“Those who cannot remember the past are condemned
to repeat it.”
—George Santayana, The Life of Reason
Despite a nearly unanimous chorus of opinion polls predicting a massive victory for Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden, President Donald Trump mounted a spirited fightback, highlighting a deep divide between a rural America and an urban America, a deeply religious America and a worldly America, an angry America and a kinder America — a Trump America and a Never-Trump America.
For four years the Democrats refused to believe that Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 was real. He could not be their president. If the young had just voted. If the Russians had not interfered. If people just had not hated Hillary Clinton so much. If everyone had only realised who Trump was, the belief went, they would have resoundingly rejected him and his style. They counted the hours until the day Trump would know that this would be the day he was kicked out.
The Democrats looked at the opinion polls and thought of a Biden landslide. There would be control of the senate and an expanded majority in the house of representatives. The Democratic strategy was to get maximum people to vote under the theory that the more the people voted, the more they would repudiate Trump and Trumpism. They took Hispanics and African Americans for granted. Surprisingly, the Democrats also had the money advantage. Trump had blown a billion dollars in early (and questionable) campaign expenditures, so he was short of cash. Biden held a $100 million plus advantage.
Moreover, the election took place amid Trump’s questionable approach to the Covid-19 pandemic. Early voters showed an unheard-of passion for voting, standing in lines for as long as 11 hours. Surely they were out there to oust Trump. The day before the election, the average of opinion polls by RealClearPolitics showed Biden up by 4.3 per cent.
Historically, Americans do not turn out in big numbers for elections. But by early afternoon on November 3, many states had already surpassed previous turnouts. The first hint of the zeitgeist that would ultimately rule the election came with a report of first exit polls, at 6pm eastern time, indicating that 48 per cent of Americans believed Trump’s effort to contain the pandemic was going well. A few minutes later, reports from Indiana, Vice President Mike Pence’s home state, showed that Trump was matching the percentages of the rural vote he had four years ago. It was an early hint that Biden’s “blue tsunami” might not be coming after all.
At 7pm, the evening’s first projection gave Indiana to Trump. The slam-dunk states reported at 8pm: Massachusetts, Maryland, Delaware and the District of Columbia were quickly added to the Biden column. Trump took Oklahoma and Tennessee, while New Jersey was called for Biden.
But at 8:15pm Democrats’ nemesis Mitch McConnell, the senate majority leader, won in Kentucky against a very well-funded opponent. It dashed Democrats’ hopes. There was no blue wave in 2020.
Eight minutes later, West Virginia went to Trump and Connecticut to Biden, no surprises there. The pattern was becoming clear. The night was largely a reiteration of 2016, parties keeping their bastions, with only a few votes flipping the key battlegrounds. Florida, where the Democrats expected a quick win, was in trouble. The Latino vote — beaten down by Trump’s successful branding of Biden as a “socialist who would turn America into Cuba or Venezuela” that resonated with the heavy Cuban population — showed a significant turn to Trump, giving him Florida and its 29 electoral votes.
A similar pattern was evident in Texas as well. Latinos in the Rio Grande valley turned to Trump in numbers that are hard to explain, despite the heavy efforts of former presidential candidate Beto O’Rourke and a last-minute visit by Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris. The search for meaning there will likely be the source of study and analysis for months and years to come.
Trump, however, ran into trouble in Arizona. His disparaging comments about Mexican Americans who form a significant proportion of the state’s population, the growing Democratic population in Phoenix and its suburbs, his reluctance to campaign hard in the state and his continued vilification of Arizona’s favourite son, senator John McCain, even after his death seem to have hurt his chances. Trump also failed to match his performance in the rust belt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, which he wrested from the Democrats in 2016.
Weighing in on the uncertain nature of the race, Biden addressed his supporters shortly after midnight. “We feel good,” he told them. “Be vigilant and wait for votes to be counted.”
Trump would show no such restraint. As the tide started turning against him with the counting of mail-in ballots in critical battlegrounds, he started peddling conspiracy theories. Speaking from the East Room of the White House, he said what was happening was a fraud on the American public. “This is an embarrassment to our country. We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win.”
Despite millions of ballots still to be counted, Trump said he would go to the supreme court. “We want all voting to stop. We don’t want them to find any ballots at four o’clock in the morning and add them to the list. To me, this is a very sad moment and we will win this. And as far as I’m concerned, we already have won it.”
Pennsylvania Governor Tom Wolf responded that his state was going to ensure that every vote counted. “Pennsylvania will have a free and fair election and that election will be free of outside influences.”
Although Trump led initially in Wisconsin and Michigan, Biden came back on the strength of mail-in votes and won both on November 4. The Trump campaign has demanded a recount in Wisconsin and has mounted multiple legal challenges in Michigan.
With results from Georgia, North Carolina, Nevada, Arizona and Pennsylvania taking a very long time to come in because of the surge in mail-in ballots, complicated counting laws and the close nature of the race, a clear picture has not emerged even days after the polls were closed. But with Biden making steady progress in a majority of these states, the Trump campaign has threatened more lawsuits.
At 6:30pm on November 5, Trump made a public address, saying state election officials were plotting to steal the election from him. “If you count the legal votes, I easily win. If you count the illegal votes, they can try to steal the election from us,” he said. But he does not seem to be getting much support from his own party. McConnell said it was not the federal government’s business how states conducted elections. ‘What we are going to see in the next few days… is each state will ultimately get to a final outcome.”
The Democrats, meanwhile, were hoping that Trump’s perceived unpopularity would let them take back the senate and consolidate the hold on the house of representatives. But they managed to flip only two senate seats—in Colorado and Arizona—and lost one in Alabama. They failed to dislodge even vulnerable Republicans like Susan Collins (Maine), Joni Ernst (Iowa) and Steve Daines (Montana), and fell short of the numbers needed to win the senate.
Their hopes now rest on the two races in Georgia, which might go to a runoff scheduled for January 5. If the Democrats manage to win both seats, there will be a 50-50 tie, and if Biden wins the presidency, Kamala Harris, as vice president, will preside over the senate with a casting vote. Biden will be much less effective as president if Republicans keep the senate because McConnell is unlikely to give him much leeway in legislative agenda and crucial nominations.
The house of representatives was an even bigger embarrassment for the Democrats as they lost a few seats, bringing down their majority and raising questions about Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s continued leadership.
The 2020 election was a unique global event because the entire world cares so deeply about the future of the United States and its engagement with the rest of the world. The planet has never seen anything like it before, people from across the world hanging on to the results, with a choice of two vastly different visions on how to order national and international affairs. And when it came, the result was a nation divided. The legal and political challenges have already begun, bitter battles will be fought for every contested vote and the final outcome could well be decided by the courts even if the electoral college throws up a winner.
Whoever is declared the final victor, it will be along very nary margins. If Trump wins, he will have not gained any converts from the Democratic camp. If Biden wins, Trump is certain to claim the election was stolen and continue to divide the nation. He may even announce that he will be running in 2024.
And the rest of the world will have no choice but to adapt to the new reality.