The 2020 US election is still undecided, with neither candidate yet securing the 270 Electoral College votes needed to secure the presidency. It looks like Biden is inching towards victory after razor-thin wins in hotly contested Michigan and Wisconsin and potentially flipping Arizona, but several states remain too close to call. The Trump campaign has already filed lawsuits in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Georgia, gearing up to contest the result.
More Americans voted in this election than ever before, but no matter the result, the blue wave that Democrats hoped for did not come to fruition.
While our eyes have been glued to the electoral vagaries of the presidential race and deciphering the results and implications of this unprecedented election, we should not forget about what is happening in Congressional races. While the Democrats have retained control of the House of Representatives, Republicans have made important gains there. Moreover, while control of the US Senate officially remains undecided, current results suggest Republicans could maintain their control there.
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In other words, even with a Biden win, Republicans defied expectations. Trump performed much better than polls and most pundits predicted, and some of the hardest-fought Senate and House races just didn’t deliver for Democrats. In a time of COVID-19, economic woes, and charged political divisions, how are the Republicans managing to hang on, even if by a thread?
Trumpism is still popular
There is no denying that Donald Trump has changed the Republican party, and even if he loses this election, he isn’t going anywhere. He and his following are a huge political force in America.
Trump has won at least 68 million votes as of the current tally. He won the crucial swing state of Florida by a greater margin than in 2016, in part, by increasing his support among Cuban-Americans, and many of the undecided races are a question of a few thousand votes.
In the last few days before the election, Trump rallied his base with a blitz of 17 rallies held across Pennsylvania, Minnesota, Michigan, Iowa, North Carolina, Georgia, and Florida. His closing arguments were dripping with conspiracy theories about doctors inflating the number of COVID-19 deaths for monetary gain, threats to fire the nation’s leading infectious disease expert Dr Anthony Fauci, and attacks on Fox News host Laura Ingraham for wearing a mask. In the final days of the election, the name of the game is less about persuasion and more about voter turnout, and this strategy of galvanising his base seems to have worked.
Moreover, many of us assumed that the record-shattering turnout would be the key to a blue wave. This also proved to be untrue. For sure, high turnout and mail-in voting look likely to secure the White House for Democrats, but it did not translate into bigger wins in the Senate or the House.
In fact, data on voter registration in key states like Florida, Pennsylvania, and North Carolina showed that more people were registering as Republican than Democrat. It is unclear how big an impact this may have had, after all, both North Carolina and Pennsylvania are still undecided, but Trump’s comfortable win in Florida might suggest that the surge in Republican voter registration was key to blocking the Democrat’s blue wave.
It’s the economy, stupid
One of the constants throughout the election cycle, even with the COVID-19 pandemic and economic recession, has been the perception among voters that Trump is better for the economy. Survey data showed that voters tended to trust Trump more than Biden on handling the economy. More voters viewed the economy favourably before the COVID-19 pandemic, and many did not see the economic fallout from the virus as Trump’s fault.
Trump’s strategy throughout the year, and especially in the final days, was to emphasise the pre-COVID economy, stock market gains, and low unemployment. He raised the spectre of socialism, communism, and the radical left as a threat to economic recovery. He blamed the coronavirus pandemic on China and shirked his responsibility for managing this public health crisis. His approval ratings, while low (around 44 percent on October 31), were not as low as might have been expected given the rising COVID-19 death rate and an onslaught of other problems, and their stability has been particularly notable.
A conservative agenda is still popular
Many voters pick Donald Trump based on one or two policy issues that matter to them. Often, this means they choose him because he focuses on key conservative priorities. This includes promoting second-amendment gun rights and anti-abortion-rights legislation; appointing conservative judges who will support this agenda at all levels of the federal judiciary, and opposing gay marriage and curbing LGBTQIA rights.
In many ways, Trump has kept his promises to the Republican party, most notably through the appointment of conservative federal judges. The confirmation hearings for Trump’s third Supreme Court nominee, Justice Amy Coney Barrett, just before the election could have mobilised his base even further.
Republicans suppress minority voters
The Republican party, and Donald Trump in particular, uses white supremacy and racism to stoke fear and foment the flames of division. Beyond COVID-19, American life was shaken this year by political and social divisions over police violence, institutional racism, and white supremacy. Trump, notably, did not condemn white supremacy in his first presidential debate performance because a significant proportion of his supporters embrace this ideology.
Another huge element of this election that we will need to pay close attention to in the coming days is the impact of voter suppression. Democrats seek to increase turnout and minority voting, while the Republican party systematically aims to suppress minority voters because it often hurts their chances of electoral victory. This electoral strategy of institutional racism is a major reason why Republicans continue to win elections.
In 2013, the Supreme Court struck down a key part of the Voting Rights Act, a pivotal piece of legislation passed in 1965 to protect against de facto suppression of African American voting, and in the several years since, Republicans have lobbied for and enacted measures to weaken the voting power of minorities, through legislating stricter voter ID laws, restricting early voting, and closing down polling places – all of which make it harder for all Americans to vote, but which disproportionately impact minority voters.
In spite of this, record turnout is likely to have won the White House for Democrats, but we should be closely studying the impact of voter suppression tactics in the key swing states that remain contested.
Trump may be on his way out, but Trumpism is here to stay
Much is still unknown about the results of the US election. The presidency and control over the US Senate still hang in the balance. But one thing is already clear: Even if Biden goes on to win the presidency, Donald Trump and the Republicans defied expectations – and proved, yet again, that we shouldn’t believe polling.
A decisive repudiation of Trumpism and the Republican Party did not materialise in the way many of us hoped.
The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.