Five takes on Elections 2020

With the election in the rear-view mirror, Joe Biden headed to the White House, and Trump back to Mar-a-Lago, it’s time to take stock.

(Featured image credit: Flickr user DonkeyHotey)

1. Midterms Matter

John Fetterman on 2020 Election, Legalizing Weed, GOP Voter Fraud Lies -  Rolling Stone
John Fetterman, PA’s Lt. Governor (Creator: Matt Rourke. Credit: AP)

A confession: before 2018, I did not take midterms seriously.

Turnout statistics show that I was not unique among Democrats. In 2010, happy that we had Obama in the White House, Democrats relaxed right through the midterms, and didn’t turn out to vote. Meanwhile, fired up by the Tea Party and angry townhalls centering on Obamacare, Republicans brigaded the polls and won Congress, and state houses all over the country.

2010 threw its long shadow over the 2020 election. It was a redistricting year. Republicans gerrymandered districts all over and gained a lock on PA, WI, and MI state houses—the blue wall.

The 2010 midterms is why our wait over PA’s counting was so agonizing. Republican state legislatures disallowed starting the count early; and in WI, disallowed late arriving ballots. The late calls gave Trump an opening to declare victory on election night. He will not succeed, but it was a clear attempt at faking out the news media and stealing the election.

Biden might have won more easily, and earlier—if Democrats had bothered to turn out in 2010.

Elections have consequences. They cast a long shadow.

The Blue Wave in 2018 rescued 2020, on the other hand. We weren’t able to dislodge state legislatures in the Rust Belt states, but won back governorships, attorneys general, and secretaries of state in several swing states, including WI, MI, PA, and the Secretary of State in AZ.

These officials are protecting the count now. An incredibly important step the Democratic Attorney General in PA took during the count is to segregate late-arriving mail ballots from other mail ballots—to undercut any court challenges to invalidate all of them. PA’s Democratic Lt. Governor John Fetterman, also elected in 2018, repeated stressed, on Twitter and on television appearances, that math didn’t care about Trump’s lawsuits.

2. Changing demographics will not save Democrats

Visualization of red/blue swing in 2020 compared with 2016. Source: G. Elliot Morris, the Economist

It’s safe to say now that since 2016, we have seen a movement of Latinos towards Trump, in some subgroups more than others; and that most of us are still in a state of utter befuddlement about it.

As an example, Zapata County in TX broke for Trump by 5%, after having gone for Clinton by 30% in 2016, powered by Latinos switching to Trump. This pattern played out to greater or lesser degrees all over the country: seen most clearly in the red southern tips of Texas and Florida in the image above. Puts a bit of a damper on the “demographics is destiny” plan for a Democratic majority, doesn’t it?

So what happened? Perhaps as immigrant groups get assimilated, they lose racial consciousness and start to think like Whites—and are subject to the same pressures as Whites are, whether it is desire for lower taxes and better jobs, or fear of socialism or unconstrained immigration.

Florida’s Miami-Dade county has a high proportion of Cubans who fled from Castro in Cuba, and Venezuelans disenchanted with Maduro’s policies. There, the Republican attempt to raise fears about Democrats being socialists worked, pushing them towards Trump.

But the shift towards Trump occured in other ethnicities as well. Ultimately, it is patronizing to see all Latinos as a single race, and imagine that they are all poor, brown, and more-or-less single-issue immigration voters.

To give Trump credit, he reached out to Latinos on the economy and traditionalist values, while Democrats slept on the job, expecting Trump’s obvious racism to do the work. But if Latinos don’t vote with a sense of unified racial consciousness, there is no reason that Trump’s demagoguery of caravans from Guatamala would be taken personally by a Mexian-American small business owner in Texas. Indeed, a substantial chunk of Latinos skew conservative, and anywhere from a quarter to 40% of them have voted Republican during most Presidential elections. In that sense, the 28% of Latinos that voted for Trump in 2016, and the 32% in 2020, is fairly typical.

The one group that Trump has had enduring appeal for is the working class. This appears to go across racial lines: like the White working class, Latino working class might have seen Trump as a strong leader, a businessman who “gets” the economy. The Democratic message favoring lock-downs in order to deal with Covid-19 made some fearful that while Trump had bungled the response, at least there would be food on the table if everything didn’t shut down.

Just like whites, Latinos were also heavily influenced by disinformation and Trump-friendly conspiracy theories—such as QAnon—that spread over Facebook and WhatsApp. Activists noticed in the months leading up to the election that respondents in focus groups were bringing up Soros and Deep State conspiracy theories, that vittled their trust in Democrats, even among solidly Democratic groups. DNC member David Atkins, who also writes for the Washington Monthly, often heard “Democrats are pedophiles” responses from his Spanish-language text-banking targets—a QAnon spotting in the wild.

Without more research, one cannot discount the huge, demographic-shifting role disinformation might have played in this election.

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3. Trump appeals to Gullible-Americans

Some of us were shocked that Trump won more votes in 2020 than in 2016—after four years of corruption and incompetence. He won well over 70 million votes.

