thousands of voters from hitting the polls in Wisconsin and elsewhere still haunts Hillary Clinton. In House of Cards, voter suppression becomes the reason Conway doesn’t end up president on Election Night. Underwood has Doug Stamper threaten the Ohio governor to go on national television and say he was pressured into closing his polls, and is now imposing a statewide voting suspension. This triggers a ripple effect of other states contesting the outcome of the election. At first, six states refuse to certify their votes. By the night’s end, almost all 50 states end up filing voter-suppression lawsuits. The whole time, of course, Underwood stalled in giving his concession speech. It’s a total clusterfuck that leaves Conway literally speechless — his wife is the one required by protocol to break the news to the country that her husband cannot legally be declared the winner — and the Underwoods are more pleased with themselves than ever.
The election doesn’t end in November — not even close.
Now that the Underwoods have single-handedly made a mockery of the government (again), there is still no president-elect nine weeks after the election. So as traumatic as our election might’ve been, just envision the state of the national psyche now had that night lasted months. (Very eerily familiar chants of “Not my president!” ring out from protesters outside Underwood’s White House gates, too.) By mid-January, two states still haven’t certified their votes, and neither candidate has the required electoral votes to win. And when such a calamity occurs, we’re told, in some exceptionally smug Underwoodian exposition, the 12th Amendment gets invoked. The House gets to pick the president, and the Senate picks the vice-president, and because this is America, the Senate vote can somehow be decided by the flip of a coin if it ends in a tie.
The fate of the presidency hangs in the hands of a bunch of politicians.
As Frank Underwood can’t stop reminding the viewer this season, the American people don’t know what’s good for them. So who better to think and decide for us than a room that reeks of corruption: Congress. As the House vote nears, Claire Underwood learns that Frank’s approval rating is down, while hers has increased and, because U.S. government cannot be more confusing, it’s a possibility that she might wind up the vice-president to a President Conway, since the voting processes would be simultaneous. This all leads to a lot of blackmailing and backstabbing for votes, but ultimately, Claire Underwood (presumably the Senate’s pick) ends up “Acting Madame President” because the House vote ends with neither candidate getting the required 26 votes. So at this particular juncture in the show’s political mumbo jumbo, Claire Underwood finally becomes president of the United States. She gets to have the nuclear codes. Hooray for all.
There’s another general election — sort of.
Because Claire is no fool, she knows that her husband doesn’t have a shot in hell at winning the revote in the House. And if he loses, she loses. So she pressures Congress to opt instead for a revote in Ohio and Tennessee, the two states that had to shut down their polls on Election Day. That way, the vote would be back in the hands of the American people — those easily manipulated dopes. For insurance, she gets Conway’s campaign manager to flip on Conway and work for them, under the Underwoods’ promise that they would appoint a Supreme Court justice of his choosing and go back to running as separate two-party tickets. In return, he’ll get the House Speaker to agree to the two-state vote.
There are leaks and scandals galore.
Both Trump and Clinton had their share of unflattering (and, in certain cases, criminal) leaks throughout the election. The emails! The bragging about sexual assault! And it was only arguably the undoing of one of them. On House of Cards, leaks deal Conway his final blow. With the election now down to the people, the Underwoods turn to the media to do their dirty work for them. They acquire audio of Conway sounding very unfit to be president while flipping out on two of his pilots days out from the new election. They also acquire audio of General Brockhart on a hot mic telling soldiers to kill the president (Underwood) if he gives certain orders. The Underwoods, of course, use all this to sabotage their opponents’ campaign and leak both clips to the media. They also get Conway’s campaign manager to convince the Republican party not to defend Conway once the leaks hit.
There’s even an attempted coup!
At one point, while Claire is acting president, a potentially catastrophic bomb scare occurs, when a truck carrying radioactive materials somewhere near D.C. goes missing. (Possibly the only far-fetched plotline left on this show.) This all turns out to be fake, orchestrated by a very senior White House official, General Braeger, whose allegiance lies with his military BFF, the Republican VP candidate, General Brockhart. The whole plan was to keep the Underwoods off the grid and away from campaigning to give Conway and Brockhart the upper hand, but another military official who disliked Braeger alerts Underwood of the deceit. Claire refers to this whole incident as an “October surprise,” and it’s still hard to tell if it could’ve been more detrimental than ours was. Frank calls it an attempted coup. You be the judge.
It’s back to being one nation, Underwood.
Everything goes beautifully according to the Underwoods’ plan, and the leaks end up costing Conway the election. Frank wins Ohio — the only state he ever needed — and, thus, wins the presidency. Van Jones goes on CNN and says, “We need to accept the outcome and move on from that,” which is quite a different tune to the one he was singing on our Election Night. Conway, consumed with understandable vitriol, calls Underwood to concede, and curses him out when Underwood gives him the consolation prize of Transportation secretary. Conway’s campaign manager gets promoted to special adviser to the president. And after several months and nine episodes, the minutia of this nightmare of a presidential election meets its bitter conclusion, with Underwood delivering a monologue to the viewers at his and Claire’s inauguration that’s even more diabolical than the speech Trump gave to the American people at his:
“You made this bed, America. You voted for me. Are you confused? Are you afraid? Because what you thought you wanted is now here. And there you are, staring back, slack-jawed, bewildered, wondering if this is what you actually asked for. This democracy, your democracy, elected me. And if you think it was hard getting here, you’re beginning to understand what I’m willing to do to stay. I look across at this crowd gathered here today, and I know that these are not my supporters. I’m looking at people who are waiting with a smile on their face for their turn. And the most vicious among them are the ones who are smiling and clapping the hardest. Power is a lot like real estate, remember?”