With a new year upon us, it seems prudent to boil down all the things we clearly learned about politics during the 2020 elections into a few bright-line lessons for the very near future. It’s very likely we will learn more once reliable post-election analysis based on Census data and voter files becomes available. (One of the problems analysts face right now is that 2020 exit polls are especially unreliable thanks to methodological issues raised by heavy voting by mail.) But searing some big-picture findings into our brains is useful since some of them contradict hot takes or override in significance other data points that have been exaggerated or misunderstood.
The Electoral College Is More of a Travesty Than Ever
Joe Biden’s 4.5-point popular-vote win over Donald Trump was larger than that mustered by the winners of the 1960, 1968, 1976, 2000, 2004, 2012, and 2016 elections. Biden led by more than 7 million votes, yet Trump could have won an electoral vote majority with a shift of just 65,009 votes between Arizona, Georgia, Nebraska, and Wisconsin. The disconnect between the popular and electoral vote is getting larger and more alarming, mostly because the most competitive states are not entirely representative of the country as a whole.
This near-calamity was a possibility hiding in plain sight throughout the 2020 campaign, though it was disguised by Biden’s large national and state polling lead, which showed him periodically ahead in many states that fell to Trump when the race tightened, e.g., Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and even Texas.
All the post-election complaints from Trump and his supporters have made it easy to forget that thanks to the Electoral College we might have seen a true national convulsion at the prospect of a two-term president who never won a popular vote plurality and was repudiated by a clear majority of voters when running for reelection. And Biden, whose 51.4 percent of the national popular vote was the second-highest posted by any winner in the last eight presidential elections, might have been truly entitled to launch a “stop the steal” crusade.
Straight-Ticket Voting Continues to Rise
The surprisingly strong Republican performance in House races, particularly in some suburban or exurban areas, led to some initial talk that ticket-splitting had returned. And there were even sightings of that great mythical beast, strategic voting where voters consciously sought to create partisan gridlock by balancing presidential votes for one party with down-ballot votes for the other.
It’s true that there was some significant ticket-splitting in southern California, where Republicans clawed back four House seats they lost in 2018 — all in districts carried by Joe Biden. These races, however, were very close in both 2018 and 2020, and it didn’t take much of a gap between Biden and down-ballot Democrats to produce the flips.
More generally, there was a bit of an optical illusion created by Republican gains in the House. Overall, Democrats won the national House popular vote by 3.1 percent, not that different from Biden’s 4.5 percent margin at the presidential level. And Democrats did, after all, win a majority of seats, albeit a reduced majority if compared to 2018. As Cook Political Report’s David Wasserman notes, only 17 House races were won by candidates whose parties lost the presidential election in their district — the lowest number in a century, and down significantly from the 35 split-ticket districts in 2016 and the 83 in 2008.
In the Senate, only one candidate, Susan Collins, won a state lost by her party’s presidential candidate (pending the results in the two Georgia runoffs on January 5, of course). It will be a while before we have the full data necessary to compare presidential and state legislative voting, but it is worth noting that some of the states where Democrats hoped to flip legislative chambers wound up going for Trump (Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, and Texas) or were very close (Arizona, Georgia, and Pennsylvania).
Presidential Approval Ratings Remain the Best Predictor for Presidential Vote Share
Yes, national and state polls got a lot of things wrong in the 2020 election cycle. Though it’s not as much as some have asserted, particularly in judgements made before a steady upward drift in Biden’s popular-vote margin made some national polls look a lot better. But there’s one national polling number that wound up looking highly accurate in predicting one presidential candidate’s share of the vote: the president’s job approval rating. Gallup had Trump’s at 46 percent just prior to the election, and he took 47 percent of the vote. As Wasserman noted, Gallup job approval numbers have been pretty close to the vote-share won by every president seeking reelection since 1976,
This reinforces the conviction that presidential reelection bids are mostly a referendum on that president’s performance in office, no matter what other wacky things might be going on. This might merit an even closer look at Biden’s job approval numbers going forward than would otherwise be the case.
Democrats Missed a Huge Opportunity and Republicans Dodged a Bullet
We obviously cannot close the books on 2020 until the January 5 Georgia Senate runoffs determine which party controls the upper chamber for the next two years. If Democrats sweep the two Georgia races, they will have 50 senators, and a tie-breaking vote from Vice-President Kamala Harris will allow Democrats to organize the Senate and claim a governing trifecta for the first time since 2010.
