Didn’t quite make my weekend deadline, but, nevertheless, for those interested…
As I said, I was holding off till vote totals got closer to final, presuming it would improve Biden’s position. Dems have historically gained in later counts; this year was bound to be moreso, given disproportionate Team Blue mail-in ballot usage. At present, very near the end, Biden’s margin exceeds 7 million votes, and the percentage gap sits between 4.4-4.5%. With as-yet uncertified votes in CA, CO and NJ, numbers will go, if anything, slightly bluer. This is not a squeaker election by 21st century standards: the national margin is nearly double Bush ’04’s showing (the only GOP popular vote win since 1988); it even tops Obama’s 2012 re-election numbers.
In fact, in elections post-1988, Biden’s 51.3% share is topped only by Obama’s 52.86% in 2008. Moreover, his topline number is the second-strongest showing ever against an incumbent president, a species traditionally harder to defeat -- FDR over Hoover is the only candidate who managed a higher finish. Yes: other incumbents have been defeated by wider margins (Taft by Wilson, Carter by Reagan, Bush by Clinton). But in each of those cases, 3rd party candidates played significant roles. Reagan was the only one who managed over 50%...and his 50.7% fell short of Biden here.
A final, rather startling stat someone posted the other day: because this year had such a huge increase in voter participation (roughly 67% of eligible voters turning out; toward the end of last century, we’d been managing barely 50%), Biden’s 51.3% of that big chunk means he won a greater percentage of registered voters than Nixon did in his ’72 landslide.
All of which is to say, it was kind of a big win. Yet, we all know it doesn’t feel like one. For a couple of reasons.
First is that, for much of the 20th century, far more sweeping election victories were the norm, not the exception. From 1920 through 1988 – a string of 18 elections -- only four years (1948, 1960, 1968, 1976) produced margins as close as we’ve had in every election this millennium except 2008. No matter which party won – FDR/LBJ as Democrats, Coolidge/Eisenhower/Nixon/Reagan for the GOP – it was mostly in popular/electoral blowouts. (In FDR’s closest race, 1944, he exceeded Obama’s 2008 percentage – a result enormous in today’s context.) This was not the entire history of presidential elections -- many contests from Lincoln through Wilson were decided by relatively close margins (the differing outcomes of 1884 and 1888 basically turned on which candidate carried NY by a few thousand votes). But many of us who’ve been around a while have the idea that certain elections should be decisive, and this year seemed a prime candidate for that status.
Which leads to the second reason: we all EXPECTED a wider margin -- because of polls, but also from the general gestalt. We’ve had a guy standing out there every day spewing nonsense -- telling us the virus was going away or gone, while it raged ever stronger; telling us the economy was bouncing back, while unemployment claims topped the worst of the ’08 meltdown every week for 8 months. All that, plus blatant racism/kids in cages/corruption/general mendacity, led the DC Establishment to, essentially, stage an intervention. I’ve observed Bob Woodward for five decades now; the idea he’d openly advocate an electoral result would till now have seemed unthinkable. I similarly would never have believed I’d see significant numbers of former Republican office-holders/intelligence folk, even renegade members of the current administration, step forward and endorse the opposition party. The Rock, for Christ’s sake—whose career has been based on not alienating anyone – felt the need to come out for Biden. Back in 1972, when there was such a massive turn by seeming allies against McGovern, it foretold a stunning electoral defeat. We were justified in expecting, at minimum, a double-digit thrashing. Instead, we got a clear but hardly ringing (or chastening) out-party win. It’s a relief, but one can’t shake the notion that GOP voters are a different breed; that they’ve proven themselves blindly loyal to a scary degree. I’ll go full Godwin here: suppose a Hitler managed to gain the GOP nomination -- is anyone confident more than a sliver of contemporary Republicans would vote against him? In Bill Clinton’s famous line, Democrats are looking to fall in love, but Republicans are content to fall in line. It’s led us to an uneasy place.
Any sense of victory was also undercut by the Electoral College, which kept the election uncalled for too many days, and, worse, came frighteningly close to working against democratic ideals. Biden won by 7 million votes; four years ago, Trump lost by 3 million – and yet this led to identical EC results! How can such wide disparity in outcome indicate anything but a catastrophe waiting to happen? I’m not sure everyone knows how close we came: three key states, AZ/WI/GA, were carried by a total of 43,809 votes. Had Trump managed to squeak by in all three, Biden would still have 7 million more votes -- but the EC would have made it a 269-269 tie, and the House of Representatives would have picked the president. Which, for complicated reasons, would have almost surely made Trump president. (There’d have been some pressure to go the other way, given that 7 million margin, but anyone who thinks Republicans would have been cowed against such a power-grab wasn’t watching the Supreme Court set-to.)
