Analysis Politics United States

Trump Lost, But No “Blue Tsunami”


Most of the major U.S. television networks named Joe Biden as president-elect on November 7, when vote counts from Pennsylvania seemed to put that state out of reach for President Trump. With that announcement, thousands took to the streets to celebrate Trump’s defeat with spontaneous demonstrations, parties, horn-honking and fireworks.

These celebrations may have reveled in Trump’s defeat, but they weren’t necessarily celebrations for the Biden/Harris victory. That was so for many reasons. First, the expectation of a “blue tsunami” that most liberals and many mainstream pundits predicted, went unfulfilled. Second, Trump and an increasingly ragtag group of lawyers continued to challenge the results. While none of these challenges seemed likely to succeed, they cast enough of a shadow over the results to heighten post-election tensions.

All eyes now turn to the two U.S. Senate runoffs in Georgia in January. If the Democrats take both of those seats (a highly unlikely result), the Democrats would have a bare majority in the Senate. Most likely, however, is continued Republican control that will maintain the partisan gridlock that has rendered the U.S.’s legislative branch of government dysfunctional, even in the face of the coronavirus crisis.

What Happened?

Election experts are already estimating that the 2020 election produced the highest turnout in more than a century, with more than two-thirds of eligible voters participating. At the time of writing, the current tallies stand at: 78.7 million votes for Biden/Harris, 73.2 for Trump/Pence, and about 2.8 million for others. In overall percentage terms, this means that about 33 percent of the eligible voters voted for Biden, 30.6 percent voted for Trump, and about 35 percent did not vote.

On the presidential level, the Democrats won the states that they mistakenly thought they were going to win against Trump in 2016, while adding Arizona and Georgia to the list. The Democrats rebuilt the upper-Midwest “Blue Wall”, recapturing Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, states that had gone Democrat in every election since 1988. In 2016, Trump squeaked into the White House by winning these states with a combined total of about 77,000 votes over Clinton, while he lost the national popular vote by more than 2 million votes. This time, with Biden’s national totals exceeding Trumps by more than 5 million votes, and Biden will win the three key states by more than 230,000 votes.

The down-ballot results were much different. In these legislative races, the Democrats are on track to lose about a dozen members of their House majority and will (most likely) remain a minority in the Senate. In state legislative and gubernatorial races, the Democrats seem to have lost, or at least not gained, ground. This very underwhelming performance represented a big psychological blow to the liberal Democratic intelligentsia, who had expected a landslide repudiation of the Republicans at all levels.

Even while saddled with the presidential candidate who has never won majority support in his four years in office, the Republicans more than held their own. In fact, in most places, vote totals for GOP Senate and House candidates exceeded Trump’s. At the state level in places like Texas and Wisconsin, the GOP retained its state legislative majorities, which will allow it to continue the extreme gerrymanders that will over-represent them in Congress for the foreseeable future.

As expected, the Trump-led Republicans turned out their supporters and managed to expand their electorate a bit too. According to the AP Votecast election polls, the percentage of the electorate identifying as white increased from 71 percent in 2016 to 74 percent in 2020. And the Republicans managed to make incremental gains in support from Black and Latino voters. Compared to those who turned out in 2016, the electorate was older, less educated, whiter, and clustered in the middle of the income distribution. Interestingly, the 2016 and 2020 electorates showed no differences in gender nor in the percentage of rural voters who turned out.

Overall, the patterns that have been locked in for years asserted themselves. Biden and the Democrats received the support of the majority of women, non-whites, youth, union member households, households making less than $50K, and city dwellers. The Republicans won majorities of men, whites, whites without bachelor’s degrees, rural voters and religious voters, and a slight majority of the large middle of the income distribution (those making between $50,000 and $100,000 per year). But comparing the surveys of the electorate between 2016 and 2020 show some more interesting observations about the impact of the Trump years.

Biden received slightly higher proportions of men, whites, rural voters, and people younger than 45 than Clinton did in 2016, even while losing most of those groups to Trump. Trump did significantly better with Latinos than he did in 2016. Seniors (people aged 65 and older) shifted only slightly to Biden, while still giving the majority of their votes to Trump. In both 2016 and 2020 about 42 percent of union members households supported Trump, while the percentage of union member households in the overall electorate slumped to 15 per cent (from 18 per cent in 2016, and from more than 20 per cent in earlier elections).

