Emptying the Archive —Initial 2020 Election Takeaways

Note: As part of an ongoing project, I am posting many old essays that, for a variety of reasons, I decided not to post publicly at the time they were written. To the best of my ability, I will note at the beginning of each piece the context in which it was written. This is the first such piece.

I wrote this in mid-to-late November, 2020, primarily in response to commentary blaming “defund the police” activists for Democratic underperformance in the 2020 elections.

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Initial 2020 Election Takeaways:

The 2020 election was a split decision. Here are my preliminary conclusions about the import, and implications, of this election.

1. Don’t Buy Early Conclusions

Even a month after the election, we still do not yet have a complete picture of how this country voted. Of course, we have enough information to make some conclusions. That being said, many people jumped to conclusions in the days and weeks after the election about what happened and why, before the ballots were fully counted. They were either making big analytical mistakes or engaging in disingenuous narrative setting.

In broad strokes, we know (1) that Biden won; (2) that Democrats did not gain as many seats in the Senate as they had hoped, in large part because many Senate candidates underperformed in comparison to Biden; and (3) Democrats lost several seats from their House majority, again largely because they underperformed Biden. We also know the winners of various ballot initiatives, and (many, but not quite all) state and local races, and can draw conclusions about the implications of those races. Each of these are discussed below.

Beyond this, it is still too early to evaluate what worked for Democrats and what did not. On election night we thought that Biden had vastly underperformed his polling numbers, and commentary lambasted the pollsters and election forecasters. As more votes were counted, it became clear that the election was not as close as it had appeared on election night, and that polling was perhaps not as erroneous as early returns suggested, at least at the presidential level. In the end, it appears that this election’s polling errors will end up being pretty similar to those in previous elections. Further down the ballot, there are still several races that remain undecided. And even many of the elections with clear winners experienced significant shifts in the margins well after they were the subject of significant commentary. This may not matter in terms of who wields power, but margins matter in terms of how we evaluate which strategies worked and which did not. Nevertheless, moderate Democrats wasted little time in blaming the left wing of the party for the Party’s supposedly underwhelming performance. The left wing fired back, though they laid the blame less in terms of ideological complaints about the moderates as in basic outreach issues.

Coincidentally, it seems like virtually every commentator somehow drew conclusions about the election that matched their prior beliefs. This is a sign that this commentary was disingenuous. In short, many of the people who have published decisive evaluations about how and why Democrats failed this election cycle are fighting an internal ideological battle (or are outsiders who have a clear preference as to which side of the Democratic Party’s internal battle they prefer) and are trying to set a narrative to further their side of that fight, no matter the actual relationship of that narrative to reality.

There is no clearer example of this than in New York. The state, especially in the New York City area, is notoriously slow to count absentee ballots. And even before the election, savvy observers knew that the absentee ballots would skew heavily towards Democrats. Nevertheless, when initial Election Day returns showed Republicans leading in many competitive legislative races, Republicans and pro-police activists claimed that the election represented a rebuke to criminal justice reform. Governor Cuomo got into the act and scolded those pushing policing reforms. This conclusion about the import of the election was obviously premature and made in bad faith. The results were not final, and there was every reason to believe that the Republican leads were illusory. Democrats will ultimately gain, not lose, seats in the Senate (Democrats already have a veto-proof majority in the Assembly). Indeed, they will gain a supermajority for the first time in memory. Yet, despite this, the narrative that police reform harmed Democratic candidates may be difficult to unwind, and may make it more challenging to convince moderate and liberal Democratic voters to support reform-minded candidates in future elections. Many casual voters will never hear that Democrats did not end up losing any significant power after Republicans tried to make the 2020 state elections a referendum on defunding the police. Moreover, even people who do hear that Democrats did not lose many (if any) seats may not re-evaluate their opinion that police reform (or defunding the police) is a losing political issue, even though the only evidence its proponents ever cited to support their claim was a mere mirage.

To be clear, I believe that evaluating House and state legislative races can eventually shed some light on the longstanding question dividing Democrats: whether progressive stances harm a candidate’s chances of winning in a competitive general election. But, anecdotes are not data, and evaluating this question requires evaluating all Democratic candidates and comparing results across all races. Until we have final data from all races (including presidential results by congressional and legislative district), this sort of comparative analysis cannot be done in a rigorous and meaningful way. Conclusions drawn before this data is available about which approach Democrats should take in the future are not supported by evidence, and are either being made in bad faith, or being made by people who are making amateur mistakes.

