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The Democratic Strategist

Political Strategy for a Permanent Democratic Majority

Editor’s Corner

December 2: Why Trump’s Election Coup Failed

For months I was one of a number of political observers warning that Donald Trump was laying the groundwork for a coup to overturn an election loss. Yet he is very close to the exit ramp from the White House. I examined what happened to his plans at New York:

State election-results certifications are rolling in for Biden; federal and state judicial panels are monotonously rejecting his legal challenges to the results; and the number of Republican elected officials supporting the conspiracy theories his lawyers are offering is eroding steadily. Now that the threat of a seriously contested (or even overturned) presidential election is receding (though not entirely disappearing), it’s worth asking why it went down as it did. As someone who feared a “red mirage” scenario, in which the president would tally an early Election Night lead then prematurely declare victory, I feel a responsibility to examine what went wrong for Trump, and right for democracy. Below are some possible explanations for his failure to mount a serious challenge to his defeat.

Maybe Trump Never Had an Actual Plan

Back in the spring and summer of this year, when Trump began attacking voting by mail as inherently corrupt, it began to occur to many of us that in convincing Republicans to vote on Election Day he might be trying to engineer a scenario in which he would gain a temporary lead from in-person results, then attempt to disallow the mail ballots that would swing the election to Biden days or even weeks after November 3. Critics of “red mirage” talk often dismissed such fears as overestimating Trump’s seriousness, not to mention his ability to convince others to go along with any effort to stop the counting of mail ballots on or after Election Day.

Perhaps these critics were right: Trump’s “plan” to steal the election failed because there was never really a plan beyond throwing mud at the election process and hoping something stuck. That interpretation would explain the Trump campaign’s erratic postelection legal strategy, and its too little, too late efforts to mobilize the president’s supporters to put pressure on election officials and state legislators to skew the vote or set it aside in favor of arbitrarily appointed Trump electors. In other words, if there was a plan, it was incompetently executed.

Perhaps Trump Hesitated When It Looked Like He Could Win Legitimately

Another possibility is that Trump was doing well enough in the initial returns that he hesitated in contesting the election, as there was a real possibility he could win without chicanery. He won Florida, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas decisively, and was obviously in a competitive position in Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. When it became obvious that later mail ballots were going to resolve the results in the closest states, early on November 4, Trump did make his long-expected victory claim, and vaguely threatened legal action to stop the counting of “illegal” votes. But it was not the clarion call for revolution many of us feared, as I noted at the time in trying to parse his wee-hours remarks in the East Room:

“This is all guesswork, beyond the president’s clear indication that he doesn’t want to allow all legal votes to be counted and reported, on the specious grounds that a ballot postmarked by Election Day is somehow cast afterward. I suppose it’s a small victory that he’s talking about going to court rather than inciting violence or using his own powers to suppress vote-counting by brute force.”

There was something irresolute about Trump’s victory claims and his failure to call his supporters into the streets that suggested either divisions among his team or perhaps doubt as to whether Biden would win without court interventions. It’s useful to remember that the experts didn’t actually call the election for Biden until November 7. So pulling the trigger on a full-on election contest might have seemed risky at that point.

Trump’s Legal Strategy Turned Out to Be a Blind Alley

Reflecting what probably seemed like the imperative of securing small changes in the results from very close states, Team Trump’s initial legal strategy seemed focused on very narrow issues — particularly a continuation of Republicans’ national and state preelection lawsuits that aimed to stop the extension of mail-ballot deadlines (a particularly big issue in North Carolina and Pennsylvania). Here’s how I summarized the situation in all-important Pennsylvania as of November 9:

“Election-law expert Rick Hasen estimates that about 10,000 total votes were received between November 3 and November 6, and some of them, of course, were cast for Donald Trump. At the moment, Biden’s lead in the Keystone State stands at 45,000. And even if Trump could somehow flip (or call into question) Pennsylvania’s 20 electoral votes, he’d need to win 36 additional EVs from the 45 still unresolved (26 of them in states where Biden currently leads) to reverse the overall outcome. To sum it all up: If he had some ham, he could make a ham sandwich, if he had some bread.”

Again, it was too little, too late.

Trump Never Mobilized Republican State Legislators to Save Him

However you analyze the path that brought Trump to the situation where his lawyers resorted to wild conspiracy theories (as reflected in the insane presser they held on November 19) and frantic efforts to slow down state certifications of results, it was obvious by mid-November that Trump’s only hope was to create enough phony doubt about the outcome in key states to justify a power grab by Republican legislators. The idea, which was fully aired in many of the preelection “red mirage” speculations (I wrote about it in April), was that state legislators would assert a constitutionally sanctioned (if controversial and arguably in conflict with their own statutes) right to appoint electors themselves since “fraud” had tainted the popular-vote results. Trump publicly called on GOP legislators to do just that, as Politico reported on November 21:

“[W]ith few cases pending in courts, Trump’s options have narrowed and he is becoming increasingly reliant on longshot scenarios where election results are not certified and Republican-controlled statehouses in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Arizona and Georgia intervene to declare him the winner.

“GOP legislative leaders in those states have not endorsed this approach. Trump summoned Michigan legislative leaders to the White House on Friday, but they later issued a statement indicating they had not seen any reason to intervene on Trump’s behalf.”

