has caught up on his sleep sufficiently to offer some post-election thoughts
and a report card on our BTRTN predictions.
There are two natural questions to address after any major
election. One is to try to understand how
and why the winners won. And the second is
to see how the actual results compared to pre-election expectations, as set
traditionally by polls, and more recently by election forecasters who aggregate polls and build prediction models, including
The first question is worthy of deep analysis, and it is a bit too early for that. But we will give
some initial reflections on the election results, what happened and what they
mean. And for the second question, we
offer our “report card.” Even though a
number of races have yet to be called, we think we have enough to paint a
general picture of how we did.
The basic facts are clear, if not the precise final
results: Joe Biden won the presidency;
the Republicans held on to the Senate, subject to a challenge in Georgia in
January, the Democrats held the House, albeit losing at least five net seats,
and the GOP flipped one governorship.
For the purposes of what follows, we will assume, with
respect to the uncalled races, that Biden will win Georgia and Arizona, while
Trump will win Alaska and North Carolina, and the Senate races in Alaska and
North Carolina will go to the GOP. We
will make no assumptions about the remaining 21 House races, except that the
Democrats will indeed retain the majority, even though they are two seats short
of control right now, at 216 called seats (versus 198 for the GOP).
Perhaps the most interesting factoid of the entire election
is that of the roughly 175 Republican incumbents that ran for re-election in
2020, only three were voted out of office:
Senator Corey Gardner of Colorado, Senator Martha McSally of Arizona,
and President Donald J. Trump. Not a
single Republican member of the House of Representatives lost a House seat (the
Democrats have flipped three seats so far, but in each the GOP incumbent had
retired), and not a single GOP Governor was voted out of office. This election was hardly a repudiation of the
Republican Party, which has been completely recast as the party of Trump. But it was
a repudiation of Trump himself.
Joe Biden won the presidency, and while it was a close
race, the final tallies will not be that close.
He will win the popular vote by five million votes, and compile a 306-214
win in the Electoral College. While it
is true that he won four states by a point or less, that is likely to be the
norm in any race of this polarized era that does not feature a transforming
candidate (such as Barack Obama). It
sure felt closer, due to the agonizingly slow motion count of the mail-in
ballots in multiple states, which gave the illusion of a “comeback.” But this was not a 270-268 nail biter.
Biden ended up flipping five states from 2016. These included the famous troika of Michigan,
Pennsylvania and Wisconsin that Trump won by a combined 78,000 votes in 2016, flipping
three states the Democrats had taken since 1992.
Biden also flipped Arizona and Georgia.
It is worth noting that Hillary Clinton outperformed Barack Obama in
only three states, and two of them were Arizona and Georgia. Clearly they were on a trend to turn blue at
some point, and this appears to be the year.
The third state? Texas. Romney won Texas by +16 in 2012; Trump won it
by +9 in 2016; and now Trump won it by +6 in 2020. Those 38 electoral votes will certainly be in
play again in 2024.
There will be much deep analysis of this election, when
valid post-election research is done. (I
urge caution in putting too much stock in “exit polls,” which have a far more
sordid history than polling itself, and given all the voting process dynamics
in play in 2020, I have less confidence in them than ever.)
But I will put forward a few simple propositions.
The first relates to Trump defectors. In the early months after his inauguration in
January, 2017, Donald Trump lost a few points in his approval rating, dropping
from 47% down into the low 40% range.
And he never recovered – not only did he become the first president to
never achieve an “above water” (50%+) approval rating, but he never got back to
47%. He seemed totally locked in the 43%
range, and as we pointed out time and again, no incumbent has ever won reelection
with such a low rating. (George W. Bush
pulled it off with a 48% rating in 2004, materially above Trump).
“Trumpgret” set in with a crucial sliver of Trump’s 2016 electoral support
– and that modest defection essentially prevented Trump from pulling off another “inside straight” win
in 2020. Instead of winning Michigan,
Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by 78,000 votes, he lost them by over 200,000.