The different voter surveys (AP Votecast and the Edison National Election Poll) differ on whether the proportion of first-time voters increased or decreased from 2016, but both indicate that Biden obtained a little less than 60 percent of first-time votes cast.

A few tentative conclusions from this morass of figures are possible. First, in an expanded electorate, Trump brought out “his” vote, but Biden took higher pieces of that vote than Clinton had. Biden nibbled into what had been the GOP advantage in the middle-class, among college grads, and in the suburbs. But the shifts may not have been as decisive as a lot of the Democratic Party moderates hoped. Second, the Republican hold on the broad swath of the white electorate of all classes, plus inroads into other segments of voters—most dramatically among Latinos in South Florida and South Texas—show that the Democrats can’t bank on an “emerging Democratic majority” based on demographic trends alone.

In the Blue Wall states, the key to Trump’s win in 2016 was a huge drop off in the Black vote in Milwaukee, Detroit, and Philadelphia. The increase in Black turnout in those three cities was the key to building back the Blue Wall, and the Latino vote was probably key to winning Nevada, while the Latino and Indigenous vote helped push Biden over the top in Arizona. Black, Asian and Latino voters helped Biden to scrape by in Georgia. The Democratic presidential candidate hasn’t won the majority of white voters since the 1964 election. Instead, the Democrats have depended on holding down their losses among whites while rolling up large majorities of non-whites. They pulled this off in 2020. But if history is any indication, the effort to get non-white voters to the polls for Biden-Harris will confront much disappointment in the actual policies that the Biden-Harris administration pursues.

Why No Blue Tsunami?

Despite the most expensive (with spending estimated at somewhere around $15 billion) election ever, with the greatest turnout in a century, held in the midst of multiple pandemic-spurred crises, and in the face of widespread predictions of a Democratic landslide, the result confounds all of this. With the big exception of the ejection of the sitting president, the election left the status quo largely intact.

How can one explain it? The opinion polls obviously led even very sober-minded analysts to expect the Democratic wave. Perhaps liberals and Democrats were more likely to answer opinion polls. Perhaps there really are people who won’t admit to pollsters that they support Trump. And perhaps the polls missed a late move to Trump, when most experts would have expected late deciding voters to support the challenger Biden. There is some evidence to suggest that Trump’s racist campaigns against Black Lives Matter and “antifa” may have been responsible for this late surge, particularly in non-urban areas. All of these matters will be debated for months, but the real question to answer is why the GOP didn’t pay a greater price for its standard bearer’s catastrophic bungling of the most important issue facing the U.S. (and the world): the coronavirus pandemic.

Rick Wilson, one of the “never Trump” Republican consultants who founded the pro-Biden consortium, the Lincoln Project, last year laid out three key principles to guide an election campaign against “the devil” Trump. First, make the election a referendum on the president. Second, focus almost solely on winning in the Electoral College. And third, understand that voters don’t choose who they vote for based on the details of the policies they espouse. Whether consciously or not, the Biden team appears to have followed this advice to a tee. It kept the election focused as a referendum on Trump’s disastrous handling of the pandemic. Despite forays into places like Texas and Iowa, its strategy overwhelmingly depended on winning the Electoral College in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan. And finally, Biden campaigned more on vague themes about “uniting America,” “science over fiction,” “decency,” and the like and less on specific policies.

This strategy worked well for the presidential election, but not for the down-ballot races. In focusing on Trump, the Biden campaign let the GOP off the hook. In fact, it continued to advance fanciful notions of an era of bipartisan collaboration that would be possible after the election wiped away the Trump stain. Biden ran as the “not-Trump” and didn’t really stand for much else. No wonder Republican candidates in most of the highest profile races received higher proportions of the vote than Trump did.

The pandemic also played a contradictory role in the environment that shaped the election. When you look at the list of issues that voters reported as those that were most important to them or influenced their vote, the top two were COVID and the economy. Others, like racism, police brutality, the Supreme Court, climate change, had single-digit support, and most of these favored Biden. Those who said the government’s response to COVID was their most important issue (about 41 per cent of the electorate) overwhelmingly supported Biden (73 per cent to 25 per cent). But those who thought “the economy and jobs” was the most important issue (about 28 per cent), voted for Trump by 57 per cent to 41 per cent.  So the intersection of COVID and the economic downturn the virus provoked pulled in different directions.