For this long-shot strategy to have worked, Trump would have needed to begin much earlier — perhaps in close coordination with his early and incessant attacks on voting by mail — to prepare Republican legislators for this audacious step, while mobilizing tens of thousands of MAGA bravos to surround state capitols and demand an intervention to stop Biden’s alleged theft of the election. Clearly none of that groundwork was done in advance, and when the time came for Trump to call on Republican legislators to save his bacon, they appeared sympathetic but unwilling to violate their own laws and procedures to overturn popular-vote results. Conservative opinion leaders were at best divided on such desperate measures, too. So as my colleague Jonathan Chait pointed out, a coup didn’t have the united party support required to make it work:

“Trump’s attempted coup is going to fail because he hasn’t gotten the party fully onboard with it. It’s not hard for them to say no: Trump didn’t even begin to organize his scheme until it was too late, he has too many states to flip, and the alternative facing them — a moderate Democrat constrained by a right-wing court and a likely Republican Senate — is hardly scary …

“The popular Republican stance has been to indulge Trump’s lies while dismissing the danger he poses. ‘To launch a coup you need more than a giant, suppurating grievance and access to Twitter,’ Wall Street Journal opinion columnist and former editor Gerard Baker scoffs. ‘You need a fanatical commitment, a detailed plan, an energy, a sophisticated apparatus of revolution.'”

We may have to wait until memoirs are written or Trumpian tongues are otherwise loosened to find out whether a seriously contested election was ever in the works, or if the whole “red mirage” scare was just another by-product of a president with no respect for norms and the power to order his troops to break them — though not enough of them, and not quickly or efficiently enough.

November 30: Down-Ballot Democratic Performance Not As Bad As You Might Think

After reading a lot of stuff about ticket-splitting damaging Democrats down-ballot, I stared at the data and pushed back a bit at New York:

Sometimes it’s easy to get tangled up in the terminology of winning and losing in elections. Joe Biden clearly won the presidency, albeit by smaller margins than most observers expected. But unless Democrats sweep the two January runoffs in Georgia, they will have lost the battle for control of the Senate. And Democrats definitely lost at least ten net House seats. That said, Democrats did maintain control of the House, and, for that matter, posted a net gain of at least one Senate seat.

Still, the perception that Biden won but the party “lost” might have created an exaggerated impression that ticket splitting made a big comeback in 2020. Yes, there are a few clear examples of Republicans doing well in places where Trump didn’t do quite so well. Senator Susan Collins ran seven points ahead of the president in Maine. There were a smattering of suburban House Republican congressional candidates, notably in California and Texas, who appear to have overcome Trump’s losses in their district to post wins. But let’s not overthink this and engage in grand narratives of this or that “wing” of the party damaging their caucus in the House or of Republicans shrewdly distancing themselves from Trump (most didn’t) and/or convincing swing voters they would serve as a counterweight to President Biden.

It’s true, as Brownstein reminds us, that House Democrats suffer from a less efficient distribution of voters than Republicans, which keeps their share of districts from perfectly representing the national popular vote.

“’If you apportion the House in a fair drawing, it favors Republicans, because Democrats live in these urban enclaves that are 80 percent [Democratic] and they waste a lot of votes,’ Tom Davis, a former Republican representative from Northern Virginia who chaired the National Republican Congressional Committee, told me.”

But again, it’s possible to exaggerate the importance of structural issues. 50.5 percent of 435 House seats is 220. Democrats aren’t really punching below their weight.

This country is still divided almost evenly between two increasingly polarized major parties. All the insane events of 2020, underlaid by Trump’s uniquely divisive presidency, didn’t change that. A lot of unexpected things happened on the margins, but for the most part this election was a reversion to the mean after a fairly standard midterm reaction to the party controlling the White House. Certainly, there are very important consequences that will flow from small variations to the general pattern of partisan voting, particularly in the closely divided Senate. And without question, Democrats will pay a large cost for failing to win big across the board, particularly when redistricting arrives next year and Republican control of all those state legislative chambers that was at risk this year gives the GOP an advantage in drawing new districts for the next decade. Overall, though, the partisan and ideological gridlock that sometimes feels like the 21st century’s natural state remains firmly intact.

November 20: Team Trump Melts Down

This may wind up being an ephemeral event on the road to Joe Biden’s inauguration, but it should stand in infamy, as I explained at New York:

When the Trump campaign announced a noon press conference today, there was some speculation that it might signal an end to the president’s doomed effort to challenge his election defeat. That might have seemed rational, since Team Trump and its subordinate allies have again and again struck out in court, all over the country, in efforts to even raise the remote possibility there was enough “fraud” to change the outcome. And with state certifications of the results on the very near horizon, there’s no question Republicans were privately whispering to the president and his staff that it was time to end the circus and move along.

Lord have mercy, was the end-is-coming speculation wrong! In an interminable press conference, Trump’s legal team upped the ante by about a million percent, alleging a massive national conspiracy personally directed by Joe Biden, but bankrolled by “communist money,” to steal an election that “the president clearly won by a landslide,” as Trump attorney Sidney Powell said at one point. Chief lawyer Rudy Giuliani became more and more agitated as the strange event went on, spending most of his time attacking reporters from the “fake media” in the room and symbolizing the heat of his words when his hair-dye melted, leaving brown streaks down each side of his face.

