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Analysing the US election outcome: Historic wins vs. the hysterics of loss
Over a week from election day and the results of the 2020 US election are in. Well, almost. Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are now the US President-elect and Vice-President-elect. This brings to an end (again, almost) a rollercoaster of results which began with an initial Trump victory in Florida and Texas at the beginning of election night, but which ended with a growing and ultimately convincing Biden win, capped by 20 Electoral College votes from the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania. What happens next, however, remains to be seen.
The final results are still coming in, including many votes from California and New York which will determine the final popular vote margin, as well as Arizona and Georgia, which have yet to be called by some news desks but are very highly likely to end up in Biden’s column. Recounts are likely to occur in some locations but Biden is ahead by an amount far larger than any recount has ever shifted - the overall US electoral map is indeed looking like a solid Biden victory, but not necessarily the landslide hinted at by pre-election polling.
Every news outlet seems to boast a different figure, but as of 12th November, CNN gives Biden 279 confirmed Electoral College votes to 217 for Trump. Although the exact popular vote figures will not be known for some time, this gives Biden 50.8% and Trump 47.4%, with Biden on track for a 4 to 5 point lead, and the second greatest margin of victory in any Presidential election since 1996. In terms of raw votes, Biden has already become the largest vote winner in American history and his percentage share of the vote places him ahead of Truman, Kennedy, Nixon, Clinton, G.W. Bush, Trump in their first elections, and around the same as Reagan, H.W. Bush and Obama. Biden is also set to be the first challenger to beat an incumbent President with a vote share this large since FDR.
Further history has also been made with Kamala Harris as America’s first female, and first African American and Asian American to become Vice-President. For the Biden-Harris team, it’s a huge personal achievement. Biden took some time to emerge in the Democratic Primaries, beating a field of more than 20 candidates, having lost the first three primary states. Nor was 2020 Biden's first Presidential campaign, having previously run (and failed) in 1987 and again in 2008. This time around Biden's personal story featured heavily alongside his political views, with his tragedies and personal empathy standing in heavy contrast with the incumbent he challenged.
Less than a landslide
Nevertheless, the results do not necessarily represent the landslide that various pollsters predicted. Some polling errors seem particularly wide of the mark: FiveThirtyEight’s respected polling average, for instance, placed Biden ahead by +8.4% in Wisconsin and Trump ahead by +1.3% in Iowa. In the end, Biden won Wisconsin by 0.6% (thus far) while Trump took Iowa by 8.2%. Nor did Biden manage to achieve Democrats long-held dream of taking Texas or managing to claw back Florida. Yet in other places, polling proved reliable. In Minnesota, Biden’s predicted +9.2% polling lead translated into 7.1 point win. In Georgia, Biden polled with the narrowest of leads at +1.2% and indeed looks likely to win the state (albeit by a very tight margin). In this respect, 2020 differs from 2016, where polling inaccuracies were far more consistent across states, this time the polling seems to have been equally error-prone but less consistent.
A week before the election, we suggested that if Trump were to beat his predicted polling numbers (as he did in 2016) and narrow the race going into election day itself, he could pull off an incredibly narrow win. Trump appears to have narrowed the race in key and surprising areas, but simply not enough in aggregate. Thus, while he was able to encourage groups who typically do not vote, as well as scoring highly with Hispanic voters in Florida and Texas, in key groups including male voters overall, and especially low-income voters, plus white non-college men and white non-college women, the shifts largely favoured Biden.
Breaking down the results, Biden won in precisely those states he needed – and more - compared to Hilary Clinton in 2016. In large part, though not definitively, Biden reassembled the ‘blue wall’ key states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, while increasing his margins in all of Clinton’s 2016 states. These alone gave Biden his winning electoral college majority. What boosted the numbers still further were the ‘flipped states’ that Biden pulled off, including Georgia, Arizona and Nebraska’s suburban Second District (worth one electoral vote).
Georgia and Arizona are both highly symbolic wins. Georgia last voted Democratic in 1992, and Arizona has only voted for a Democrat once since 1948. Taken together, this gives Biden a handy 306 electoral votes to Trump’s projected 232; the same margin by which Trump beat Clinton in 2016. From a political perspective, Biden’s mandate is more robust, having combined a quantitatively strong electoral majority with the qualitative clout enabled by his popular vote margin. In terms of overall results, as FiveThirtyEight founder Nate Silver argued, “this is a map that almost any Democrat would have been thrilled about if you’d shown it to them a year ago”.
