In the modern era, only three incumbent presidents have failed to win a second term, Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter, and George H.W. Bush, primarily because the power of incumbency is simply enormous. Hoover and Carter were both undone by economic and international crises largely beyond their control. Bush was remarkable in that he won the unusual third term for the incumbent party but that was also, along with an economic recession, part of the reason for his failure. Donald Trump now joins that elite trio of failure. And while it would seem natural to conclude that the external forces of the pandemic were responsible for Trump’s failure, early exit polling, which is admittedly unreliable, seems not to support that view.
Biden simply routed Trump. It was a landslide victory. If we lived in a functioning democracy where all the votes are basically counted at once, it would have been clear fairly early on that Biden had won the election. And if we lived in a functioning democracy where the person who wins the most votes actually wins, Biden would have been called the winner almost as soon as the polls closed. Biden will conservatively win this election by over 4 points and 6 million votes, with over 52% of the vote. His will be the largest margin of victory by raw vote total and percentage in the last 30 years. For a challenger facing an incumbent President, Biden’s win will be by the largest by percentage since FDR beat the aforementioned Hoover in 1932. And yet, because we do not live in a functioning democracy, the race took days to be called in his favor. In fact, it is probable that a flip of less than 150,000 votes in total across Wisconsin, Nevada, Arizona, and Georgia would have given Donald Trump a second term.
The problem for Democrats is that Biden’s massive win came with no coattails. In contrast to the pre-election polls which said otherwise, House and Senate Republicans far outperformed Trump across the board. There are a number of plausible theories as to why this might have happened. One is that Republicans were again convinced by the polls that Biden would win the election and wanted to ensure that there would be a check on Democrats. According to one early exit poll, an admittedly notoriously unreliable source, 53% of the people who voted for Joni Ernst said that the reason they voted for her was to simply to keep the Democrats from taking control of the Senate and not because they really supported her. I believe that other polls showed a similar response for Susan Collins in Maine. Remarkably, the Amy Coney Barrett hearings actually also ended up helping GOP Senators like Graham and Collins.
In addition, it is clear that many Republican voters who split their ticket for Biden feared economic shutdowns more than the pandemic. Despite the nearly 10 million infections and over 225,000 deaths, the only direct effect of the virus for the vast majority of Americans has been the economic disruption that has been created to contain the pandemic. Voters for down-ballot Republicans consistently supported doing more for the economy even if it meant letting the virus spread more rapidly. While Joe Biden may have been running on the most progressive platform in modern Democratic history and had clear and detailed economic proposals, his closing argument was largely focused on Trump’s egregious mishandling of the pandemic and his own plans to contain it. That may have fed into Republican worries about an economic shutdown.
What seems clearer is that the Democratic leadership’s plan to focus on policy as opposed to corruption was an unmitigated disaster. Pelosi’s efforts to protect the moderate swing district newcomers from 2018 was an utter failure. Democrats were never able to directly tie Republicans in Congress with the rampant corruption inside the Trump administration. Jon Ossoff’s rant about Perdue’s insider trading may have gone viral and forced Perdue to back out of the next debate, but the fact of the matter it was just a prelude to Ossoff’s pivoting to the issue of health care. Admittedly, Democrats in swing districts and states were bound to have a tougher time this year simply because of the increased turnout of a presidential election. But Pelosi’s strategy of avoiding inflaming the GOP base as happened with the Kavanaugh hearings in 2018 turned out to be faulty, as Republicans still came out in record numbers. It also appears that the Democrats’ decision to be responsible and avoid in-person voter contact may have also hurt the Democrats’ cause.
The least plausible explanation for Democrats’ failures down-ballot is that voters were scared off by Medicare for All and “defund the police”. Virtually no vulnerable Democrat nor Biden ran on these issues and what those Democrats who are making such complaints are basically admitting is that their campaigns were unable to break through the Fox and Facebook information silo of their voters. For my entire 60+ years, Republicans have been claiming Democrats are “socialists” who will “destroy the economy” and it will never change. It may be true that the “socialist” claims had some agency with Cuban and Venezuelan voters in South Florida but I think we will eventually find that the Hispanic vote overall provided the same level of support to Republicans as it has over the last few election cycles. Certainly, in the Southwest outside of Texas, Hispanic voters were the key to the Democrats’ victories.
