Ask Zompist: What just happened?

You’re probably very busy right now, but would you mind writing a kind of overview of the current election situation, perhaps for the benefit of foreign observers who don’t know that much about US politics, and other people who might be easily impressed by Republican talking points?

–Raphael

As someone pointed out on Twitter, when we look at this in a few years, it’s going to look very simple: at every point this year Joe Biden looked like he was going to win, against a historically incompetent and unpopular president. And he did. And he won by a decisive margin: currently 74 to 70 million votes, and probably by 306 to 232 electoral votes. And thus did the realm of Sauron fall.

Edit: As of the 25th, the margin is now 80 to 74 million votes.

Of course, the devil is in the details, which is why this year has felt like it’s a decade long.

(This post will be a bit rambling, as I am writing for that hypothetical foreign observer, and guessing at what they might find puzzling.)

First, there’s what the pundits call the fundamentals. If you looked from January 2020, you’d have to say: incumbents usually win (6 won, 3 lost from FDR to Obama), and presidents in good economies usually win. The election was Trump’s to lose.

Then there’s the Trump factor itself. Trump has been remarkably, consistently unpopular: since Jan. 2017, his favorability never rose above 46%. But since 2018, it hasn’t fallen below 40% either. Nate Silver’s site has comparisons to past presidents, where you can see that this sort of consistency is rare. Obama’s line is almost as flat, which suggests that both lines are consequences of our new polarization. People stick with their leader because they are terrified of the opposition.

US political parties used to be coalitions, where Republicans had some liberals and Democrats had some conservatives; that made the parties increasingly resemble each other, and made the most effective strategy a fight for the center. Since the mid-1990s the GOP has instead moved far right, and in response the Democrats have moved left, though not nearly as far. Generalizations base on the mixed-coalition era are thus no longer accurate.

Popularity is not voting: Trump got (at current reporting) 47.7% of the vote. We don’t have exit poll analyses yet, but it’s been clear for a long time that Republican voters, even if they have reservations about Trump, will still vote for him. So his unpopularity was a negative, but GOP loyalty in general was a plus. (In 2016 we could hope that there were a bunch of “Never Trumpers” who wouldn’t vote for him. That didn’t happen, and his standing in the party was obviously better this year.)

If there’s any one factor that doomed him, it was his handling of Covid. I don’t mean that it was bad luck that dragged him down. Disasters don’t make leaders unpopular; usually it’s the reverse. George Bush got a huge boost out of 9-11; several leaders, such as NZ’s Jacinda Ardern and South Korea’s Democratic Party, won landslide elections under Covid, when people could see them handling it well. Even Trump got a boost– until April, when his incompetence began to show. He was handed a golden opportunity, and he fucked it up. Letting a quarter of a million people die, creating an economic crisis, and refusing to agree to (continued) emergency measures is not the way to attract the moderates.

Then there’s Biden himself. The Democrats had two ways they could go:

  • Pick someone inspiring, who’d fire up the base and/or the country.
  • Pick someone who just doesn’t mess up the opportunity.

Replaying the 2016 primary is Democrats’ favorite hobby and vice, so let’s just say that Biden is in category 2. Biden has some real virtues, but not many of these had to be put into play: his best move seemed to be to sit there not being Trump and not messing up, and let Trump dig his own grave. Which he did. When he did get attention, during the convention and the debates, he was competent, and compassionate enough to underline the comparison– without really making a strong personal impact. And that was probably fine, especially compared to Hillary, who was widely disliked.

I don’t know if it really matters, but Trump’s campaign didn’t seem to know what to do with Biden. Or with anything really. Trump didn’t talk much about his record (such as it is), nor make any attempt to woo the center. He leaned hard on repressing protesters, which probably backfired as most people sympathized with protests against police racism. He tried to play up Biden as too doddery, which a) makes no sense since the same could be said for him, and b) was exposed as an obvious lie when Biden talked. Trump was reduced to trying to run against Bernie Sanders instead… again, probably not effective with the moderates.

I should emphasize that Trump’s 2016 campaign, for all its chaos, was managed ten times better. He could play outsider, and rile up his own side when he wanted to; and he took enough moderate positions that people of all persuasions could see what they wanted to in him. If he had stuck with his populism, American politics might have looked far different… but he not only governed as a strict conservative, but as a total asshole. His base loved him in both roles, but he was unable to revive his populist side this year.

Biden didn’t do as well as the polls suggested. That’s a big problem for the pollsters, but it also shouldn’t be exaggerated. We don’t know the absolute final results, but they’ll probably make Biden look better than he does right now. It wasn’t the huge blue wave that we would have liked to see. At this point I’d say: take anyone’s explanation of that with a truckload of salt, especially if the pundit opines that Biden would obviously have done better if he had followed the pundit’s favorite policies.

