2020 Presidential Election: What Happened?

The evening of November 3rd had a rocky start; it initially appeared that 2020 was to be a reprise of 2016 — that Donald Trump would, once again, defy the odds and steal the presidency.  Then the tide turned, Biden won Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Michigan.  By Friday we learned that Biden had probably won Arizona, Georgia, Nevada, and Pennsylvania.  On Saturday, the Biden-Harris ticket prevailed.  But not by the margins Dems had hoped for.

The good news is that Democrats secured the presidency.  The bad news is that the election was much closer than expected and has emphasized that we are a deeply divided nation.  Here are preliminary answers to key questions:

1.Why was the race so close?  On November 2nd, presidential election polls showed Biden with a 5 to 9 percentage point advantage.  At the moment it appears that Biden will win by 3 to 4 points.  Many folks will blame pollsters.  I think there’s a simpler explanation: Trump finished strong and mobilized his base.

There were two presidential debates: September 29 and October 22.  At the first debate, Trump engaged in his very worst behavior and was widely panned — Biden’s poll average crept up to 10 percent.  At the second debate, Trump was more conventional and Biden’s advantage diminished.

More important, at the second debate, Trump established his closing theme: “Biden wants to shut down the economy, I want to open it up.”  Trump’s core message was: “The Coronavirus pandemic is not serious enough to justify shutting down the economy.”  Of course, Trump had contracted COVID-19, been hospitalized, and recovered.  In the final two weeks of the campaign, he flew around the U.S. with the message, “The Coronavirus is no big deal; see, I’ve recovered.”  (Trump’s implied message was that he was a real man, who confronted the Coronavirus without a mask; in contrast, Biden was a wimp.)

Trump’s closing theme held his base.  (New York Times exit polls indicated that a significant percentage of Trump voters decided to vote for him in the last couple of weeks.)  The most important issue for Trump voters was the economy.  Exit polls indicated that Trump supporters strongly supported this position: “Rebuilding the economy now, even if it hurts efforts to contain the coronavirus.”  (Versus the position that Dems supported: “Containing the coronavirus now, even if it hurts the economy.’)

Iowa is a good example of Trump rallying his base at the last minute.  Dems had assumed that Iowa was a tossup state and on October 22, the poll average showed Biden with a slight lead.  The situation changed.  An October 31st, Des Moines Register Poll (https://www.desmoinesregister.com/story/news/politics/iowa-poll/2020/10/31/election-2020-iowa-poll-president-donald-trump-leads-joe-biden/6061937002/) showed that iowa had swung to Trump by 7 points  — Trump won Iowa by 8 points.  Iowa Trump voters were more concerned about the economy than they were the pandemic.

Trump’s closing message — “The Coronavirus pandemic is not serious enough to justify shutting down the economy” — was criminally irresponsible.  (No surprise.)  Trump flew around the country and hosted “super spreader” events.  He mobilized his base at the price of their health and safety.  Trump’s actions yielded short term results — his base turned out — but, in the long term, this will hurt Republicans.  And the nation: we are adding 101,000 new Coronavirus cases per day and are on track to add 5 million new cases by the end of 2020.

2. Collateral Damage: Because Biden did not trigger a wave election, the red-blue division remains. It appears that Dems did not retake the Senate.  The Senate seats Democrats won or retained were in the states that Biden won.  At this writing, Democrats have gained one seat, leaving the count at 48-48 — with two of the remaining seats leaning Republican and the other two (in Georgia) to be decided by Georgia special election on January 5th.

Democrats lost approximately 8 House seats but will still have the majority.  The Cook Report observed: “[House] Democrats suffered a catastrophic erosion in Hispanic support.  The races where Republicans most vastly outperformed everyone’s priors were heavily Hispanic districts that swung enormously to Trump. These include both GOP pickups in Miami (Carlos Gimenez in FL-26 and Maria Elvira Salazar in FL-27) as well as Republican Tony Gonzales’s hold of Rep. Will Hurd’s open TX-23. Amazingly, Republicans didn’t lose a single seat in Texas.”

However, a long Politico ( https://www.politico.com/news/2020/11/06/why-biden-lost-the-latino-vote-florida-texas-434735) article indicates that the Latino story is more complicated.  Dems lost Hispanic votes in some states and gained them in others.  (Biden carried 66 percent of the Latino vote; the same percentage Clinton carried.)

In 2020, Trump carried 57 percent of White voters. (55 percent of White women.)  In 2016, Trump carried 57 percent of White voters.  (52 percent of White women.)  However, in 2020 White voters were only 65 percent of the vote; in 2016 they were 71 percent of the vote.

Trump held White voters.  Biden won because he turned out the “non White” vote.

3. Recriminations: Biden ran a more disciplined campaign than Clinton did and, as a result, reestablished the Democratic “blue wall” in the midwest.  As a consequence, Biden won the popular vote and the electoral vote.  Biden got 10 million more votes than Clinton; he increased her popular vote differential by 3 percent.  (Clinton carried 89 percent of Democrats and lost Independents to Trump 42 percent to 46 percent; Biden carried 94 percent of Democrats and won Independents 54 percent to 40 percent.)

Nonetheless, there are Democrats grousing about the Biden campaign — because it did not produce a Blue wave.  There were suggestions that a different candidate or a different strategy would have produced the desired repudiation of Trump/Trumpism.  I don’t agree with this perspective.  The Democratic presidential competition was very competitive and complicated; Biden emerged from the scrum as the elected candidate.  (The oldest candidate.)  In Biden’s long life, he has overcome many, many obstacles.  Now he is the presumptive 46th President.

Biden is a good man.  An honest man.  A candidate whose stated objective is to heal the nation.  We’re fortunate to have him be the 46th President.

4. Summary: On January 20, 2021, Donald Trump will leave the White House.  That’s a big deal.

Over the past four years, Trump and his Republican stooges have done a huge amount of damage.  Democrats want to enact major legislation that repairs this damage; for example, an expansion of healthcare.  As another example, Democrats want to pass a $15 minimum wage and an equitable tax system.  And voting rights. And on and on.

We have much more work to do.  One step at a time.