Voters fired a president who showed no interest in trying to contain the coronavirus—but they kept his party on the job
In the end, Donald Trump got what he wanted most: An election that was all about him. Despite warning signs that voters in states across the country had grown weary of him, the president deployed his showman's instincts to try to persuade just enough of them that his vision of America was the real one.
The nation Trump conjured up in rallies and speeches, campaign ads and tweets, was one in which the coronavirus was disappearing; the economy was roaring back; Black and Hispanic Americans had never had it so good; suburban women cherished his protection; his enemies feared him; and Americans were clamoring for four more years.
Voters didn't buy it. Former Vice President Joe Biden's victory made clear what, in hindsight, should have been apparent all along: For most of them, Donald Trump's America was not the one they saw -- or wanted.
Even so, voters did not issue the broad rebuke against Trump and his party that Democrats hoped for. Rather, they delivered a narrower one aimed mainly at the president himself. On election night, Republicans unexpectedly increased their ranks in the House of Representatives (although Democrats will still control the chamber) and appear poised to hold onto the Senate (unless Democrats win two expected runoff elections in Georgia), which will leave the congressional power structure unchanged.
In essence, US voters decided to replace their CEO but keep the board of directors intact.
That outcome mirrors the dilemma that Sarah Longwell, a Republican strategist who worked this year to elect Biden and Democrats, saw in dozens of focus groups she conducted with suburban women across the country. "The sentiment that we saw again and again with these voters was, 'I don't think I can vote for Trump again…but I don't trust Democrats, either,'" Longwell said.
Trump never had the support of most Americans. He lost the popular vote in 2016. His approval rating never topped 50%. On his signature issues of trade and immigration, public opinion moved firmly against him. Although he inspired undying passion among a vocal minority of fierce supporters, the election showed that feelings about Trump ran deepest in those who despised him.
With more than 236,000 Americans dead from a coronavirus pandemic that's still claiming 1,000 lives a day, virus-weary voters ultimately turned against a president who showed little willingness to confront the deadly crisis. In the end, the cultural battle that Trump shaped his campaign around succumbed to nationwide fears of the pandemic he couldn't control and tried to ignore.
"Covid changed everything about this election," said Lynn Vavreck, a professor of political science at the University of California, Los Angeles. "It's delusional to think that 2020 was about anything else."
Biden and California Senator Kamala Harris were the clear beneficiaries of the public's fear and frustration, as Trump's job performance eclipsed all other issues. In 2008, during the Great Recession, Gallup found that 86% of Americans cited the economy as "the nation's most important problem." Today, amid an even deeper recession, only 9% share that sentiment, whereas 50% say poor government leadership and the coronavirus are the most important problems.
Biden prevailed in part because of the sharp contrast he presented to Trump, both in his personal style and in his perceived capacity to govern. During his 47-year career in public life, Biden earned a profile as a plainspoken moderate who inspired loyalty in Black Americans due partly to serving as Barack Obama's vice president. Unlike Hillary Clinton, the party's 2016 nominee, Biden also has a generally favorable image among working-class White voters, whose defection from Democrats four years ago put Trump in the White House.
The verdict against Trump extended from Main Street to Wall Street. Before the virus took hold, polls showed voters trusted Trump more than Biden to manage the economy. By Election Day, that lead had vanished. His signature economic achievement, the 2017 tax reform, benefited wealthy individuals and companies more than middle-class households and was never broadly popular.
Exhaustion with the president's trade wars and disappointment over his failure to secure additional stimulus in the weeks before the election also turned many on Wall Street against him: Biden out-raised Trump $74 million to $18 million among employees in the securities and investment industry, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Part of Biden's appeal for investors was his robust Covid stimulus proposal, which an analysis by the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School said would deliver $5.4 trillion in new spending over the next decade. While Biden's plan would likely require a Democratic Senate to become law, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky indicated willingness to pass a more modest package.
"Hopefully the partisan passions that prevented us from doing another rescue package will subside with the election," McConnell said Wednesday. "I think we need to do it before the end of the year."
Although Trump labored to paint Biden as a "radical" or a socialist tool of the Democratic left wing, the caricature fell flat as it didn't match his public record. Rather than hinder his appeal, Biden's government service registered as a plus with many voters. The president's attacks on doctors and scientists, and his public flaunting of protective measures that may have resulted in his own Covid infection, made the particulars of Biden's sometimes-lackluster campaign all but irrelevant.
"Joe Biden has taught a master class in allowing your opponent to self-destruct," said David Wasserman, an analyst at the nonpartisan Cook Political Report.
While voters' comfort level with Biden's moderate image helped him win the White House, it didn't translate to Democratic gains in Congress. Going into the election, public forecasters believed Democrats were poised to take over the Senate and strengthen their control of the House, expanding the "blue wave" that swept through suburban districts across the country two years ago.
