Red Rip Tide

It’s been two weeks since election day and ballots are still being counted, but enough details about the 2020 electorate have emerged to support informed speculation about why the blue wave that was evident across virtually all pre-election data did not materialize. Notwithstanding voter suppression efforts of the known or unknown variety that may have influenced the result, the outcome was dramatically shaped by Trump voters who turned out in numbers far exceeding projections and way in excess of what we saw in 2018. None of the turnout models and almost none of the pre-election surveys captured a red rip tide that would cut against the blue wave to prevent a Biden landslide and gut Democratic hopes for down-ballot gains that only a wave would have generated.  

Biden’s polling turned out to be fairly accurate. On the eve of the election, polling averages had Biden taking 51.8% of the vote, and he will end up within a few tenths of a percent of that figure when all the votes are counted (he is currently at 51%). As predicted, Biden gained in suburban areas where Democrats had made significant inroads in 2018 and was propelled by a wave of female voters. Generational patterns held, with Biden winning lopsided victories among younger voters, and despite underperforming with Latinx communities in South Florida and along the Rio Grande (which pre-election polling predicted), his anticipated multi-ethnic, multi-racial coalition materialized. Also as predicted, defections to Trump among Democrats were lower than defections to Biden among Republicans. It was enough for a popular vote victory margin that will exceed four points and six million votes when the counting is done, as well as the addition of three Rust Belt and two Sun Belt states to the Democratic column, and a substantial 306 electoral votes — exactly matching Trump’s 2016 total. 

But if Biden’s polling was on target, Trump’s was not. Pre-election polling averages placed Trump at 43.4% of the vote, in line with his election eve approval rating of 44.6%. Incumbent presidents typically earn their approval number, because it’s difficult to get people to vote for you if they disapprove of your job performance. Had that dynamic held in 2020 as it has in the past, the balance of the outstanding vote would have gone to Biden and he would have won the election by around nine points, in line with what polls were predicting. But Trump outpaced his job approval number by several points. He has won 47.3% of the vote so far, and although that figure will drop slightly as blue ballots continue to roll in from California and New York, he is on track to outperform his job approval by about two points and his pre-election polling by about three.

Significantly, Trump will win a larger share of the vote than he did last time. When all the votes are counted, total turnout will have outpaced 2016 by a mind boggling 25 million. And while turnout models anticipated this surge, they did not predict that Trump would improve his vote total by an astounding 10.3 million (and still counting). After everything that happened during the past four years, and with Trump’s general election polling averages reflecting his subpar job approval, the data suggested that Trump would likely hold his loyalists but not increase his support. Yet millions of new voters turned out for him. 

Had Trump’s vote been flat, the results would have been in line with expectations. I suspect this is what the polling missed and what turnout models misjudged. For example, take a look at the pivotal state of Pennsylvania, where Biden received over a half-million more votes than Clinton on his way to a one-point victory in a state Hillary lost by 44,000. That improvement would have been enough for a comfortable win if Trump hadn’t found an additional 391,000 voters, even as Biden was eating away at his margins in Scranton and Allentown and burying him in the Philly suburbs. As a quick thought experiment, assume the Biden surge materialized but Trump’s raw vote total remained constant from 2016.  Biden would have won Pennsylvania by 7.2 points, just above polling expectations. Or take Wisconsin. Biden improved on Clinton’s vote total by almost 250,000 but he only won the state by 0.7 points, because Trump increased his total by close to 205,000. Had Trump been unable to bring new voters into the Wisconsin electorate, Biden would have won by 7.3 points, close to what polling margins suggested.

Who are these new Trump supporters and why weren’t they registering in pre-election polls? That’s a question pollsters are going to have to answer, but we can assume they are low propensity voters who are responsive to Trump’s message and had no interest in answering telephone surveys. They are in a sense a silent minority — not shy Trump voters as much as disaffected individuals whose support for Trump’s brand of norm-busting suggests his base is larger than it appeared over the past four years, at least when Trump is on the ballot.

Looking ahead, the big question is whether they will continue to engage in electoral politics when Trump is no longer a candidate. They did not turn out in 2018, when the polling was on target, suggesting their loyalty may not be to the Republican Party or transferable to others who in the months ahead will compete to carry the flag of Trumpism into 2024. If they can be convinced to vote after Trump departs the scene we are heading for a period of close elections that could threaten the Democrats’ hold on government until the slow generational realignment we see emerging in the Sun Belt grows large enough to overcome the Republican Electoral College advantage. We will get our first test of their continued involvement during the Georgia Senate run-offs in January.

More immediately, the endurance of Trumpism beyond the election will mean the continued embrace of the Trump base by Republicans, with ramifications for how the incoming administration attempts to heal this wounded country. Biden has promised to bring the nation together, but that is only possible if there is a willingness to reunite around the terms he proposes. Much of what Biden must do to move beyond the Trump reaction will be viewed as divisive by the losing side if not handled delicately. His healing agenda needs to address accountability, institutional repair and progress managing the multiple crises of our day, which necessarily will require some degree of reckoning with the criminal behavior of the outgoing administration and consideration of structural and policy changes that will be framed as socialism in Trump-friendly corners of the media universe. Regardless, Biden needs to take on these huge challenges if the past four years are to be an anomaly rather than a prelude to the rise of a more perfect demagogue. This will be the main business of the new administration once the extraction phase is complete and the curtain finally falls on the Trump years. I will consider what this might entail in the coming weeks.