2020: An Election in Hindsight

Nearly all reelection campaigns ultimately boil down to a referendum on the incumbent, but few have seen such a clear divide between the individual and his party.

“Such being the impressions under which I have, in obedience to the public summons, repaired to the present station, it would be peculiarly improper to omit in this first official act my fervent supplications to that Almighty Being who rules over the universe, who presides in the councils of nations, and whose providential aids can supply every human defect, that His benediction may consecrate to the liberties and happiness of the people of the United States a Government instituted by themselves for these essential purposes, and may enable every instrument employed in its administration to execute with success the functions allotted to his charge.” —George Washington, First Inaugural Address.

Two weeks ago, the United States of America held its 59th presidential election since George Washington won the office that the Framers of the Constitution designed for him in 1789. While one could well argue that none of his 45 successors thus far have been so well suited to the role as Washington was, it is nevertheless remarkable that nearly all of those successors, save Lincoln in 1860 and 1864, enjoyed the legal recognition, however grudging, of the entire country.

I do not believe this will change.

Our history is littered with occasional political has-beens who peddle partisan pablum about stolen or hacked elections, quenching the last embers from the smoldering wreckage of their ruined careers with the bitter vintage of sour grapes and tears of self-pity—particularly recently. In days past, they ran off to the West or went abroad. Now, they do book tours. The country can endure another one.

Even with ongoing legal battles over ballots in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Michigan, Biden’s margin in Pennsylvania alone is enough to ensure he reaches a majority of 270 electoral votes. Nevertheless, I expect those cases to play out with respect for due process and they should be allowed to do so, just as they did in the courts in 2000 for Florida, or the failed Congressional objection in 2004 over Ohio, or the numerous investigations into various aspects of the 2016 election—none of which ultimately altered the electoral outcome.  

America is exceptional in no small part because of our long unbroken history of lawful elections and peaceful transfers of power, which will continue when Joseph R. Biden, Jr. is inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States this January. While we should remain confident in the continuity of our governing institutions, this is not to say that poorly executed transitions are without cost or should be excused.

The 9/11 Commission Report specifically cited the delayed transfer of power from the Clinton White House to the incoming Bush Administration for growing gaps in national security on the eve of the worst terrorist attacks in US history. People may also still remember the Clintons departed with $190,000 in pilfered White House gifts and furnishings, of which $28,000 had to be returned and the balance paid for. One may also recall the petty and childish vandalism of office equipment adding insult to injury, but worse than these anecdotal lapses in judgement was the failure to bring new officials up to speed to avoid disruption or oversights.

The only silver lining from these unfortunate antics was that they have been the exception, not the rule; an interregnum in a line of generally good interparty transfers of power. George H.W. Bush penned a now-famous letter to Clinton and cooperated with his team in 1992, making the latter’s failure to reciprocate with his son eight years later all the more striking. George W. Bush vowed not to inflict the same experience on his successor Obama, and Obama to his credit fully cooperated with the incoming Trump team as well, despite immense pressure to behave otherwise. He could easily have gotten away with another partisan stunt, and been applauded for it, but he didn’t. 

It would be bad for the country if bruised egos and sticky fingers once again disrupted the Executive Branch, as appears possible. It was wrong when the Clintons did it, and it would be no less wrong for Trump to do it now. Nor, with the bar so exceptionally low, would it be terribly hard for Trump to acquit himself well enough in these final weeks to draw a contrast with his erstwhile rivals, but I have my doubts. Yet perhaps we may still be cautiously optimistic that the ill effects will be more limited than in 2000, given the passage of the Intelligence Reform and Terrorism Prevention Act of 2004 in the interim, as well as the unusual experience of the incoming Administration compared to most successful challengers. Biden is the first former Vice President to win the White House in his own right since George H.W. Bush in 1988, and the first non-consecutive vice presidential successor since Nixon in 1968.  

This was an unusual election in many ways. Biden scored a considerable 300-vote victory in the Electoral College, which is about as commanding as could be expected in such a polarized age. While pollsters predicted that much, they utterly failed to recognize how narrow his margins in crucial swing states would be, and overestimated Democrats’ performance at every other level of government. His campaign succeeded in many states where Republicans hold the edge in voter registration, voter turnout, and where Republicans won Congressional and state elections. Biden outperformed Congressional and state Democrats, including in the key swing states. The clear inference is that a significant number of voters backed Biden while still supporting down-ballot Republicans, indicating opposition to Trump within the GOP proved fatal to his reelection bid and Biden’s appeal to bipartisanship worked, even if it disappointed some on the Left—or perhaps it worked precisely because it disappointed the Left.  

This is only the third presidential election in 104 years where a Democrat has won the White House while Republicans gained seats in the House of Representatives; the others were 1916 and 1960. It will be the first such election in 136 years in which this occurred for a non-incumbent Democratic challenger with a Republican Senate, harkening back to the 1884 victory of New York Governor Grover Cleveland over Senator James G. Blaine (R-ME).  