That being said, there are a few conclusions that we can draw already.

2. Donald Trump Lost! This Is a Very Big Fucking Deal!

Donald Trump was a significant threat to American democracy. American democracy is far from perfect, and Donald Trump was by no means the first person to endanger it. Nor does defeating Donald Trump mean that there is no longer a clear and present threat to democracy. But I do not exaggerate when I say that a Donald Trump win was probably the end of any semblance of democracy in this country. There is a reason that the day the election was called the streets of major cities across the United States resembled the closing scenes in Return of the Jedi. And it wasn’t because of any particular love for Joe Biden.

Defeating a fascist is no easy task. Once in power, a fascist is incredibly difficult to dislodge. I cannot actually think of another recent example where a wannabe authoritarian succeeded in taking power democratically, used that power to attack disfavored minorities, and failed to win reelection. Defeating Trump was especially remarkable because Republicans engaged in myriad schemes to disenfranchise and suppress their political opposition. Despite all of that, Trump was defeated. Democrats did not get everything they wanted out of this election and suffered disheartening defeats elsewhere on the ballot, but defeating Donald Trump, and stopping fascism at least temporarily, is something worthy of celebration.

To the extent that Democrats lament that Biden did not win by more, I think they misunderstand the political headwinds facing Biden. Yes, Trump had overseen a farcical and calamitous response to a pandemic. But, across the world (and the United States), political leaders saw huge rises in their favorability ratings as the pandemic raged, a phenomenon not limited to places where leaders did a good job. Further contributing to skewed expectations, Democrats misread the national sentiment about the economy. They repeatedly warned that the pandemic would lead to a catastrophic economic collapse, but, despite a significant market crash in March, ordinary people ended up in a better position financially than they had been at the beginning of the pandemic.[1] Democrats thought that Trump’s COVID response and the economy would lead to a widespread rebellion against him, but as of Election Day, many Americans were as secure in their finances as they had been in a long time, believed that the economy was fine (or if it wasn’t that Trump was not at fault for it — it was either the fault of the virus or the fault of Democrats who were intentionally shutting down the economy for political reasons), and believed that the worst of COVID was behind us. Defeating an incumbent president who is perceived as good for the economy is very difficult. To the extent Democrats thought this would be easy, or should have been a blowout, they were misreading the political climate.

Biden did underperform his predicted margin of victory by a few percentage points. And he may have underperformed in some swing states by an even larger margin than that. But, given the peculiarities of the Electoral College, Biden needed to win by a lot to win the presidency, and he did. In fact, Biden did not just need to win, but he needed to win clearly (by a margin large enough that the Republican-aligned courts would have feared igniting widespread civil unrest if they handed victory to Trump). And he succeeded. Huzzah!

3. The Democratic Legislative Agenda, and Structural Changes, Are on Hold at the Federal Level

Before the election, many Democrats hoped the Party would win the Presidency, Senate, and House. If they succeeded, Democrats could push through significant portions of their legislative agenda, like adding a public option to the Affordable Care Act and passing a new Voting Rights Act. Moreover, there were hopes that Democrats would make systemic changes that leveled the playing field, including eliminating the filibuster, granting statehood to DC and Puerto Rico (if they wanted it), and expanding the Court. Depending on the outcome of the two Georgia runoffs, Democrats may still win a majority in the Senate. But, even if Democrats emerge victorious in both Georgia runoffs, the Democratic legislative agenda,[2] on the federal level, will have to wait at least two more years.

There is a significant difference between winning a majority in the Senate, and winning a functional majority in the Senate. Realistically, to have any real chance at enacting their more ambitious legislative proposals or pushing through systemic changes, Democrats needed to pick up at least 5 Senate seats, given that Joe Manchin and Dianne Feinstein would probably oppose any foundational changes. There may have been more Democratic Senators who had reservations about changing the filibuster, adding states, or expanding the Court.[3]

In the end, Democrats will gain only one to three Senate seats, a major disappointment considering that they had expected to gain at least three, and hoped for anywhere between four and eight. As with the presidential race, however, I believe that Democratic expectations were a bit out of line with reality. There were four races in historically Republican-leaning states that were close at the presidential level (Arizona, North Carolina, and two in Georgia), and Democrats won one of them, lost one, and two went to run-offs. This is well within what should have been expected. And Democrats lost in every state that Trump won, which again should not have been a surprise. In short, given the results at the presidential level, we should have expected Democrats to gain between one and five seats, and they did. Outside of Maine, and to a lesser extent North Carolina, there were no races that Democrats lost that they should have won. And winning a Senate seat in Arizona and forcing run-offs in the Georgia races is not an insignificant accomplishment given that these states almost invariably elect Republicans in state-wide races.