But the longer the presser went on, the more it became clear that the Trump campaign was relying not so much on affidavits of misconduct or statistical demonstrations of altered results but rather the broadest sorts of conspiracy theories, most of them inherently absurd or previously exploded. Giuliani repeatedly spoke of mail ballots as though they are some sort of sinister new invention rather than a method of voting that has been available in one form or another in every state for years. He also with a straight face argued that the reversal of early Trump leads in many states as mail ballots were counted was prima facie evidence of fraud, rather than a reflection of his own client’s loud, constant, and successful efforts to convince Republicans not to vote by mail – and of Republican legislators’ decision to ban the counting of mail ballots until Election Day or immediately before it.

In other words, having failed to supply evidence of wrongdoing sufficient to change the results in individual states, Team Trump has headed into the murky and dangerous territory of declaring the entire election illegitimate, from sea to shining sea.

This became plain when Sidney Powell took the presser far down the rabbit hole into discredited claims that voting machines designed in Venezuela had systematically miscounted the vote in order to throw the election to Biden. Weeping actual tears, Powell spoke darkly of “communist money” and veered off into murky claims from years far past. I wasn’t the only one who struggled to follow her: “Even by the standards of the Trump legal team, Sidney Powell is making no sense right now. You have to be just mainlining http://TheDonald.win and Gateway Pundit to have any idea what she’s referencing,” observed the Daily Beast’s Will Sommer.

Other than lashing the media for failing to “cover” its incoherent theories and alerting the president’s supporters that the fight was by no means winding down, what was the point of the presser? It appears that the lawsuits Giuliani threatened will seek to get judges to stop state certification of results. Since they will probably not gain any more traction than earlier campaign or GOP efforts to slow down the process, the real goal was probably indicated by Ellis and Powell, both of whom mentioned “constitutional provisions” for “fixing” a rigged election. By that I am assuming they meant the questionable theory that state legislatures can put aside “disputed” results and just appoint electors on their own.

It’s no coincidence that the legislatures of Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are controlled by Trump’s GOP. And worried observers have long feared Trump had in mind exactly this sort of end-run of the results if he lost. Based on the overall impression left by Trump’s team after this stunning event, it’s reasonably clear the strategy is to get the MAGA masses to press Republican legislators in the key states to steal the 2020 election on grounds that it was earlier stolen by Democrats.

I’ve been watching political developments closely for a half-century, and have witnessed all sorts of craziness. But the spectacle of the president’s lawyers menacing reporters (“You’re lying! You’re lying! You’re lying!” Giuliani screamed at one reporter trying to ask a question, after asking her “What fake media do you work for?”) trying to unravel their wild claims was something out of a bad alternative history where the bad guys won World War II. At one point, Powell said: “This is the 1775 of our generation and beyond!” Are these people threatening violent revolution if they don’t get their way? Normally I’d say, “Of course not!” But for the first time, I’m really not sure.

November 18: Georgia’s Democratic Gains More Durable Than Some Think

After reading a couple of pieces suggesting that Biden’s Georgia win was attributable solely to Republicans who will never again vote Democratic, I decided to respond at New York:

[E]ven as Republicans vainly dispute Biden’s win in Georgia, and operatives and donors in both parties prepare for the epic January battle, there’s an interpretive dispute breaking out over what really happened in Georgia in the general election, and what it means for Democrats there and elsewhere in the future. Data journalist David Shor initially raised the issue in an interview with New York’s Eric Levitz:

“If you look at county-level returns in Georgia, it’s pretty clear that nonwhite voters, as a share of the electorate, decreased at a time when the nonwhite share of the state’s population probably increased. Relative to the electorate as a whole, nonwhite turnout fell. And then, among nonwhite voters who turned out, support for the Democratic nominee fell. That’s just not consistent with nonwhite turnout being the decisive factor. The only reason we won is that there were these very large swings toward us among college-educated white people in the Atlanta suburbs.”

Now the data team at the New York Times is making the same argument looking at the same numbers:

“Joe Biden put Georgia in the Democratic column for the first time since 1992 by making huge gains among affluent, college-educated and older voters in the suburbs around Atlanta, according to an Upshot analysis of the results by precinct. The Black share of the electorate fell to its lowest level since 2006, based on an Upshot analysis of newly published turnout data from the Georgia secretary of state. In an election marked by a big rise in turnout, Black turnout increased, too, but less than that of some other groups.”

As it happens, some Georgia Democrats are pushing back on the Shor/Times data, according to the Atlanta Journal-Constitution: “A growing number of voters are refusing to identify themselves by race, and some of them are certainly Black voters. That could create a 3% or so difference between what the data says and who actually showed up at the polls, Democrats say.”

This may sound like a nerd fight over numbers in a hazy environment, partly caused by a general consensus not to rely on this year’s shaky exit polls. But the lessons both Shor and the Times take from the racial turnout data have profound implications for how Democrats handle the January runoffs, and for a general understanding of what’s happening in Georgia and similar states overall. Here’s how Shor puts it:

“I think it’s important for us to be clear-eyed about what happened in 2020. We’re not going to know exactly what happened until there’s more analysis of precinct results. But I think that the county-level data we have tells a pretty clear big-picture story. Which is that we won the presidency because, one, while we lost non-college-educated white voters, we kept those defections to a relatively low level, and two, a bunch of moderate Republicans who had voted for Trump in 2016 decided to vote for Biden this time.”

