If it seemed like 2020 just wasn’t ending, a drawn-out and nail-biting national contest didn’t help the calendar move along any faster. With razor-thin margins, elections 2020 certainly added another endless week to the year.
Democrats may have taken the top of the ticket with the Biden-Harris win, but the Republicans made some solid gains in the House and seem set to keep the Senate.
Here are the takeaways from this long-anticipated showdown:
While in some races there may still be uncertainty as to who won or lost, there is at least one group loser we can all point at with certainty, and that would be the pollsters.
The polling this season was so skewed, bringing one pundit to glibly suggest “Pollsters need to learn to code,” an allusion to the patronizing suggestion sometimes touted by upper-class folks in regards to what truck drivers and machine workers should do when automation and globalization eats up their jobs.
With the industry confidently claiming a sweeping Biden win, RealClearPolitics had him up by seven points nationally, while the Economist/YouGov pinned him with a 10-point lead the day before the election. NBC news/WSJ declared the same.
Even some battleground states where the polling was tighter showed some real gaps in accuracy. RealClearPolitics had Trump down in Florida by one point, while he in fact won the state by three points. In Wisconsin, Biden was up by seven points while that state has been a tight contest.
It’s no wonder Professor Joshua Sandman, professor emeritus of Political Science at the University of New Haven, stresses polling is more “art than science” in an interview with Hamodia.
In fact, it’s looking more like the antiquated entrails reading of ancient Gothic soothsayers as time goes on.
Back in July, FiveThirtyEight wondered, “Could Democrats pick up 13 seats in the Senate?” Make that more like one or two.
South Carolina was declared a toss-up, except Lindsay Graham beat out his opponent easily. Mitch McConnell was officially competitive and won his race with a yawning margin. Their two Democratic challengers spent over $200 million trying to oust the veteran senators, to which Graham tweeted out, “You wasted a lot of money.”
So with all of the handwringing and self-reflection of 2016, how did polling get it so wrong all over again?
“It’s become more difficult because people don’t have landlines exclusively,” says Dr. Sandman. Finding an accurate way to the demographic you are polling can be difficult. “You can’t always access the voters you want to access.” Because of that, pollsters do a lot of simulation, working with assumptions and perceptions about certain groups. “It’s often very inaccurate.”
He mentions an outlier, the Trafalgar Group, which he says does a better job of polling because they do their work mostly online, they are clever at watching for uncertainties, and because “they account for the shy Trump voter.”
“How exactly?” I wonder.
“They say, Faigy, how are you voting this year? And if you say, I’m undecided, they say, well how is your neighbor Mr. Grossbaum voting? And what about your good friend Mrs. Schwartz? And if you say Trump, they assume you are also for Trump.”
In other words, they are trying to weed out the social desirability confounder which makes people respond as they believe the listener wants them to respond. “That’s how they get around it,” he explains.
Assumptions/simulations/speculations are employed because pollsters can’t always contact people they want and weigh their response accurately. They need work with previous election outcome patterns. “This is why polling is an art as well as a science,” he says.
With such a close election, it’s safe to say neither political party did a great job in decisively winning over the electorate. However, the President made a series of missteps that lost him the White House.
“In 2016, Trump’s victory, which is the only one that really counts, was in the electoral college,” says Dr. Ester Fuchs, professor of public affairs and political science at Columbia University, in an interview with Hamodia. “He was able to flip three traditionally Democratic states, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, but by very close margins. Trump won Michigan by 13,080 votes, Wisconsin by 27,257 votes and Pennsylvania, 68,236. Now, as we consider the margins in these swing states, they are once again close, but Biden managed to rebuild that blue wall in the Midwest that Clinton narrowly lost.”
Where did Trump go wrong this time around?
“Trump’s mistake was he didn’t expand his base beyond the non-college educated working class,” says Dr. Sandman. “He focused exclusively on them, hoping they’d turn out in such massive numbers that they would overwhelm the Biden supporters in battleground states. He also lost a lot of support among suburban independent voters, especially women, as well as among older voters.”
“What made the difference for Biden and allowed him to garner a majority in the electoral college? … There are so many issues that might have informed vote choice,” says Dr. Fuchs. “The President’s handling of the pandemic; the economic crisis; racial inequality; crime and safety; the President’s divisive rhetoric. In most presidential races the issue that drives most voters is the economy. This election was different. In the exit polls, 35% of voters did say that the economy was the most important issue driving their vote; but 20% of voters said it was racial equality and 17% said it was the COVID pandemic.”