That being said, Democrats should engage in a serious evaluation about what they could have done better in the Senate this cycle. Given that Senate apportionment elevates Republican-aligned constituencies (white and rural), Democrats need to figure out how to remain competitive in swing and red states if they ever want to gain control of the Senate.

The most pressing question that Democrats need to answer though is why so many swing and red state Democratic Senate candidates underperformed the top of the ticket. Polling conducted in the weeks before the election suggested that Democratic candidates were leading in Maine and North Carolina, perhaps tied in Iowa, and were at least competitive in Alaska, Montana, Texas, South Carolina, and Kansas. At other times in the cycle, Kentucky and Alabama looked potentially competitive as well. These polls were notable in that, almost uniformly, the Democratic Senate candidates did as well or better against their Republican counterparts than Biden did against Trump (Maine was the one exception). In the end, very few of the Democratic Senate candidates surpassed Biden’s performance by any significant amount. There could be a variety of explanations for the poor performance of Democratic Senate candidates. I’m not sure which is or are correct, but at least two make sense to me (these two are not mutually exclusive).

First, it is possible that a significant number of moderate voters who voted for Biden at the presidential level, split their tickets. This makes some sense to me (at least in that it did enough to counteract any ticket-splitting done in the opposite direction). Voters who were anti-Trump (as opposed to pro-Biden or pro-Democrat), cared more about removing Trump from power than empowering Biden. Once it became clear that Biden was a heavy favorite in the presidential race,[4] many of these anti-Trump moderates, who might have considered voting for a Democratic Senate candidate to check Trump if they believed Trump had a real chance to win re-election, decided to split their ticket.[5]

Indeed, the Democratic Party’s messaging at the top of its ticket in 2020 may have helped steer moderate voters to this outcome. Joe Biden’s entire campaign was about removing Trump from office,[6] and his general election rhetoric seemed premised on the idea that Trump was an aberration, even among Republicans. This strategy may have worked for Biden, but it did so at the expense of downballot candidates. In arguing that Trump was an aberration and downballot Republicans were reasonable, Biden (possibly inadvertently) undercut the Democratic Senate candidates in swing states. If the top of the ticket is saying that downballot Republicans are okay, then some voters might listen. Moreover, because Biden downplayed his affirmative plans once in office, moderate anti-Trump voters were probably wary of what he would do with power, and might have been more willing to split their tickets.

In short, the Democratic messaging at the top of the ticket was that Trump needed to be removed, but downballot Republicans were not a problem. The results suggest that many voters took that message to heart.

Second, and somewhat relatedly, the slate of Democratic Senate candidates was deeply disappointing. Once the presidential campaign was primarily about removing Trump (and especially once it appeared that a Biden win was inevitable), it was imperative that Senate candidates have an independent affirmative reason for their candidacies. Fail to do so in swing or Republican-leaning states, and they would suffer an inevitable defeat. In states Trump won, he would carry his downballot sycophants to victory. In swing or red states where anti-Trump sentiment was enough to carry Biden to victory, ticket-splitters would make it difficult for Democratic Senate challengers to emerge victorious absent some other reason to support the Democrat.

Unfortunately, many of the Democratic candidates for Senate failed miserably in building an affirmative case for their candidacies. I believe that this was by design. I have previously expressed my deep dissatisfaction with the types of candidates that Democratic insiders empower, and with this specific cohort of Democratic Senate candidates.[7] Suffice to say that insiders often elevate candidates who are unthreatening to the Party’s traditional sources of fundraising (namely, finance) and are difficult to attack from the right. But, these milquetoast moderates, who often hail from backgrounds at odds with traditional Democratic constituencies (backgrounds like financiers, prosecutors, real estate developers, management consultants, etc.), struggle to lay out an affirmative case for their candidacies, which in turn makes it very difficult for them to actually win in swing and red states.