The Times is even blunter:

“The findings suggest that Mr. Biden’s win in Georgia may not yet herald a new progressive majority in what was a reliably red state, as Democrats still depend on the support of traditionally conservative voters to win statewide.”

These claims sure sound like a challenge to the general belief going into this cycle that Georgia and similar southern states were moving “blue” because of a combination of Black voter mobilization and a general shift to the left among highly educated suburbanites of all races.

As a fellow believer in that “progressive New South” interpretation, I’d offer my own pushback to the revisionist idea that Biden carried the state by appealing to Republicans who won’t vote for other Democrats down ballot, or even for president if Trump’s not on the ballot. All along, the premise advanced by Stacey Abrams and like-minded Georgia Democratic leaders was that a majority could be forged from a multiracial coalition centered in Atlanta’s rapidly diversifying (racially, economically, and culturally) suburbs. Abrams herself, though best known nationally as a voting rights and Black-voter-mobilization advocate, improved on Hillary Clinton’s 2016 performance in the north Atlanta suburbs in her own near-miss 2018 gubernatorial campaign. And the idea that Biden’s success in those same suburbs is a sui generis product of Never Trump Republicans temporarily leaving their party in that one race is belied by the fact that two legendarily Republican suburban counties, Cobb and Gwinnett, ejected Republican local government executives for Democrats for the first time in a generation. This isn’t just about Trump, though he has obviously given Democrats suburban opportunities they didn’t previously enjoy.

Yes, relatively low Black turnout and marginally lower Democratic vote shares among nonwhite voters are a problem for Democrats in Georgia and many other states. But that should not become the basis for some sort of blue-dog redux theory in which Georgia Democrats pursue “conservative” suburban voters with conservative policies, at the expense of Black voter interests and resources. That would be a terrible U-turn for a Democratic coalition that is just now beginning to reach its potential for creating a party in which there are no longer any second-class, taken-for-granted voters. If anything, the nonwhite-voter-mobilization problems Shor and the Times identified, assuming they aren’t a statistical illusion, may provide an opportunity for Democrats in January, and certainly in 2022, when Stacey Abrams is likely to run for governor again. But in the longer run, the once-elusive dream of a southern Democratic Party that doesn’t only have eyes for white conservative voters is more than worth the effort.

November 13: Biden’s Electability Revisited

Now that we know Joe Biden has, thank God, won, it’s not too early to look back at the big debate of the presidential primary season, which I undertook at New York:

Democrats are inevitably grappling with in a lot of glass-half-full versus glass-half-empty mixed feelings about the 2020 elections. They have harpooned their White Whale — even if he hasn’t yet conceded and may never do so. On the other hand, Joe Biden didn’t win by the margins national and state polls predicted, and down-ballot performance was at best mixed and at worst disastrous. Democrats lost quite a few House seats and didn’t flip the Senate (though they still could in January). The predicted bonanza of state legislative takeovers that was supposed to make redistricting look less daunting than it has in the past simply did not happen. All these disappointments cannot be attributed to Biden, but given the narrow presidential win and the prevalence of straight-ticket voting, his campaign cannot be absolved of responsibility, either.

Since Biden’s perceived “electability” was without question a huge part of his appeal to the Democratic primary voters who elevated him over a big field of diverse and talented rivals, you have to wonder, Was Uncle Joe really the most electable Democrat? 

There’s no way to know for sure, and a lot of the evidence we have about partisanship suggests that all the Democratic presidential candidates might have wound up as “generic Democrats” by the time voters voted. But it’s worth looking at what Biden did and did not accomplish, as Ron Brownstein has already sought to do:

“During the Democratic primaries, Biden’s unique selling proposition was his contention that he was better positioned than any of his rivals to win back voters in the heavily white and working-class communities that keyed Trump’s victory last time, especially across the Rust Belt.

“On that front, the evidence suggests Biden sort of, kind of delivered—but only barely. Biden didn’t make big gains: For instance, he and Harris spent the day before the election campaigning in the heavily white, blue-collar Beaver and Luzerne Counties, in Pennsylvania, yet lost them by about the same margins as Clinton did. Biden did not loosen Trump’s iron grip over the suburban blue-collar counties around Tampa and Orlando, in Florida, and the president posted towering margins in rural, heavily blue-collar counties across the Sun Belt battlefields, particularly in Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas. Still, Biden’s modest improvements over Clinton in places like Erie and Scranton, in Pennsylvania; the Green Bay area, in Wisconsin; and Macomb County, outside Detroit, helped him recapture the big three “blue wall” states that Trump dislodged in 2016.”

But Biden clearly did not mobilize minority voters generally and performed poorly among the Latino voters in particular who delivered Florida and Texas to Trump while voting for Republican U.S. House candidates. And some analysts believe Biden (like Hillary Clinton in 2016) reduced down-ballot gains by treating Trump as an aberration from Republican orthodoxy rather than its nasty culmination.

You have to wonder if Bernie Sanders, who formed such a connection with Latino voters in the primaries, might have done better there, while making criticisms of Trump more strictly partisan. On the other hand, would a self-identified socialist have done better in South Florida than a candidate clearly damaged by claims that he was a puppet of people like Sanders? Was the terrible performance of the Democratic ticket in the Rio Grande Valley the product of long-term Democratic negligence rather than anything the presidential candidate did or didn’t do? And would Bernie really have done as well as Biden in upper-income suburbs?

