Joe Biden is the apparent winner of Pennsylvania. On Saturday morning, the major networks declared that he had won there, giving him enough electoral votes to become the president-elect. But let’s go back to late Tuesday night for a moment …
Once it was fairly clear that Biden would likely win the presidential election but in more of a drawn-out nail-biter than many polls had suggested, and that Democrats would keep their majority in the U.S. House but lose seats and perhaps not win control of the U.S. Senate, people in the political world started offering their deeper analyses of the 2020 race.
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Many of these arguments focused on flaws or shortcomings in the Democratic approach to 2020 — even though they had just pulled off the somewhat rare feat of unseating an incumbent president. Some analysts argued that Democrats are too liberal, particularly on racial issues; others argued that Democrats are insufficiently liberal, particularly on economic issues. There is renewed criticism that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer are bad at crafting a narrative for the party and recruiting candidates for key races. There is frustration that the party is not doing enough to appeal to Hispanic voters.
There are also questions about why polls appeared to understate the depth of Trump’s support (again). And, finally, there are questions once again about whether the broader political media is missing something in telling the story of American politics. After all, the media has often cast Trump as an ineffective president, particularly in dealing with the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, and yet nearly half of the country’s votes were cast for him.
Some of these arguments could be true. All of them could be true (except the mutually exclusive ones). But here’s another take, or perhaps an anti-take: At the least, the unique nature of the vote in 2020 — in particular, that the counting is taking and will take longer than usual — means we won’t know many of these answers for some time. And, moreover, Tuesday wasn’t particularly unusual, at least in the context of modern American electoral politics.
A plurality of Americans, including the vast majority of Asian, Black and Hispanic voters, backed the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate. A slightly smaller bloc, including the majority of white Americans and the overwhelming majority of white evangelical Protestants, backed the Republican Party’s candidate. Democrats carried states on the West Coast and in the Northeast, the GOP was dominant in the South and the Great Plains. Democrats were very strong in cities, the GOP in rural areas; the suburbs were somewhat more split. As of right now, it appears that a majority of voters in only one state chose a senator from a different party than in the presidential race (Republican Sen. Susan Collins won in Maine, which Biden carried easily.)
In short, what made Tuesday surprising to observers was that the pre-election polls may have understated the size of Red America by a few percentage points nationally and overstated Biden’s standing in some swing states. But an election where Democrats won the popular vote by several million votes but fairly narrowly won the Electoral College almost happened in 2016. The list of states that Biden won but Barack Obama lost in 2012 (maybe Arizona and maybe Georgia) is short, as is the list of states that Obama won in 2012 but Biden lost (Florida, Iowa, Ohio). The election being decided by Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin was probably what we expected in January 2020, even though it looked as though Biden might expand the map far beyond that in November 2020.
Obviously, there were some big shifts in 2020 compared with past election cycles. Obama lost Georgia by 8 percentage points in 2012; Biden is slightly ahead there. Four years ago, Trump won about 34 percent of the vote in Miami-Dade County, but around 46 percent this year, a huge increase.
Most importantly, it is very notable, if not surprising, that Trump managed to get nearly universal support from Republican voters and win over nearly half of the total electorate despite his history of breaking with democratic values and his being in charge of the U.S. government while more than 235,000 Americans died of COVID-19.
So, I’m not arguing that people should have expected what happened on Tuesday. I did not. I expected it to be somewhat clear by 11 p.m. on election night that Biden had won. I expected Democrats would gain control of the Senate and win House seats. None of that happened. I want to know more about what polls may have gotten wrong (though we’ll have to wait for all the votes to be counted before really diving into that). I want to know how the strategies of each party may have affected the results and other factors that may have shaped the election. Some of the initial post-election criticisms of Democrats and the political media may be right.
But the most obvious conclusion from the 2020 elections is that we are still divided between two entrenched political coalitions in America. This has basically been true since at least the 2000 elections. Those two coalitions show up in polling on a ton of issues. I am not suggesting that these coalitions are of exactly equal size (Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight presidential elections). Nor am I suggesting that these coalitions are permanent and unchanging, or that the parties and candidates can’t do things to shift these dynamics. Maybe Democrats would have done better at the congressional level with different candidates or a different message. Perhaps Republicans will dominate elections in the future without the unpopular Trump weighing down the party. Alternatively, perhaps Trump is a uniquely talented politician and Democrats will be able to win more elections if he isn’t on the ballot.
I. Don’t. Know.
But I do know that at least 42 states and the clear majority of Americans voted for the same party at the presidential level in 2020 as they did in 2016. The most important story may be not what changed electorally in 2020, but how and why so much did not change.