This election was a bit of a surprise in a number of ways, which I will dive into after taking care of two obligatory matters.
First, an obligatory roasting of the polls. The pollsters were off this year, but not as badly as I initially thought they were. It is clear that they haven’t “fixed” the problems that resulted in them botching the call in 2016. In the states of Iowa, Ohio, and Wisconsin, average polling was over five points off. Polling bias was once again Democratic, but to a lesser extent than in 2016. On the bright side, their prediction was of a Biden victory, and that is what we have. Also, their calling of how states would vote was not as off as in 2016, in which average polling got four states wrong, whereas the calls were off only on Florida and Georgia. However…
The Maine Senate race polling is a scandal. Not a single poll posted on RCP since February put Susan Collins ahead, yet she won reelection by over eight points. What gives, pollsters?
House polling and prognostication is also a scandal, as gains for Democrats in the House were widely predicted but instead Republicans gained. As of writing, not a single Republican incumbent has lost reelection in the House. Two Democrats took Republican seats in North Carolina that had been redistricted to them and the incumbents had opted to retire, and they took retiring Rob Woodall’s seat in Georgia.
Second, an obligatory assessment of my predictive performance.
I was wrong about Maine and Minnesota for the Senate. I invoke the “I was relying on the polls” defense for Collins (no poll since February had her in the lead!), but for Minnesota, I admitted when I called that it was a wild card call, and it turns out that’s all it was. In fact, aside from the Georgia and Nevada vote for president, it is the only state that had a Republican bias in its polling.
I was wrong about Georgia(!) and Pennsylvania going to Trump.
I was right about everything else. If I didn’t mention it in my pre-election post, it was because I believed it would go in the predictable direction…how the polls had it. Incidentally, I think given our Electoral College, there is literally no reason to poll national popular vote. Only poll the vote of states that are swing in the election.
I was right about Gardner losing reelection and McSally losing the election. Gardner wasn’t a tough call as he was the doomed Republican incumbent of the election, while McSally only led in literally one poll throughout the campaign season. However, she lost by less than the poll average. I feel embarrassed for the pollsters that reported double-digits for Kelly.
I was right on Ernst in Iowa and Tillis in North Carolina. I am most proud about the latter, because he was behind in polling and I used the following reasoning to reach this conclusion: first, almost all the polls showed Tillis losing in 2014 yet he still won, and second, Cunningham had an extramarital affair scandal. I thought these two factors meant the race going to Tillis, and I was right!
I was right about Peters winning reelection in Michigan, even if it does depress me that there will be no Senator James. The average polls were over five points in favor of Peters, which I thought was too much for James to overcome. I wanted to be wrong here.
I thought that Montana was too favorable to Trump to elect Bullock over Daines, and I was right.
I never took seriously the idea that Cornyn would lose reelection in Texas, and I thought Graham would win despite a lot of publicity for Harrison.
In all, this Senate election has produced two polling upsets: Susan Collins and Thom Tillis holding their seats. You might consider David Perdue in Georgia a third because Jon Ossoff led in average polling, but this is now a runoff, so the race has no winner yet.
Also, final obligatory note: Mitch McConnell is unpopular every day except Election Day it seems. To be fair, Democrats fielded a candidate, Amy McGrath, with a weak and contradictory message who lost in 2018 in a district that was less Republican than Kentucky overall: when she ran for the House, she’s anti-Trump and when she runs for the Senate she praises Trump? Not buying it. Not when Senate Democrats voted unanimously to impeach him.
Now, on to the meat…the analysis.
The Biden campaign had hoped that the election’s overarching narrative would be the Trump Administration’s COVID-19 policy failures. This did not prove to be the case. There were other narratives that were running through the minds of the voters. One in particular was emphasis on the economy, and the US’s recovery has been considerably quicker than expected. Another was concern about the rioting that accompanied the protests over racial injustice this year. Americans value both people and property. Yet another was a dislike of the left-wing radicalism promoted by the likes of Warren, Sanders, Harris, and The Squad. The American people don’t like socialism, “defund the police”, or “cancel culture”. Unfortunately for the GOP, they don’t like Trump either. The results of this election are this: the voters don’t want Trump on the throne but they also don’t want to hand the Democrats the keys to the kingdom.
Although it is undoubtedly true that there were many politicians and people in the media who were indeed out to get Donald Trump, it is also true that no person is more responsible for Donald Trump’s loss than Donald Trump.
Although his political honeymoon was remarkably short at the start of his presidency, up until March 2020 Trump stood a reasonably good chance of winning reelection. Biden was not the strongest choice, and the Democratic candidates had called for many things that were way to the left for the American public (illegal immigrants get govt. healthcare, decriminalizing unauthorized border crossing, single-payer healthcare, etc.) and embraced radical left narratives on the nature of racism in America. Now, it is normal for candidates in the primary to appeal to the party base and then backtracking later before the general electorate…however, the influence of the radicals was particularly strong in this primary season, and provided plenty of advertising fodder for the Trump campaign. Just on the horizon was COVID-19’s appearance and spread throughout the United States. At the time, Trump had survived an impeachment effort backed by all Senate Democrats, and one that was from the beginning tremendously unlikely to succeed. However, with COVID-19, Trump had a golden opportunity to unite the nation with decisive, business-like, and calm leadership. He squandered this with petty fixations, publicly speculating inappropriately on potential cures, and continuing divisive rhetoric. The nation needed a uniter, and quite simply, uniting isn’t in his playbook.