And the second relates to Trump supporters. The question I have been getting more than
any other this past week is: how could almost half of America – 70 million and
counting — vote for Trump when his fingerprints are all over the scene of
the crime of the COVID deaths of more than 240,000 Americans? Frankly, I do not think the answer is
terribly complicated. Trump has made it
clear to his followers that he will absolutely make their jobs, their ability
to earn an honest wage, his first – even his only – priority. His
message, when you scrape away all the histrionics? “I will not let COVID-19 get in the way of
your job – no lockdowns on my watch. I
will not let the environmental threat get in the way – I will scrap those
costly green regulations. I will not let
undocumented immigrants get in the way – I will build a wall so they will not
take your jobs. I will bring back
manufacturing jobs. I will cut your
taxes.” It’s the economy, stupid…right? Trump’s followers believe in his economic
program, including his tax cuts, and they also favor the judges he appoints, his opposition
to abortion and gay marriage, and apparent alignment with their value system,
in word if not in deed. They are willing
to overlook his many character flaws because, to them, he is so clearly on
their side, fighting for them. They don’t
care about character flaws, lies, Constitutional niceties…or Joe Biden. It’s not that complicated.
With respect to COVID, think of it this way. Say an average town in the US has 20,000
residents. Such a town would have had
about 600 COVID cases by now (3%, the national average), and six residents would
have died from the scourge (1% of the 600).
Such a town might actually conclude that they would rather stay open for business and risk losing a few more lives, than
locking down, sacrificing thousands of jobs. That is how Donald Trump portrayed the
choice, when you get right down to it.
The tragedy is, it’s a false choice — if he just told them that they
could keep their local businesses open if they wore masks and practiced social
distancing, they could have had their jobs and virtually eliminated loss of
life. That will be Joe Biden’s plan. But the Trump voter listens only to Trump, so they bought into the false choice he presented.
Biden won because he wasn’t Trump, and also won because he
was also not Hillary Clinton. He ran as
Joe Biden, an authentic character, borne of Main Street, Scranton, Pa., a human
being who knows pain, even tragedy, makes mistakes (call them gaffes, if you
must), overcame a stutter and embraces old-school political values like working
across the aisle and the incremental change that the Senate of the United
States embodies. David Axelrod said that
in the 2008 campaign, they parked Joe Biden in the Midwest. In some sense, that is actually where they
found him, where he always was on the political map, and where he has been
running since the day he first announced his candidacy for the presidency back in 1987. But after two failed runs in 1988 and 2008,
this time, America was looking for him.
Biden did not have Obama’s magical touch, though, and so
the Democrats failed in their bid to gain control of the Senate, picking up
only one net seat instead of the three they needed, losing Alabama as expected,
but flipping Colorado (John Hickenlooper ejecting Gardner) and Arizona (Mark
Kelly defeating McSally, who has lost both
Senate seats in Arizona in two short years).
But they lost two other flips, in Maine and North Carolina, the latter
perhaps due to Cal Cunningham’s sexting scandal, which diminished his solid
lead, as well as four other races that qualified as toss-ups in Iowa, Kansas,
Montana and South Carolina.
But Democrats did force two run-off elections in Georgia,
and they will certainly have a chance in both come January 5, 2021. In both elections, they won 48% of the vote
(in the special election, that equaled the GOP); they have credible candidates;
this is now a blue state with the Biden win; and the entire Democratic
volunteer apparatus and fundraising machine will descend on the state in short
order. The Dems will be underdogs, but
not by much.
The only real shocker was in the House, where the Dems have
already lost a net of five seats and could lose a few more as the final 21 races are finalized in the coming days and weeks. They will emerge with a thinner majority,
surely the strongest sign that the GOP message – Trump’s message – has resonance. It remains to be seen whether the GOP prowess
in gerrymandering can continue to offset the demographic gains the Democrats
inexorably will continue to make.