And the fun isn't over yet. Across the battleground states, final tallies continue and recounts are likely (but will not change the results), in all Biden looks set to win by several votes which - while not huge in absolute terms - still scores more highly than Trump's 2016 victory. For example, the decisive states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania were won by Trump by just over 78 thousand votes in 2016 - Biden is set to win these states by at least 220 thousand votes.
Trump’s lost ground
Incumbent Presidents don’t often lose. So, what explains it? Polling and economic analysis suggested that the majority of Americans considered themselves financially better off than in 2016. Americans even felt better off than they did in January 2020 pre-coronavirus thanks to partial economic coverage and fiscal stimulus by Congress and the US Federal Reserve. Nevertheless, President Trump’s mismanagement of Covid itself, his belligerent attitude to the Black Lives Matter protests, consistently low marks on character and honesty, along with a strong challenger in Joe Biden seems to have sealed his fate.
Education and identity have driven changes among voters themselves in interesting ways, and bear looking at too. While votes are still being counted and therefore analysis is preliminary it appears that Trump’s margins worsened with White college-educated men and women, but enjoyed some boosts from non-White voters.
Despite expectations that Trump’s immigration policies and broader anti-migrant attitudes would repulse key minority groups, Trump’s numbers improved with Latino voters, but in different areas (Florida and Texas) and for different reasons (e.g. Florida-based anti-socialist Cubans in Miami and South Florida vs. more gender and education driven reasons for those in Texas). It remains to be seen whether Trump’s improvement is more due to encouraging low propensity voters to the polls or due to persuasion. Yet this pattern was not repeated as strongly in Arizona where Biden won; Latino voters there do not appear to have shifted as dramatically towards Trump as they did in Florida or Texas. Among Black voters, Trump does appear to have done slightly better with Black men but not Black women but it is far too early to tell exactly to what extent. On the other side, it seems possible that Biden slightly improved with White non-college-educated voters (particularly in some states) but likewise it is too soon to know for certain.
Regardless of these, it is the big shifts towards Biden among White college-educated voters which looks to have given him the electoral edge. In Pennsylvania, for example, Biden's largest improvements were in the suburban ‘collar counties’ around Philadelphia. One of these - Chester County gave Biden a vote share 7.6% wider than it gave to Clinton in 2016.
Based on figures released by the FT during the first weekend after the election, and bearing in mind that the vote total is still a work in progress, shifts that favoured the Democratic party appear not only more emphatic in terms of overall net numbers, but more widely-spread demographically across the US as a whole. These include - from greatest to least – white non-college voters, both male and female, followed by male voters in general, white college men, voters aged 45-64, voters whose income ranged between $50-100K, followed to a lesser extent by while college women, and female voters in general, and those whose incoming was less than $50K. The group that likely saw the least clear shift were voters aged 30-44. Where Biden scored well was with men in general (47%), pulling in slightly higher numbers to Clinton in 2016 with women (42%).
The jury is out on the preferences of African American voters at this point; while core groups appear to have deserted Trump in some regions, including swing states, other indications suggest that African American voters swung towards Trump to some extent. Income is a starker indication of preference. While Trump gained among high-income groups, he lost significant margins with low-income voters; the FT pointing out that “those making family incomes of less than $50K voted Democratic by an 11.5-point margin (55-43), compared with an 8.2-point Democratic margin in 2016 (50-42)”.
While non-white college-educated voters, for example, were largely unchanged in Democratic preferences, minority non-college voters gave Trump a boost up from 20 to 25%.
In terms of groups that Trump connected with, four stand out: in terms of voting preponderance, these include the wealthy (i.e. $100K+), Hispanic/African Americans/Asian Americans, and non-white college voters. Where Trump lost out was with the same white voters who ensured his 2016 victory, themselves have become more divided by region and income. As the FT suggested, while in 2016 “Mr Trump’s victory largely hinged on the enthusiasm of white voters without a college degree… Mr Biden made gains (36 per cent compared with 32 per cent for Hillary Clinton in 2016)” which produced overall “a 4-point swing among non-college-educated whites” (7/8 November 2020, p.2). The biggest gains in this demographic (on present numbers) is in Michigan and Wisconsin.
