What We Can Learn from Election Day 2020

November 4, 2020
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While it may be a while before we learn the final results of Election Day 2020, there is still much that gleaned from the returns to date. Four of our political science authors share their initial takeaways from the outcome so far.

Michelle Oyakawa, coauthor of Prisms of the People: Power & Organizing in Twenty-First-Century America

From the 1980s forward, the United States government has been increasingly controlled by corporations and the super-rich, who have used their power to institute policies that serve their interests. This has resulted in a highly unstable economy and society, where most workers, through no fault of their own, are unable to forge a secure, decent quality of life. This is not the fault of Republicans or Democrats alone, both parties’ leaders are subservient to super wealthy donors.

No matter who ultimately wins the presidential election, the US government will face a crisis of legitimacy driven by the basic realities of extreme inequality, an out-of-control pandemic, and escalating ecological crises because of unchecked climate change. The answers for how to solve these huge problems will not come from researchers in think tanks, academics, pundits on cable news, or members of the existing political establishment. Elites do not have the perspective necessary to understand the realities in communities, and they tend to provide “solutions” to social problems that prioritize enhancing their own power over all other concerns. Top-down politics where national strategists try to manipulate various publics using marketing techniques consistently fails to do anything other than empower the rich, whose addiction to plunder is eroding social stability and driving massive ecological destruction. Regular people independently organizing to fight for themselves and each other will be the only way to build real, lasting political change.

Michael D. Minta, author of No Longer Outsiders: Black and Latino Interest Group Advocacy on Capitol Hill

Based on polling data, I am still convinced that there will be a new president of the United States in 2021. Although I have to admit my uncertainty is getting greater as the election count continues in battleground states such as Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, and Wisconsin. The blue wave did not materialize as many Democrats had hoped. If Biden wins the election, there will be major expectations placed on him to effectively address COVID-19 and systemic racism in law enforcement and other institutions. If an effective vaccine is devised and administered, then this will be easy to solve. The ability to deliver on police reform and addressing systemic racial discrimination will be a major battle. He is likely to face a Republican controlled Senate led by Mitch McConnell that will oppose his agenda. When the polls indicated that Democrats had a chance to win the Senate, liberal politicians such as US Rep. Alexandria Ocasio Cortez floated the idea of Democrats eliminating the filibuster. This would allow Democrats to pass a progressive agenda and expand the US Supreme Court membership.

If Trump manages to win a second term, he will face similar challenges as Biden. Government will be divided thus hindering his ability to enact his economic policies and law and order agenda. The Democratic controlled House led by Nancy Pelosi will continue to oppose Trump’s agenda. Trump can continue to reshape the federal courts with appointments that will surely be approved by the US Senate. With so much uncertainty surrounding who will be the next president of the US, the one thing that is certain is the federal government will continue to be divided.

Ken Kollman, coauthor of Dynamic Partisanship: How and Why Voter Loyalties Change

In broad strokes, there is continuity in voting in this 2020 election from the recent past. The electoral map in most of the country, at least state by state, will not look much different from 2016 except for three to five states that will flip. How many of these will flip will determine the presidential election in the next few days. People generally voted for their party, even if they do not like the personality of their presidential candidate. This is most evident among Republicans who dislike Trump but voted for him anyway. And they voted heavily for their down-ballot candidates. The House will surely stay Democratic, while the Senate is still up in the air but leaning to stay in Republican control. Partisan control of state houses looks tightly contested in key states but few if any state legislatures will switch party.

Some trends and changes are noteworthy. If projections hold up, this will likely be the highest turnout recorded in modern times. Intense mobilization efforts by both parties succeeded despite the pandemic and new forms of voting in advance of the election. It also indicates how polarized the country is along partisan lines. Both parties mobilized and turned out their voters in historic proportions, and the result is a national vote outcome of close to 50-50.

One trend will hearten the Republicans and worry the Democrats: the gains Republicans made among Latino voters overall, especially those who are not Mexican-American but have origins elsewhere in Latin America. This trend if it continues will solidify Florida for the Republicans, and may keep other states like Texas Republican for the near future. And in the other direction, the ongoing trends among white voters toward the Democrats, especially in the suburbs and especially among women, will make it difficult for Republicans to make gains in key battleground states in the Midwest and border South.

Two kinds events ought to be worrisome for everyone regardless of party affiliation: an incumbent president declaring victory before final results are in and calling for legal remedies for vote fraud without any evidence; and the use of the instruments of the state such as the thwarting of a last minute federal court order to the postal service to search for possibly lost ballots. These are indications of an incumbent government intent upon sowing distrust in election outcomes and using the levers of governmental power to achieve partisan political ends. However, this election turns out, such actions are deeply damaging to the functioning of a political system that relies, not only on formal laws and legitimate use of regulatory power, but also on a heavy dose of democratic norms including fair play during elections. If we are now in a situation in the U.S. where people believe all is fair in love, war, AND elections, American democracy will suffer.

Aziz Z. Huq, coauthor of How to Save a Constitutional Democracy

However the presidential election of 2020 is resolved, the medium-term outlook for democracy in the United States is clouded. The key fact about the 2020 election is the voters’ decision, especially on the Republican side, not to impose an electoral penalty for the president’s numerous sallies into anti-democratic behavior (to say nothing of his violation of elementary norms of truthfulness and decency). This is, of course, something they could have done without abandoning their party given the possibility of split-ticket voting.  So the point is not a simple ideological one.  The lesson here is rather that there is no electoral price to pay for reneging on democracy.  Whether that lesson bears fruit this week, it will have medium-term repercussions on the behavior of the parties and the belief systems of their core supporters for decades to come. Importantly, this is not a lesson about the pernicious effect of institutional structures. It is rather a story of values and their failure. Even if the worst possible outcome for democracy is avoided this week, the harm built up will haunt democratic institutions for the next generation.  

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