It becomes especially difficult to comprehend the strategy of elevating centrist voices if we question whether these candidates are in fact better able to withstand Republican attacks. I believe that a lack of an affirmative case for their candidacy also makes a candidate more vulnerable to minor scandals. If a candidate has a reason for running, then voters can forgive personal transgressions. But if there is no real reason to be in the race, then the candidate gets defined by the one thing notable about them — the scandal. We saw this in North Carolina this cycle. Making matters worse, and contrary to popular opinion, I believe that centrist candidates are actually more vulnerable to bad faith left-baiting than progressives/activists, not less. This is because centrist Democrats never have compelling responses to accusations that they are allies of Nancy Pelosi, AOC, Obama, “defund the police,” “Socialism!,” or whoever or whatever the Republicans try to turn into a boogeyman. Centrists tend to respond to these accusations by distancing themselves from these figures and issues. But, even in moderate and swing districts, many of the local Democrats really like these figures or issues. Bashing national Democratic figures and the left wing of the Party demoralizes the folks who are most likely to knock on doors, phone bank, make social media posts, etc. And even though these folks might still vote for the centrist Democrat, they may focus their organizing and persuasion efforts on other races (especially during a pandemic when most get-out-the-vote work is being done remotely). Moreover, centrist efforts to distance themselves from the Party inevitably ring hollow and/or make the candidate appear untrustworthy. If a voter wants a candidate to stand up to the left, then surely the Republican in the race will be the better choice, and it is hard to believe that a candidate wants to disassociate himself with Pelosi et. al. when that candidate voluntarily runs as a Democrat. Candidates with a strong affirmative case for their candidacy do not fall into this trap.

Democrats need to figure this out by 2022. They have vulnerable seats to protect in Nevada, Arizona, New Hampshire, and possibly Georgia (if Warnock wins the special election runoff). On the flip side, Democrats have meaningful pick-up opportunities in a few swing states: Pennsylvania (Toomey is retiring),[8] North Carolina (Burr is retiring), and Wisconsin (Ron Johnson is an idiot). There are also some slightly red-leaning states where if things go right, Democrats could mount a serious challenge, including Florida, Ohio, and Iowa. And depending on the national political environment, Democrats could also vie for seats in North and South Dakota (if there is a localized backlash due to the region’s particularly inept COVID response), and Alaska (though the change to a top-four primary might moot this — Murkowski may have no reason to kowtow to Republican idiocy if she has no reason to fear losing a primary). They must gain seats in 2022 (a) if they want to get anything done, and (b) to offset inevitable losses in 2024 when Democrats who won in red states in the blue wave year of 2018 must face their voters in a presidential election year. I cannot imagine that Democrats will hold onto all of their vulnerable seats that cycle, given that they must defend seats in West Virginia, Montana, Ohio, Arizona, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Minnesota, among others.

4. In the House, Progressives Gained Power and Centrists Lost Power

It is still too early to draw meaningful conclusions about what worked and what did not work in the House. Again, this requires comparing how each House candidate did to the presidential results in their district, and then figure out whether any types of candidates (ideological leanings, campaign strategy, personal background, etc.) did particularly well or poorly. This information is not available yet.

The most important takeaway before this data becomes available is that Democrats will still have a House majority in 2021. This is a big deal given the structural impediments facing the Party. Because of a combination of natural geographic sorting and the post-2010 gerrymanders still existent in a number of states, Democrats needed to win a fairly significant majority of the underlying vote to retain control of the House. That they did is something to be celebrated.

The Democratic margin in the House did, however, get quite a bit smaller. Once all the ballots are fully counted, Republicans will probably end up gaining somewhere between 10–15 House seats, meaning that Democrats will only have a few more House members than the bare minimum necessary for a majority. Though this may sound bad, this actually dramatically increases the power of leftists/progressives. The “Squad” grew from 4 to at least 7 members (Jamaal Bowman, Cori Bush, and Marie Newman will join, and others may as well) and once other progressives like Pramila Jayapal and Barbara Lee are accounted for, the number of leftists in the House is likely to exceed the Democratic margin in the chamber. As a result, the House leadership must decide, with each bill, whether to make it palatable to leftists, or to Republicans. To the extent that they choose the former, it gives the leftists a significant amount of power. If the latter, Democratic leadership will make it very easy for activists to make a strong case against them in the 2022 primaries.