You could go through similarly inconclusive exercises with other Democratic alternatives. Kamala Harris clearly electrified a lot of Black and Asian American women as the vice-presidential nominee. Might she have done even more at the top of the ticket? Possibly. Though her poor poll numbers among Black voters in the run-up to the primaries suggest otherwise. Could Elizabeth Warren have torn Trump limb from limb in the debates and left him bleeding on the cusp of the election? Sure. But Biden more than held his own in those debates, and there’s no real evidence that they mattered. Yes, Mike Bloomberg could have tried to drown Republicans with his limitless financial reserves. But in the end, Biden (and other defeated Democrats like record fund-raiser Jaime Harrison) had more than enough money to do whatever he wanted to do — and as with Clinton in 2016, it didn’t seem to matter.

It’s probably useful to ask why Democratic primary voters were so sure about Biden’s electability in the first place. It wasn’t because they were transfixed by polls; he retained his reputation even when his campaign wasn’t doing that well. It probably wasn’t a purely ideological matter either, since fellow centrists like Bloomberg, Buttigieg, and Harris were never thought of as particularly electable. One prominent study back in 2019 suggested it was all about Biden’s personality. And in that respect, Uncle Joe probably delivered: His decency and steadiness during a general election campaign dominated by COVID-19 and a raging Donald Trump were most likely crucial assets.

If Biden was indeed the most electable candidate Democrats could have run, what does that say about the party’s appeal as of November 2020? Nothing terribly good. Brownstein thinks Biden was the best available bridge between the party’s blue-collar Rust Belt past and its more diverse Sun Belt future. They can try to do it all over again in 2024 with Biden or someone else, or seek to accelerate the advent of the Democratic Party of the future. Perhaps Kamala Harris — after serving as Joe’s trusty surrogate and help-meet — will manage to do both.

November 11: Biden’s Popular Vote Win Is Impressive

Comparing the 2020 presidential election results to its precedents, I wrote up this impression for New York:

Joe Biden’s national popular vote lead over Donald Trump, and his percentage of the total vote, is beginning to look pretty impressive despite how close the Electoral College vote has remained, — and also despite Trump’s increasingly empty claims that he somehow actually won. Biden currently leads Trump by over five million votes, or by 3.4 percent of the total. Both numbers are certain to go higher. His popular vote percentage lead is already higher than that of the popular vote winner in 2016, 2004, 2000, 1976, 1968 and 1960. And with the exception of the two earlier Democratic tickets on which Biden appeared (2008 and 2012), the 50.8 percent of the national popular vote the Biden-Harris ticket has won is higher than that of any Democratic ticket since 1964. And that total could soon eclipse the 51.1 percent Obama and Biden received in 2012.

Biden’s percentage of the national popular vote is also higher than that of any Republican presidential nominee since George H.W. Bush in 1988. George W. Bush’s 2004 victory over John Kerry is remembered as a close race, but not one that was seriously contested. W. won 50.7 percent of the popular vote, prevailing by a 2.4 percent margin. For that matter, the endlessly touted political genius Ronald Reagan took only 50.7 percent of the popular vote when he won the presidency in 1980. The man he beat, Jimmy Carter, was for many years the last Democrat (and the only Democrat since LBJ) to win a popular vote majority (until Obama — and Biden — did so in 2008), He won 50.1 percent of the vote in 1976.

To be sure, Biden didn’t win by anything like a landslide, but efforts to minimize his popular vote numbers don’t bear comparison to other candidates in our often highly competitive two-party system.

November 9: Biden Was the Essential Winner

After the presidential contest was finally called, I had this take on its ultimate meaning at New York:

After all the madness of this plague year, and a surprising if hardly unprecedented Election Night full of uncertainty, the presidential election produced the most predictable outcome available. The least-controversial candidate the Democratic Party could have nominated defeated an unpopular incumbent at a time when the country feared for the future and craved stability.

President Trump and his partisans — if they ever come clean and stop raving about voter fraud — will certainly argue that he was robbed of a second term by the “China virus” and its impact on the “greatest economy ever” that he claimed as a personal accomplishment. But the president’s job-approval rating was the lowest this year in January, before the pandemic began, and reached its highest point in March, when the first big wave of COVID-19 infections and deaths had already hit. Trump’s reelection bid made the voting inevitably a referendum on his presidency, and the negative judgment Americans rendered on his performance never varied enough to matter for the ultimate outcome. His strategy of polarizing the electorate, energizing his base, and demonizing the opposition never varied, either; those waiting for a Trump “pivot” to a positive case for his record or a clear-cut presentation of his agenda waited in vain.

It became obvious well before Election Day that Trump’s only realistic hope for reelection was to hold down turnout among the majority unhappy with his performance and then seek via legal and political chicanery to eke out an Electoral College win by the kind of small miracle he achieved in 2016 or by contesting the results. Far and away the most consistent presidential message of the entire 2020 cycle was his relentless series of attacks on voting by mail, which succeeded in convincing many millions of Republicans to vote in person on Election Day and to suspect mail ballots as presumptively illegitimate. But when Trump pulled the trigger late on Election Night by claiming a premature win, he simply did not have the credibility to bring along his party and Fox News into a coup attempt.