The net of all this is that while Trump will be gone, his
message – his focus on the economy and jobs over all else – will remain. Whether this will resonate without him – and with
those ominous demographics moving in the Democrat’s direction – remains to be
seen. It will be Joe Biden’s challenge,
having won back the Rust Belt, to deliver on the implicit message that he has a
long-term economic solution for them, beyond “simply” solving COVID and taxing
Also worth noting is that, as you read this, Donald Trump
is making his final set of challenges to American institutions. His fraud charge was a direct test of our
electoral system, and our gloriously local election apparatus appears to have
passed in a heartwarming civics lesson. Americans
of all political stripes appear to have pulled off a fair election under
arduous conditions. Now we’ll see if the
courts step up and do their role in affirming that effort with 9-0 verdicts on
fraud cases put before them. We have to
see if the GOP ultimately tells Trump it is time to go, and if our police can
keep the peace if needed. If we meet all
those challenges, we will be in a better place than if Biden had sailed to a
413-125 landslide over Trump. Let’s show
Trump who is really in charge: the American voter.
HOW DID WE DO?
We sure got the headline wrong: “Biden Wins and Dems Achieve a Trifecta.” We got the Biden part right, but there was no
trifecta, at least for now.
But it was actually a pretty good performance overall. I’d give us an A for the presidential race
and the Governors, a B for the Senate, and a D for the House. Overall, in GPA terms, that averages out to a
B, and that feels about right.
In the presidential race, we got the
Biden win right, and correctly predicted 48 out of 50 states, and
53 out of 56 entities including DC and the Maine and Nebraska districts. We were wrong only in Florida (a bad switch
we made just before posting our final
predictions) and North Carolina. In both
states, the polls had Biden up by a point or two, and instead Trump won by
In the Senate, we made the right call in 33 out of 35 races, but the two
misses, in Maine and North Carolina, were enough to keep the Democrats from
taking control of the Senate, which we had predicted. Our favorite accurate prediction was that
Georgia’s regular election would join the special one in a runoff in
January. That, of course, could redeem
our “control” miss, since if the Democrats win both, they will indeed control
the Senate. We will be back on January
4, 2021 with those predictions.
We were correct on all 11 Governor races.
But the House was a disaster. Sure the Democrats kept control
of the House, as we predicted, but instead of gaining +18 seats, as predicted,
they have lost a net of -5 so far, and will lose a few more when all
is said and done. We have no good
explanation for this: the generic ballot has a very long history of being an
extremely accurate weathervane for the House, but this time it was clearly not. How the Dems led in the generic ballot by
+8.3 points and lost seats is a mystery to be analyzed in great depth, and we
will have to do some retooling of our models.
I think we did a reasonable job preparing readers for a
range of outcomes in the presidential race.
With 7 swing states totaling 133 electoral votes, we made clear that while
Joe Biden would win, his margin could be anywhere from a 413-125 landslide to a
280-258 squeaker. It was closer to the
latter, for sure, but well along the range.
All in all, the pollsters have some explaining to do. In looking at the presidential swing states,
you can see (in the chart below) that they were particularly bad in the Midwest,
apart from Minnesota. In essence, they
were right in that Biden won the states where he was ahead (Minnesota,
Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin), and lost the ones where he was behind
(Ohio and Iowa). But the winning margins
were much closer than expected, and the losing margins much greater. Note that the polling was much better in the
Sun Belt and the West, but still tended to overstate Biden’s strength by just a
Swing State Poll Avg
Actual Versus Polls
Biden + 7
Biden + 8
Biden + 1
Biden + 0
Biden + 3
Biden + 2
Biden + 3
Biden + 1
Trump + 3
Trump + 6
Biden + 2
Trump + 1
Biden + 5
Biden + 1
Biden + 2
Trump + 3
Biden + 8
Biden + 3
Trump + 1
Trump + 8
Biden + 8
Biden + 1
Trump + 8
verall, the polls were off a bit, but not enough to effect
the ultimate outcome. As said, based
largely on the polls, we were right in calling 10 of these 12 contested states,
five of which were tossups.
One memento (below) from Election Night…my “cheat sheet” tracking
the erosion of Trump’s lead in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as the
night wore on. I turned these into
extrapolation spreadsheet models on the morning of November 4, models that gave me great comfort in the ensuing days.
And now on to Georgia.