And finally, the President’s persona. Mr. Trump has long been criticized for his hostile and combative nature, but his long-standing feud with former senator John McCain may have cost him Arizona. In a state where this politician and war hero was beloved and respected, Trump’s often disdainful commentary may have been too much to stomach even for committed conservatives.
Pollsters may have been wrong about the margins of the Biden win, but their rationale made sense.
This was a historically unpopular President governing over the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression during the most dramatic health crisis in 100 years.
In other words, Biden and the Democrats should have done better. Here are some of Dr. Sandman’s analyses as to why they did not sweep this election away.
“The Democrats ran a terrible campaign,” Dr. Sandman says bluntly. “I call it the Biden non-campaign. He did hide in his basement as Trump would say, but I would be more diplomatic about that.”
What was one of the incorrect assumptions within the Democratic party? “Trump fatigue would be enough to carry them to victory,” he says. “But Biden’s lack of active campaigning bought into Trump’s narrative that the former wasn’t prepared physically or mentally to assume the burden of the presidency. It lived up to Trump’s taunts of ‘slow Joe’ who is missing his step. By staying close to his base in Delaware, he reinforced the narrative.”
“But wasn’t that all deliberate?” I ask. “It seemed like the Democratic party wanted to appear more COVID-sensitive throughout the campaigning season to draw a contrast between themselves and the Republicans and their large-scale gatherings.”
“Yes, but he didn’t do small campaign events either! He didn’t do much at all. He’d pop out of his house and make a statement. He didn’t need massive rallies. He could have been COVID sensitive, but drawn more media attention.
“The Biden campaign made a dramatic mistake. They should have gotten Biden out to factories, community centers, outdoor rallies with a small crowd, anything, just getting him into an active campaigning mode. It left the entire media attention to Trump.”
He points to another significant but overlooked factor — door-to-door canvassing.
“Republicans were doing about a million doors a week,” he says. “They were registering voters too. Biden’s people weren’t doing that either. Come October they did start canvassing, but they missed several important months. And they were bragging about it, ‘We are careful about COVID so we’re not going door to door.’ That was a serious error. …”
Along with those long-suffering pollsters, we revisit another theme from 2016: globalization.
“Biden tried to campaign on the globalization issue: ‘Buy American and Build Back Better.’ However, Trump just kept hammering away at how the policies that lost middle Americans their jobs were the work of past administrations support for the globalization process, bad trade deals, and the like. Biden didn’t work hard enough to combat that argument. He shifted too much towards the pandemic and the anti-Trump sentiment. You saw that with the Obamas and a bunch of others who were campaigning for him. They all stressed how undemocratic Trump is, but it did not resonate well enough with people who were concerned about their jobs in a globalized economic environment.
“Democrats need to reconnect with the non-college educated working class. Those core supporters they keep on focusing on, young voters, female, minorities … do not have enough votes and haven’t come out in large enough numbers to give them the majority. These demographics are mostly in the coastal states and liberal states. Democrats need to find a way to reconnect with their most fervent supporters of the past years — working class people.”
Another disappointment for the party was the suburban vote, which they thought they could sweep away from Trump. While the President did shed some of those oft-discussed soccer moms, he didn’t lose the suburbs in large numbers, and the exurbs were still mainly in his court.
“A lot of people are talking about the Hispanic upset in Florida, and the Hispanic vote in general, which leaned a bit more in Trump’s favor than in 2016. Do you think that’s going to be a new trend within this demographic?”
Dr. Sandman isn’t convinced. He says Hispanics in Florida are outliers because many of them are Cuban and have long enough memories to detest the policies of Castro’s communism. Fifty-five percent of this sub-group voted for Trump in the state.
“They’ve always been a bastion of conservativism, and they tend to be more culturally conservative as well,” he adds. “Biden’s opponents stressed how the former VP was deeply connected to the likes of Bernie Sanders and AOC, which was effective.”
Miami-Dade, the most populous county in Florida which is heavily Latino and Hispanic, is an old Democratic stronghold, but Trump made a big dent in the region this election.
“I won’t comment much on [Election] night’s results as they are evolving and ongoing, but I will say we’ve been sounding the alarm about Dem vulnerabilities [with] Latinos for a long, long time,” Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez tweeted on Election Night shortly after Florida went red. “There is a strategy and a path, but the necessary effort simply hasn’t been put in.”
Dr. Sandman finds her tweet amusing. “It’s ironic she’s writing that. I think she’s way off base. She’s very smart and she’s trying to preempt any criticism, but it’s her and Bernie that are turning them off.”
“So you wouldn’t extrapolate too much from the Hispanic vote for the GOP in Florida?” I ask
“I don’t see a big opportunity to swing this demographic significantly,” he says.