President-elect Biden, as is increasingly obvious, is going to have a very tough row to hoe. Democrats will have to win two January runoffs to control the Senate. If they fail to do so that could make executive and judicial confirmations problematic and place any comprehensive progressive agenda, including the crucial step of filibuster reform, beyond his reach. Democrats also lost ground in the House. Beginning with a Senate runoff (or possibly runoffs) in Georgia in January, we will enter a 2022 midterm cycle in which emboldened Republicans will give no quarter and Biden will have no honeymoon. Democratic intra-party tensions that were briefly submerged by the drive to topple Trump will reemerge, particularly if it appears the new president will not seriously consider running for a second term.

But make no mistake: Biden did topple Trump, albeit by a much narrower margin than recently expected, and in the end that’s all that he really promised Democrats. Big policy ambitions ranging from urgent climate-change activism to health-care reform to voting rights and an assault on economic inequality will take a back seat to efforts to get a grip on the pandemic and avoid all sorts of catastrophes. Demographic change is still on the Democratic Party’s side, even though, as we have learned yet again, its progress can be uneven. Biden is arguably the perfect transitional figure for his party and his country.

November 5: Senate Control Likely To Come Down to Two Georgia Runoffs in January

Because I’ve been predicting this for a while, I was prepared for the strange trajectory of this year’s battle for control of the Senate, and wrote about it quickly at New York:

All the talk about Mitch McConnell savoring continued control of the Senate and laying plans to keep a Biden administration from accomplishing a damn thing may have been a tad premature. Yes, Republicans stymied Democrats hopes of flipping Senate seats in Iowa, Maine and several other states. Pending late returns in North Carolina (where GOP incumbent Thom Tillis is running ahead of Donald Trump and leads Cal Cunningham by 96,000 votes with mail ballots still trickling in), and Alaska (where another GOP incumbent, Dan Sullivan has a big lead over Al Gross with mail ballot counting won’t even begin until next week), Democrats have only gained one net seat in the upper chamber, and need two more to control the Senate assuming Kamala Harris is the tie-breaker as vice president).

But here’s the big breaking news: In Georgia, David Perdue’s vote total in his race against Jon Ossoff has slipped below 50 percent, and with heavily Democratic mail ballots the main votes still out, he’s not going to get a majority back.

[T]hanks to Georgia’s strange and unique majority-vote requirement for general election wins, Republican Perdue will face Democrat Ossoff in a January 5, 2021 runoff for the Senate seat despite Purdue’s comfortable 100,000-plus vote lead. (Outstanding mail ballots will undoubtedly reduce that lead and put 50 percent far out of reach for Purdue.) Libertarian Shane Hazel’s 2.3 percent of the vote is the main reason neither of the major-party candidates will be able to put it away this week, this month, or indeed, this year.

A January runoff was already in the works for Georgia’s other Senate seat, where 20 candidates competed in a November 3 non-partisan “jungle primary” special election to complete the term to which Republican Johnny Isakson (who resigned for health reasons last year) was elected in 2016. Since no one received the required majority, the top two finishers, Democrat Raphael Warnock (with 33 percent of the vote at present) and appointed Republican incumbent Kelly Loeffler (26 percent) will advance to the runoff.

The Republicans, Perdue and Loeffler, will probably be favored initially. For one thing, the conventional wisdom is that Republicans are much more likely than Democrats to turn out for a runoff that’s not held in conjunction with other elections. That was the case in the two previous Senate general-election runoffs in Georgia: in 1992 when Republican Paul Coverdell beat incumbent Democrat Wyche Fowler after narrowly denying him a majority on Election Day; and in 2008 when incumbent Republican Saxby Chambliss beat Democrat Jim Martin by a landslide after barely edging ahead of him on Election Day.

Republicans will also claim an advantage based on their narrow Election Day leads (which are growing narrower by the hour as mail ballots are counted). In particular, it will be noted that much of the sound and fury in the special election involved two Republicans, Loeffler and Congressman Doug Collins, who has already endorsed the incumbent he scorned for so many months as a RINO and a corrupt plutocrat. But if you add up the votes of all the Republicans and all the Democrats in the special election, the Republican totals barely exceed the totals for Democrats. So all else being equal, both runoffs should be very competitive.

But that’s not taking into account the insanely intense scrutiny Georgia will now get from the entire political world between now and January 5, given the enormous stakes involved. Every unspent campaign dollar and every newly unemployed campaign operative will migrate to the Peach State for a holiday season wherein Senate ads will compete with Christmas pageantry and COVID precautions for the attention of Georgia voters. You could argue that the runoffs will be particularly crucial to Democrats who know that Senate control is absolutely essential if a Biden administration (which is at this moment a near-certain prospect) is to have a prayer of getting its executive and judicial appointees confirmed and enacting any sort of legislative agenda.

October 29: The Messy Task of “Calling” the Results of the 2020 Elections

After a lot of digging around for information, I wrote up a quick primer for New York on the problems the usual sources of authoritative information will face in “calling” the 2020 election results, particularly on Election Night:

You are undoubtedly aware that Election Night on November 3 could be unlike any other we’ve seen before. Heavy, heavy pandemic-driven voting by mail; laws in some states allowing mail ballots postmarked by Election Day to be counted afterwards; problems (legal or logistical) many states will have in efficiently processing a glut of mail ballots could produce a much slower count nationally than is normal. But at the same time, a big partisan split in how and when voters choose to vote could produce some herky-jerky results. Democrats fear that Republicans’ preference to vote in person on Election Day will create an ephemeral lead for Donald Trump that he will use to prematurely declare victory.

