Five early takeaways from the US election

The US elections have not been called yet, but there are important conclusions to make on the Biden campaign, turnout and Trump’s political future.

Demonstrators march down Fifth Avenue to advocate for the counting of all votes on November 4, 2020, in New York [AP/Frank Franklin II]

The United States has had a nail-biting election, which almost 24 hours after the first polling stations closed, is yet to produce a conclusive result. At the time of writing, there are still close races in the key states of North Carolina, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Georgia, Nevada, and Arizona.

Every vote needs to be counted and each state must independently certify their election results before any outcome is official, and even then there may still be legal battles and recounts depending on the margins.

But we still know enough to make several immediate conclusions about this election and the future of US politics.

Polling was wrong… again

As polls began to close in state after state on the East Coast last night, election watchers had a déjà vu from four years ago, when Donald Trump defeated Hillary Clinton. Then, despite a clear and consistent advantage in the pre-election polls at both the national and state level, forecast after forecast was significantly off.

In advance of election day, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden was consistently projected to win the national popular vote, as well as the vast majority of state electoral votes based on the averages of countless state-by-state polls, many of which he was winning by double-digits. Despite this, once again, Americans watched these projections turn out to be significantly inaccurate.

Following the 2016 election pollsters were put under great scrutiny and coming into this election, they frequently reassured the public that their methods, metrics and models were improved so as to avoid the same mistakes. Clearly, that did not happen.

It is hard to tell exactly what was off this time and several polls were indeed suspect. A number of polls would show Biden ahead by eight points (52 percent to 44 percent, for example) without examining where the remaining 4 percent went. So what happened? It is hard to tell, but what we do know about this election, for example, is that third-party candidates played a far less significant role than they did in 2016.

This election was a referendum on Trump and the vast, vast majority of voters cast their ballot for one of the two main party candidates to resolve the question of whether or not Trump should have a second term. So, it seems that those undeclared voters in the polls even in the very last days before the election decided to vote for Trump or had been intending to do so all along, but did not report their intentions to pollsters.

Polling is an extremely complex science that has been undoubtedly refined through endless practice in the American democratic experiment. However, at the same time, the US has a big population whose information seeking habits and opinion formation is also increasingly complex. With two elections now in an information environment dominated by the internet and social media resulting in huge misses by the polling industry, one has to wonder whether it is even possible to reliably poll and forecast a national general election in the country any more.

This treacherous reality means that the political strategy of candidates might well be misinformed with little indication that that is the case until it is too late.

Democrats need to do some soul-searching

While the inaccuracy of the polls probably made most Americans anxious, for Democrats, the lack of outright victory for Biden must have come as a shock for several reasons.

In the autopsy of Clinton’s 2016 campaign, the narrative promoted by the Democratic party’s establishment and the media pundits closest to them focused on a wide range of external factors.

This year, however, there was no Anthony Weiner controversy. There was no James Comey and his last-minute FBI intervention. There was no email scandal that drip-dripped through the national media powered by Wikileaks in the weeks leading to the polls. And finally, there was no Clinton on the ticket.

In 2016, the Democratic presidential nominee made history as the most unfavourable candidate ever put forward by the Democratic Party in modern history. This was surely at least in part a function of endemic societal sexism that any female candidate running for the presidency would face.

But Biden was nominated in large part because he was the so-called “safe pick”. As an elderly white man, he looked far more like the presidents of the past than the presidents of America’s future. His Catholic identity was thought to be an asset in the pivotal Rust Belt states where there is a significant Catholic population.

On top of all of this, America had seen four years of Trump. The voters who supported him in 2016, unsure about what to expect, could no longer claim that excuse. For four years Trump has been a hyper-prevaricating white supremacist and a global embarrassment.

But that is not all. More than 230,000 Americans have died as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, a number that is shamefully disproportionate in comparison to other nations across the world and even more embarrassing considering the wealth and prestige of the American healthcare system.

The government’s failure to address and control the pandemic in the ways that other advanced nations have managed to do has led to a significant collapse of the economy and an unemployment crisis the likes of which have not been seen in decades.

It is hard to imagine more favourable conditions for a Democratic nominee coming into this election and yet despite all of this, Biden’s victory – if it happens – would be razor-thin. Why and how that outcome is even remotely possible should keep Democrats up at night for the next four years, even if their man is sleeping in the White House.