One interesting feature of the 2020 election is the repudiation of the nasty, white, racist Trump voter. In fact, the only demographic Trump lost some of was the white vote.
The New York Times exit polls indicate that in 2016, Trump took 58% of the white vote, while in 2020 it dropped to 57%. However, he seems to have gained ground with just about everyone else. The African American vote for Trump rose from 8% to 12% nationally, and in Florida he took nearly 15%. He won 32% of the Hispanic vote as compared to 2016’s 29%, the Asian American vote rose from 29% to 31% as well.
Looking at minority groups by gender, an Edison exit poll found that Trump won 17% of African American men as well as 35% of Latino men, while losing 5% of white men.
This data paints a promising fortune for future Republican coalitions, which, for too long, have relied on a mostly white population to win elections. If the party can continue to grow its numbers with other demographics, the long-predicted death of the GOP by 2030 may be deferred.
And just as an interesting anecdote, one district in Texas that is 96% Hispanic went for Biden by a slim margin of 52%.
All this against the backdrop of a President who has taken a harsh stance on immigration and has, as some say, fumbled the pandemic response which has been disproportionately deadly for Latinos.
So the Hispanic vote may still favor the Dems, but 2020 results do highlight AOC’s alarm.
Dr. Fuchs references how the Democratic party still manages to create a powerful coalition of minority voices. “If we look at demographic groups and their voting behavior in the presidential race, women continue to disproportionately favor the Democratic candidate, white evangelical Christians and Catholics continue to favor the Republican, white voters favor the Republican and Black and Hispanic voters favor the Democrat,” she says. “Jewish voters continue to support Democratic presidential candidates but are only 2% of the overall vote. … There is no question that the results of the 2020 presidential election reflect a very divided country. Yet, as we become a more diverse nation, with no one group having a majority, the only way a candidate will be able to win the presidency in our two-party system will be by constructing a coalition that bridges our differences. The presidential election of 2020 is the beginning.”
High Voter Turnout
Millions more voters showed up or mailed in their votes this cycle, the likes of which haven’t been seen since the early 1900s
Americans have long gotten comfortable with their low voter turnout of about 55%, it’s just a fact of U.S. elections which some bemoan every two or four years.
The 2018 election was also a turnout whopper, but does high turnout actually reflect a healthy democracy or an infirm one?
The likeliest explanation of low voter turnout in previous elections is indifference. A 2008 Census Bureau survey of unregistered voters noted that 46% of this group are “not interested in the election,” or “not involved in politics.” Nearly 18% were “too busy” and nearly 13% didn’t like the candidates or care about the policies at stake. (As for trouble registering, only 6% cited this as an explanation).
But maybe all of that is a good thing. Maybe things have been so good for so long that low voter turnout just indicates general contentment within the electorate. And maybe heavy turnout this cycle means that contentment is becoming more fragile.
I ask Dr. Sandman about that. He pauses.
“I need to think about that.”
I hear his struggle. Everyone loves the idea of high turnout, of political engagement and a civically responsible society.
“Participation is always good,” he says thoughtfully. “However, anxiety about the pandemic and a sense of division are bad motivators.”
But still, he sees high turnout as a win for the republic.
“Trump has polarized the electorate. In that respect, high voter turnout reflects that concern. But for democracy purposes, voter turnout should be high. We’re not a democracy,” he adds as an aside. “We are an anti-majoritarian republic.”
I’ve never heard it put that way, but I like the ring of that.
Then he quizzes me on my civic responsibility and political engagement.
“What is a democracy?” he asks.
“Majority rule?” I venture. I’m pretty sure I can summon up some Greek like demos means people and kratos means power, and I’m pretty sure I can also summon up some high school history class on how people ruling can be freaky if the people vote for scary or weird stuff, like banning the color purple or limiting bicycling to every Tuesday. Which is why the U.S. is a constitutional republic so we can all ride our bikes and wear purple every day.
“Yes,” he says. “And in the U.S., the majority doesn’t even rule! Because if so, Hillary Clinton and Al Gore would have won their elections.”
History and civics aside, he is still pleased with high turnout, although not its underlying motivator.
“Trump has definitely pitted white against black, college educated against non-college educated, urban against rural, wealthy against poor. … None of that is healthy. And he has exacerbated division for his own political ends.”
Yet after that sharp rebuke, he turns back to the other team.
“But the Democratic Party has a lot of work to do,” he says.
And that, hopefully, puts a wrap on 2020. I, for one, am absolutely ready to turn the calendar.