The 2020 United States (US) presidential election has turned out to be strange, memorable, and tortuous. Perhaps it was always destined to be so, given the set-up.
On the Republican side, you had an unusual incumbent in President Donald Trump. Four years ago, after running against the establishment of his own party, he won the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote. He was not viewed as presidential in his manner or disposition, a flaw acknowledged even by many of his supporters. Over the course of his first term, he was impeached by the House of Representatives. And in the midst of a re-election campaign, he had overseen the worst public health crisis confronting the US in a century as well as a precipitous economic downturn.
And yet, Trump enjoyed steady approval ratings of over 40% throughout the duration of his four years as president. A solid majority of Americans approved of his handling of the economy. In the eyes of his electoral base, Trump had also delivered on his promises, such as on stemming immigration, cutting taxes, and nominating conservative Supreme Court justices.
On the Democratic side, you had a more predictable contender in former Vice-President Joe Biden. Biden emerged as a consensus candidate after a bruising Democratic primary contest. He polled well among moderates and independents. Unlike Hillary Clinton four years ago, he had low negative ratings among likely voters, and his campaign managed to raise record amounts of funds. Biden’s critics and opponents caricatured him as geriatric and a creature of the establishment.
Yet, in the months since clinching the nomination, he fared well in public opinion surveys against Trump. On the cusp of Election Day on November 3, Biden was leading the president 52% to 42% in national polls; he was expected to comfortably win a majority in the Electoral College, and was given a 90% chance of winning by respected election analysts.
The final results may still make 2020 one of the closest presidential elections in modern US history. Trump handily won four states that had been expected to be competitive: Florida, Texas, Ohio, and Iowa. Biden comfortably won the overall popular vote but scraped only narrow wins in the critical states of Wisconsin and Michigan. Voting in five states that would collectively determine the winner — Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina, and Nevada —proved so close that final tallies required days of further counting. Although he may eventually lose the presidency, Trump managed to demonstrate considerable and durable support after four years in power. The Republican Party will likely retain control of the Senate, which the Democrats had earlier looked poised to seize, although two run-off elections in Georgia could determine the final outcome. The democrats did manage to retain the House of Representatives, but with fewer seats.
What explains the unexpected closeness of this year’s US elections? It certainly was not tepid voter turnout: The percentage of ballots cast may have been the highest in any US election since 1900. Based on exit polls, Biden fared well with voters under the age of 50, won two-thirds of moderate voters, over half of independents, and lured 8% of Trump supporters from four years ago.
The real reasons for surprise lay elsewhere. Public opinion surveys in key swing states overestimated Biden’s lead over Trump by between 2% and 8%. The 5% of voters who determined their vote in the week prior to the election also broke overwhelmingly for Trump. Additionally, Trump fared better among minority groups relative to 2016, particularly older and college-educated Hispanic voters and younger African-Americans.
Although the most likely outcome at this juncture appears to be a Biden presidency, a Republican-led Senate, and a Democratic House of Representatives, Trump’s surprisingly strong showing will leave a legacy. Trumpism will not be going away any time soon and will remain a potent force within the Republican Party. A narrower win may also serve as a check on elements of the more radical agenda of the Democrats; this could, in turn, exacerbate divisions between the Left-leaning progressive and centrist wings of the Democratic Party. Already, the two factions are deriving opposite lessons from the Republicans’ stronger-than-expected showing. While progressives believe they should not have made compromises, moderates fear that the Left alienated some conservative constituencies.
For a partner country such as India, the broad overarching implications of the election are real, even if the actual political outcomes remain fluid. Some of the changes wrought by Trump will remain, among Republicans but also as a consequence of a divided Congress and perhaps an equally divided Democratic Party. These strains might include a wariness of international trading agreements, overseas military commitments, and immigration regimes that threaten middle-class employment.
A potential Biden presidency may offer a greater degree of predictability and professionalism, improving the foundations of American international power. India will probably continue to find sympathetic allies in the US Senate, reflecting an alignment in thinking on the emerging strategic competition with China. New Delhi could also find in Washington a willingness to partner with India on the climate crisis, emerging technologies, and even democracy. Finally, there may be more leeway in managing the inevitable differences in perspectives that will remain.
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