Why this could happen can be grasped with a quick look at Cook Political Report’s vote breakdown. In non-battleground, uncontested states, Biden leads by over 8 million votes, a close to 9% margin; in states designated as battlegrounds, it’s Trump by 1.1 million/1.7%. Some of this is because of the particular states designated as battlegrounds, which flows from decisions the campaigns made: OH and TX are among the battlegrounds because Dems chose to fight for them, even though many viewed them as GOP-favored – and Trump’s entire 1.1 million battleground lead comes from them. On the other (brighter) hand, you know what states don’t show up on that list this year? CO and VA. A little history: Clinton (with substantial Perot help) carried CO in 1992, but it went comfortably Republican over the next three elections, till Obama carried it in ’08; VA, even more startlingly, hadn’t gone Dem since LBJ, again until Obama conquered it. Yet, only a decade later, both states are blue by double-digits -- part of the blue wall. Two things significant about this: 1) Designating such states non-battleground makes the Democratic EC base larger – 192 uncontested votes to the GOP’s 125, meaning Republicans need a better break of the closer states to win (though of course it happened in 2016); 2) Those states swung Dem for the same reason AZ and GA did this year: rising suburban rejection of the GOP, and growing Hispanic populations. I’m not saying this means AZ/GA will be automatic blue going forward; but I will say they’re trending in much the same way as those earlier states, where transformation happened pretty quickly. We shouldn’t ignore Texas, either: the state was a letdown this year for those who got their hopes high after Beto ’18, but don’t ignore the trajectory: Obama lost the state twice by double-digits; Hillary lost it by 9%; Biden came within 5.5%. The change in population – pre-Civil Rights white folks dying/Hispanics coming of voting age – has moved much of the Southwest more Democratic, and there’s no reason to think TX won’t eventually follow suit. If TX becomes lean-Dem, or even toss-up, the GOP will be under existential threat in presidential elections.
I guess I need to address the Hispanic part of that vote formula. Sonic expressed concern about it just after Election Day, and he’s not alone. Exit polling showed Trump making some improvements with parts of this demographic (especially among FL Cubans, enough to keep hold of the state). Given that insulting Hispanics has been Trump’s brand from literally his announcement of candidacy, this seems incomprehensible, and has caused some to question whether Dems will really win the demographic war the way most have been assuming. My thoughts: 1) Much of this, as I say, stems from exit polling, and I have to confess, I’m dubious about the validity of such polling this year, given the vast numbers who cast ballots by mail. I’m not saying the figures couldn’t reflect reality; I’m saying I’m not willing to base all future electoral strategy on what might be misleading data. 2) Even if you accept that the numbers are on the money, they only represent small improvement – say, 60-35 margins, rather than 65-30. It’d of course be nicer if Hispanic voters broke 90-10, the way black voters do, but even at this percentage, it’s a big net gain for Dems every day as the Hispanic population grows. The move to Trump has also been somewhat localized: in FL, as noted, and also TX (for reasons worth exploring). Other spots have seen results more in line with previous years -- Dems in AZ and GA certainly feel Hispanic voters breaking for them made the difference. 3) I guess there’s no way to say this without being condescending, but…it may be that this sliver of the Hispanic demo that turned is less Republican than impressed by Trump’s celebrity factor. Rachel Bitecofer thinks we’ve all long underestimated the celebrity aspect of Trump’s appeal, and there’s some reason to believe Hispanic men, in particular, are taken by Trump’s TV image. Consider that CA Hispanic voters went for Schwarzenegger in pretty big numbers, as well. I take that as an encouragement, given that it was a complete one-off: post-Schwarzenegger, CA Hispanic voters have been overwhelmingly Democratic. In sum: it’s worth studying how Dems can extend their reach among Hispanic voters, but I don’t think it’s at this part a blaring-siren worry.
Also contributing to post-election disappointment was the (pending GA) failure to take the Senate. This can be viewed as an offshoot of the Electoral College problem: the GOP has a lot of low-population states that get two Senators each, same as CA, and it’s becoming clear it’s now difficult for either party to capture a Senate seat in a state voting the opposite party on the presidential line (the dread Susan Collins the only one who defied the trend). Dems had some truly excellent candidates in states like MT, AK, KS and SC – but each ended up losing by roughly the margins of the presidential race. Same in NC: Biden’s close loss of the state’s electoral votes matched Cunningham’s near-miss in the Senate race.