Americans are accustomed to being told who has won major elections quickly. With the exception of the infamous 2000 contest, we’ve known the winner of every presidential election in this and the last century by the day after Election Day. In the post-1960 era of exit polling and media network competition to “call” races, we usually know much earlier than that, sometimes moments after polls close in enough states where the overall “winner” can claim the necessary 270 electoral votes to be president.

Who “Calls” Elections, Anyway?

We generally think of the authenticators of presidential, congressional, and statewide election results as the major television-broadcast and cable networks (ABC, CBS, NBC, CNN, and Fox) along with independent media services, preeminently the Associated Press, now supplemented by outfits emphasizing speedy results like Decision Desk HQ. All these authorities employ “decision desks” of election wizards, typically locked away in deliberate isolation from their employers and other potential sources of influence, who utilize carefully developed “models” to make projections (or, in the AP’s case, “declarations”) of who will ultimately win each contest. For presidential elections, of course, these “calls” are state by state (and also district by district, in the case of Maine and Nebraska, which let each congressional district cast one electoral vote) to reflect the reality that electoral votes determine the overall winner. None of these worthies will “call” the presidential race until they have “called” enough states to give the winner the requisite 270 electoral votes.

In addition to the “official” arbiters of the results, other media organizations will be collecting data for their own “unofficial” analysis, some of it quite influential, as anyone who associates Election Night 2016 with the infamous New York Times “needle” can tell you.

Anyone, of course, with access to a camera, a microphone, or a social-media account can “announce” an election result, real or imagined, and it is important to keep in mind that what we think of as “official” authenticators of the results are not necessarily authoritative to everyone. Let’s go ahead and look at the “red mirage” scenario, in which Donald Trump claims victory at midnight on November 3 based on sure-to-be-reversed leads in very partial results. It’s extremely unlikely that any of the television networks or the AP would verify such a claim. But whatever Fox News’ official “decision desk” decides to do or not do (and the network has gone out of its way to insist upon its independence), it’s likely that highly influential Fox News pundits would echo Trump’s claims anyway, along with vast armies of social-media warriors and Russian bots.

So it’s possible that “official” and “unofficial” calls of the election will compete for attention, with the unwillingness of the “official” outlets to make pronouncements based on incomplete data perhaps undermining their authority.

How Can You Do Exit Polling in a Year Like This One?

Back in the day, when voting by mail was rare and exceptional, Election Night “calls” depended on models that verified exit-poll data of people who had cast ballots in person with raw votes from key precincts, making quick decisions possible in all but really close races. Since 2004, exit polls have been conducted by Edison Media Research, backed by a consortium of media companies (currently ABC, NBC, CBS, and CNN).

Exit polls have a good recent record of reliability, but there have been serious problems historically. In 2002, the whole system broke down and no exit-poll data was released, and in 2004, exit polls significantly overestimated Democratic voting, leading John Kerry’s staff to prematurely celebrate a victory he never actually won.

The steady growth of voting by mail has been a particular problem for exit-poll-based decision models. That’s one reason the AP and Fox News withdrew from the Edison consortium in 2018, deciding to rely entirely on the preelection polling everyone uses to get a handle on those who vote by mail. With mail ballots spiking this year, and with the partisan skew in voting methodologies, the particular value of exit polls (often used to interpret elections results as well as to project them) may decline further. Often the major media organizations will publish exit-poll findings (not the horse-race numbers but highly suggestive answers to questions other than candidate preference) even before polls close, but this year it may be necessary to take them with a shaker of salt.

Aside from the doubts the pandemic has sowed in the adequacy of exit-poll data, it has affected the mechanics, too. Here’s a description from ABC News of how exit interviews will work this year:

“Some exit polling procedures have been modified this year to help ensure a safe experience for the interviewers and voters. Typically, the exit poll interviewer walks right up to the selected voter and hands them the exit poll questionnaire and a pen. This approach has been modified.

“This year, the interviewer, who will be wearing a mask at all times, will approach the voter from a distance of at least 6 feet. Voters who agree to fill out the exit poll will be directed to a nearby table to get the questionnaire and a single use golf pencil.”

While ABC assures us that “these procedures were tested successfully during the recent primaries,” you do have to wonder if they will affect interview participation patterns in a general election where groups of voters across the country may react differently to the risks involved.

When Is the Presidential Race Likely to Be Called?

Again, the “official” arbiters of election results have, since at least 1980, followed the practice of refraining from any “call” of the presidential election until individual state “calls” have been made awarding one candidate or the other 270 electoral votes. In a highly informative interview with FiveThirtyEight, ABC’s Dan Merkle admits that the virtual certainty of slow counts in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin makes it very unlikely that a winner will be indicated before November 4, if not later.

This is an important point to keep in mind. There has been a lot of talk about results from faster-counting states such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina telling us what we need to know about the ultimate outcome. It’s true that if Joe Biden wins all three on Election Night, the odds of him ultimately winning are prohibitively high. But if Biden hasn’t nailed down 270 electoral votes, he won’t be officially “called” the winner, even if the pundits are all concluding Trump is done.

