Saturday, December 19, 2020

Very belated thoughts about the 2020 election and its aftermath

Even though the 2020 election was over six weeks ago, there was so much happening in its aftermath - the counting of mail-in ballots, the vote recounts and certifications, the Trump campaign's numerous and fruitless legal challenges, etc., that I decided to wait until after the Electoral College met at the beginning of this week to affirm Joe Biden's victory to write about it. It didn't help that it has, quite frankly, become difficult to summon enough motivation to write about something as depressing as politics in the United States today. This country is angry at itself and dangerously divided, and the results of this election and its aftermath are unlikely to change that fact.

Although some Republicans will likely contest Biden's election when the electoral votes are formally presented Congress on January 6th, this maneuver is all but certain to fail. The end result of this election is that, as of January 20, 2021, Donald Trump will no longer be President of the United States, and his four-year reign of chaos, corruption, lies, nepotism, banana-republic authoritarianism and subservience to Vladimir Putin will be gone. If you're a Democrat (or even if, like me, you don't consider yourself a Democrat but just hate Donald Trump), that's good news. But that's also just about where the good news ends. Here are my thoughts:

Biden Won - Just Barely. Since there were no "faithless elector" shenanigans yesterday, Joe Biden received 306 electoral votes to Donald Trump's 232: 36 more than the 270 votes he needed to become president.

Source: Wikipedia. The actual outcome was close to my pre-election prediction (I expected Biden to win Maine's 2nd District but for Trump to hold on to Georgia).

Biden also won the popular vote in convincing fashion, accumulating 81.28 million votes (or 51.3% of total votes cast) to Trump's 74.22 million votes (46.9%). That's a difference of over 7 million votes, or 4.5%: the second-largest popular vote margin of victory in the last six presidential elections. 

However, Biden's victory in several of the states he won - states he needed in order to achieve his Electoral College win - was razor thin. He won Arizona by a total of 10,457 votes (0.3% of total votes cast in that state), Georgia by 11,779 votes (.25%), and Wisconsin by 20,682 votes (0.6%). These 43 thousand votes in these three states is the difference between a solid Electoral College win for Joe Biden and a 269-269 Electoral College tie (with the election being decided in the House, with each state's U.S. House delegation getting one vote to decide the presidency; since Republicans will control the majority of House delegations in the new Congress, Trump would have won re-election under that scenario). Flip another state where Biden's win was narrow (he won all of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Nevada by less than three percent), and he loses the electoral vote outright.

To put it in perspective, 43 thousand is less than 0.03% of the 158.38 million votes cast in the 2020 election (the highest voter turnout, by percentage, for a presidential election since 1900). It's just a bit more than half of the 77.7 thousand votes in Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that gave Donald Trump the presidency four years ago despite losing the popular vote. It's a hair's breadth margin of victory, and it should deeply worry Democrats going forward. 

This is because Republicans maintain an edge in the Electoral College such that Democrats need to win the popular vote in presidential elections by several points in order to have a good shot a winning the actual presidency. Democratic voters are disproportionately concentrated along the West Coast and the Northeast, and are not as numerous in the "swing states" where elections are actually decided.

This is why, even though the Republican candidate for president has lost the popular vote in seven out of the last eight elections, he has managed to win the electoral vote twice since 2000, and just barely lost the electoral vote this time around. If demographic trends continue we may be reaching a situation where it's basically impossible for the Republican candidate to win the popular vote, but pretty difficult for the Democratic one to win the Electoral College. This would be fatal to American democracy, which was already seriously tested in the aftermath of this  election (which I'll discuss more in a moment).

USA Today has some interesting maps of the 2020 election, including the latest version of the "Purple America Map" (although it's probably becoming less purple over time), as well as good maps indicating each party's margin of victory in each county as well as as ho the vote shifted since 2016. Perhaps the best visualization of the 2020 election is by XKCD's Randall Munroe, who shows how Biden and Trump voters are actually distributed:

Source: XKCD. Munroe points out that there are more Trump voters in deep-blue California than red Texas, and more Biden voters in Texas than New York.