This ought to offer optimism for the GA runoffs, given that Biden (barely) won the state. But I’m finding it hard to give my heart to those races just yet – the stakes are so high (in essence, the difference between Mitch McConnell and Kamala Harris holding the whip hand in the Senate), and I’ve been disappointed so many times; Dem history in runoffs has been poor, and I don’t know if Stacy Abrams alone is enough to offset that; plus, I need some vacation from politics after this long year/four years. (Wasn’t the ability to ignore politics for a bit part of Biden’s promise?) I’ll get back to you on that in 2021.
Which gets us to the big questions of where we are and where we’re headed, and I can’t claim to know better than anyone else. We’re in a double-crisis (COVID/economy) that may have not even peaked, with an unchastened GOP Congress quite prepared, if recent history is guide, to be 100% uncooperative and put all their energy into convincing voters everything is Democrats’ fault. Dem House losses, combined with the Senate failure*, give Biden a weak party standing in Congress; he may be in the sort of impotent position that stymied George H. W. Bush (and Jimmy Carter, who never had unified party support despite nominal control). On the other hand…Richard Nixon had an even weaker start – winning only 43% of the vote, his party holding neither house of Congress – but it turned out he had a strengthening, realigning coalition that ended up re-electing him and dominating the next two decades.
This is germane because, amidst all this disappointment, it’s easy to overlook that Dems have now won the popular vote in 7 of the past 8 presidential elections. (The one GOP win, Bush’s ’04 incumbent victory, was by a margin barely larger than Hillary Clinton’s “loss” in ’16.) Only the FDR-to-LBJ coalition (7 of 9 popular vote wins) had a comparable run. (1860-1912 GOP won 11 of 13 presidencies, but two of those presidents lost the popular vote.) And, if the Hispanic-replacement theory holds, this dominance is only going to expand. However much gerrymandering and the Electoral College obscure it, Judis and Teixeira’s predicted Emerging Democratic majority is reality. As George Packer lamented last week, it’s slow-emerging, and clearly not ideally distributed…but it’s still a fact. Which gives Biden a leg up that neither Bush nor Carter ever had.
A lot will depend on what comes in the wake of Trump. In these immediate weeks ahead, I don’t underestimate the man’s ability to wreak havoc. He’s genuinely convinced significant numbers of followers he was cheated in the election, and it’s scary to imagine what some might do when confronted with the reality of Biden’s inauguration. But it’s what follows that that I find more interesting, in terms of upcoming elections. Trump has been a unique driver of votes, for both parties – it’s clear he brings people to the polls that would never come out for McCain or Romney; on the other hand, he’s equally spiked turnout on the Democratic side, including the long-elusive younger voters. This time, there were enough of the latter to show Trump the door. A lot of pundits have asked, what if the GOP finds a candidate who can motivate turnout like that without Trump’s awfulness? – thinking that would keep Republican motivation high without goosing Dems in response. But I think that misses the point: Trump’s awfulness is exactly what reaches those voters. These are people whose prime happiness in life seems to come from watching someone stick it to their enemies – blacks, liberals, feminists, gays, whatever. They revel in his Trump’s transgressions. Without his carny-like catering to their prejudices, they might well slink back into non-voting.
The obverse would be, can Dems stay revved up like this without Trump as glaring motivator? Probably not to this degree, but maybe more than people think. One result of the election being closer than anticipated is that the GOP – who’ve long bad-mouthed Trump behind the scenes, and on some level hoped to be rid of him -- is now stuck with Trump’s voters and, thus, Trumpism. Until further notice, they’ll have to cater to them – up to pretending the election was stolen. Which is dangerous for them: evidence is that many of the Dem voters who flooded the zone this election despise Trumpism as much as they do Trump. Maybe a greater percentage of these first-time voters than we imagine will remain in the game (with expanded mail-in voting making voting an easier process for them). If Dems can stay near these turnout levels, while Republicans slip to 2012 levels, and the demographic changes in the population continue apace…it may be that we’re heading into a brighter era than it seemed on Election Night.
Final, palate-cleansing election stat: of all the elements of Trump’s loss, one I haven’t seen covered is where he stands vis a vis his very exclusive clique: popular vote losing presidents. It’s not a high-achieving group, in general. Rutherford Hayes wasn’t even renominated in 1880. Benjamin Harrison, facing the same candidate, lost by a clear margin next time out. Now we can add Trump to the list of lucked out once/then decisively rejected. This is all great news for George W. Bush. His re-election margin was pretty puny – the smallest of any incumbent ever. But he can at least brag of being the only one of this crew to get the job a second time.