Election 2020 has been quite a ride. That is something both sides can all probably agree on — but that may be the only thing.
While Joe Biden calls for unity, the country remains divided as the postelection positioning continues, and with it, the divisions that have characterized the political environment since 2016.
But when the dust settles, I believe this election will be summed up in one short sentence.
Biden may have won the presidency, but his party lost the election.
It is essential that every political candidate have the right to question the outcome of an election. We saw it in 2000 when Al Gore asked and got time to ensure that every legal vote was counted in a fair and transparent fashion.
President Donald Trump should get the same opportunity, but it’s important to look at elections in the context of our justice system. The way I see it, elections are presumed “innocent until proven guilty.” Without that presumption, the very underpinnings of our democratic system are put at risk. The opportunity to contest an election is the right of every candidate, but the onus is on the losing campaign to deliver the evidence and prove its case.
No blue wave
In many ways, the 2020 election has already delivered its verdict. Simply put, the blue wave that was predicted never happened, and while it may not have technically been a red wave, it was certainly a “red surprise” with unexpected Republican strength driving key victories at every level.
In the end, there was “no joy in Mudville” for a party that expected a clean sweep. There was no mandate for Biden or the Democratic leadership on the Hill, nor for the Democratic Party and its policies. The top issue in this election was the economy, as it usually is, but this year, it was complicated by the impact of the coronavirus.
In the exit polls (which are not final), voters favored Trump and the Republicans to handle the economy. But for 1 in 4 voters, the candidates’ personalities were more important to their decision than policies. Biden won those voters 64 percent to 31 percent. Among the remaining 3 out of 4 voters who said a candidate’s policy positions on issues were more important, Trump won 53 percent to 47 percent, which explains, in part, why Biden was unable to translate his potential win to down-ballot races.
Yes, Biden, unlike Hillary Clinton, appears to have won the popular vote outside California, just as Barack Obama, George W. Bush and Bill Clinton did. Though the race ended up being much closer than most expected, what is now about a 4-point Biden lead is definitive. But the divisions within the Democratic Party that first became evident in 2016 now seem to be deepening further, if not shattering party leaders’ hopes for a unified front going up against a strengthened GOP on Capitol Hill.
It isn’t every day that a Democratic congresswoman tells her colleagues, “If we are classifying Tuesday as a success from a congressional standpoint, we will get [expletive] torn apart in 2022. That’s the reality.” Even more astounding was the response from one of her freshman colleagues, who shot back that Democratic leadership prefers to “focus on the suburbs and former Republican voters rather than working-class communities of color.”
Moderate Democrats in the House are blaming progressives for extreme messaging and likewise, progressives, led by the “squad,” blame the losses on their leaders who failed, they say, to take the party further left. With such a small majority and such division, Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s leadership is clearly at risk along with Democrats’ ability to govern the House. Instead of unity, we’re likely to see two years of traditional Democratic elites battling more moderate working-class Democrats for the soul of the party in Congress and in the streets.
Meanwhile, that will leave Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy — two leaders people thought would find themselves in the position of defending a big loss — in the catbird seat. Democrats had great expectations for a sweeping blue victory that would give them the presidency, control of the Senate and more seats in the House. Many analysts were predicting Democrats would pick up 10-18 new seats.
Instead, Republicans are looking at a likely gain of at least 10 seats in the House and with just one runoff win in Georgia, the GOP would retain its control of the Senate legislative process.
Beating the polls
The polls, especially those conducted by the media, consistently showed a big advantage for Democrats, both nationally and in state surveys, especially those tracking the fate of several key Republican Senate incumbents.
For Democratic donors, 2020 must feel a little like a bait-and-switch scheme. Polls showing tight Senate races in places like Kentucky, Maine and South Carolina were trumpeted by Democratic campaigns and the media, polls that couldn’t have been more wrong. South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham’s opponent raised more than $100 million as poll after poll showed the race neck and neck. Graham won by 10 points.
Democrats poured millions into the effort to defeat Sen. Susan Collins in Maine. She beat her opponent by 9 points and did it by winning 19 percent of the people who voted for Biden.
Three factors gave Republicans the win at the congressional and state legislative level: an edge with voters on issues that mattered to them, the quality of the GOP candidates and the country’s shift away from the Democratic Party brand, which we see in the exit polls.
While all the tallying isn’t complete, it appears Democrats will win the party self-identification margin by only 1 point this year. That’s down from a 3-point lead in 2016 and way down from what media polls have claimed all year, which might explain why their polls were wrong; in some cases, very wrong.
I think it’s fair to say that nobody expected there would be the disconnect we’re seeing between the presidential outcome and the down-ticket races because historically that’s not what happens. It’s never good to lose the presidency, and it’s clear the GOP still has challenges. To build majority coalitions in coming elections, Republicans need to do better with female voters and independents and capitalize on the gains made this year with minority voters.
But the red surprise has given Republicans, even those disappointed in the presidential race, a reason to cheer. Their policies won the day. The quality of their candidates won the races, especially in the Senate and House.
David Winston is the president of The Winston Group and a longtime adviser to congressional Republicans. He previously served as the director of planning for Speaker Newt Gingrich. He advises Fortune 100 companies, foundations, and nonprofit organizations on strategic planning and public policy issues, and is an election analyst for CBS News.