Back in January, before the Democratic primaries and the onset of the COVID pandemic in the U.S., political conversation on the left focused on whether Bernie Sanders could transform the Democratic electorate, whether the Democratic establishment could derail Sanders, and who would be the “moderate” Democratic nominee. But these considerations may have been a sideshow because, despite his historic levels of unpopularity, Trump was still in a strong position for re-election. As Sharon Smith wrote in February,

If the Democrats thought an impeachment trial would erode support for Trump, they were sorely mistaken. Trump’s polling numbers have steadily improved since October when the investigation started, and an early February Gallup poll showed Trump reaching his highest approval rating yet, at 49 per cent. In the same poll, more than six in ten said their own personal finances were better than they were three years ago, as the effects of full employment finally kicked in, while 63 per cent approved of Trump’s handling of the economy (a key measure of Trump’s “electability” in November).

There is no reason to rule out Trump’s reelection in November, given the current state of our dysfunctional electoral system.

Electorates don’t normally toss out incumbents when they report these sentiments about their economic situation. And Census Bureau figures suggested that most American households realized improvements in their incomes under the Trump administration as part of the long recovery from the Great Recession. This fact may have had nothing to do with Trump, but it was understandable that those most concerned with “the economy and jobs” might have supported Trump as a vote to return to the pre-COVID status quo.

Then came COVID, right about the time that the Democratic establishment managed to coalesce around an uninspiring neoliberal career politician who seemed to offer a “safe” choice for November. For a few weeks in March, Trump played a “war-time president” and felt a bit of a “rally around the flag” increase in support. But, for whatever reason (and look for dozens of future tell-all books to explore this), Trump and his administration abandoned that posture to the pandemic. Had Trump managed a minimally competent response to the virus, he probably would have been reelected. Instead, Trump’s shambolic, dissembling, and wishful-thinking response gave Biden the oxygen he needed to make it a race. Given the results of Trump’s catastrophic response—almost 250,000 dead; millions more infected, many suffering  long-term damage; 40 million unemployed; more than 100,000 small business bankruptcies, and much more—it remains astounding that Trump and the GOP didn’t lose in a landslide.

But when you dig deeper into the surveys of voters’ experience with the virus, an explanation can be fashioned. According to the AP Votecast survey, it remains that a minority of the population reported experiencing the most serious impacts of the virus such as knowing friends or family who have died or losing jobs or income. We know that the impact has been disproportionately visited on people of color and essential workers, who are more likely to be part of the Democratic base than they are GOP voters. Since the pandemic is now raging in Trump country, these opinions may shift in the future. But that wasn’t the picture on November 3.

What’s more, Trump appears to have been successful in convincing millions that keeping the economy “open” was better than to take measures to stop the virus’s spread. That would have appealed to millions of people who fear the virus, but also who may not be able to work at home or to home school their children. The August end of the CARES Act’s income support may have actually led many people to conclude that “opening the economy” was a lesser evil to waiting around for Congress to ride to their rescue with another stimulus bill. The spring quarantines held out an implicit bargain: if ordinary people sacrificed, the authorities would get the space they needed to take charge and to defeat the virus. Instead, the Trump administration botched the response and off-loaded responsibilities to states and localities. The patchwork of responses that resulted didn’t crush the virus. Instead, the pandemic exploded when states and localities took steps to “reopen.” Now, the virus is even more widespread, and large parts of the public are showing “COVID fatigue,” exhaustion with the disruptions to everyday life.

Given this very complicated situation, it’s too simplistic to conclude that the Democrats could have done better if they had championed social democratic policies like “Medicare for All” or if they had nominated Sanders instead of Biden. In part, this argument is based on the view that, as Meagan Day put it in Jacobin, “while ordinary people may have all kinds of perverse ideas and reactionary attitudes, direct appeals to what people need to survive and live decently have the power, on occasion, to dislodge delusions.” As I tried to show above, there were real material reasons (and not just culture-war delusions) why the pandemic had contradictory impacts on consciousness.

Even progressive analyses that purport to demonstrate the electoral effectiveness of advocating for social-democratic positions may simply show that these positions are “safer” in safe, overwhelmingly Democratic districts, and that conservative Democrats losing in pro-Trump districts is something of a reversion to their traditional partisan inclination following the Democratic sweep in the 2018 midterm elections. And that’s not even accounting for the anti-socialist messaging that the Trump campaign and Republicans seemed to have wielded fairly effectively, at least in some places.