The time gap between the first “takes” on Election Night on the results and their ultimate authentication is a window for great mischief, particularly on the part of a president who has repeatedly said he cannot lose unless the results are “rigged.” And if the race really is very close, with the results legitimately in doubt, Americans may relive the twilight experience of 2000, when every morning we woke up to wonder if we had dreamed Election Night had never quite ended.

October 28: Trump’s 2020 Strategic Failure

Stepping back from the chaos to look at how the president’s reelection strategy has been implemented, I offered some tentative final thoughts at New York:

[A] week from November 3 and many months into the strangest general-election campaign ever, with both debates over and all the messages sent or set in stone, it’s not too early to make one important judgment: Donald J. Trump has failed to make this contest “about” Biden (or the “socialist Democrat” party), rather than about his own performance as president. To put it in strategic terms, Team Trump’s efforts to turn a “referendum” election into a “choice” election have not only failed but arguably backfired: To the extent that persuadable voters look at the candidates instead of at Trump’s record, the comparison is working against him.

It’s a truism of political science that presidential reelection bids turn on perceptions of the incumbent’s performance above all else. With extremely rare exceptions, presidents with positive job-approval ratings (Reagan in 1984, Clinton in 1996, George W. Bush in 2004, Obama in 2012) get reelected, while those with negative ratings (Carter in 1980, George H.W. Bush in 1992) don’t. Trump’s approval ratings in 2020 (generally in the low-to-mid 40s) haven’t been that far below W.’s in 2004 or Obama’s in 2012, but to an extraordinary extent, Trump’s numbers have been inelastic. So it’s not surprising that in looking forward to 2020 the Trump reelection strategy focused on turning polarization to the candidate’s favor rather than reducing it to broaden his coalition. The idea was to pursue the president’s time-tested divisive themes of cultural and partisan grievances to rev up his base while pressing swing voters to choose between the status quo and a caricature of the opposition.

At the beginning of 2020, it looked as though it could all work out for Trump. The economy was improving steadily enough to boost his job-approval numbers to near their historic ceiling. The failed Democratic drive to remove him from office via impeachment had solidified his base, focused his supporters on vengeance, and contributed to his campaign’s depiction of Democrats as a gang of extremists bent on a coup d’état. The occasionally fractious Democratic presidential nominating contest encouraged Team Trump that it might be able to batten on the opposition party’s divisions, and/or might face a nominee who was vulnerable to “socialism” charges.

But then two things happened almost simultaneously: Biden won the Democratic presidential nomination, and the coronavirus became a pandemic that Trump instantly and irrevocably mishandled. The former development made it more difficult to caricature the opposition party as extremist, while the latter put a firm cap on Trump’s popularity and closed off any alternative strategy.

The trajectory of the campaign has made it clear that Trump’s efforts to demonize Joe Biden and his party have failed. The claim that Biden is senile was essential to the twin charges that he is dangerously incompetent and a puppet of the “radical left” of the Democratic Party (or perhaps the front man for the “communist” and “monster” Kamala Harris). In the two debates, however (the most salient opportunities for comparing the two septuagenarians), Biden was, on balance, the more coherent and self-possessed of the two. And while Trump did score some points in the final debates concerning Biden’s record on criminal-justice reform, the former vice-president easily parried the “socialist” attack line by calmly pointing out that Trump must be confusing his platform with those of the progressive rivals he vanquished.

The major strategic adjustment Trump made since Biden’s nomination has been to depict him as Hillary Clinton Redux, a creature of the same bipartisan Establishment that Trump campaigned against in 2016. A corollary of this dubious effort to regain an outsider position has been the president’s tedious attacks on the looters and murderers of “Democrat cities,” who are apparently itching to cross the invisible barricades erected by Trump to sack and pillage the pristine suburbs. More broadly, the “China virus,” Black Lives Matter activists, antifa “thugs,” and Fake Media traitors are alien forces that have somehow taken control of Great-Again America with only the besieged president willing to rescue her. But as Tim Alberta notes at Politico, this just doesn’t work for an incumbent:

“Four years ago, just a third of the country believed America was on the right track. These conditions were fundamentally advantageous to Trump, a political outsider, whose party had been out of power for eight years. Today, only one-fifth of the country believes America is on the right track. But this time, Trump bears the brunt of the public’s frustration, primarily due to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.”

Had Trump focused his reelection campaign on rebuilding his approval rating via (a) a pivot toward accepting responsibility and articulating a national strategy on COVID-19 and (b) making a credible case that the economy will come roaring back after the pandemic has subsided, not through some forced “reopening,” he might have lifted his approval rating and come closer to victory in a referendum election. At the same time, he might have done a better job of winning a “choice” election had he focused relentlessly on weak points of Biden’s agenda and Biden’s own record rather than trying to force him into an “extremist” template that just doesn’t fit him. A more disciplined and realistic comparative campaign might also have avoided the absurd effort by the most consistently incoherent and mendacious politician in American history to accuse Joe Biden of incoherence and lies.

As it is, the president’s campaign seems to have fallen between two stools: He hasn’t made a convincing case that he deserves a second term, and he has barely laid a glove on Biden. His very slim hopes for reelection now depend on an outsize turnout among the voters who have been with him from the beginning.