Florida, Texas and the Hispanic vote

The Hispanic vote in Florida and Texas will be one that receives a great deal of attention in the months and years ahead. Trump has won the state of Florida by a larger margin than in 2016. This is due in great part to Biden’s failure to replicate Clinton’s vote margin in Miami-Dade County, where there is a significant Hispanic and particularly Cuban American vote.

This is doubly shocking considering that Democrats made gains elsewhere in Florida and that state was won twice by Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012. The reality is Democrats are going backwards in Florida during the past decade and a half.

The role of the Hispanic vote is likely to be a storyline in Texas, as well. The state has long been a Republican stronghold but in recent years, has become a more competitive state. A large part of that shift is based on demographics changing over time and the growing influence of the Hispanic vote in specific places.

Texas may have been within reach for Democrats this year and it is such a big prize that taking it off the table for Republicans would have completely broken the back of their traditional election strategy. But early indications are that Trump will hold on to Texas in part because of his success in over-performing among the Hispanic vote within the state.

It may not ultimately matter to the election outcome this time but Democrats would be right to ask very hard questions about their strategy to reach out to the Hispanic constituency and whether or not they did nearly enough of the work needed to cultivate support within these communities, especially given the growing prominence of this demographic in American politics.

High turnout did not produce a blue wave

All indications are that this general election will witness historic levels of turnout, perhaps coming close to 67 percent. The conventional wisdom around turnout has been that the higher it is, the better it is for Democrats. There are a lot of reasons that go into this rationale, including socioeconomic barriers as well as Republican efforts to make voting more difficult in non-Republican constituencies through policy.

And yet even though more people voted this time than ever before (given population growth), it did not result in a wide margin of victory for the Democrats – the “blue wave” that many expected. Instead, it appears that the higher turnout has boosted votes for both sides.

In other words, Trump’s base grew – perhaps to the shock of many observers.

Since Trump entered the national political arena, we have consistently heard a narrative about his ceiling. Throughout the Republican primaries in 2016 and again during the general election campaign that year, many analysts predicted that his support was limited and that he was incapable of growing it beyond a certain point.

Time and again, and indeed it seems so this year, the real-estate-mogul-turned-reality-TV-star found a way to build through the ceiling. Trump got more than four million more votes in 2020 than he did in 2016 and, even though he may lose this election, he proved that not only could he maintain his base, but that he could also build on it and remain competitive, even as Democrats witnessed very favourable conditions and historic turnout.

It may or may not have been enough to win the election, but Trump somehow found a way to squeeze far more juice out of the same orange than most people probably expected. Figuring out how on Earth a Republican Party led by showman is still finding ways to convincingly appeal to more Americans despite all we have witnessed these last four years should be a question on the mind of the Democratic Party leadership.

Trumpism may be here to stay

Trump was always facing an uphill battle coming into this election, whether the polls were right or not. Between the pandemic and the economic situation, it was hard to envision how an incumbent with his record would secure re-election. The question of what would happen to a post-election Republican Party was an important one.

Since 2015, when he first entered the GOP primary, Trump has managed to systematically take it over. Even those Republican officials that were initially hostile to him in the primary stage have become some of his most loyal supporters since. The Republican Party has undoubtedly become the party of Trumpism.

How the jockeying for power that would take place in the aftermath of the election would play out would significantly depend on what the election loss looks like. If Republicans had been trounced as the polls had suggested and a blue wave had wiped out Republican control not just in the White House but also the Senate, there would have been a clear argument to be made about the political futility of Trumpism.

But given what we know so far about the election results that does not seem to be the case. In fact, even if Trump does ultimately lose the election, it would be by a narrow margin and at this stage it seems unlikely that Democrats will take back the Senate, in good part because of how well Republicans performed in some of the battleground states where Trump did well.

Those Republicans who want to do away with Trumpism and take the party in a different direction will not get the kind of support they were hoping to from these elections. Those Republicans most supportive of Trumpism would emerge in a stronger position and likely point to the pandemic as a unique event that cost them the election, not their approach.

Democrats and much of America may have hoped to be done with the incumbent president. But It seems at this stage that Trump and Trumpism are set to remain a defining force in American politics in the years to come.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.