In any event, electoral strategies don’t offer a magic bullet when the working class remains on the defensive. The spring 2020 burst of working-class struggle around workplace safety and demands for personal protective equipment was left behind. Organizations like the main AFL-CIO unions that could have foregrounded these issues. Instead, they focused on the election of a candidate who didn’t really give much content to “crushing the virus” and whose health care plan revolved mostly around protecting the “pre-existing condition” part of Obamacare.

What About the Left?

Over the last few years, we’ve seen a number of organizations and individuals abandon the idea of building an independent socialist alternative in favor of supporting social-democratic candidates running as Democrats. This perspective fits with that of the U.S.’s largest socialist organization, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). This left put most of its eggs in the basket of Bernie Sanders’ run in the Democratic Party primaries. But the Sanders challenge flamed out as the Democratic primary electorate aligned itself with the Democratic establishment’s preference for a mainstream, “anyone but Trump” figure in Biden. The final stage of this process emerged in the fall, when many of these socialists urged a vote for Biden, often justifying their moves with amped-up rhetoric about saving the U.S. from fascism or from a Trump coup. Since, the “Trump coup” has descended into the farce performed in the Four Seasons Total Landscaping parking lot. But these “popular front” arguments gave leftists a rationale for supporting the neoliberal ticket of Biden/Harris against Trump.

Just around the time that much of this left was refocusing its attention on the election of Biden, the uprising after George Floyd’s murder took place. It created, by some estimates, the largest social movement in U.S. history. And while thousands of members of the DSA took part in the protests, the organization itself was found lacking for not mobilizing around the uprising. It was an illustration of its fundamentally electoralist orientation.

Now that the election is over, what has the left gained? Right now, there’s a squabble inside the Democratic party over whether “The Squad,” the group of progressive House members whose most well-known member is Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), cost the Democrats House seats by advocating for policies like the Green New Deal or “defunding the police.”

It’s true that Republicans are skilled at demonizing socialists and weaponizing left slogans. But the tussle between the Democrats’ “right” and “left” is a continuation of an argument that was muted in the election campaign. Now, the brief for “moderation” will be wielded in support of a neoliberal agenda that Biden was going to pursue anyway. Let’s not forget that people like AOC and Sanders actively promoted Biden and mobilized people who were in the streets in May and June to the ballot box. The Biden/Sanders commission drew up a number of policy planks. But it rejected the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a ban on fracking, and other progressive positions. So after they have willingly signed on to the campaign while agreeing to put aside their signature policies, they can’t credibly criticize Biden for NOT running on these issues. On this point, AOC is more honest in admitting she compromised than are the social democrat “Monday morning quarterbacks” at Jacobin.

There remains the mantra about “Vote for Biden today so we can fight him tomorrow.” Yet, we can predict that tremendous pressure will be exerted on the left once Biden takes office with a narrow House majority and with, as likely, the GOP in charge of the Senate. The left will be pressed to stand with Biden who will be “doing the best he can” with the conservatives calling the shots in the Congress, and with right wing mobilization in the streets over the next couple of years. Trump may be out of the White House but Trumpism will live on. And as we’ve become painfully aware, the election season never ends. There is always another election where the left will be asked to support the Democrats to save the country from fascism. And the Democrats will always be more hostile to the left while they try to find common ground with the right.

The summer’s racial justice uprising showed another path to progress: that of mass struggle. But without an independent socialist politics and organization, even a massive movement risks being dissipated or diverted into voter mobilizations for the Democrats.

The next few years are going to be difficult. They will require much more than a reformist understanding about how society changes. We will be living with a mainstream Democratic administration that will most likely be hamstrung from the start. The pandemic will continue to wreak havoc into the next year or more. Will a Biden administration rise to its challenge?

Just as the liberals’ threats that “everything was on the table” evaporated into nothing as the Republicans forced through the confirmation of far-right Justice Barrett to the Supreme Court, many more such retreats are in store from the Biden/Harris administration. If the Biden administration genuinely wants to sell “normality” in these abnormal and radical times, it’s digging its own grave. Meanwhile, the right will gain more footing as it goes into “opposition” to the administration. Given the pull of negative partisanship (voting against the other party rather than for your party), we are likely to see a GOP sweep in 2022. Are we being set up for a Trump comeback or a more competent Trump-like figure to take over in 2024?

The only thing that can alter that course of events is mass struggle, and a genuine commitment to political activity independent of the Democrats’ electoral calculations. The good news about the otherwise awful year of 2020 is that millions experienced a political awakening. The challenge for the socialist left is to prepare itself to offer political and organizational alternatives to a “militant minority” of them.

Courtesy International Socialism Project