james debate
james debate

Saturday 7 November 2020

At this time last year, with Donald Trump on the verge of impeachment for high crimes, I said that there was little doubt we were witnessing the final days of the Trump Presidency. So it has turned out. The results of the 2020 election are in. It's done. Trump is out. He will lose by a substantial margin in both the popular vote and electoral college, and in doing so become only the fourth President in modern history to lose a bid for re-election. Here's how it happened.

2020 us presidential congress election house senate results roundup 46 trump biden democrat republican single term president
First I would like to clarify, the purpose of this post will be simply to discuss the election results. What happened, what they mean, and what happens next. This is not going to be a review or retrospective of the Trump Presidency as this blog posted back in 2017 for Barack Obama. That will come later. Now it is time just to observe and digest the events of the past week.

Joe Biden has been elected President. While the results in many places have yet to be finalised, it now appears likely that he will end up having won the national popular vote by several million votes as well as the electoral college by a significant margin that includes the "blue wall" that Clinton lost in 2016 and adds formerly deep red states such as Arizona and Georgia. Joe Biden has won more votes than any Presidential candidate in American history and will likely win by the second largest margin since 2000 (the largest being Obama's first victory in 2008).

Meanwhile in the Congressional races Democrats have once again won a majority in the House of Representatives. As I have previously discussed, this is no mean feat considering how historically gerrymandered the House districts are; an anti-democratic practice essentially meaning that Democrats need to win by a wide margin just to scrape a bare majority. This majority looks like it will end up being slightly less than that won in 2018, which itself is no great surprise given that they were up against an incumbent President this time, and still represents a solid majority of the national vote.

As expected, Democrats will also make gains in the Senate, however at the time of writing it remains to be seen whether they will take a majority. With the two races in Georgia entering a runoff election, we will likely not know the answer to this until January.

These results are largely in line with what was expected pre-election. My own prediction at the start of the week had Biden winning 313 electoral votes. It is currently expected that he will win 306, with every state having been called correctly aside from Iowa (6 votes) and Maine's 2nd Congressional District (1 vote). I say this not to brag, but to show how close to pre-election expectations the results have ended up being. The forecasts were, once again, more or less correct.

Despite this, a narrative seems to have formed early on that the pollsters were all wrong. It is fair to say that the margins are narrower than predicted, but the discrepancy appears to have been greatly exaggerated by the unprecedented election day/mail-in vote difference that has been caused by the combination of Covid-19 and the Republican party's own deliberate machinations. 

When all the votes are counted it appears likely that Republicans will have over-performed relative to the polls by about 2-3%. Such a polling error easily accounts for an underperformance in the House of 10 or so seats. Difficult to comment on the Senate with races still outstanding. The potential results range from -3 to +1 as compared to my prediction. If you land somewhere in the middle and say that Democrats underperformed by 1-2 seats in the Senate, that is also very much in line with a 2-3% polling error. It's a modest discrepancy, but hardly unusual and potentially explained by causes other than polling error.

For starters, a 2-3% polling error is well within historical expectations. In most cases it is also well within the pollsters' stated margin of error. To the extent that there may be any actual polling error, there are many plausible explanations for why this may be. If there was momentum in Trump's direction in the closing days of the election then it is entirely normal that his performance would beat the polls by 1-2% (conversely this effect may also be behind Joe Biden's surprise win in Georgia). 

My readers will also recall that I raised in my election preview the possibility of there being an unaccounted for "pandemic factor" in the pre-election polling, ie perhaps Democrats were less inclined to turn out because they were worried about catching the virus, whereas Republicans have been told for months that the virus is not a big deal or even non-existent and so had no such reservations. Alternatively maybe the pandemic presented a response bias where those who were able to work from home had a greater response rate than those who were out in the world. Personally this is what I consider to be the most plausible explanation for any apparent broad polling miss, and could easily explain a 2-3% discrepancy.

That is not to say that there were not some anomalous results that require further analysis. There were clear significant polling errors in Florida (just as there were in 2018) and Wisconsin, as well as the Senate race in Maine that are not explained simply by the broad 2-3% error suggested above. But despite the hype you may have heard, the level of polling error apparent across most results appears to be neither unusually large, nor particularly surprising.