The down-ballot failures portend another disastrous decade ahead. Biden’s and the progressives’ ambitious agenda is probably dead in the water for at least the next two years and probably for the entirety of his term. Even if Democrats were to win the Georgia special elections and give Democrats 50-50 “control”, the filibuster will still remain. Whatever happens in Georgia, what we are probably looking at is a reprise of McConnell’s total obstruction during the Obama presidency. The Democrats tiny majority in the House will also give the moderates veto power over anything ambitious. What we are left with will be small bore solutions that do nothing to address the almost existential issues facing the country like climate change and racial, gender, and income inequality. There may be a window to win a slim majority in the Senate come 2022 and the potential for Biden to implement more of his agenda in his final two years of the term. But it’s also quite possible that we will lose the House that year if there is the typical loss of seats for the president’s party, stymying the Democratic agenda once again.
With the Democrats’ failure to flip any state legislatures, partisan gerrymandering will only get worse now that the Supreme Court has given states carte blanche to do so. In the last decade, such gerrymandering gave Republicans an additional 19 seats per election, an advantage that may grow even larger after 2020 redistricting. In Missouri, voters overturned the 2018 measure that passed with over 60% approval which established a non-partisan redistricting commission and replaced it with a bipartisan commission appointed by the governor that could exclude non-voters, including children and non-citizens, when drawing the new districts, a questionably constitutional maneuver. GOP legislatures will become even more aggressive in voter suppression. In addition, based on some critical House losses, it also appears that suburban Republicans, who were only too willing to elect Democrats to restrain Trump in 2018, may revert to being standard Republicans when Trump is gone. Together, that puts Democratic control of the House in jeopardy for perhaps the rest of this decade.
If anything, things look even bleaker in the already massively undemocratic Senate. As Ian Millhiser lays out, if Democrats manage to eke out a 50-50 Senate this year, their 50 Senators will represent over 40 million more Americans, equivalent to one-eighth of the total population, than the 50 Republican Senators who will have virtual veto power over any Democratic agenda. In 2024, it is hard to see red state Democrats like Sherrod Brown, Joe Manchin, and Jon Tester manage to reprise the successful defense of their seats as they did in 2018.
Rather than the 2020s ushering in the decade of structural changes the country needs in order to face the daunting challenges ahead of it, instead Democrats will probably simply be fighting to keep democracy alive as we have for the last four years. The GOP has added QAnon and Hitler admirers to its ranks in the House. Sitting GOP members of both the House and the Senate have openly supported Trump’s claims of fraud and his attempted coup by trying to stop votes from being counted. Multiple GOP members have also openly stated their opposition to democracy. In 2024, it’s more likely than not a Trump or Trump-style outsider who appeals to the GOP’s white nationalist base will be the nominee as opposed to standard GOP hacks like Cruz, Cotton, or Pompeo. And they will probably be running against a Biden presidency that has had to spend an inordinate amount of time simply undoing the damage that Trump has done and that McConnell has ensured looks like failure.
The anti-democratic structures of our so-called democracy, with help from the Supreme Court, have created the environment for entrenched minority rule. Gerrymandered states make it impossible to flip state legislatures, resulting in a situations like Wisconsin where it’s possible Republicans could get a supermajority with minority share of the vote. With state legislatures firmly in hand, Republicans can then gerrymander congressional districts to create situations like that in Michigan in 2018 where Democrats got 56% of the vote but only won half of the state’s congressional seats. In the prior years of the decade, Republicans never won more that 50.5% of the vote in Michigan but took nine of the fourteen House seats. Add to this the undemocratic nature of the Senate and the Electoral College as described above, a court system packed by the minority and often showing allegiance to it, and senior Republicans’ disdain for democracy and we have something that more and more resembles an illiberal democracy. But maybe a more accurate term would be a competitive one party state. Yes, the opposition can win control of certain elements of government like the House or the presidency, but the one-party minority will always have veto power over the opposition agenda.
