Huge turnout, close race: The day-after lessons of Election 2020

Why We Wrote This

Most pundits and pollsters badly miscalculated what would happen in this election. Amid the tense wait for an outcome, here are some upended expectations, false narratives, and new insights revealed by American voters on Nov. 3.

David Goldman/AP
Denice Asbell (left) brings her daughter Rhegan, to the central counting board to observe Democratic election challengers watching ballots being counted in the early morning hours of Wednesday, Nov. 4, 2020 in Detroit, Michigan. Late on Wednesday news outlets declared the state a win for Democrat Joe Biden.

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Americans voted in astounding numbers in the 2020 election, with preliminary estimates showing the highest percentage turnout in 120 years.

But the hopes and fears that pushed so many people to cast ballots are deeply divided along partisan lines. The result seems almost certain to be a nation of warring political camps of almost equal size and power, facing a pandemic and recession that neither can fight successfully on its own.

President Donald Trump deepened the tension with his false 2 a.m. Wednesday pronouncement that he had already won the election, and his unprecedented insistence that states should stop counting legally cast votes.

“That is in many ways an unprecedented undermining of the electoral process,” says Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard University.

Despite this, Mr. Trump seemed likely to benefit politically from the overperformance of the Republican Party against expectations – whether he remains in the White House or not.

Though the race may not be resolved for days, Democratic candidate Joe Biden’s prospects appeared somewhat brighter than the president’s. Mr. Biden’s best path to victory involves holding onto narrow leads in Arizona, Nevada, Wisconsin, and Michigan, with a possible come-from-behind win in Pennsylvania as a backup. Mr. Trump’s best shot involves holding Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, and flipping Arizona.

Mail-in, drop-off, in-person early, in-person on Election Day: Americans voted in astounding numbers in the 2020 election, with preliminary estimates showing the highest percentage turnout in 120 years.

But the hopes and fears that pushed so many people to cast ballots are deeply divided along partisan lines. The result seems almost certain to be a nation of warring political camps of almost equal size and power, both full of pent-up emotion, facing a pandemic and recession that neither can fight successfully on its own.

President Donald Trump deepened the tension with his false 2 a.m. Wednesday pronouncement that he had already won the election, and his unprecedented insistence that states should stop counting legally cast votes.

All candidates aim to project confidence, but President Trump’s accusation that tallying legitimate ballots amounts to “stealing the election” is extremely worrisome, says Ryan Enos, a professor of government at Harvard University.

“That is in many ways an unprecedented undermining of the electoral process,” says Dr. Enos.

Win or lose, Trump outperformed predictions

Despite this, Mr. Trump seemed likely to benefit politically from the overperformance of the Republican Party against expectations – whether he remains in the White House or not.

While polls indicated Mr. Trump would lose handily to former Vice President Joe Biden on election night, the race remained too close to call late Wednesday and may not be resolved for days, though Mr. Biden’s prospects appeared somewhat brighter than the president’s.

After snaring thin victories in Wisconsin and Michigan, Mr. Biden’s best path to victory involves holding onto narrow leads in Arizona and Nevada, with a possible come-from-behind win in Pennsylvania as a backup. Trump’s best shot involves holding Georgia, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina, and snagging Arizona.

John Locher/AP
A live broadcast of President Donald Trump speaking from the White House is shown on screens at an election night party on Tuesday, Nov. 3, 2020, in Las Vegas, Nevada. By late Wednesday, Mr. Trump's campaign had filed lawsuits over the ballot-counting process in some key states.

The president’s strategy also appears to include aggressive legal challenges. On Wednesday his campaign announced that it was suing to temporarily stop ballot counting in Michigan and Pennsylvania on the grounds that the process was not transparent enough.

His campaign also is trying to intervene in a Pennsylvania case at the Supreme Court, on whether ballots received up to three days after the election can be counted, the Associated Press reports.

Campaign officials also said they were seeking a recount of the result in Wisconsin, which like Michigan was called for Biden Wednesday afternoon.

Meanwhile, it seems possible, if not likely, that the GOP will maintain its hold on the Senate. Pre-election polls had indicated Democrats were the favorite to win a slim majority. In the House, Republicans knocked off at least six vulnerable Democrats – instead of losing a net five to fifteen seats, as polls had predicted.

Given these results, Mr. Trump seems set to remain the dominant force in the party. If he loses it’s not hard to imagine him as the head of a sort of shadow government that unleashes a daily stream of criticism of the Biden administration through conservative media outlets.

Failing grade for pollsters

The polling industry appears to have taken another beating this election cycle. The final spread between Messrs. Trump and Biden may end up being within the margin of error of many national polls, given that millions of votes in California and other large states that aren’t close remain to be counted. But as in 2016, some state polls and surveys for individual races showed substantial errors.

Moderate Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins’ reelection victory is one example of this. Democrats targeted Senator Collins for possible defeat over her votes to confirm Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court and acquit President Trump in his impeachment trial. She faced a formidable opponent in Sara Gideon, speaker of the Maine House of Representatives. Over the past year, polling consistently showed Senator Collins behind.

She won by almost 9 percentage points.

Latino and Hispanic Americans saw their candidate preferences badly missed by polls and pundits. They were far from a united group opposed to Mr. Trump’s harsh treatment of unauthorized immigrants and appalled by his insistence on building his southern border wall.

Mr. Biden never really connected with them, and the costs of that were apparent in battleground Florida. President Trump won 55% of the state’s Cuban American vote, 30% of its Puerto Rican Americans, and 48%of “other Latinos” on his way to winning Florida’s 29 electoral votes.

One thing seems almost certain: Mr. Biden will win the popular vote, becoming the fourth Democratic candidate in a row to do so. This hasn’t been done since the four election cycles beginning in 1936, with Franklin Delano Roosevelt, followed by Harry Truman on the ballot.

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