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  • Robert Allison

US Election Autopsy: A beginning of a healing?


Whilst it wasn’t the landslide many had predicted or hoped for, Joe Biden’s victory was decisive, and brings down the curtain on the most turbulent presidency in a generation. A new administration composed of legislators, not cronies, scientists, not sceptics, experts, not fakers, will allow Americans to pause and reflect on four years which tarnished their moral and political authority. Here, Joe Biden’s victory represents immense progress. It will be refreshing to not feel both outrage and despair at American political discourse daily for the next four years.

However, in the fight against dirty politics and authoritarianism, November 3rd represents a battle won, not triumph in the war. Donald Trump was the symptom, not the cause of this nasty undercurrent of right-wing Republicanism that will take years to eradicate.

Exactly how Joe Biden won is already hotly contested, as different factions of his unusually broad coalition seek to cast themselves into his administration and the future of the Democratic Party. Here we’ll examine some important factors in how an incumbent American president was defeated for the first time in nearly three decades.

The first key point is that the polls were wrong. Again. Donald Trump over-performed his poll numbers by up to seven points, such as in Ohio. However, the discrepancy between polls and results was inconsistent across the swing states, and usually within the margin of error, so any proclaimed ‘death of polling’ is premature. Pollsters should refine their models further, rather than scrapping them entirely.

Joe Biden did, however, underperform nationally. An expected seven-point popular vote win fell to around three, and a predicted Electoral College total of over 350 votes (based on FiveThirtyEight’s final average of polls) became 306. Despite retaining their control, Democrats also lost seats in the House of Representatives, and a chance at Senate control now requires an unlikely pair of victories in Georgia’s run-offs after failed challenges to vulnerable Republican incumbents Joni Ernst, Thom Tillis and Susan Collins. The last of these should have been a lay-up in Maine, which Biden carried by ten percentage points.

Early signs came from Florida, where two trends arose. Biden led in Duval County, home to Jacksonville and its suburbs, not carried by a Democrat since Carter. Meanwhile, in Miami-Dade county, a diverse, urban democratic stronghold, Biden led, but by significantly less than Hillary Clinton four years prior.

The question in Florida, and nationwide, was whether Joe Biden could offset lacklustre numbers among the Democratic base by peeling off suburban, educated, white voters and retirees from Trump elsewhere, as was his strategy. When Florida was called for the President, it appeared not. Betting markets swung in favour of Trump. Against all estimates, retirees had not abandoned him, women voted similarly and he even expanded his vote share among those with household incomes above $100,000 (likely a direct result of the 2017 tax cuts). Nationwide, Trump won 10 million more votes than he did in 2016.

How then, did Joe Biden pull ahead? Firstly because, for once, Florida was an outlier. It voted against the winner for the first time since 1992 and by 3.4 points, which by Floridian standards constitutes a landslide. The shortcoming in South Florida also likely stemmed from increased turnout from Cuban and Venezuelan communities, outliers within the hispanic community who lean Republican on fears of socialism.

Biden showed strong numbers in urban, suburban and exurban white communities, alongside high youth and minority turnout; not only in the Midwest but in other swing states like Arizona and Georgia. In doing so, he rebuilt the fabled ‘Blue Wall’ and redrew the electoral map across the south, such that he could afford to lose other traditional swing states like Ohio, Iowa, North Carolina along with Florida.

A broad support network of activists and officials, progressives and moderates, from all races and genders, clearly helped unify the party behind Joe Biden, convincing voters that the lesser of two evils was a worthy game to play this time around - given the proven incompetence of the alternative. This grassroots drive and Biden’s personal likeability also diminished any yearning for other options. Hence, third parties lost a considerable share, with the electorate perhaps soberly reminded by the pandemic that now was no time for a protest vote.

The pandemic also undeniably shaped American voting behaviour. The highest turnout in a century was facilitated by mass mail-in voting, despite the President’s attempts to undermine it, and fuelled by a feeling that this election really mattered. Nearly 230,000 Americans had died from COVID-19 by election day. Voters sent a strong message on their behalf that competence and compassion matter.

Joe Biden represents nothing if not a ‘safe pair of hands’ who has withstood crises both personal and political. Incumbents and radicals normally benefit in times of strife, as people either rally around the flag, or seek fundamental change, but this time voters chose neither. The twin evils of recession and a pandemic weakened Trump, and such chaos led voters to someone they knew they could trust.

With Trump ousted, 2024 may present a challenge for Democrats whose entire message has been “anything but him”. Bolder, more progressive policies are necessary to combat the problems facing the USA. For now, however, Joe Biden’s victory is one to celebrate - one which should cleanse the palate of American political discourse, and remind us that better is possible.

Image - Flickr (Thomas Hawk)



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