That sounds great for Democrats, and it is great compared to the alternative of a return to the days when Mitch McConnell systematically obstructed the agenda of the Obama-Biden administration. But the Democratic margin of control in both houses of Congress would be so slight that Republicans will be justified in believing the normal midterm swing against the party holding the White House could well put Congress back under their control in 2022. And if Republicans do win one or both Senate runoffs in Georgia, their ability to keep the Biden-Harris administration from accomplishing much at all will be immensely enhanced.
It’s a very different picture from the one many Democrats and objective observers alike glimpsed for much of the election year: an expanded House majority to accompany a Democratic Senate, and a presidential win decisive enough to create a “struggle for the soul of the Republican Party” between the defeated Trumpists and the rest of the GOP.
The lost Democratic opportunity in 2020 most definitely extends to decennial redistricting process for the House and state legislatures, as Democrats fell far short of their ambitious goals of flipping enough chambers to prevent Republicans from repeating the gerrymandering feats they undertook after their 2010 landslide. As FiveThirtyEight reported, Democratic hopes were dashed in state after state:
The GOP is in almost as good a position as it enjoyed in the last redistricting process, when Republicans controlled the drawing of 55 percent of congressional districts and Democrats controlled only 10 percent after 2010’s GOP wave. As a result, the House map has been more biased toward Republicans this decade than at any point since the 1970s (and Republicans have been able to win multiple chambers in state legislatures despite losing the statewide popular vote1). It now looks as if we’re headed for another 10 years of Republican-favoring maps. Democrats were able to win the House and several state legislatures in 2018 thanks to shifting vote patterns in the suburbs in particular, but Republicans in many states will now have the opportunity to draw new gerrymanders that account for this realignment.
The steady trend toward adoption of independent redistricting commissions will limit Republican gerrymandering, but only to a marginal extent.
Looking at the bigger picture, 2020 represented yet another cycle in which favorable demographic trends did not produce the swelling Democratic majority that looked imminent in 2008 or even earlier. Again, we must await better data to determine exactly which segment of the population shifted in one direction or the other, but it appears the relatively strong Republican performance was built on a combination of previously unplumbed white working class votes (often thought to have “maxed out” for Republicans in 2016) and a small but clear shift towards the GOP among Latinos, and perhaps a pro-Republican shift among Black men. The idea that Democrats are destined to reduce their opponents to a shrinking and literally dying rump of old white voters isn’t looking that compelling at the moment.
America Desperately Needs National Election Reform
It’s easy to dismiss the pre- and post-election furor about voting procedures to the unique circumstances of a pandemic that made unusual levels of voting by mail much more attractive, and a major party whose president has exhibited a career-long willingness to lie blatantly in making irresponsible claims of election fraud. Yes, Trump and his enablers are principally at fault for undermining confidence in the U.S. election system among an alarming number of Republican voters. But the raw material for their lies was provided by a crazy-quilt system of election rules administered by poorly funded state and local officials and supervised by a vast and complicated array of judges delivering rulings that are 100 percent incomprehensible to anyone without a law degree.
One of 2020’s great ironies is that it’s Republicans who mostly complained about widely varying election rules, given their chronic resistance to federal involvement in vindicating voting rights and their opposition to larger federal funding for election administration (particularly during negotiations over COVID-19 relief and stimulus legislation). Given their heavy investment as a party in restricting access to the ballot, it is likely they will continue to favor arbitrary and partisan state and local election systems where they benefit the GOP, even as they accuse Democratic jurisdictions of wire-pulling and ballot-box stuffing, usually without much evidence. But something’s got to give at some point: the country cannot perpetually tolerate a system of elections in which a growing minority — and in some cases a majority — has no faith at all.
Of all the seemingly impossible tasks of bipartisan policy-making America faces in 2021 and beyond, perhaps none is more urgent than election reform, aimed at creating some uniform rules for how and when ballots are cast, with transparent accountability measures, pro-voter incentives, and adequate funding to make it all work in favorable and unfavorable conditions alike. 2020 should be the last election where one big segment of voters is struggling to cast ballots and another is fighting to overturn the results.