This got even worse with the aftermath to the killing of George Floyd by the police, with anti-racism demonstrations occurring throughout the United States and the world. While much of the demonstrations were non-violent, violence was prevalent enough to result in killings, injuries, looting, and arson in a number of major American cities. This helped people become more concerned about the radical left, which was quite useful in the hands of Donald Trump who delivered a swift rhetorical condemnation of rioting…but he again harmed himself when he cleared out a group of peaceful protestors with tear gas so he could make a public appearance. He also sent troops to Portland who may have exceeded their constitutional boundaries. Such an infamous act by a president against a group of protestors had not been seen since Herbert Hoover ordered the dispersing of the Bonus Marchers in 1932.
The first debate was one of the most painful televised experiences I have ever witnessed. Donald Trump decided that a good strategy would be to regularly interrupt Joe Biden so as to throw him off track, which seemed to work initially but he continued to do so when it had stopped working and also insulted his intelligence. Biden pulled no punches either, accusing the president of being a racist (for ending “critical theory” based racial sensitivity training), a clown, and the worst president ever. No one you could say liked the first debate, and it was certainly not a win for Trump, who would have been better off letting Biden talk more. This itself is not a death sentence for a campaign…President Barack Obama did famously poorly in his first debate with Mitt Romney in 2012 but he recovered in the next two debates and went on to win the election. However, Trump’s coronavirus diagnosis prevented three debates, and what’s more he had previously refused to do a second one if virtual as he didn’t want his mic cut off. Although in the next debate Trump performed reasonably well, it didn’t move the needle enough. Just like towards the end of October 2016, Trump had a surge in the polls.
Here we stand today with an election outcome that is in fact not uncertain, rather the notion of its uncertainty or illegitimacy is in truth almost entirely a media campaign by the lame duck Trump Administration. Trump blew what could have been a turnaround year against a candidate who would have in any other election year not even been nominated. In most places, he ran behind down-ticket Republicans.
Trump, however, has given the GOP some good lessons. Before he was nominated, they were having some trouble connecting with working class voters, and now Republicans have an idea of where they can mine votes and some sense of how to do it. Additionally, Trump improved upon the GOP’s performance with minority voters. Some of these gains could be attributed to Democrats’ tepid and delayed response to rioting and fears that Democratic policies would be steps to systems such as Cuba’s and Venezuela’s. However, there is yet more work to be done in the suburbs, which were once a place the GOP could count on for votes. People are put off by Trump the man, but not necessarily the overall policies of the administration. The Senate looks like it will stay in GOP hands and the Republican House gains are putting Pelosi’s Democratic majority at an uncomfortably thin margin. This leaves us with a 50-50 nation with multiple competing narratives influencing voters and with animosities old and new continuing to stew. We will likely focus a whole lot on what divides us in the next two years, but perhaps we can find some small areas in which we agree that can bear fruit. A Biden Administration, like the last six years of the Obama Administration, will have to largely rely on executive orders for whatever partisan actions can be achieved with that limited avenue and will be forced to negotiate with Republicans on other domestic matters. On international affairs, although it is fundamentally a purview of the executive, the Biden Administration will have a difficult time getting through any remotely controversial treaties and will have to rely upon executive agreements.
Although the COVID-19 narrative was not dominant, COVID-19 itself played a decisive role in the election. Although it did not claim Trump, it claimed his presidency. Trump’s failure to unite the nation during this public health crisis by focusing on petty nonsense, partisan bickering, empty speculation on questionable treatments for COVID-19 (at best), and his turning the wearing of masks into a political issue did him much political harm. Yes, its true that the government lied to the public initially about whether you needed to wear a mask with COVID-19 so that the public wouldn’t do with masks what they did with toilet paper, but get over it! When the government changed its assessment of the necessity of mask-wearing, I knew they had lied. There was no way that there was some study that changed their view on the nature of the disease. They knew all along. This being said, there was no need for President Trump to continue this fiction through not wearing a mask beyond its necessary end date. Additionally, Trump’s getting COVID-19 prevented a debate from occurring, and he NEEDED three debates after the first one. In these senses, COVID-19 killed the Trump presidency. However, the Democrats’ courting of radical leftists helped make the race closer than anticipated, even if the man they ran is not personally on the same page as those people.
The Democrats ultimately so far have only won two of the Senate seats polls foretold they’d win: Arizona and Colorado. Instead of Republicans losing seats in the House, they gained, yet another scandal in polling and election prognostication. However, some of these wins I really wasn’t surprised about, especially the Charleston, SC and Oklahoma City districts given that they had repeatedly elected Republicans for many years before. Nonetheless, the results in Florida were stunning for the Democrats, who should have known that courting people who were pushing policies on the Castro and Chavez end of things would have scared Cubans and other Latinos off. I can also report that the Democratic Party of California has a ceiling: the vote on the most important propositions went in a conservative direction and as of writing, the GOP has won back two Orange County seats in Congress.
Overall, this election provides a mixed verdict and establishes once again we are a nation divided. There is, you might say a strange brilliance to the voters’ choices: they don’t like Trump or the Democrats so enough split their tickets to divide power. Partisans will not care for the next two years, but this is the verdict the voters have delivered and if they want to get anything done in the next two years that isn’t through executive order or agreement, they’ll have to think of some things they agree on and act on those. After all, there will be “must-pass” bills that will come before Congress in the next session. This election also reflects a “2020” spirit in the sense that Florida was more Republican than Georgia and Ohio was more Republican than Texas. Also, this is the first election since 1960 that the winner didn’t win Ohio, ending the state’s streak as a bellwether for elections. I suppose the new sentiment about Ohio will be, “As Ohio goes, so goes Florida”. There is also a great irony in this election: Trump’s win in 2016 before faithless electors be faithless was 306 to 232. This is the exact figure of Biden’s victory this year.