I think the main takeaway for you all is this: despite all the noise, all the drama, the shenanigans and the slow trickle of results, it looks like the election has gone basically as expected. There was no massive shock, no credible claims of malfeasance (though that evidently hasn't stopped them from putting forward a litany of non-credible ones!).  We expected the election night results to be skewed in Trump's favour, but it has been pretty clear since at least Wednesday that this election would end with a Joe Biden victory. Perhaps the most surprising thing from the 2020 election is just how unsurprising the final results appear to be.

These results are not surprising. The outcome has been clear for weeks, if not months. Anyone who says otherwise simply hasn't been paying attention. 

Donald Trump entered this race as the incumbent President. Incumbency advantage is a very real phenomenon in American politics. Americans do not like to admit they were wrong, and to be quite frank a lot of people don't really follow political news that closely and simply vote for the person they know. Under any other circumstance, he should have been heavy favourite to win this election. But Donald Trump entered this election with a historically low approval rating, a pandemic raging out of control, and the ignominy of being the only President in modern history to oversee a net reduction in jobs over the course of his tenure. Those weaknesses have ultimately cost him re-election.

It is worth noting that even before the pandemic began, Trump trailed Joe Biden in the polls. This was not some late game-changing shift, Trump has been historically unpopular throughout his Presidency. A constant cloud of corruption and scandal has left Trump as one of only four President in modern history to have majority disapproval at the end of their first term. So perhaps it should come as little surprise, then, that he will become one of only four Presidents in modern history to lose a bid for re-election.

Really the only thing that has made this election feel even vaguely uncertain has been the unprecedented disparity between election day/mail-in votes and the deliberately drawn out counting process. In truth this has been little more than a mirage that has resulted in an election that feels markedly less decisive than the final results are likely to show. It is important to stress here that this is absolutely by design. Trump and the Republicans spent months telling their voters to vote in-person rather than by mail, then fought tooth and nail in the courts and state legislatures to delay the counting of mail-in votes as much as possible. It's a baffling and cynical strategy. The intention was clearly to have numbers look as favourable as possible on election night, with a view to claiming victory before all the votes were counted. As far as electoral strategies go, this has to be one of the most asinine I can recall. It didn't work, and it's baffling that they really thought that it would.

These sad, silly games aside, the outcome of the election was rarely in doubt. The outcome was obvious to most people as early as Wednesday morning when it became clear that Biden would carry the rust belt. Once the final vote tallies have been counted Joe Biden will lead by decisive margins close to those predicted. This should not come as a surprise to anyone who has been looking at the numbers, not just in recent weeks and months but years.

A defining feature of this Presidency has been the perpetuation, by the President, of an alternate reality bubble. This is an alternate world where the news outlets are fake, where literally fictional terrorist attacks become real, and where every scandal and negative event is simply a non-existent hoax. It's an alternate reality bubble where 20,000 lies become true. Millions of Republican voters bought into it, because they wanted it to be true, and Republican officials played along, because they like winning elections.

What we are seeing now is that bubble crashing hard against reality. Donald Trump's pretend world was never real. All those bad things that happened under his presidency really happened, and the news media for the most part reported it fairly. I don't want to come off as overly harsh, but there really is no other way to say it. Facts are facts regardless of whether you like them. This is reality, and in 2020 reality bites hard for Republicans.

The election is over now, but the hard work begins. This country needs to be rebuilt, our divisions need to be healed. It is time to call an end to the conspiracy theories, the silly games and hyper extreme "partisanship to the bitter end" that we have seen in recent years. Donald Trump's rhetoric over the last few days has indicated that he is willing to burn down the country rather than accept his defeat. This cannot be tolerated by his supporters. Enough is enough Republicans, it is time to end the nonsense and move forward together.

On a final note I would like to pay great tribute to the election workers throughout the country and from both parties who have largely conducted this election in a smooth and orderly fashion despite unprecedented circumstances and unique pressures being applied from various sources. In recent weeks we have seen disgraceful attempts to influence or suppress the vote, to pressure the electoral process. We've seen armed protestors making personal threats against poll workers and their families, and now we appear to be ending the Trump presidency amid a fog of delusion and conspiracy theories. They have faced deliberate attempts at sabotage from forces both domestic and foreign. Yet, throughout it all America's proudest institutions have held strong and prevailed. It is a great victory for America and a victory for democracy in general.

So there it is. Democrats win the White House, the House of Representatives, and make gains in the Senate. There will be much more to discuss in the coming weeks and months, including a final retrospective on the Trump Presidency, and a preview of the priorities and expectations of the Joe Biden administration. Until then, rest easy, the national nightmare is over. 

Newer Post Older Post Home