The most level-headed punditry on Election Day came from my teenager. Despite the enormous toll of the pandemic; the corruption; the cruelty; the incompetence, she said, “some people just decide they like a person, and they stick with them.”

For no one is this truer than for Trump. Rarely have we ever seen a politician as fueled by sheer personality worship as Trump is. Millions have fallen in love with his charisma, and the mogul image created by the Apprentice. His brashness makes them think he is successful, and his clowning at rallies makes them believe he has things under control.

Entire cults have been built around the Trump Train—with signifiers like MAGA hats, the red-white-blue clothes, and banners with Trump memes showing his face spliced on to Rocky Balboa bodies. Even as I write, a Million MAGA March has gathered in DC.

Their adoration of Trump is impervious to the news. All bad news is someone else’s fault and all good news is driven by Trump.

This is not a politically sophisticated group. At best, they distrust all sources of professional news; at worst, they understand the world through forwards of emails of uncertain provenance, and links to fly-by-night, propaganda websites spread by Facebook. Since they don’t follow the meat of politics, all debates on real issues reduce down to theater.

As a lifelong conman, Trump understands his appeal to the gullible better than anyone else. “I love the poorly educated,” he said after he won in 2016. This year’s election results show that education polarization worsened—with Trump’s party bettering their margins with the “poorly educated”.

These Gullible-Americans, almost by definition, are susceptible to propaganda. Millions have fallen under the spell of QAnon—the conspiracy theory that Trump is a superhero fighting the pedophilic Deep State Democrats from the inside. Others subscribe to Soros-as-puppetmaster and New World Order anti-Semitic tropes. Aside from providing electoral juice, these cultists expect mass arrests of figures like Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Comey to be announced any minute, even in these last few waning weeks of the Trump administration.

4. A Yuuuuge Victory

Joe Biden eats ice cream, wears sunglasses, flashes cash for most Joe Biden  pic ever

It is not easy to defeat an incumbent President. For four years, they are given every chance to burnish their brand as the most dominant player in American politics. Reporters from around the world hang on their every word. Statements are treated like religious artifacts, with high priests on cable decoding what each might mean.

In fact, it has only happened three other times in the last century: when George H. W. Bush was defeated by Bill Clinton in 1992, Jimmy Carter was defeated by Ronald Reagan in 1980, and Herbert Hoover was defeated by Franklin Roosevelt in 1932.

But even among incumbent defeats, Trump’s defeat was historic. Joe Biden’s share of the national popular vote is 50.9%, which is larger than Bill Clinton’s and Reagan’s, and only falls short of FDR’s 57%.

In both the 1992 (Clinton) and 1980 (Reagan) elections, the challenger was helped by the presence of a third party candidate who drew votes from the incumbent. In 1992, Ross Perot drew a whopping 19% of the vote, primarily from Bush, since he was to Bush’s right. While in 1980, John Anderson drew more than 6% of the vote, primarily from Carter, since his base consisted of liberals and college students, who would normally have gone to Carter.

The 2020 elections, in contrast, had no such buzzy third party candidate. The closest was the Libertarian Party’s Jo Jorgensen, who appears to have drawn a little over 1%. The other buzzy candidate, Kanye West, turned out to be more buzz than candidate.

Both losing incumbents in 1980 and 1992 also faced strong primary challenges, which is unusual for incumbent Presidents, and shows real dissatisfaction within the base. George HW Bush faced Pat Buchanan, and Jimmy Carter faced Ted Kennedy. Trump of course, might have even faced primary challenges—there certainly were plenty of dissatisfied Republicans—but RNC’s successful quashing of internal dissent funnelled all such NeverTrump Republican vote over to Joe Biden. Joe Walsh and Bill Weld, the would-be primary challengers to Trump, were never permitted to test their strength.

5. There is no Trumpism without Trump

Ivana Trump Releasing New Book 'Raising Trump' About Children Ivanka, Eric  and Donald Jr. |

Pundits say Trumpism will outlast Trump.

That might well be true—as regards the base’s preference for a norm-breaking, conspiratorial, red-meat politician, and their divorce from mainstream media. But I don’t see another Trump on the horizon.

Trump has some remarkable gifts. He is charismatic and clowns on stage. He had a decades-long informercial, the Apprentice, that burnished his image as a smart, successful, and get this—pragmatic businessman. He lies without shame. He has the reality-defining gifts of a cult-leader.

None of his would-be successors even come close. His adult children all lack charisma. Tom Cotton comes across more as an apparatchik than a cult personality. Ted Cruz is, umm, dislikeable. Neither Nikki Haley nor Marco Rubio seem like they would raise MAGA blood. Tucker Carlson raises MAGA blood, but he doesn’t have Trump’s happy-warrior insult-comic manner, which I believe contributed hugely to his success.

Obviously, another such personality may come around in 2024, including a Trump rematch. But with Trump’s defeat in 2020, we felled a particularly looming demon.

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