To preface this Politics Update, we simply did not expect to be writing this column with incomplete election results. Thus, instead of reflecting on the winners of the 2020 election as we presumed we would be doing, this update analyzes the race during its closing stages. But, that’s the unpredictability of the “pandemic election.”
Where the presidential race stands
It’s ironic that, given the complexities of this election and the unique circumstances under which it has been conducted, the results of the contest are oddly similar to those which elected President Donald Trump: Differences of fewer than 100,000 votes in midwestern states, and much smaller ones in Nevada and Arizona. Small margins of victory in battleground states and tight races are the story of both 2016 and 2020.
Democratic dreams of winning Florida and Ohio were scrapped early on election night. Those who watched the contest four years ago will recount these memories, causing Democratic voters to wince and Republican voters to cheer. However, it may this time be the GOP who winces when reminiscing about this election in four years’ time.
At the time of writing, Democratic nominee Joe Biden is in a commanding position in four of the five remaining battleground states. He leads in Pennsylvania, Arizona, Nevada and Georgia. North Carolina, the final battleground, looks as though it may have slipped through Biden’s hands with 95% of the vote in.
Though Arizona and Nevada have offered unclear information and still have over 10% of ballots uncounted, the situation in Georgia is much more transparent and easier to analyze.
Biden trails Trump in North Carolina, though results there may be electorally irrelevant if the three aforementioned states go in Biden’s favor. Should Biden fail to win all but Georgia, that alone would make it mathematically impossible for Trump to win via the electoral college. If Biden instead was to just win Pennsylvania but lose the remaining four states, that would still put him at 273 electoral votes and grant him the presidency.
Georgia has announced that it will officially recount its presidential votes, given Biden’s current margin of victory of less than 0.1% is well within the 0.5% threshold required for a statewide recount. However, this is unlikely to change who the state’s electors vote for, as recounts historically have only changed small numbers of votes.
As such, those two states are the most important for each candidate’s chances of winning. The president’s lead in each is steadily chipping away, as the large numbers of mail-in ballots are tightening the difference between him and Biden.
Democratic disappointment in Congress
Very clearly, the Democrats’ number one priority this election was to remove Trump from the White House. At the time of writing, it looks like they will do so. But, second on their to-do list was to gain a majority in both chambers of the legislative branch, something it looks like they will not achieve.
They will be undeniably disheartened by their performance in congressional elections. If anything, the bad news Democrats are receiving right now in the race for Congress is evident of the party’s own shortcomings.
2020 was the year Democrats saw an opening in the Senate. Heading into the election, Republicans held 53 seats to the Democrats’ 47. However, their chances of winning back the Senate were watered down by lackluster campaigns in key states – they shot themselves in the foot.
In Maine, Democratic candidate Sara Gideon was trumped by incumbent Republican Susan Collins. Gideon had long been favored in the state after Collins cast a controversial vote confirming Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh. Though she sided with Democrats on healthcare legislation, strategists thought the latter vote would hold greater electoral weight by aggravating moderate Republicans, who make up a large percentage of voters in Maine.
This result was also particularly surprising in part because Biden comfortably won the state, clinching 55% of votes. Gideon was also backed by nearly $47 million in funding, the most money ever spent in a congressional election in Maine.
Speaking of money, Maine was not the only state in which Democrats wasted it. $102 million was spent in South Carolina, which only managed to win a meager 44% of the vote. Similarly, in a bid to unseat Senate Majority Leader Mitch Mcconnell, Democrats outraised him by $33 million but lost by 20 points.
Democrats were most comfortable about their standing in the House of Representatives. But, just as in the Senate, they underperformed there as well. They knew with near certainty that they would maintain control, but even had aspirations to bolster their 17-seat majority.
By the third day of this prolonged counting process, it was clear they would instead lose seats on aggregate. At the time of writing, Republicans have picked up a six-seat net gain in the House.
Much of Biden’s zealous policy plan relies on congressional control. Biden claims a long history of reaching across the aisle, which he has done, but he must recognize that congressional polarization is more intense than when he was a senator. If he can soothe the divide to the extent he claims, he may be able to lobby moderate Republicans such as Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Collins, who have broken party lines in key votes during Trump’s first term, to pass some legislation.
Yet, even moderates maintain enough traditional Republican values such that revoking Trump’s tax cuts, passing extensive gun control reform, making inroads on climate change and more simply will not be possible without a majority in the Senate, and Democrats have botched it.
The polls miss the mark once again
The morning of Nov. 4, as the “red mirage” phenomenon was in full effect, anxious Biden supporters worried that Trump had done it again – that he shocked the country by disproving projections of a Biden landslide just as he did in 2016.
Luckily for those Biden supporters, Democratic-friendly mail-in votes have made their way into the vote count in the following days, and the polls appear increasingly accurate. And although Biden seems the clear favorite at the time of writing, the polls were still wrong by some four-odd points.
Polls were watched most intensively in the three “blue wall” states: Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. Biden’s easiest path to election depended on rebuilding that wall, and despite having far more options at this stage in the race, it’s still crucial with Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes technically still up in the air. In these three states, the pre-election averages showed that the Biden-Harris campaign had nothing to worry about.
Trump’s “silent majority,” a group of voters that are secretive about their support for the president, is very real, and most impactful in the Midwest. In Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, Trump supporters who kept their views close to their chest turned out and toppled the polling margin.
Pollsters knew they had to adjust their models to account for the silent Trump vote, and they didn’t. Although, to slightly reign in the poll-bashing, an inherently under-the-radar demographic like the silent majority is difficult to track. This is exactly why it is a voting bloc that surprises at the polls on election day and exposes polling flaws.
Trump’s infamous rallies may be the reason he is a poll-defying enigma. Many believe these rallies are ineffective, arguing they uselessly stir up supporters that are already convinced of their vote for Trump. Such logic discounts the fact that these rallies energize Republican bases that Democrats simply avoid. For instance, in rural Pennsylvania where rallies came thick and fast before the election, Trump has run up massive double-digit margins. While these counties may not contain many votes, if you string them all together, they eventually add up.
After eluding the odds for two elections, one thing is clear: the president has an innate ability to fool the experts, and that is something for which he deserves credit. This time, his deceptive nature just wasn’t quite enough to turn the tide.