In a related development, the 2020 House races also reflected some good riddance to bad rubbish. Many of the worst Democrats in the House lost their seats. Some lost theirs in the primaries (e.g. Lipinski and Engel). Others lost in the general election (e.g. Shalala). There remains only one Democratic House member who is Democratic in name only (Cuellar). There are others who are problematic on certain issues, or who wield power in ways that benefit the wealthy and connected (e.g., Neal), and still more who are less courageous than they should be. But, when the new Congress is sworn in, socialists/leftists have the ability to prevent legislation from passing by party line, and conservatives in the Democratic Party do not. This is perhaps the first time in my life that this is the case.

5. The House and State Legislatures Are Going to Be Big Problems for the Next Decade

With the new decade, comes a census and new legislative maps. After the 2010 election, Republicans stormed to power in myriad states and gerrymandered them so egregiously that for the entire decade, their legislatures and congressional delegations more closely resembled what the 2010 electorate wanted than what the most recent election. For example, in Wisconsin, Republicans have held between 60% and two-thirds of the state legislative seats for an entire decade, even though Democrats won more votes in several elections in that time. It was a similar story in Michigan, where Republicans held large majorities in both chambers in the state legislature even though Democrats consistently won the majority of the underlying statewide votes (Republicans won the statewide vote for a chamber just once in the decade, in 2014 when their Senate candidates collectively won by a narrow margin over the Democratic slate). Pennsylvania and North Carolina had similar experiences. So too slightly Republican-leaning states like Ohio, Florida, and Georgia.

Maps will be re-drawn again in 2020, and Democrats had hopes of winning enough power in state legislatures to prevent another decade of meaningless state-level elections with foreordained outcomes. Alas, Democrats did not do well enough in 2020 to break the GOP stranglehold over the legislatures in any of the states gerrymandered after 2010. Republicans still control both legislative chambers in, among other states, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Ohio, Texas, and Wisconsin. They also control state legislatures in a number of deep red states like Indiana, Missouri, and Tennessee. As a result, Republicans will have the power in 2020 to gerrymander state legislatures and a huge number of congressional districts. Making matters worse, the Trump Administration appears to have intentionally botched the census, leading to systemic undercounts in areas that typically lean Democratic. Moreover, at least some Republican-controlled states have signaled that rather than draw districts to equalize persons living within them, they will use the citizen voting age population (CVAP) as the basis for the districts they draw, which will further disempower Democratic areas.[9]

Now, Democrats do have some power to prevent egregious gerrymanders in some of these states. In North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Michigan, a majority of the state Supreme Court is Democratic, and the state supreme courts can invalidate egregious legislative and congressional maps. In Arizona (which was not gerrymandered after 2010, but still has a narrow Republican majority in both chambers of the legislature) and Michigan, districts will be drawn by a nonpartisan committee. And in Wisconsin, the Republican legislature does not have the votes to override the Democratic governor’s inevitable veto of their proposed gerrymandered maps. But, Republicans will still have the ability to gerrymander Florida, Georgia, Ohio, Texas, and a number of red states. Moreover, I worry that the U.S. Supreme Court will find an excuse to intervene where state supreme courts rely on state law to invalidate gerrymanders, and uphold the gerrymanders. I worry that supposedly nonpartisan or bipartisan redistricting committees will act in partisan ways, and that if they draw fair districts over the objections of the Republican-controlled legislatures, the Supreme Court will find these sorts of redistricting entities unconstitutional (Arizona’s was upheld by only a single vote a few years ago, and since then two justices in that decision’s majority (Kennedy and Ginsburg) have been replaced by justices perceived as hostile to voting rights (Kavanaugh and Barrett)). I also worry that where Democratic governors veto gerrymandered maps, Republican-leaning courts will side with the state legislature and allow the implementation of egregious gerrymanders.

In short, given current legislative compositions, at least a third of the country, and up to half, could find itself subject to Republican gerrymanders for another decade. This is very very very bad. Where an electoral system empowers an electoral minority to rule over a majority in perpetuity, no matter the outcome of elections, it has no democratic legitimacy. Another decade of egregious gerrymanders risks unrest that destroys what is left of the social fabric in the country.

