Editorial: 2020 election results show the complexity of American politics. Where do we go from here?
No presidential candidate had ever received more votes than Democrat Joe Biden or Republican President Donald Trump did this year. By Friday, Biden had 4 million more votes than Trump and had edged ahead of him in Georgia and Pennsylvania, where Electoral College math might be decisive. But both candidates had eclipsed 70 million votes — something no candidate has done in U.S. history.
It’s a testament to both that turnout was so high for them during a pandemic, and it’s why neither political party was especially joyous this week.
Despite the likelihood of a Biden victory, Democratic gloominess — and recriminations — were on broad display across the nation. That’s because, even if Biden winds up being sworn in as the 46th president, Trump’s support speaks volumes. And also because Democratic hopes for a blue wave like the one in 2018 faltered and GOP politicians were found not guilty by association for backing the divisive, incompetent 45th one. Instead, Republicans made unexpected gains in the House, have good odds of retaining control of the Senate and kept control of so many state legislatures they will be able to carve up GOP-favoring elective districts for the next decade after the census is complete.
Since the 2002 publication of “The Emerging Democratic Majority” by John B. Judis and Ruy Teixeira, it has been conventional wisdom among many political scientists that the party would soar as demographic changes boosted communities of color and well-educated urban residents turned on a Republican Party defined by social conservatism. But with the huge exception of California, this assumption was hammered by this election’s results.
The authors’ expectation that Latinos, Blacks and Asian Americans are very likely to be reliable liberal Democrats seems naive in a modern context where it’s clear a monolithic Latino vote is a myth and Trump seems to have gained support among Mexican Americans in Texas and Cuban Americans and Puerto Ricans in Florida — or where Asian Americans split in California over a state proposition to end a ban on affirmative action. Black voters in Atlanta, Detroit and Philadelphia seem to have turned out in large numbers for Biden, but preliminary data from an exit poll of 15,590 voters shows Trump did better among voters of color — 25 percent — than any Republican candidate since Richard Nixon in 1960 and also saw a jump in his support from LGBTQ voters. It appears some voters in these communities backed Trump in spite of how he had offended so many others in their community. Perhaps it was the appeal of his populist bashing of elites over their support for trade policies and wars that have hurt so many Americans or their distaste for some progressives’ bold stands.
It’s rare to have a party see its incumbent president be defeated yet still have reasons for optimism. It’s also rare for a party to recapture the White House yet still wonder about its future. The assumption that progressives like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez had the momentum in future clashes with Biden- and Barack Obama-style centrists may soon lead to an understanding that calls to “defund the police,” to end private health insurance and to support a Green New Deal are not views most voters share. Centrist House Democrats didn’t wait long to lash out at liberal colleagues last week in a private exchange that became public.
Friday, Ocasio-Cortez took to Twitter to call it a myth progressive legislators “don’t win swing seats” and push back on the “whole ‘progressivism is bad’ argument.” The illusion of unity created by Democrats’ rapid coalescing around Biden in March and sustained by their campaign messaging through Election Day already seems like a distant memory.