It’s still too soon to say who will be the next president of the United States, and far too soon for me to be in a position to explain what happened — and why. We know that the Joe Biden blowout scenario, and Democratic dreams of early celebrations, will not come to pass. We also know that, once again, conventional wisdom underestimated Donald Trump.
At the time of writing, just one major battleground states have been called, Florida for Trump. Biden looks set to win Arizona. The President has held on to Texas. While we wait for news from Georgia, North Carolina, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, here are five thoughts based on what we know so far.
1. Trumpism has not been vanquished
Those horrified by more or less everything about Donald Trump wanted to do more than make him a one-term president. They wanted irrefutable evidence that 2016 was a fluke, that Trump was an aberration who could swiftly be forgotten and and that the shortcomings of Donald Trump were self-evident to the overwhelming majority of voters. Even if every remaining swing state goes blue, that is not what they will get in 2020.
Given the president’s approval ratings, and the fact that the election is being conducted in the middle of a pandemic, Democrats cannot claim an especially wide-ranging mandate from this election if they win. If Trump wins, then the Democratic post-mortem must to be unsparing.
2. A peaceful, functional election. So far.
Not long ago, many were predicting widespread voter intimidation and violence on election day. In the first presidential debate, Donald Trump called on his supporters to freelance as election observers. More generally, there was intense scepticism about America’s ability to conduct an election in the middle of a pandemic. Voting machines would crash, foreign powers would intervene.
But after bracing for a day of disconcerting footage of street standoffs and a never-ending stream of evidence of administrative dysfunction, America seems to have pulled off the first bit of its election — the casting of ballots — with a surprising degree of proficiency.
America’s press isn’t shy about warning of an imminent crisis of democracy. They usually fail to materialise, to little fanfare. So it is worth pausing to appreciate that election day was largely incident free.
Now the question is whether the counting of those votes will be as orderly and peaceful. The President struck an ominously combative tone shortly after midnight when he claimed, without evidence, that “we are up big, but they are trying to steal the election.”
But the president can only do so much. States administer elections. The courts settle disputes. Let’s hope that when it comes to election officials and judges, cooler heads prevail.
3. The surprising racial dynamics of the 2020 race
One of the most significant moments of the night came early, when Florida’s results started to filter in and it quickly became clear that the Sunshine State would once again disappoint Democrats. One county in particular proved fatal to Biden. Four years ago, Hillary Clinton won populous Miami-Dade by a 30-point margin. This year, Biden’s margin of victory was just 9 points, offsetting the gains he made in the rest of the state. The county is heavily Cuban-American, and it would appear that Trump’s robustly anti-socialist line paid off.
Results from heavily Hispanic counties in Texas paint a similar picture, with Biden underperforming Clinton there too. If Biden wins, he will likely have done so by rebuilding the “blue wall” with support from white voters in the upper Midwest. The signs of a surprising racial dynamic at work in this election had showed up in the polls in the final few months of the race (something I wrote about a few weeks ago).
Perhaps this is part of a broader realignment in US politics that will confound predictions of a coming Democratic majority. Perhaps it is down to the quirks of 2020 — the Trump campaign’s heavily anti-socialist message and the absence of immigration from the debate. Either way, it would be an ironic end to the Trump era if the president loses because of a fall in support among white voters while strengthening his position among the rest of the electorate. The irony will be deeper still if non-white voters help deliver him four more years.
4. The power of the feel-good factor
Why does Trump look to be doing better than the polls expected?
An intangible but powerful part of his appeal was his campaign’s feel-good energy, which whether or not you think it was appropriate in the midst of a pandemic, contrasted starkly with the solemn tone of the Biden campaign. It’s not something I thought would win him the election, but it is something I’ve written about a few times.
In August, I jumped aboard a speed boat and took part in a Boaters for Trump parade in Delaware’s Indian River. It was a riotous affair: downing shots while waist high in water at the edge of a sand bar. As I wrote at the time, the whole thing was “plainly absurd and fundamentally unserious” but that the boaters themselves seemed to realise this. “There’s political power in permission to have fun,” I speculated.
A few months later, in Sanford, Florida, I thought something similar. I was at Trump’s comeback rally after contracting Covid-19. There was a festive atmosphere and Trump mixed camp with Presidential grandeur to great effect. Whether or not it is enough to win him four more years, Trump hands his supporters a permission slip to say what they think and not feel bad about themselves or their country.
5. When will we have a winner?
This race will likely be decided in the upper Midwest, where relatively few votes have been counted so far and where the process could take a few days. Wisconsin may declare a winner today. Pennsylvania and Michigan will likely take longer. Vote counting in Georgia inches closer to a result, with the Biden-friendly Atlanta area responsible for many of the votes to be counted. After a frenetic evening of results that answered some questions but left the most important ones unanswered, both candidates still have a path to the White House.