As the November election approached, Democrats were banking on a resounding repudiation of the Trump presidency, a takeover of the Senate, an increase in their House majority and the capture of some state legislatures. The opinion polls certainly gave them hope for a wave election, but it did not work out that way. While Joe Biden scored a solid victory, there was no overwhelming rejection of Trumpism, a Democrat Senate majority did not materialize, some House seats were lost and state legislative results were disappointing. What happened?
Pundits have put forward a number of explanations–the polls were wrong, “defund the police” was an unfortunate message, Democrats failed to canvas in person, the “socialist” label scared voters, pandemic fatigue, and a long list of other factors. It is likely that many factors played a part in the outcome, but it is doubtful that any one of them had a substantial impact across the country.
Donald J. Trump was by far the most important factor in driving voter turnout on both sides–whether he should stay or go. Without a doubt, the election was a referendum on Trump. No political figure in decades has been so adored by some and so reviled by others. Throughout the year, Trump’s approval rating has hovered in the mid-40s, while his disapproval rating has averaged in the vicinity of 55%. Opinion polling generally reflected an election outcome consistent with those ratings.
That being said, the outcome of the election was largely determined by the way it was structured. In deference to voters concerned about the coronavirus, a number of states made it easier to vote by mail. The Democrats strongly urged their supporters to vote by mail or early in person. Trump tried his level best to discourage voting by mail, correctly thinking it would increase the Democrat vote.
Many who were yearning to see the last of Trump took advantage of mail-in voting. Indeed, the convenience brought out millions who might not otherwise have voted. Others, wishing to avoid the crush and possibility of infection on election day, opted for in-person early voting.
We all recall news reports of the massive turnout for early in-person voting and the tremendous numbers of requests for mail-in ballots. Television newscasts showed blocks-long lines of voters, waiting hours to cast their ballots, and suggested that many were supporting Joe Biden. The stories gave the impression of a pending landslide for the Democrats, which was in keeping with the public opinion polling of “likely” voters. All of that would certainly have scared the living daylights out of any Republican strategist or sentient voter who favored Trump.
Isaac Newton told us many years ago that “for every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction.” I think the stories about the impending Democrat tsunami spurred Trump supporters into high gear and caused millions who might have otherwise stayed home on election day to show up at the polls to rescue their champion from electoral disaster. And while they were in the voting booth, most also supported down-ballot Republican candidates. On the other hand, the news reports may have given a significant number of potential anti-Trump voters assurance that he would be rejected, making it unnecessary for them to cast a ballot.
While the record turnout has been remarked upon considerably by the commentator class, little mention has been made of the role of the election structure in producing the disappointing results for Democrats. However, the early media hype about the historic Democrat turnout is certain to have frightened many Republican voters and gotten them to the polls.
A Dana Milbank article, pointing to a massive turnout of white evangelical Christians for Trump, provides some support for my theory. He notes that white evangelicals make up 15% of the population, but their share of the 2020 electorate was between 23% and 28%. He calculates that 40% of Trump voters were white evangelicals. They would obviously have been energized to turn out to support Trump, come hell or high water, when media reports indicated he was facing practically certain defeat.
If the theory is correct, there may not be a whole lot we can extrapolate from this election to apply to any subsequent election which does not involve Donald Trump.