That does not mean that Democrats are powerless. As Trump has shown, the executive power is enormous and can accomplish quite a bit, especially if the president is willing to break some norms to do so. In so many areas, from climate to immigration to foreign policy, the simple fact that a kleptocratic autocracy is going to be replaced by a responsible and functioning government will provide tremendous relief. And there is no reason that Biden can’t stretch the use of national security exceptions to fulfill parts of his agenda in just the same ways that Trump did. With control of the House, Democrats can create a pincer movement against McConnell’s Senate, forcing him to take votes that will be hard for his Republican caucus. As Ro Khanna tweeted last night, “How should House Democrats and Biden govern w McConnell? Pass $2000 month. Extend Medicare. Pass debt forgiveness & rent relief. Force McConnell to vote no and explain why”. There are plenty of other issues where House Democrats could do the same, with Biden using his bully pulpit to make the case against McConnell’s obstruction. Make McConnell say no not just once but numerous times before beginning to compromise. And pressuring McConnell and the GOP also means exposing if not prosecuting the rampant corruption of the Trump administration and highlighting congressional Republicans complicity in it.
In addition, Democratic states need to become bolder, using their own economic powers to move the agenda. For example, California’s tougher emission standards set the standard for the entire country for years. If, as expected, Trump widely uses his pardon power before he exits, it will be up to Democratic state Attorney Generals to aggressively pursue Trump administration crimes, and there are plenty of rich targets. And even in red states, Democratic agenda items like the the $15 minimum wage and drug decriminalization have won on the ballot.
If they can not get their agenda passed, then Democrats most make sure that what they do do highlights the bad faith and, yes, the malevolence of the GOP. If they are able to get stuff done and then find that the courts are sabotaging those efforts, then the courts may need to be confronted. Whatever they do, Biden and the Democrats must finally recognize that they can not play by the old rules anymore and still be successful.
Trump was an extremely polarizing figure who was able to bring out Republicans in record numbers. Similarly, he also brought out record numbers of Democrats who opposed him. It is unclear going forward whether there is any other Republican politician capable of getting Republicans to the polls like Trump. If Democrats can still stay highly engaged, it may still be possible to make further electoral inroads. Perhaps the first test of this will come with the special elections for Senate in Georgia in January. If Democrats could still ride the wave of Biden’s victory while Republicans do not come out in force because Trump is not on the ballot and their two candidates are obvious crooks, a win would be possible. That would not only shake up the balance in the Senate but also strike a little fear into incumbent Republicans, perhaps making them more open to compromise.
Biden has described himself as a transitional figure in the Democratic party, passing the torch on to the next generation of leaders. That transition needs to occur right now for the Democratic congressional leadership. The youth vote came out in a big way for Biden this year. Voters under the age of 44 made up over 40% of the vote and went overwhelmingly for Biden. The under 30 vote gave Biden 62% support. They are the future of the party and they need to see people in leadership who they can somewhat relate to. This means that Nancy Pelosi and Steny Hoyer need to move on. I’d prefer to get rid of Schumer as well but hard to see who would replace him. Chris Murphy, Cory Booker, and Brian Schatz need more leadership roles. And Diane Feinstein needs to give way to Sheldon Whitehouse as ranking member on the Judiciary Committee.
With Biden’s election amid record turnout, there will be those who say that our institutions held and the system is working. As our President-elect would say, “Malarkey!”. There is no reason that voters should need to take such an inordinate amount of time and effort simply to ensure their ballot is counted. Voting should not require monitoring federal judges’ decisions literally days before an election so that you know your vote will count. When a narcissistic autocrat suborns virtually every arm of the federal government toward his own personal benefit, when the federal government simply becomes an extension of his re-election campaign, when the President becomes unaccountable to the people and the courts, when the ruling party uses every available tool to prevent the opposition from voting, and when an aspiring autocrat comes within a few thousand votes of solidifying his autocratic rule, blocked only by an historic effort at participation by the citizens, the system is not working. It is failing, and failing badly.
Today, it would be nice to say what Gerald Ford said when Nixon finally flew off into the sunset, that “our long national nightmare is over”. But it isn’t. Trump still has 70 some odd days to still create chaos, pardon himself and his crooked cronies, line his own pockets selling off America’s assets, and God knows whatever else he can think of. Beyond that, the Republican party will still be a minority party exercising majority power. As they become a smaller and smaller minority, they will become more and more extreme in their efforts to maintain power. Trumpism and the dangerous extremism of the Republican party will still be with us for the years ahead. And the dysfunction and anti-democratic nature of our so-called democracy and its electoral systems will become more and more difficult to ignore.