Aside from the Presidency, there's not much for Democrats to be happy about. The Democratic Party had high hopes of retaking the Senate, padding their advantage in the House, and winning enough downballot races to take control of some state legislatures. None of that happened.

The Democrats did close their deficit in the Senate by one seat last month, and there's still a chance that they could take control of the Senate outright if both their candidates win the two Senate runoff races in Georgia on January 5th. That would give them 50 seats, and Vice President-Elect Kamala Harris will be able to break ties. But I wouldn't bet on it: Biden's narrow win there aside, this is still Georgia we're talking about. The simple fact is that Democratic Senate candidates, in spite of being well-funded, underperformed last month: they failed to flip what was seen as a winnable seat in North Carolina or give the boot to "perpetually-concerned" Maine Senator Susan Collins. 

After convincingly winning control of the House in the 2018 midterms, Democrats took a huge step backward last month, suffering a net loss of 12 seats (including one candidate who apparently lost by a total of six (!) votes).  While they still remain in control of that side of Congress, the Democrats' reduced majority makes it easier for individual lawmakers to throw sand in the legislative gears, and it also puts the Democrats at grave risk for losing the House entirely in the 2022 midterms. 

This is partly because the party in the White House generally does not do well in midterm elections, and partly because the Democrats also failed to flip any state legislatures they targeted last month. The GOP still controls 61 of the nation's 99 state legislative chambers (along with 27 of the nation's 50 governorships). That means Democrats will have little to no control over decennial redistricting in several critical states, and are therefore likely to lose House seats though reapportionment and Republican gerrymandering. (Here's Texas as an example.

Even as New York Magazine's Ed Kilgore argues that Democrats didn't do as badly in last month's election as one might think, he nevertheless concedes that "Democrats will pay a large cost for failing to win big across the board, particularly when redistricting arrives next year and Republican control of all those state legislative chambers that was at risk this year gives the GOP an advantage in drawing new districts for the next decade."

Election results aside, there may be more trouble ahead for the Democratic Party in the form a of a struggle between its moderate members and its more progressive wing. If they can keep the center and the left from tearing themselves apart, there's a path forward for Democrats (perhaps it includes consolidating its suburban gains, starting to acknowledge rural needs, and dumping the left-wing "wokeness" nonsense that repels moderate voters), but the party still has some soul-searching to do (as does the GOP, post-Trump) in spite of Biden's win.

Texas is still a red state. Here in Texas, Democratic hopes that higher turnout would generate a "blue wave" in Texas were also dashed. Trump carried the state by 5.6%, Senator John Cornyn easily won re-election, Democrats were unable to flip any Congressional seats, and their dream of picking up the nine seats they needed to take control of the state House also evaporated. Democrats did increase their margins in the suburbs, and the state does seem to be gradually trending blue (along with North Carolina, Georgia and Arizona). But it's not there yet, and Trump's strength among Latino* voters in the Rio Grande Valley - a trend that was seen nationwide - should be setting off alarm bells among Democratic operatives. The only thing state Democrats can do is take a look at their failures in this election and prepare for 2022.

That being said, there weren't many surprises here in Harris County, which remains blue. Biden carried the county by thirteen points, and Democrats swept the countywide races, flipped perennially-competitive State House District 134, and fended off the GOP's well-funded attempt to retake the 7th Congressional District.

Trump's efforts to overturn the results of the election are shameful and are eroding faith in American democracy. Being the malignant narcissist that he is, Donald Trump was never going to accept defeat. After all, there's nothing more he hates than being called a "loser," so he and his campaign continue to claim, with little to no evidence, that Biden's victory was the result of widespread voter fraud (because the Democrats were somehow able to fraudulently manufacture votes for Biden but not for downballot House, Senate and state races, right?). At this point, his claims are as stale as they are baseless and impotent. But for several weeks immediately following the election, he and his supporters undertook a remarkable effort aiming at subverting democracy in order to keep him in power.

