We’ve finally made it to the end of the Election Tuesdays blog series! Thank you to everyone who has been following along. Your support of this silly project really meant a lot to me. I hope you learned a thing or two throughout the series, too! Luckily for you, I don’t plan on this being my last post ever…
Alright, for anyone living under a rock, waking from a coma, or returning from a deserted island — it’s time to learn about the 2020 election!
The Last Four Years
We all just lived it! Like Obama, President Trump’s approval rating was highly affected by polarization. His percentage stayed in the low-to-mid 40s for the majority of his term. After all of his radical rhetoric during the campaign, Trump essentially governed like a typical Republican most of the time, with the added feature of spouting controversial statements on Twitter every few days to own the libs and send the media into a tizzy. His administration was staffed with a mix of Republican regulars, wealthy businessmen, outright extremists, and… his family. It was clear from his Inauguration Day that his acrimonious relationship with the media would continue. Political analysis quickly devolved into a dick-measuring contest over his crowd size versus Obama’s. The following day, the nationwide Women’s March became in the largest single-day turnout for a protest in American history. Trump wasted no time pushing the limits of his authority. In his first week, he signed an executive order to halt the US refugee program for 120 days and to ban travel to the US from several majority-Muslim countries for 90 days, leaving many travelers stranded at airports. The Muslim ban was immediately met with legal challenges, though a large portion of Trump’s order was later upheld by the Supreme Court. Many of Trump’s actions were intended to stick a middle finger to Obama, liberals, and the international community. He withdrew the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Paris Climate Accords, and the Iran Nuclear Deal. Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was replaced, not by Merrick Garland, but by conservative Neil Gorsuch. But not all of these efforts went according to plan. One of the most important items on the Republican agenda was to repeal Obamacare. That effort failed when Arizona Senator John McCain (fittingly, Obama’s 2008 rival) broke party lines and voted to save the law. Similarly, Trump’s attempt to terminate Obama’s DACA program became tied up in legal battles, eventually ending in the Supreme Court. At the end of 2018, stalled negotiations over funding for the border wall led to the longest government shutdown in US history. The resulting compromise provided significantly less funding than Trump wanted, forcing him to secure funding under the guise of a national emergency.
Another category of Trump’s actions simply showed that he is a uniquely terrible president. The list of offensive things he has said (or tweeted) includes telling “The Squad” (all POC congresswomen) to “go back and help fix the totally broken and crime infested places from which they came;” calling African nations “shithole countries” and arguing that the US should get more immigrants from white, Nordic countries instead; and asserting that there were “very fine people on both sides” of the Neo-Nazi rally in Charlottesville that resulted in the death of one counter-protester. He infamously instituted a no tolerance policy of separating undocumented immigrants from their children, placing a large number of children in cages. His hesitation to send aid to Puerto Rico after Hurricane Maria cost lives. He routinely put the US in danger of war, specifically with North Korea. In response to increased aggression from Kim Jong-un, he threatened “fire and fury” in a tweet. Later, he and the dictator became close friends. In the Middle East, he carelessly ordered the assassination of Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, backed the Saudi Arabian government after their murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, and abandoned Kurdish allies in Syria by withdrawing and allowing for a Turkish invasion.
Of course, Trump also faced several scandals throughout his term. After the announcement of an investigation into Russia’s role in the 2016 election, and its ties to the Trump campaign, Trump fired FBI Director James Comey. Ironically, Trump cited Comey’s mishandling of Hillary Clinton’s email scandals as reasoning for his termination. This only prompted increased interest in the accusations, resulting in a special counsel led by former FBI Director Robert Mueller. In 2019, Mueller presented his findings to Attorney General William Barr, who publicly announced that there was no evidence of collusion. In reality, a redacted version of the report showed that Mueller found ten instances of possible obstruction of justice by Trump, but did not recommend indictment on the belief that a sitting president president should not be charged. The report specifically stated that it did not clear the President of wrongdoing. Later that year, another scandal began when Trump seemingly pressured the Ukrainian President to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden’s son in exchange for $400 million in recently-blocked aid. A subsequent whistleblower complaint led to two articles of impeachment by the House of Representatives — one for abuse of power, and one for obstruction of Congress. A few months later, the Senate voted to acquit the President. The sole Republican member to break party lines was Utah Senator (and 2012 candidate) Mitt Romney.