Image credit: The White House/Flickr.
A house divided
How you vote determines how you vote. In other words, Democrats supporting Biden’s call to keep Covid-compliant opted to both early and via postal (mail-in) ballot. Republicans heeding Trump’s insistence on voting on election day itself showed up in person in far higher numbers. This, in turn, produced a ‘redshift’ and a ‘blueshift’ in voting numbers which initially confounded watchers of the results as they came in. In Pennsylvania, for example, election day ballots were counted first, giving Trump a lead until early and postal ballots were counted, which then put Biden in the lead.
2020 also saw an increased polarisation in terms of America’s physical, not just ideological geography. America’s geographical units, be they counties, states or cities or something else have all become less politically diverse. In 1992, 65% of voters lived within counties where no single party won more than 60% of the overall vote. Since then geographic political diversity has dramatically reduced. This year, fewer than 40% of the overall votes were cast in counties that meet the same definition. There has also been a steep rise in the number of votes cast in counties classified as “ultra-partisan” in which one party “outnumber[s] their opponents four-to-one or more”. In 1992 these counties represented just 1% of all votes cast, in 2020 these counties accounted for 8% of all votes.
House and Senate
Of course, for many, the 2020 election is not over. Down ballot (meaning the offices listed on the ballot below the key electoral office in a given election e.g. the president) Republicans confounded expectations by doing surprisingly well across Congressional and state legislative races. Republicans were predicted to lose seats in the House of Representatives. Instead, they reduced the Democratic majority to one of the narrowest majorities in many years. Although the exact number depends on races where votes are even now still being counted, the Democrats are currently on 218 confirmed seats - exactly the number they need for a majority.
It should be noted that down-ballot polling was more inaccurate than the Presidential race. In those races where Biden appears to have done better than Congressional Democrats suggest the strength of his candidacy. Equally, in such a highly partisan political environment, it would be naive to expect Democrats to hold onto districts that Trump carried in both 2016 and 2020 (places where almost all of their losses were concentrated).
The Democrats’ inability to flip enough seats in the Senate on the night has also meant that the incredibly consequential question of who controls the Senate (and therefore whether Democrats have complete control over Congress) has come down to two simultaneous runoff elections in Georgia on January 5th. The Senate at this point is currently split 50 (R) to 48 (D). Democrats were also hoping to gain more control in state legislatures but seem to have come up short.
The US is unique among developed democracies in giving states such wide latitude in drawing their own congressional and state maps – power that can lead to increased forms of gerrymandering. After this election, Republicans will likely be able to design 40% of all districts in the House of Representatives, while Democrats will only be able to do the same in 10% of districts. This gives Republicans considerable momentum for the 2022 midterm elections. Either way, Democrats are likely to spend a lot of time trying to figure out a clear House strategy, even as they celebrate taking the White House.
Trump refuses to go
The other story which looks likely to play out until President-elect Biden’s January inauguration is President Trump’s categoric refusal to accept the results of the race itself. While Trump’s lack of concession makes no practical difference, his baseless assertions regarding election fraud and Republicans own support for Trump on this matter is deeply troubling for the health of American democracy. With little material difference to the final result in terms of recounts, the damage to both American’s trust in their democracy and international observers of US institutions could have serious repercussions. Trump’s ongoing repudiation of the outcome is causing problems for Biden’s transition efforts. The General Services Administration for example, which plays a key role in facilitating the various technical, administrative and security efforts of the transition has so far refused to recognise their victory. Equally, the State Department has thus far refused to support foreign communications with the Office of the President-elect as it has traditionally. Likely, these are not the only rules and norms which are likely to be broken as we head towards Biden's accession to the Presidency.
The world watches, while America waits.
Professor Amelia Hadfield is the Head of the Department of Politics, and Chair in European and International Affairs at the University of Surrey, and a member of the PSA. Chris Logie is a Law with International Relations graduate at the University of Surrey. Image credit: Joe Biden/Flickr.