Election night 2020 started with a bang: President Donald Trump and down-ballot Republicans blowing through poll-based projections of Florida. It ended with a whimper as America’s news devotees realized we were going to have to go to bed without clear information about the outcome.
But over the course of Wednesday, it became clear that despite the fireworks in quick-counting Florida, Trump was coming up short, including in Arizona, in the quirky Omaha-based House seat that has its own electoral vote — and, most of all, in the states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania that he flipped in 2016.
The real letdown for Democrats was not Biden, but down-ballot candidates. Many grassroots Democrats got fired up about Senate races that turned into blowouts, and what they’d hoped to be a night of securing five to 15 House seats turned out to be a night where a raft of Democratic incumbents faced defeat. Trump and Trumpism were rejected, but progressives don’t even really have the opportunity to argue about the scope of their mandate — the fact is they just aren’t going to have the seats to enact any of their boldest ideas.
But Trump, the figure who has dominated America’s political attention for the last four years, ever since he descended the escalator in Trump Tower to launch what was seen as a stunt campaign, is no longer in power.
Here’s who won and who lost.
Fundamentally, when you win the presidential election, you are a winner. Historians will someday look back on the 2020 campaign and decide it was very boring — Biden led the polls virtually every day of the primary and literally every day of the general election, and then he won.
Those of us who lived through it know better. Biden’s candidacy experienced a near collapse in the early primaries, and then battled its way through a pandemic, mass protests, and many twists and turns related to the timing of the vote-counting process on the way to victory.
Biden won. And even though the outcomes down the ballot have disappointed progressives, it’s not entirely obvious that that disappointment disappoints Biden. His central promise was always to “restore the soul of America” and extirpate the stain of Trump. Throughout the campaign, he did end up outlining a fairly sweeping policy agenda, but he did not talk about it extensively, and the degree of his personal emotional investment in it is questionable. Attempting to navigate the congressional politics that await is going to be extraordinarily tricky. But being essentially forced to sit down and cut deals with Mitch McConnell rather than attempt to lead a highly partisan norm-busting wave of structural change seems to better suit his personal temperament.
Whether Biden’s actual presidency will be a success remains to be seen, but his candidacy absolutely was.
Loser: Democratic small donors
The 2020 campaign saw an unprecedented wave of small-donor money pouring into Democratic coffers, often through the ActBlue digital platform.
ActBlue is great as a product, so great Republicans have gotten kind of fixated on it as a boogeyman. But the real reason it drives so much money is that Democrats got hyper-engaged and were extremely eager to finance campaigns.
The problem was, it didn’t work. Democrats ended up spending tens of millions of dollars on Senate challengers who didn’t even come close to winning.
• SC: Jaime Harrison raises $109m — loses by ~11 points— Axios (@axios) November 4, 2020
• KY: Amy McGrath raises $90m — loses by ~20 points
• ME: Sara Gideon raises $70m — loses by ~9 points
• TX: MJ Hegar raises $24m — loses by ~10 pointshttps://t.co/ZxAD7ThMMd
One of those challengers, Amy McGrath, was running a campaign that never made much sense. But others, at least at certain moments, appeared to have real shots at victory.
The waste of money is a shame on its own terms. But the interplay between viral internet fundraising and losing Senate campaigns also raises a broader question. Democrats’ big problem in the upper house of Congress is that the map is tilted severely against residents of big diverse metro areas. To win a majority, Democrats need candidates who can find ways to run and win in states that are much more conservative than the national median. But can candidates like that compete in the fundraising race with less promising candidates who adopt a more donor-friendly posture?
Winner: Congressional Republicans
Few House Republicans, essentially no Senate Republicans, and nobody in GOP congressional leadership actually wanted Donald Trump at the top of the ticket in 2016.
And the four and a half years since he won the nomination turned into an emotional and political roller coaster. At several moments, it looked as though Trump and his antics were going to sink the whole party. But the congressional GOP was almost uniformly unwilling to actually do anything about Trump, Trump’s outbursts, Trump’s corruption, and Trump’s abuses of power. Democrats hoped they would get their final comeuppance on Election Day and be taught a much-deserved lesson.
But it didn’t happen. Congressional Republicans escape from the Trump years with a tax cut, a stocked federal judiciary, an absolute stranglehold on the Supreme Court, and almost certainly a majority in the US Senate. They did lose the House in 2018 and didn’t win it back in 2020, but Democrats’ majority is now slim. And Republicans will dominate the redistricting process next year, setting themselves up nicely to make a big run at the majority in 2022.
Republicans who tell you they are secretly relieved that Trump lost are lying. The fact is, their strategy for navigating the Trump era worked out well for them, for all its shady tactics.
Winner: Poll workers
There were huge fears about the actual administration of the 2020 election, given the pandemic and communities’ normal reliance on older people to do much of this work.
