Pretending The 2020 Presidential Election Wasn’t Close Isn’t Helping Anyone.
In times such as these, it is a daily ocurrence to see news headlines that will cause one to shake one’s head in frustration and disappointment upon reading them. In the monthof November 2020, there is even more reason to do so compared to usual, particularly on the political front, as day after day passes when soon to be outgoing President Donald Trump does not accept the inevitability that is Joe Biden replacing him in the White House.
As inevitable as that fact may be, some commentators in the media are already confirming some of this author’s worst fears for what would happen in the aftermath of this (presumed) election result- assuming an overall triumphalist attitude and (implicitly) pretending that the underlying factors that led to the rise of Trump and Trumpism in the first place are now vanquished for good.
The headline on November 23 from NBC’s First Read is an egregious example of this blinkered mentality. The headline reads “ The Election Wasn’t Really That Close.” While nothing that the article accompanying the headline says is technically incorrect, it is still woefully neglectful of context, not only of what polls and predictions were saying prior to the election, but also of what has come after it and what may yet still come in the months, or even years, ahead.
The article begins by citing Joe Biden’s margin of victory over Donald Trump in the national popular vote- saying that it is the second highest margin of victory of any Presidential election this century save for Barack Obama’s victory in 2008. That may be true, however, save for 2008 all of the electoral contests held this century have been considered to be close, and in relative terms 2020’s margin being closer than 2008 should be shocking. The economic climate alone, one might argue, should have guaranteed a margin of victory in excess of 2008, to say nothing of the pandemic raging nationwide.
Furthermore, the article goes on to note (correctly, again) that Joe Biden’s (presumed, for now) margin of victory in the Electoral College was nearly identical to Trump’s own victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016. In an attempt at highlighting Trump’s hypocrisy and mendaciousness, the article notes that Trump (in his classic bellicose fashion) declared his win in that election to be “a massive landslide victory.”
Of course, Trump’s claim of a landslide victory was as laughable now as it was at the time he first made it- in order to attempt to make the claim that the 2020 presidential election was not close, the NBC article has to take his claim at face value- in a tongue in cheek fashion, to be sure, but the end result of that nevertheless feeds into the unfortunate triumphalist mentality that this article is indicative of.
The correct takeaway would be that it is equally absurd to label either the 2016 or 2020 election results as being anything other than close. And the key fact is that the actual 2020 result ran contrary to the expectations held by many of the type of victory that Joe Biden would win. Just before the election, the New York Times published an article describing how “whispers” were growing louder and louder in Democratic circles that Biden would win in a sweeping landslide.
The global expectation seemed to be the same, as exemplified by this piece in the Sydney Morning Herald after the election, which observed that “if the opinion polls in America had been right, Joe Biden would have won in a landslide.” According to the New York Times’ polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight, the polls gave Biden a lead of 8.4 percent in its average of national polls- in the end, Biden’s national margin will be half that. By contrast, the national average of polling correctly predicted Hillary Clinton’s national popular vote margin of three points in 2016- the polls (somehow) were even worse in 2020.
Even though he did not win the election, Trump will leave office with more support, by multiple measures, than he left it. He increased his percentage of the popular vote received, from 46.1 percent in 2016 to 47.2 percent in 2020. In terms of numbers of actual votes cast that represents, that translate to roughly ten million more votes, for a nationwide total just shy of 74 million. To the confusion and chagrin of many, much of that improved vote total came from racial minorities, primarily Hispanic voters but black voters to a lesser degree as well.
In analyzing this phenomenon, progressive writer Matthew Yglesias is correct to point out that this fact should “prompt some progressive rethinking.” As Yglesias points out, some of Trump’s improvement with Hispanics can be attributed to his strong rhetorical stance against the socialist regimes of Latin America such as Cuba and Venezuela. This may have been a particularly strong factor in the state of Florida, where Trump improved on his performance from 2016.
However, that is not the only explanation , as Yglesias points out that Trump performed very well in a number of majority Mexican-American counties along the Texas-Mexico border, even in some that Hillary Clinton had won in 2016, such as Zapata County. However, advancing a triumphalist narrative that Biden won easily will only cause progressive to avoid the rethinking that, as Yglesias points out, is still needed in the wake of this election.
Narratives have consequences, and, although it may not seem obvious now, advancing the narrative that the 2020 election result was anything other than a narrow victory for Joe Biden could indeed have severe consequences in the future. To advance such a narrative is to ignore all of the facts outlined above and in many other places besides that add up to the fact that, although Trump may soon be headed out of office, the forces and support that undergirded his first victory in 2016 and outperforming the polls in 2020 will not be going anywhere any time soon.