Almost as soon as the polls closed, Trump's campaign and his supporters sprang into action, claiming that the election was "stolen" and filing lawsuits aimed at overturning its results. This effort, headed by New York Mayor - turned - circus clown Rudy Giuliani and an error-prone conspiracy theoristmet almost no success in the courts because there simply was no evidence that widespread voter fraud occurred; even Trump's own Attorney General couldn't find evidence of widespread voter fraud (and was forced to step down as a result). Recounts in places like Georgia and Wisconsin did not substantially alter Biden's margin of victory in those states, and Trump's attempts to bully election officials into not certifying results or pressure Republican-led state legislatures to bypass the will of the voters by appointing Trump-friendly slates of Electors were rejected as well. As it became clear that the results of the election would not be overturned, Trump began lashing out at his own party: a Republican Secretary of State in Georgia was thrown under the bus by Trump for simply doing his job, and he and his staff received death threats. This tiresome shitshow - even the National Review called it a "disgraceful endgame" - culminated in a ridiculous and spectacularly unsuccessful attempt by Texas Attorney General (and indicted felon) Ken Paxton to sue a handful of swing states in the Supreme Court in order overturn the election.

Maybe it was truly a coup attempt. Maybe it was all just an attempt to grift. Either way, American democracy "has been given a scare:"

As the sense of imminent threat begins to fade, the convoluted inner workings of the electoral system are coming under scrutiny to determine whether it was as robust as its advocates had hoped – or whether the nation simply got lucky this time.

“I had long been in the camp of people who believed that the guardrails of democracy were working,” Katrina Mulligan, a former senior official in the justice department’s national security division. “But my view has actually shifted in the last few weeks as I watched some of this stuff play out. Now I actually think that we are depending far too much on fragile parts of our democracy, and expecting individuals, rather than institutions, to do the work the institution should be doing.” 

What's worse is that this attack on the democratic process - the attempt to subvert, if not outright overturn, the results of this election, or at the very least illegitimize a Biden presidency (85 percent of all Trump voters believe Biden did not legitimately win the election, according to one poll) - was tacitly encouraged, if not fully supported, by one of this country's two major political parties. George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum once wrote that "if conservatives become convinced that they cannot win democratically, they will not abandon conservatism. They will reject democracy." Sadly, he appears to have been correct.

Trump's bid to overturn the election failed (even though he is apparently still plotting) because he, and everybody he surrounds himself with, is incompetent. But he is nevertheless providing a blueprint for the next authoritarian who comes along, who may be smarter, more subtle, and ultimately more successful than Trump. As The New Republic's Jason Linkins and Matt Ford explained a few weeks ago

What if Biden’s Electoral College lead were much slimmer and hinged on a more Trump-friendly state like Florida or Texas? What if Democrats hadn’t taken back the House in 2018, and Republicans instead had firm majorities in both chambers when the Electoral College votes were counted? What if the Republican candidate wasn’t Trump, whose authoritarian tendencies and reckless mendacity are already priced in, but a less polarizing figure who could make a more subtle and competent play for power? Thanks to Trump and his cronies, it’s no longer completely unthinkable for a president or candidate to demand that state legislatures try to overturn their own election results. He won’t succeed this time, but a future presidential candidate could make a similar attempt on far more favorable terrain.

This country remains dangerously divided. This country is polarized and tribalized. People realize this fact and are not optimistic that it can be resolved anytime soon. A recent Monmouth poll indicated that over three-quarters of Americans see the country as "deeply divided on its most foundational issues" and that 60% of the county expects that divide to either get worse or stay the same over the coming year. Given how close this election was, and given the attacks on the democratic process that have occurred in its wake, that's a recipe for potential disaster in the coming years.

While I'm glad the election is over and I wish President-Elect Biden well, I have never been more worried about the United States of America than I am right now.

Which may be why it's not a bad thing that the "real" winner of the 2020 election was marijuana.

*Speaking of "wokeness," I refuse to use the construct "Latinx" to refer to the Latino population because they themselves have not embraced it. I can only wonder if the presumptuous insistence of the left that the Latino population use this term may have been one of the reasons why Trump did so much better among their voters.

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