But a big push to expand mail voting and early voting, the establishment of new polling places, and a drive to recruit new poll workers seems to have gone well. The election went off more or less without a hitch, even as turnout hit record highs. And since Republicans basically did fine with an expanded electorate, perhaps in the future they’ll be less concerned about the idea of trying to make it safe and convenient to vote and just see it as a nice service to offer citizens.
Loser: Blue Texas
For years, Democrats dreamed of turning Texas blue by mobilizing the notoriously low turnout population of the heavily Latino counties of the Rio Grande Valley. In recent years, the dream switched to one powered by growing Democratic clout in the booming suburbs of Dallas and Houston.
The goal wasn’t even necessarily for Biden to win the state (though they did want to win it) but to at least compete robustly enough to flip one or two or three House seats, and maybe take control of the state House of delegates and thus get a seat at the table in redistricting. None of it worked.
Trump’s 6-point win in Texas was the smallest of any Republican in years, and as urban Texas keeps growing, Democrats will keep competing. But Democrats missed all their targets, which means Republicans will get to redraw the maps next year and make it even harder for Democrats to win. Perhaps most embarrassingly, Trump actually flipped a bunch of those heavily Hispanic counties while making what appeared to be significant inroads with Texas Latinos.
This phenomenon has been less discussed than Democrats’ weakness with Hispanic voters in Miami-Dade County in Florida, but is in some ways an even worse portent for the party because it can’t be linked to eccentric foreign policy views. The Texas opportunity remains tantalizingly close, and the state is simply so large that you have to figure Democrats will take more bites at the apple. But to do it, they need to find ways to make gains in both booming suburbs and low-income South Texas counties, and so far they’re finding that circle hard to square.
Loser: Martha McSally
Between 1988 and 2018, Democrats won zero Senate elections in Arizona.
Since then they’ve won two, and both times against Martha McSally. Having secured the nomination to try to succeed Jeff Flake two years ago and fallen short in the face of that year’s blue wave, Mitch McConnell then persuaded the state’s governor to appoint her to fill the vacancy opened up by John McCain’s death. Once in office, even though she’d just lost the election for this seat, she proceeded to do nothing to establish an image for independent thought or action.
The national political climate got a little better for Republicans in 2020 but not really a lot better. And up against a formidable contender in former astronaut Mark Kelly, she lost by a larger margin the second time.
Loser: The polls
Before Election Day, I looked long and hard at the polls and the models and came away with the happy news for Democrats that Biden would likely win the election even if there was a really big polling error. It’s hard to know exactly what went wrong with the polls until we count all the votes, but early election calls indicate something was awry.
National polling averages showed Biden up by 8 or more points. Ultimately, it looks like Biden will win nationally by about 4 or 5 points, but possibly as much as 6. This means those final national polls were off by a bit, which happens.
Polls miss by about 3 points in an average year. That's what they missed by in 2016 and I think that's where we'll end up with this year, too, once all votes are counted. Biden's going to win the popular vote by 4 or 5 points most likely, maybe 6. https://t.co/u4LxOEnt9C— Nate Silver (@NateSilver538) November 5, 2020
But the state polling in many critical races appears just really, really bad. In the FiveThirtyEight polling average:
- Biden was up by 8 in Wisconsin, where he in fact won in a squeaker.
- He led by 2.5 points in Florida, which he ended up losing by roughly as large a margin.
- Trump led in Iowa by just 1 point, but ended up winning by about 7 or 8 points.
- Ohio was considered a dead heat, but Trump ended up winning by 7 or 8 points there, too.
These polls were often bad in the exact same places where it had gone awry in 2016 and where errors were only partially corrected in 2018.
More than anything else, this created an emotionally deflating couple of days for Democrats, who, instead of being excited by Biden’s win, were disappointed that he didn’t win by as much as they’d been expecting.
Indeed, the Biden campaign spent the last couple of weeks of the campaign assuring voters that they did not have gigantic leads across the Upper Midwest. It would be comforting to think that meant they had super-accurate private polling. But even though my reporting indicates that Senate Democrats’ private polling was more accurate than the public polling, it still wasn’t very accurate. And by all accounts, both sides in the House races thought Democrats would be on offense rather than defense.
Declining response rates are making it very hard to do accurate polling, and the struggles are starting to be visible. The most accurate pollsters, like Iowa’s Ann Selzer, build their polls atop a great depth of local knowledge. But that only underscores how poorly the survey methodologies are working, since in principle the whole point of a statistical public opinion survey is to find out what people think without having any strong prior view of it.
In the wake of all this, it’s fashionable to say journalists should pay less attention to polls and complicated data analysis and just go talk to people. But without any reliable statistical information about broad trends, it’s hard to contextualize people’s stories or understand their significance. We are simply flying blind to a greater extent than is comfortable.