At this writing, Joe Biden leads Donald Trump by 5.9 million popular votes and 74 electoral college votes. Nonetheless, the election was closer than many Democrats expected. There are several important lessons to be learned.
1.Trump had a strategy. And it almost worked.
Since his inauguration, Trump has been historically unpopular. According to the 538 website (https://projects.fivethirtyeight.com/trump-approval-ratings/ ), during his presidency, Trump’s approval ratings never got to 50 percent; he typically ranged between 41 and 44 percent.
Many political observers felt that, given his lack of popularity, Trump could not be reelected unless he made a concerted attempt to reach outside his base. Trump made no attempt to do this. He made no effort to “reach across the aisle” — to attempt to work with Democrats. He seemed to revel in disparaging Democratic leaders, such as Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer.
But Trump did have a strategy. Part one was to increase the size of his base. Trump started his re-election campaign on January 21, 2017. Over the course of the next 3+ years, Republicans registered and mobilized 3 million new voters. In 2016, the vote breakdown by Party was 36 percent Democratic, 33 percent Republican, and 31 percent Independent. In 2020, the breakdown by Party was 37 percent Democratic, 35 percent Republican, and 28 percent Independent. Republicans increased their Party registration by two percentage points and increased their voting loyalty by 5 percent (88 percent voted for Trump in 2016 versus 93 percent in 2020.)
Part two of Trump’s strategy was to suppress the Democratic vote. Since Trump never expected to win the popular vote — in 2016, Trump lost the popular vote by 2.9 million votes — he focused his efforts on suppression in key swing states: Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Republicans unleashed their typical dirty tricks: savage voter purges, new “voter identification” requirements, changing polling places, etcetera.
At Trump’s direction, Republicans attacked voting by mail-in ballots as “fraud.” A New York Times article by Jim Rutenberg and Nick Corassniti (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/15/us/politics/trump-voter-fraud-claims.html? ) details the years long effort to build this nefarious case: “From the start, the president saw mail-in ballots as a political threat that would appeal more to Democrats than to his followers. And so he and his allies sought to block moves to make absentee voting easier and to slow the content of mail-in ballots. This allowed Mr. Trump to do two things: claim an early victory on election night and paint ballots that were counted later for his opponent as fraudulent.”
Part three of Trump’s strategy was to drive down Joe Biden’s favorability ratings. Just as he had done with Hillary Clinton, Trump tried to paint Biden as dishonest — as illegally benefitting from Hunter Biden’s business activities. When this didn’t work, Trump switched to attacking Biden as senile — too old to be running for President. None of this worked — Biden’s favorability actually increased over the last few months before election day. Nonetheless, in certain parts of the country, more general attacks on Democrats did resonate. (For example, accusations that Dems wanted to “defund the police.”)
Part four of Trump’s strategy was to monopolize the Republican information silos: Fox News, Rush Limbaugh radio, and conservative social media pages. This worked. Voters who only listened to these silos acquired a warped perspective on Donald Trump; for example, they thought he had done a good job managing the the Coronavirus pandemic.
2.Trump increased his popular vote. In 2016 Donald Trump got 62,985,106 votes. At this writing, in 2020 Trump has 73,703,919.
Trump overwhelmingly carried non-college-educated white voters (67 percent). The New York Times (https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/11/16/us/politics/election-turnout.html ) observed: “Statistically, whether or not American voters had college degrees was by far the most significant predictor of where the 2020 tide of additional turnout was highest, and who won it. This metric is a stand-in for socioeconomic status — closely following patterns of higher income. Thus it could also be an indicator of cultural security, comfort and enfranchisement. There was a stark schism in the white vote apparent along this fault line: Populist areas, highlighted by concentrations of white voters without a college degree, moved toward Mr. Trump. White areas with better-educated populations, whether cities, suburbs or college towns, moved decisively away.”
There’s a rabid Donald Trump voter, who supported him and the other Republicans on the 2020 ballot. These voters made a big difference in contested Senate and House races. It remains to be seen whether these Trump devotees will show up when Donald Trump is not on the ballot. They didn’t in 2018. (In 2020, in four California swing congressional districts — CA 21, 25, 38, and 48 — the Democratic incumbent would have prevailed if Republicans had voted at 2016 levels; in 2020, Republicans significantly increased their vote and as a result recaptured two of these seats, with the other two undecided.)
3. Money isn’t everything. Democrats were eager to take control of the Senate and poured millions of dollars into Senate races. They didn’t have much to show for this. For example, in Kentucky, Democratic challenger Amy McGrath raised $90 million versus Republican incumbent Mitch McConnell’s $51 million. Nonetheless, McConnell won by 400k votes (57.8 percent to 38.2 percent).
The most glaring failure was in Maine where Dems were convinced they would replace Republican incumbent Susan Collins with Democrat Sara Gideon. Gideon raised $69.5 million versus $24.2 million for Collins. Nonetheless, Collins won by 72k votes (51.1 percent versus 42.2 percent.) The New York Times did an analysis of this race (https://www.nytimes.com/2020/11/17/us/maine-susan-collins.html) and concluded: “[Maine] voters thought the reasons [for Collins victory] were clear: The Gideon campaign, they said, was too focused on national politics. It was too negative, they complained. And it cost too much money, too much of it from outside the state.”
What we can learn from this is that for any particular political contest it’s not sufficient to have more money. Democrats can only be assured of a victory when they have a better organization. Ultimately, that’s why Biden prevailed over Trump. (and that’s why, in Arizona, Mark Kelly defeated Martha McSally.)
That’s a cautionary tale for the contested Georgia Senate races. Democrats will win if they have the better organization — of course, this costs money.
Summary: Whether we may feel about Donald Trump, he is a force in contemporary politics. Democrats should be very wary of rabid Trump voters.