Speaking of Republican Senators from Maine, one of the biggest surprises of the night was not only the reelection of Senator Susan Collins amidst an onslaught of out-of-state Democratic money flooding the state, but also her commanding margin of victory—she defeated Gideon by more than 9% in an election for which Democrats had been amassing funds and had been gunning to flip for the past two years. Illusory advantages in polling for Democrats likely contributed to this enormous financial advantage by enticing credulous donors eager to back a winner. It turns out votes matter more than money: Senate Democrats vastly outspent Republicans in several races that did not turn out to be terribly close, raising a collective $300 million only to go down in defeat by large margins in Maine (9%), Texas (10%), South Carolina (11%), and Kentucky (20%).

Donald Trump lost by nearly the same electoral margin by which he won in 2016. Nearly all reelection campaigns ultimately boil down to a referendum on the incumbent, but few have seen such a clear divide between the individual and his party. Republicans on every other level appear to have either retained control or actually made gains at Democrats’ expense, making the degree to which Trump himself has been rebuked impossible to conflate with cyclical trends and made all the more starkly personal by the fact he lacked the “negative coattails” of a Carter or a Goldwater with the rest of his party.

While Trump is certainly not without his supporters and actually made gains among African-American and Latino voters, it appears in this high turnout election that he aroused more opposition than support. His loss in Arizona in particular, where state Republicans appear to have retained control, seemed a direct rejoinder to his bitter feud with the late Senator John McCain and his family. This highlights the difficulty of Trump’s fraud claims; they depend on several Republican-controlled states being complicit, which makes even less sense than typical conspiracy theories do. It’s also hard to imagine that supposed Democratic plotters would inflict several embarrassing Congressional defeats on themselves in the process if they were somehow behind the result. 

Despite overheated rhetoric to the contrary, this election actually represented a notable decline in racial polarization; Biden increased the Democrats’ share of white voters over 2016, while Republicans attracted greater support from minorities. The latter proved decisive for Maria Elvira Salazar and Carlos Giménez flipping two Congressional seats in Florida. Salazar’s victory came in retaking Florida’s 27th District, represented for 30 years by Ilhena Ros-Lehtinen, the trailblazing Cuban-American Republican who was the first Latina ever elected to Congress.

Yet while Trump and House Democrats were both clear losers in this election, it cannot be overlooked that the biggest defeat may be for pollsters, who failed us yet again. Skepticism toward polling has shifted from the fringe to mainstream opinion for a good reason. Although their error wasn’t enough to predict the wrong outcome this time, they have evidently not learned from 2016. Only the fact that Biden ran a stronger campaign with even bigger leads for them to vastly inflate saved them from another reversal. The Democratic wave most pollsters predicted not only failed to appear, but proved to be more ebb than flow. Republicans increased their share of state legislatures under full control from 29 to 30 (to Democrats’ 19). State Republicans also increased their advantage in governorships from 26 to 27. Since 2020 is a decennial redistricting year, this gives Republicans the edge in drawing new House districts going into the 2022 midterms. (By way of comparison, the GOP controlled 29 statehouses at the last redistricting in 2010).  

There are numerous theories as to why pollsters got it wrong again; social desirability bias (AKA the “Shy Trump Voter” hypothesis), systematic sampling errors, asymmetric partisan trust in media impacting response rates, polls-as-wish-fulfillment (if driven by a desire for clicks from nervous Dems) or polls-as-propaganda (if intended to influence voter behavior, like encouraging donations or demoralizing opponents to depress turnout). Incompetence may be the simplest explanation, however.

I don’t know which if any of these is closest to the mark, but there’s clearly something very wrong and one worries the fact it didn’t make as much of a splash this time means they will be even less motivated to correct their mistake than they were after 2016, despite their clear failure to do so. How is it in an era of ever more intrusive and uncanny algorithms, predictive behavioral analysis, and pervasive surveillance that somehow we’re worse at polling than people were 50 years ago who had landlines, pencils, and graph paper? It fundamentally doesn’t make sense and we’ve yet to find a satisfactory explanation. 

Senate control will remain undecided until January, but with 50 Republicans to 48 Democrats currently, Republicans hold the edge if they win one or both of Georgia’s two special elections to retain control. This appears likely given the returns from last week; incumbent senior Senator David Perdue led his challenger by 1.7% or about 87,000 votes, even as Democratic turnout efforts helped Biden carry the state. Senator Perdue fell 0.3% short of the 50% threshold Georgia law requires in order to avoid a runoff. 

The special election to fill out the balance of Senator Johnny Isakson’s term is a bit more complicated. After Isakson resigned last year due to Parkinson’s disease, Kelly Loeffler was appointed in the interim and is now running as the incumbent. Georgia has so-called “jungle election” rules, so two Republicans faced off against two Democrats; the top spot went to Democrat Warnock with 32.9% to Loeffler’s 25.9%, but the two Republicans overall pulled in 45.9% of the vote to the two Democrats’ collective 35.7%. Even assuming similar or identical turnout to the presidential election, which was already extremely favorable for Democrats, it appears likely at this point that Republicans will retain Senate control by holding one or both Georgia seats. In the meantime, the parties will likely spend tens of millions of dollars more in the next two months before the runoff to try to budge those numbers or keep them steady.

God Bless America.

Outgoing President Bush’s note to incoming President Clinton, Inauguration Day 1993.