6. Don’t Despair, a lot of Good Things Happened Downballot in 2020!

Obviously, the state of the state legislatures after the 2020 elections is a huge problem. But there were plenty of encouraging downballot results too. Overall, the downballot elections were a mixed bag, and perhaps provide a hint at a path for Democrats moving forward.

First, the good news. Legalizing marijuana won everywhere it was on the ballot, including in Republican-leaning states like Montana and South Dakota. Democrats would be idiotic to not adopt marijuana legalization into their platform (especially given how the war on drugs has destroyed communities of color). Increasing the minimum wage to $15 per hour passed easily in Florida even though even though Democrats suffered big disappointments up and down the ballot otherwise (and, inexplicably, distanced themselves from the popular ballot measure). And, given the success of Medicaid expansion in recent elections, I suspect that further Medicaid expansions (maybe to 300% of the poverty line) and lowering the eligibility age for Medicare would prove popular with the public. Finally, voters in Nevada passed overwhelmingly a state constitutional amendment that overturned a constitutional ban on same sex marriage and enshrined that right into the state constitution. Given that some of the Republicans on the Supreme Court have indicated that they intend to overturn Obergefell v. Hodges, same sex marriage may once again move to the political forefront. If Nevada is indication, establishing LGBTQ rights is a winning issue, politically, for Democrats. In short, there are several policies that Democrats can and should embrace that clearly appeal to a much broader base of the population than the cohort that consistently votes Democratic.

There were also a number of big wins for criminal justice advocates. In California, voters rejected efforts to roll back several recent criminal justice reforms. The lone exception was an elimination of cash bail measure that was so flawed that several civil rights groups declined to take a position on it. The biggest district attorney race in the country was in Los Angeles, where a reform candidate defeated the pro-incarceration incumbent. In the biggest sheriff race in the country, Phoenix elected a Democrat over a Joe Arpaio protégé (although the county narrowly re-elected its Republican district attorney). And in New Orleans, former public defenders won judicial elections, perhaps previewing a new front in abolitionist politics (prior to this election, anti-incarceration advocacy had centered on winning district attorney positions and legislative seats, not judgeships). This was not the only judicial election with encouraging results. Democrats gained control of the Michigan Supreme Court, and narrowed the Republican majority in the Ohio Supreme Court to 4–3. The North Carolina Supreme Court elections were extraordinarily close, but it looks like Democrats lost all three races by less than two percentage points (one by fewer than a thousand votes statewide). Fortunately, Democrats still have a majority on the court.

It was a mixed bag for democratic (small-d measures). In Virginia, voters approved a measure establishing a nonpartisan redistricting commission. Puerto Rico narrowly passed a statehood referendum, paving the way for Democrats to offer statehood status to the territory once if and when they recapture the Senate. Florida rejected a top-two primary system, which tends to diminish the clout of left-wing candidates while also empowering party insiders. In Alaska, voters approved a top-four primary system, which will probably insulate moderate Republicans from primary challenges. And in Mississippi (of all places), voters overturned a Jim Crow era gubernatorial election system that virtually guaranteed that Republicans would win the governor’s race, no matter the actual preference of the voters. On the other hand, in Missouri, voters overturned that state’s commission, opening the way for Republicans to gerrymander the state in 2020. And several states passed constitutional amendments banning noncitizens from voting in state and local elections (some municipalities have allowed legal permanent residents to vote in local elections).

The worst news of the election (in terms of ballot initiatives) probably came from California. There, voters appear to have rejected a measure that would have unwound some of the worst effects of Proposition 13, the anti-property-tax measure that has defined California’s fiscal policy since its passage in 1978. The proposition makes it incredibly difficult to raise money for services, and also exacerbates inequality. California voters also narrowly passed Proposition 22, which carves out a labor law exception for Lyft and Uber so that they can exploit their drivers. The two companies spent hundreds of millions of dollars to ensure the initiative’s passage, which was in response to California’s legislature passing a law seeking to define the app’s drivers as employees, as opposed to independent contractors. Expect the companies to undertake similar measures if and when other states force them to treat their employees as employees.