So, the GOP turned to Plan B, which was voter suppression. They knew their policies were unpopular, so the plan was to obstruct the vote as much as possible. This put them in the position of purposely insisting on in-person voting, with its risks of spreading a deadly disease… but they were already in death cult mode; what did they care so long as they won? There were other shenanigans, like removing voting stations in big cities to make it harder to vote.

Next on the agenda was kneecapping the post office, starting in the summer. We don’t know the extent of the damage, except that the mail immediately got slower, and many post offices removed their sorting machines. The big question is perhaps, did they think no one would notice, in an organization that employs half a million people? People did notice, there were Congressional hearings, and the commissioner promised to stop interfering. It’s not clear how much this was a factor… but now that we have the results, it seems clear it just didn’t work. (Though in my household, we made sure to turn in our ballots at the village hall.)

All this was worrisome, but as a coup attempt, a little lame. First problem: elections here are run by the states, not by the President. That meant that blue states couldn’t be corrupted. Second problem: the obvious interference only made Democrats more determined to vote. Turnout is higher than ever this year, and that really paid off in places like Georgia. Third problem: playing tricks is evidently something rank-and-file GOP officials will do; but outright lawbreaking by election officials and judges, not so much. Almost all of them tried to run the election properly.

Foreign readers might wonder, why did it take several days to declare the winner, and why did Pennsylvania flip? Basically: one more bit of Republican games-playing. The state legislature forbid mail-in votes from being counted before the election, as they are in many states. This was obviously done in the hopes that Trump would “obviously win” on Tuesday night, and that counting mail-in votes would somehow look suspicious.

The problem with that “plan”: there was really no point where Trump had “obviously won”. I just scrolled through CNN’s entire election blog, and Biden was ahead in electoral votes at every point, starting from 8:15 p.m. election night. By the next day, he was already a mere 17 votes shy of winning, and he was pretty clearly going to win enough of the outstanding states. So all the Pennsylvania GOP succeeded in doing was in prolonging the process for everyone.

Plan C was to hope for litigation. In particular, the GOP geared up for a repeat of 2000. Trump openly entertained fantasies of the Supreme Court handing him the election, and of course McConnell obliged by fast-tracking Amy Barrett’s nomination. The problem for the GOP is that no Florida 2000 situation recurred. As a reminder, Bush led Gore in the count in that state, by 537 votes, and Florida’s electoral votes alone would decide the election. The Court really only had to freeze the count in place rather than throwing out votes. That’s a pretty narrow scenario, and it didn’t repeat.

Trump is supposedly going to file a bunch of lawsuits. But the ones he already filed went nowhere, and there’s not really a major state that he could likely flip. There are some close states, but recounts and finagling over individual ballots have historically affected a few hundred votes, not the tens of thousands that would be needed to flip (say) Pennsylvania. Trump’s hope that somehow all mail-in ballots could be thrown out is almost certainly going to be laughed out of court even by Republican judges.

The thing is, stealing an election gets harder the longer you wait. The GOP’s best best was to steal it ahead of time by suppressing the vote. That didn’t work. Hoping for Florida 2000 again was not even a plan. Now that there’s an actual vote which Biden solidly won, stealing the election would require throwing out votes already cast, on the scale of tens of thousands of votes. That’s pretty unprecedented in this country. On Dec. 14, the Electoral College meets, and you really can’t reverse the EC vote without getting into hard coup territory– the kind that comes with guns and civil war.

Can Trump do something to somehow steal the election now? Well, you can never count a Sith Lord out entirely. But at this point it seems clear that all he has left is temper tantrums. He was squealing “STOP THE COUNT”… and the count didn’t stop. When even Fox News declares Biden the winner, it’s almost certainly over. We need to pass a few more milestones, of course, but the Trump team’s strategies haven’t worked so far, and if their last trick is “open coup attempt”, the smart money is that it’ll fail.

Trump has refused to concede… but this has no legal meaning. He doesn’t get to decide whether to accept the results, and he’d do well to avoid the indignity of being tossed out by the Secret Service. Again, his intransigence is going to look even more ridiculous after the Electoral College vote. There are already reports that advisors or powerful GOP figures are telling him– as nicely as they can, undoubtedly– to stand down.

Finally, for those foreign observers and not a few domestic ones: the Senate is not yet decided, and that affects whether Biden can pass his legislative agenda. It’s 48-48 right now, but the GOP is ahead in two of the remaining states. Note that a 50-50 Senate would be Democrat-controlled, since the Vice President is the tiebreaker. The last two seats are both in Georgia– and those are both close enough that a runoff election will need to be held in January. So we actually won’t know what happens in the Senate till then.