And then there’s 2020. I regard this year as the year all of the warnings about Trump really came to fruition. For most of Trump’s term, one could argue that most (white, male) Americans’ lives were unchanged by the constant political drama on the news and social media. This year, however, Trump has impeded the response to several major crises. First, the obvious. Trump has constantly denied the realities of Covid-19. His only real action was to ban travel from China… after the virus was already here. Sure, no one could have predicted the pandemic, and many, many countries have fumbled their responses too, but Trump’s impulse to sow doubt about scientific information is inexcusable. Yes, it is important to open the economy back up, but to do that, you need mask mandates, frequent testing, contract tracing, and federal guidelines. Trump is the epitome of the conservative belief that the government simply shouldn’t do things to solve problems. Over 200,000 people are dead, and counting. Other highlights from this year include tear-gassing protesters in order to create a photo-op in front of a church, denial of climate change during the worst wildfires in California’s history, and pushing through Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett, despite the vacancy’s closeness to the presidential election.
Frankly, Democrats have struggled to keep up with the constant barrage of Trump controversies. More often than not, their attempts to point out his failures have given the public the impression that “both sides are bad.” They successfully regained control of the House in the 2018 midterms by focusing on popular issues like preserving Obamacare, rather than discussing Trump directly. In 2020, almost every issue leads back to Covid-19. It has been easy to draw contrast between Trump’s handling of the crisis, and that of “typical” presidents. Trump, in the wake of the George Floyd protests, has attempted to run a dog-whistle “law and order” campaign, much like Richard Nixon in 1968. Of course, that strategy worked best when the other party was in power. Like in 2016, Trump has deflected accusations of misconduct by searching for equally damning scandals of his opponents.
Despite his contentious nature, President Trump and Vice President Mike Pence did not face any serious primary challengers. The two most serious attempts came from former Massachusetts Governor (and 2016 Libertarian running mate) Bill Weld and former Illinois Representative Joe Walsh. Neither received significant support. Notably, the Republican Party did not release a new platform for 2020. They simply copied the 2016 version, which mostly complained about the policies of President Obama. A critic of the Republican Party might say this proves that they stand for nothing outside of their cult-like following of Trump.
For the first time in twelve years, there was no clear favorite for the Democratic nomination. After a divisive 2016 primary between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the party was fractured on how best to defeat Trump. The party fielded the most candidates ever with 29, destroying the Republicans’ 2016 record of 17. The candidates could be divided into three categories. The moderate, establishment wing of the party was represented by former Vice President Joe Biden (who sat out 2016 due to the recent death of his son, Beau), Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar, and former New York Mayor (and billionaire media-mogul) Michael Bloomberg. The progressive left candidates were led by Vermont Senator (and 2016 runner-up) Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. Many more candidates attempted to split the ideological difference. This lane included South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, California Senator Kamala Harris, New Jersey Senator Corey Booker, and former Texas Representative Beto O’Rourke. The most notable outsider was businessman Andrew Yang, who promoted the forward-thinking policy of universal basic income. The ensuing series of debates often focused on health care policy as a way to draw out contrasts between the candidates. Moderates preferred to simply expand Obamacare, while the left argued for Medicare for All.
Vice President Biden was the polling leader for most of 2019. Senator Warren had a brief surge of support in the fall, but suffered when she became the scapegoat for criticism against the left. Meanwhile, Senator Sanders, recovering from a heart attack, channeled sympathy into renewed support. The exceptionally large field was reduced to eleven candidates by the time of the Iowa Caucus. The first voting state was the source of controversy when technical difficulties delayed the final results for three days, which threatened the momentum of several candidates. Mayor Buttigieg was eventually declared the delegate winner, though it was later revealed that Sanders won the most votes. Sanders proved his strength by dominating the next two states, New Hampshire and Nevada. Many remaining candidates, like Buttigieg, shifted right in their messaging to become the moderate alternative to Sanders, while the establishment panicked. Biden, Klobuchar, and Buttigieg subsequently split the moderate vote. Biden, specifically, struggled in the first three states. Just before South Carolina, however, he received an important endorsement from Representative Jim Clyburn. Biden earned a decisive victory in the state. The party establishment convinced Klobuchar and Buttigieg to drop out (even Obama got involved!) just days before Super Tuesday. Meanwhile, Warren stayed in the race, hoping she had the best chance to become the alternative to the old men. Biden dominated Super Tuesday and went on to win the nomination. Sanders was the last candidate to concede to Biden, doing so on April 8. Much like Trump in 2016, Biden had always been the clear frontrunner in a wide field of candidates, but wasn’t taken seriously by the media and many voters due to his frequent gaffes. Turns out, he was mostly impervious to such criticism and moderate Baby Boomers stuck with him. He was the safe choice for many voters, who repeatedly cited “electability” as their main concern throughout the primaries. For his running mate, Biden selected Senator Kamala Harris. She attracted young voters, brought diversity to the ticket, and boasted a liberal voting record. She is the fourth woman on a major party ticket, the second African American, and the first Asian American.
