Below are some observations in point form. I will have a bigger write up once everything is said and done, but below are preliminary thoughts. I will give more on policy implications later and also Trump’s refusal to concede and make transition smooth.
- Polls were off – Biden won as polls predicted, but Trump clearly outperformed polls. It appears in urban and suburban areas, Biden matched polls but in rural areas did much worse. Likewise in areas with higher number of college degree holders like Colorado, Virginia, and Minnesota polls were fairly accurate but in states with low rates of those with college degrees were way off, often outside margin of error such as Wisconsin. My guess is there was not a shy Trump vote, just those demographics were less likely to respond to pollsters at all thus missed.
- Higher turnout doesn’t always favor Democrats – It is generally said higher turnout should help Democrats as it means more millennials and more minorities are showing up, but this showed that isn’t necessarily true. It is true, those groups did show up in bigger numbers thus why Biden won, but also many rural whites without college degrees who normally don’t vote were energized by Trump and showed up. Lets remember Biden got highest number of raw votes of any presidential candidate, but Trump 2020 was the second highest. So we so both sides bring out people who don’t normally vote.
- Biden got swings he needed amongst whites, but fell short amongst minorities. While Trump won white vote as expected, Biden according to exit polls, and raw data seems to back this, got similar levels of support amongst whites as Obama in 2008. Asian-Americans swung towards Biden while African-Americans Trump did slightly better but with much higher turnout, that was largely a plus for Biden. However, amongst Hispanics, Biden did worse than Clinton. Yes asides Cuban-American community, he won them, but his poorer than expected showing amongst them probably cost him Florida and made Texas less close than many of us thought it would be.
- This was a victory for centre and clear rebuke of left. Many Sanders supporters go on false claim that you need to run an unabashed progressive to excite non-voters to win. This throws cold water on this as Biden outperformed Democrats down ballot suggesting many moderate Republicans wanted Trump gone, but didn’t want your AOC’s, Bernie Sanders, and Elizabeth Warren’s driving the agenda so split ticket.
- Shrinking centre still matters. Yes most Americans are firmly planted on either the right or left and yes types like Lincoln Project are only around 2% of the American population. But that 2% made a crucial difference and had Biden not won over some traditional Republicans repulsed by Trump, he wouldn’t be president elect today. Reality is right and left are both large, but neither is a majority and the small percentage firmly in the middle are the group who decides who forms government and who doesn’t.
- Suburbs delivered big time for Biden. Biden won suburbs by 10 points and that is where most Americans live. In past suburbs have been bellwethers, but it appears this time Biden outperformed in them. Suburbs are still moderate, but Trump’s behavior and attitude was too much and thus they swing away and even some traditional Republican ones voted for Biden including in red states
- Turnout not gained votes helped in urban areas. With Democrats already winning big in urban areas, focus was more on increasing turnout, not increasing vote share and that is what happened.
- Rural areas saved Trump and made election a lot closer than most of us thought. Biden may be president, but he only won 17% of counties (Obama 2012 was 22%, 28% in 2008). Even Mondale in 1984 and Dukakis in 1988 won more rural counties than Biden did. Only areas in Rural America still voting Democrat are counties where tourism is dominant industry, minority-majority counties, New England, have a community college, or most of population commutes into city for work. All the rest not only went for Trump, many were absolute blowouts. In Indiana and Missouri which were super close in 2008, Biden outperformed Obama in the largest metro areas, but did almost 20% worse in rural areas thus why neither state competitive. Most Americans may not live in rural areas, but it is a number’s game and if you run up the margins there, you can make it still very competitive.
- Biden won by gaining third party votes, not Trump 2016 voters. In fact in most states, Trump got a higher share of popular vote than he did in 2016, but third party vote fell quite a bit and most of it broke for Biden. Which kind of makes sense as I think a lot of Never Trump Republicans voted for Johnson in 2016 as weren’t ready to vote Democrat then, but by 2020 crossed over.
- Electoral college is what saves GOP. Democrats won by at least 4 points and maybe as high as 6 points when all ballots counted, but if Trump won all the states Biden won by less than 1% he would be president. In fact Michigan was the only Trump state from 2016 where Biden won by more than 1% although he might in Pennsylvania depending on how final ballots break. On popular vote front, Democrats have now won 7 of the 8 elections in past 30 years so electoral college is one thing keeping GOP competitive. Without it they would have to change to win.
Now looking into states that were seen as competitive here are some thoughts:
- Colorado and Virginia are now solid blue. Quite amazing the transition as were solid red under Bush, swing under Obama, but now solid blue. It may be why some Democrats got their hopes a bit too high in Sun Belt as assumed other states would swing as quickly but have not
- GOP seems stuck at 45% in Minnesota as they have gotten around that in last four elections. As such it seems GOP needs strong third party to win in near future. More importantly, while rural Minnesota has swung hard towards GOP, Minneapolis-St. Paul metro area has swung heavily towards Democrats and the two more or less cancelling out each other.
- Blue Wall states are super close and Obama’s comfortable wins there were anomalies. Whether it be 2000, 2004, 2016 and now 2020, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were all decided by very slim margins. In 2000, 2004 and 2020 it broke for Democrats while in 2016 for Republicans, but its clear these are still key battlegrounds. In fact in Wisconsin, in 4 of the 6 elections this century, the margin between two parties was under 1%
- Sun belt strategy partially paid off with likely narrow wins in Arizona and Georgia however with closeness in Rust Belt and Sun Belt, it shows Democrats need both, not one or another as too easy to fall below in one.
- North Carolina swung hard to Democrats in 2008, but is now stuck in neutral unlike neighboring Virginia so seems it is a true toss up and likely to remain that way
- Florida is still winnable, but in every election since 2000 has voted to right of country so Democrats can still win it, but it is not a tipping point state and if Democrats are winning it, they are already over 270.
- Texas is still trending blue and Democrats will likely flip it someday, but it is not there yet. I always thought Texas was still a few cycles away from flipping. However Democrats should like Trend, GOP +16 in 2012, +9 in 2016, and +6 in 2020. With US being so polarized, expecting it to flip this soon was probably a bridge too far.
- Iowa and Ohio are no longer battlegrounds and likely going the way Missouri is. That is once bellwethers, now solid red. Yes Democrats will still have strong second place showings, but winning those may be a bridge too far. Some thought in 2016 it was due to Clinton being a bad candidate for those states, but midterms and 2020 re-enforce swing in 2016 was not a one off, but a long term trend.