The definitive Democratic “blue wave” that pollsters predicted would sweep the US 2020 elections never arrived on Tuesday night and whoever wins the White House race inherits a deeply divided nation still bruised with the wounds of the past four years.
America’s “most important election ever” is over and while it’s still too early to say whether President Donald Trump or his challenger, Joe Biden, will take the oath of office in January 2021, one thing is clear: the pollsters once again got it wrong.
The Democratic “blue wave” or Biden sweep that pollsters and pundits forecast in the lead-up to the November 3 vote did not materialise. The tight race and long results period ridden with legal challenges and threats underscores how well the Republicans read the national tea leaves in a teacup Trump himself stirred. Biden’s message of unity and tolerance failed to sway the overwhelming majority of American voters as the pollsters predicted.
“Something has gone wrong, either the polls overestimated the Biden vote or the shy Trump voters are not just shy, they’re not telling the truth, creating expectations for the Democrats,” said Robert Singh, a US politics expert at Birkbeck, University of London, in an interview with FRANCE 24.
No matter who wins the White House, for Democrats, the election morning-after was a bitter pill to swallow. “So, Biden squeaks to a win but the Republicans keep control of the Senate and increase their seats in the House. The Supreme Court stays tilted to the extreme right, plus federal judges. Trump supporters are convinced Biden won through fraud. A grim four years ahead,” noted Mira Kamdar, an author and former New York Times editorial board member, on Twitter.
It’s not the pandemic
The unexpectedly tight 2020 race has revealed the extent of the polarisation within the US, embodied by the two presidential candidates and the messages they chose to highlight on the campaign trail.
The Biden team calculated the coronavirus pandemic was the most important campaign issue for reasons that have been obvious to much of the world. Covid-19 has killed more than 232,000 Americans, with the US leading the world in infections and death rates per capita. The shambolic US response to the pandemic has exposed the healthcare failures of a superpower in decline, a tortuous process watched in dismay by America’s allies and with glee by its competitors, such as China.
But early exit poll surveys showed the economy, not the health crisis, was the single-biggest factor influencing votes in the 2020 US election. An Edison Research exit poll conducted for major US TV networks found only two out of 10 voters picked the pandemic as the most important issue. The economy rated as the most important issue for one-third of voters polled, including six out of 10 Trump supporters.
Racial equality came next in the list of voter concerns, with 21 percent of surveyed voters marking it as their top concern. Covid-19 ranked third, with 18 percent of respondents saying the health crisis mattered most in their voting decision.
“It’s astounding after all we’ve been through this year,” noted Singh. “America is in such a hyper-partisan, polarised state that Trump supporters don’t seem to be so concerned about the coronavirus pandemic.”
It’s the economy, stupid
“It’s the economy, stupid” has been a mantra since Bill Clinton’s successful 1992 campaign, a cliché that has been adopted, adapted and mangled in American culture for all sorts of purposes.
But James Carville – Clinton’s campaign manager who is credited with coining the slogan as a reminder to team members to stick to message – was one of many pundits who got the 2020 race wrong.
In an interview with MSNBC last month, Carville confidently predicted that Biden would sweep the election by 10.30pm ET on Election Night. “Not only are we going to know election night, we’re going to know at 10:30 Eastern,” said the man fondly known as the “Ragin’ Cajun”.
The fact that Carville got his timeline so wrong and undervalued the wisdom of his own mantra underscores the disconnect between the mood of the pundits and the public in the USA today.
By making the pandemic its central campaign issue, Democrats calculated that it would highlight Trump’s failures with the economy.
But Trump supporters proved willing to consider the president’s economic track record before the pandemic, that he consistently dismissed, struck.
“Prior to the pandemic, the economy was doing good, how much credit he [Trump] should get for that, that’s a very good question. He was continuing the growth we had seen in the Obama-Biden administration, but people go with where they are and the basic fact was the economy continued to grow, the unemployment rate fell, so a lot of the people had been doing pretty well prior to the pandemic,” explained Dean Baker from the Washington, D.C.-based Center for Economic and Policy Research in an interview with FRANCE 24.
The ‘blue wave’ to drown the ‘red mirage’
The Democratic candidate’s platform included a $3 trillion coronavirus relief proposal and more $1,200 stimulus checks “should conditions require”. But Biden, according to some experts, failed to present his platform to the American people with the panache that a panacea for an era’s malady merits. In other words, Biden failed to inject the key ingredient that his boss, Barack Obama, embodied on the 2008 campaign: Hope.
The much-anticipated “blue wave” did not wash across the electorate because, among other reasons, it was based on “the idea of a very, very large mobilisation of anti-Trump sentiment, not so much an adhesion to Joe Biden,” explained Philip Golub, political science professor at the American University of Paris.
“Joe Biden was a weak candidate, he was not present," Golub explained. "He maintained a low profile, since the assumption the Democrats made was that this would make Trump’s faults stand out. But it made Biden appear invisible. When he did go to the public, he didn’t have a charismatic personality or platform. Even if he wins the election, it will be by a much smaller margin than expected.”
Given the complicated, decentralised US electoral system – further disrupted by the pandemic – pundits foresaw a “red mirage” of early Trump wins. But they were certain the red hue would disappear under a rapid, powerful “blue wave” to the White House and Congress.
By Wednesday afternoon, Biden had taken the lead in some of the key battleground states while the Senate and House races were locked in a dead heat between Republicans and Democrats.
But even if Biden wins, he will inherit a bitterly fractured nation with an opposition prone to breaking the rules to stymie policy initiatives.
“The fact is, Biden’s message of healing America, of working across the aisle, does not work when the other side wants war – not an armed war, a political war,” said Golub. “Obama tried to work with the Republicans, the Republicans tried to bite and cut his hand off. The idea of reconciliation doesn’t work when the country is so fractured, these are just words that do not have any purchase on social reality. That requires charismatic leadership, the ability to pick up a historical situation that you, as a leader, can provide a solution. Biden doesn’t incarnate much of that.”