It’s 3am, the wee early hours of Wednesday, November 4th, 2020. You’re continuing to click refresh on the New York Times/Politico/MSNBC’s election results site, trying to make sense of the results. Donald Trump has been re-elected, despite losing the popular vote by a record margin for a victorious U.S. President, a margin the commentators are saying “will approach 5 million votes.” Democrats narrowly came up short of re-taking the Senate, winning 49 or 50 seats, but narrowly coming up short in three other pick-up opportunities. While it looks like Democrats will hold the House, they will lose seats, and Donald Trump is claiming a mandate. There are real fears that Trump will not only get to replace Clarence Thomas on the high court, but also liberal icon Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The commentators talk of impending doom for Democrats on television.
You watch as ugly scenes break out in the streets of several major U.S. cities. The cable news shows continuously show the crying faces of young campaign workers at the Democratic nominee’s election night party. While this time they didn’t schedule a fireworks show to cancel, the look of shock seems to be hanging on the faces of Democratic pundits all night. How could they be so wrong? Democrats won nearly all the individual issues in the exit polls. Turnout was up among the electorate at large, reaching 140 million for the first time. Minority and youth turnout even went up. How did this happen?
By the slimmest of margins, Trump held onto Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona, six states he held by under 500,000 votes in 2016. Trump also managed to flip Minnesota and New Hampshire, and still may flip all of Maine to go with his ME-2 victory. While he lost New York and California by record margins, and saw his margins in Texas and Georgia shrink, Trump seemed to hold on in all of the swing states. His growing margins in red America enabled him to get to 46%, losing the popular vote by 4%. The Democratic nominee is being savaged by pundits for going too far left, while their defenders point to increased turnout and margin as proof that the nation wanted change.
It’s all you can do to watch the clips of Trump’s defiant victory speech and not scream at the television. What happened to America? It just doesn’t feel fair.
I’m probably not as excited about the 2020 field of Democratic Presidential candidates as most people reading this. I like something around a dozen of them. I also think only something like 3-5 of them are electable. Half of the 24 candidates have a roughly 0% chance of being nominated, and should not have been allowed on a debate stage (I’m looking at you, Tom Perez). We still have the non-Democratic cancer from Vermont in our primary field to wreak havoc, and he still won’t promise to support the nominee without pre-condition. I can see the fault lines that could shift beneath our feet.
We have a front-runner who can’t get out of his own way. We have another who has a “white paper” for everything, a treasure trove for GOP operatives to cherry pick and misrepresent. We have another who has twice said she would kill private insurance altogether in her advocacy of Bernard’s “Medicare for All” plan, and the requisite tax increases. Mind you, these are three candidates I really like, and would happily vote for, both in the primaries and general election. But our first set of debates not only featured the whole field saying they would give undocumented people health insurance on the government dime (without the opportunity to explain why that’s smart policy, no less), but had a debate over 1975 busing policy, complete with a states rights position and one candidate basically calling the other a cop. It wasn’t our party’s strongest hour.
The Democratic Party definitely is moving left, for a variety reasons- misreading Bernie’s success in 2016, addiction to grassroots fundraising from online activists, a falling share of elder white voters and rising share of other groups, and the natural propensity of Democrats to want to move left after tough defeats. The debate put that on full display. The group think in DC is that Hillary lost because she didn’t excite “the base.” Hillary did of course win the popular vote by 3 million votes and get more votes than anyone not named Barack Obama in our history. 2016 turnout was also record breaking. Hillary’s margins in places like metro Philadelphia and Wake County (Raleigh) were historic though, and suggest the group think. Hillary lost because virtually every swing voter broke against her at the end of the campaign, thanks to a lot of factors. What you have to ask yourself is this: do you think those swing voters were mad Hillary wasn’t further left? If you punt on those voters, can you really find enough new voters in the base to offset that? The answer may not be what you like.
Maybe a more useful question to ask is *who actually makes up the electorate in the swing states?* In the swing states Hillary won- Virginia, Colorado, and Nevada in particular- a good chunk of the “rising electorate” of minorities and youth is present. In states where she lost or dramatically underperformed President Obama- Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine particularly- millions of older white and moderate voters switched sides or turned out as new voters for Trump. The states of North Carolina, Florida, and Arizona are all states that were very close and have both characteristics in them- but they all went for Trump. It would suggest that if both parties pump up their base, Democrats will win the popular vote comfortably, but probably not the election. The Trump base is what exists more widely in the swing states. If Democrats want to win the electoral college, they will have to persuade some people not in live with the party.
Donald Trump can be re-elected, and he won’t need a majority to do it. That’s the breaks of our federal system. He can do it by inciting fights over the Betsy Ross flag, school busing, women’s soccer players that 80% of his base never heard of (and 100% instinctively dislike), and immigration. It’s all culture wars, maybe 10% policy, and it requires little to nothing in thought. Trump will call it all “socialism”- identity politics, tax increases, and big spending- and his base will eat it up. We already saw this happen in this year’s Wisconsin Supreme Court race.
While Trump himself is incapable of coherent policy statements, it’s important to understand the ideological shift he represented. He moved himself into the space politically we might call “Gephardt Democrats.” He attacks global trade deals as being anti-worker (even as he makes them worse). He echoes past Democratic rhetoric on immigration, saying “illegal immigration” hurts wages (though we know he doesn’t care about that). He talks of wanting to avoid war through diplomacy with North Korea (and Russia), echoing in his own incoherent way non-proliferation talk. It sounds like Democrats of only a generation ago, even if it’s all nonsense and jibberish. Meanwhile he gets out of the way as more progressive Democrats tear down Democratic leaders of just a few years ago, from Bill Clinton to Joe Biden. A lot of the “Trump-Obama” voters liked those guys and voted for them. Now they hear major Democratic candidates trash them, and the positions of the “Gephardt Democrats,” and they come away with the impression that Democrats are at least as crazy as the Republicans. As Trump sounds a nationalist alarm, he sounds at least like he “cares” about them, to them, while Democrats argue whether they should even bother with them. The results are a small, but catastrophic shift across the swing states towards Trump. Sure, he’s losing Manhattan and Chicago by record-setting margins. He was going to lose them anyway. He only cares about the voters in the states that matter to his electoral pathway.
To be clear, I do believe the Democrats can and should win in 2020. Donald Trump’s approval is not very high. It doesn’t take much to flip six states in 2020- for less than 500,000 votes, Democrats could win over 330 electoral votes and deal Trump a crushing defeat. With a half decent campaign, Democrats could take the whole government, actually. I’m just not betting the house on it. Impeachment, a hijacked message from younger House members, more debates with fringe figures and subject matter like the first one could derail 2020.
Like I said, don’t bet the house on it.