It wasn't to be. Republicans not only held onto House and Senate seats Democrats thought they would win in Texas, Maine and elsewhere, but regained seats in Alabama, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Florida. With Republicans favored to maintain control of the Senate, that would all but foreclose Biden's path to enacting an ambitious agenda, including a tax hike on high earners and sweeping changes to environmental laws.
The severe polarization Trump drove in the electorate was especially pronounced among women. In 2016, Clinton, the Democratic nominee, carried women voters by 14 points, a gender gap that polls show grew to 25 points by Election Day. This year, defections by blue-collar women, over-represented in the Midwest states like Michigan and Wisconsin that Trump couldn't hold, were especially costly to him.
Biden also benefited from a sharp swing among seniors -- the most reliable voters -- who favored Trump by 9 points in the last election but abandoned him en masse as the Covid pandemic intensified during the fall.
Despite the broad shift against him, Trump made gains with a handful of voter groups. He deepened his support with rural Whites, while also improving his margins among Black and Hispanic men. That helped power his strong showings in Florida and Texas. But it wasn't enough to save him in places like Michigan and Wisconsin, where the Hispanic population is sparse and his support among rural non-college Whites couldn't compensate for the erosion he suffered elsewhere.
From the outset, Trump set the stage for his own demise. He made little effort to expand his coalition, despite owing his victory to 77,000 voters in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. He failed to deliver the border wall, infrastructure program and Rust Belt renaissance he'd campaigned on, then declined to make a serious effort to secure new relief measures after Covid plunged the economy into the worst recession since World War II and government support ran out in July.
Instead, Trump spent the last year indulging conspiracy theories and plunging ahead with divisive policies. When racial-justice protesters filled the streets in the wake of George Floyd's death, Trump's heavy-handed response and deployment of federal law enforcement officers to clear protesters from Lafayette Square for his Bible-wielding photo op further soured public opinion.
Longwell, the strategist who ran focus groups with suburban women, said the president's reaction to Black men killed by police turned many of them decisively against him.
"The racial strife in the country they find heart-sickening," said Longwell, "even more so than Covid or the economic fallout."
Although he lost, Trump's divisive approach to governing has changed US politics in ways that will be felt far into the future. In the past, a decisive election outcome has sometimes set off a broad political realignment, where one party gains an enduring advantage over the other. This election leaves behind a messier political landscape, one where the two parties' core supporters have sharply diverged along lines of gender, education and geography, but in a way that doesn't convey an obvious, lasting advantage for the Democrats -- and in fact reduced their ranks in the House.
Trump's deep support among rural voters, especially among White men without a college degree, appears to have blunted Democrats' efforts to win back the Senate, which gives outsize power to rural voters in sparsely populated states. While many Republican leaders privately hope Trump's grip on the party will weaken now that he's lost, a fervent loyalty to the president is what binds Republican voters.
The flip side is the stampede to the Democratic Party by urban and suburban voters of all races over the last three elections. Trump's collapse following his 2016 victory was driven by the intense opposition he inspires in White, college-educated suburban voters. Republicans hoping to regain the White House in four years must figure out how to win them back.
Of course, to do that, they also must take into account why suburban voters fled the Republican Party. One of Trump's signal political failures was his fundamental misunderstanding of these voters and how to sway them. His appeals to suburban "housewives" frightened of gang violence and anxious about falling property values due to an influx of Black transplants from the city was built upon false tropes decades out of date.
"The classic view was that cities voted Democratic, while suburbs voted Republican," says William Frey, a demographer at the Brookings Institution and author of "Diversity Explosion: How New Racial Demographics Are Remaking America." "But that's changed a lot because the demography of the suburbs has changed a lot, becoming much more diverse and more like the rest of America."
Those changes are happening fastest, Frey notes, in rapidly growing suburbs like those around Phoenix and Dallas, where the declining share of white voters is especially pronounced.
The Republican debate over why Trump lost and how the party should respond will preoccupy GOP leaders in the year ahead. "When Democrats lost four years ago, the dominant interpretation they took away was, 'Don't nominate a woman,'" said David Hopkins, a professor of political science at Boston College. "With Trump, I think the question will become: Was it a personal disaster particular to the candidate? Or will the interpretation be that Trump was a martyr to the left -- destroyed by the media, the deep state, the phony mail-in ballots, China, and so on -- and the lesson is to fight even harder and go further than he did."
Even with Trump's loss, however, persuading his voters that their party should move in a new direction will not be easy. Trump's refusal to concede to Biden and his efforts to block the vote count in multiple states are a clear sign that he has no plans to gracefully bow out of Republican politics -- and may even run again.
"They are trying obviously to commit fraud," Trump baselessly claimed of Democrats on Thursday. "We'll not allow the corruption to steal such an important election."
Therein lies the GOP's existential dilemma. To move ahead, Republicans leaders will ultimately have to decide whether to remain true to Trump and his supporters, or try to do what voters just did -- send him packing.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.