Conclusion:

The 2020 election was, in the end, a mixed bag. We wanted a rebuke of Trump, and got it, albeit narrowly. The rebuke of his sycophants never materialized, and it is unclear whether several of his most egregious enablers will ever be held to account. We dodged a bullet insofar as a Trump win may have ended the American democratic experiment, but those who elevated Trump still remain largely in power. And they remain uncomfortably close to having the power they need to impose permanent minority rule, as they have already done at the state level all across the country. The split decision of the 2020 election means that the upcoming elections will be incredibly important. Unless the Democrats gain control of the Senate in 2022 (and hold onto the House), Biden will be unable to enact any of his legislative agenda, and he will be vulnerable in 2024. More importantly, unless Democrats take control of the Senate, they will be unable to make any of the structural changes necessary to level the playing field in future elections. Defeating Trump was a huge relief, but the country remains on the precipice of permanent minority rule, and the fight must continue to 2022, 2024, and beyond.

Footnotes:

[1] Yes, this was a mirage mostly attributable to temporary COVID aid demanded by Democrats, and there is a strong possibility that absent a second relief bill there will be a major economic slowdown. Nevertheless, as of Election Day, Trump had a positive approval rating when it came to his handling of the economy.

[2] That being said, there is a lot that Democrats can get done solely through the executive branch. The American Prospect has a terrific series of articles exploring possible executive actions that the Biden Administration can take to implement priorities in the Democratic agenda even without legislative support.

[3] I’m actually skeptical that even a big Democratic win would have resulted in foundational changes. The more Senate seats Democrats won, the more difficult it would have been to convince the caucus’s more conservative and institutionalist members that the system was fundamentally broken and needed significant change.

[4] Biden was not really seen as inevitable until the last week or so before Election Day, so this phenomenon of voters deciding to split their tickets to check Biden might have occurred too late in the process to really get picked up in any significant way by pollsters.

[5] I especially like this theory because it comports with some of the dynamics at play in the 2016 and 2018 elections. In 2016, I believe that most voters, even some voters who did not like Trump, saw Hillary Clinton as the heavy favorite to win. This made it nearly impossible for Democratic Senate candidates to win crossover votes from Republicans and anti-Trump independents, who voted for Republicans downballot to act as a check on Clinton. In the end, Democratic Senate candidates underperformed Clinton, and Democrats lost Senate races in winnable (but not easy) places like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. This dynamic reversed in 2018. With Trump in office, moderate and independent voters who might otherwise have considered voting Republican as a check on a Democratic president, wanted to impose a Congressional check on Trump, so they voted for Democrats downballot. This gave Democrats control of the House despite many states being egregiously gerrymandered, and prevented Democrats from losing tons of seats in what was a very unfavorable Senate map in 2018 (Democrats lost a couple of seats in deep red states, but they also held onto seats in Republican states like West Virginia, Montana, and Ohio and in numerous swing states).

[6] He won the Democratic primary largely on the strength of his argument that he was the candidate best positioned to defeat Trump. In the general election, he campaigned on the idea that by defeating Trump, he would restore America’s soul.

[7] In case you are curious, I was most disappointed with Cunningham (NC), Greenfield (IA), McGrath (KY), Hegar (TX), and Ossoff (GA) (though to be fair to Ossoff, he ran a much more compelling campaign in 2020 than in 2017). In each of these races, insider Democrats spent millions of dollars (in McGrath’s case, it was nearly $20 million), to elevate milquetoast moderate candidates in competitive primaries. The primary is about figuring out which candidate can make a compelling affirmative case for their candidacy, and national Democrats destroyed that process in several states. Not only did this lead to a cohort of uninspiring candidates in an incredibly important election, but by depriving more compelling candidates from the chance to run a general election, these races represent a lost opportunity for Democrats to build their base of support in these states.

[8] I hope John Fetterman, the Lieutenant Governor, runs for this seat. He ran for Senate in 2016 and fell victim to one of the Democratic establishment primary specials (party insiders spent millions of dollars in the primary to ensure that a bland former prosecutor (Katie McGinty) won the Democratic nomination. McGinty predictably ran behind Hillary Clinton in the state and Republicans held onto the Senate seat when Clinton surprisingly lost the state to Trump).

[9] Drawing districts based on CVAP, rather than population, is surely unconstitutional. It deviates from centuries of precedent and the plain text of the Constitution. That being said, using CVAP as the basis for legislative and congressional districts would strongly benefit Republicans, so I find it plausible that this Supreme Court will refuse to pose an obstacle to states that employ this mechanism.