The 2020 campaign was obviously different due to Covid-19. Biden mostly participated in small, pandemic-safe gatherings. Trump, on the other hand, boasted his usual crowds, with few precautions taken. Covid cases subsequently increased in the areas that hosted Trump rallies, which is estimated to have contributed to hundreds of deaths. Trump, his administration, and his campaign continue to pretend Covid-19 has disappeared, when in fact, the US is seeing some of its worst numbers yet.
Biden played this campaign safe. He stuck to promoting popular policies, welcomed comparisons of leadership style, and let Trump hog the news. Supporters largely emphasized his tendency to simply be a nice guy.
For the most part, Trump struggled to find an effective message during this campaign. Multiple times, his campaign has used the illogical slogan “Make America Great Again… Again.” He often argued that he built the greatest economy in US history, though that point was mostly moot under the pandemic. His antagonistic style didn’t translate quite as well as the sitting president. It was clear that he would rather have campaigned against Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders. Republicans warned that Biden, if elected, would be beholden to the left. But it’s not clear that many Americans bought that narrative. Like it or not, Biden was specifically selected in order to prevent the left from taking the reins of the Democratic Party. He did not endorse Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, or defunding the police. Honestly, the moderate strategy proved effective — Biden was nearly impervious to such attacks from Trump. He’s just not that scary! At various times (including in the last week, in an effort to re-create the Comey Letter effect), the Trump campaign attempted to unearth additional scandals against Biden’s family, though again, it’s unclear that these attacks caught on the way they did against Clinton, and were likely part of Russian disinformation campaigns.
The presidential debates put the two candidates’ personalities on full display. In the first, Trump interrupted so incessantly that he essentially broke the entire debate format. Biden was barely able to speak. Between the first and second debates, Trump (as well as dozens of Republican leaders and White House staffers) tested positive for Covid-19 and was even admitted to the hospital. He refused to debate remotely despite the fact that he HAD COVID. Instead, the candidates held separate televised townhalls. In the “third” debate, Trump earned praise from the media simply for speaking calmly and following the debate rules. Through all of these appearances, Biden’s performance remained adequate. His most effective moments came when he spoke directly to the camera, addressing the public as a composed leader.
Due to Covid-19, there has been a dramatic increase in the number of mail-in ballots. Republicans have directly attempted to undermine the election by calling into question the validity of this method of voting, which has been used by millions of voters (including Trump himself!) over several elections. To be perfectly clear, there has never been any indication of mass mail-in voter fraud in the US. Conservatives have threatened voting rights in many states by restricting the rules around mail-in ballots, and other pandemic-safe voting methods. Likewise, Trump and other Republicans have clearly stated their intention to rely on the courts to win the election. Any uncertainty on Election Day will be used to their advantage.
So, what about those polls? According to FiveThirtyEight, Biden has about a 90% chance of winning, to Trump’s 10%. Biden’s lead is larger, and has been more stable, than Clinton’s was in 2016. There are fewer undecided voters, fewer third party voters, and more people voting early. Trump needs a bigger polling error than he got in 2016 to win. THAT BEING SAID, Trump could obviously still win. Would you drink a glass of water if I told you there was a 10% chance that it had been poisoned? If the results of just one or two battleground states fall into toss-up territory, Trump’s chances increase dramatically.
Day? Week? Month?
The results of this election may not be known on Election Night. Due to complications from Covid-19 and the high number of mail-in ballots, votes may take a long time to count. If the night goes as planned, one early bellwether will be Florida. If Biden earns a clear victory there, Trump will have a much more difficult path to victory. Another pivotal state is Pennsylvania. Even though Biden currently has the polling lead, this state has been much closer than similar 2016-upset states. A polling error there could indicate continued errors in Trump’s favor across the Midwest. If a Biden landslide becomes possible, fun states to watch will be Georgia and Texas.
What Will It Say About America?
I have some serious issues with Biden. The fact that the dominant political motivator right now seems to be “let’s go back to the way things were four years ago” really, really bothers me. I think he represents a lot of the worst parts of the Democratic Party. Specifically, one of his worst instincts is that he still seems to hold the old-school belief that Congressional Republicans would be willing to work with him as president. That is not something they have been willing to do during the last two Democratic presidencies. That being said, Biden’s strengths are simple ones – kindness and understanding. One of the most telling moments of the primary was when he arrived at the New York Times offices for an interview and made his biggest impression, not on the panel of opinion writers, but on a security guard in the elevator. The tragic losses of his wife, daughter, and son have made him an incredibly empathetic person, something that has been severely lacking in the public consciousness for a long time. Does that mean Biden will be a great president? Of course not. But, as you may have learned throughout this blog series, sometimes elections are about deciding whose vision of America voters want to follow. After a decade increasingly negative news coverage, Americans have a chance to choose kindness.
Will It Be The Right Decision?
Check back later!