Commentary: How Joe Biden won the 2020 US presidential election
COVID-19 had a role to play, but the Democrats also ran a tight ship in getting voters to vote as well as rebuilding the "Blue Wall" of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, say Steven R Okun and Thurgood Marshall Jr.
SINGAPORE: His thorough, methodical and carefully mapped-out campaign ended with US President-elect Joe Biden receiving the most votes of anyone who has ever ran for President, giving him a decisive victory in both the popular vote while on track to match President Donald Trump’s margin in the Electoral College in 2016.
When all the votes are counted, Joe Biden-Kamala Harris are projected to beat Donald Trump-Mike Pence by nearly 7 million votes.
Incumbent US presidents do not often lose. Only four have this past century – George HW Bush, Jimmy Carter, Gerald Ford and Herbert Hoover, all, like Trump, leading the country during an economic recession.
Further, most incumbents do not run for re-election in the midst of a pandemic hammering the United States from both a health and economic perspective.
COVID-19 THE KEY FACTOR
With more than four in 10 voters saying the pandemic is the most important challenge facing the country, President Trump could not get enough voters to think of the election as a choice between himself and Joe Biden as to whom could get the economy moving once the pandemic passed.
If anything, Donald Trump’s catching the coronavirus in the waning days of the campaign underscored his inability to mitigate the spread of the virus. If the President of the United States could not protect himself, how could he protect the average American?
He might have won some back after he recovered but overall, with his barnstorming of the country, 5 per cent of voters disapproved of Trump’s handling of the pandemic the week the country went to the polls, according to a Washington Post survey.
Part of the reason might have been the economic pains Americans have suffered from being laid off or furloughed.
But if the announcement of a likely effective vaccine had come a week before the election rather than a few days afterwards, the result could have been different.
BIDEN REBUILT THE ‘BLUE WALL’
With the outcome of the popular vote never in doubt, a great deal of suspense occurred on Election Day and for a few more days beyond, given the peculiarities of the US electoral process and its inherent favouring of small states which are predominantly Republican coupled with the unprecedented vote-by-mail, with a preponderance of them coming from Democrats, which are only counted after Election Day in key states.
The Biden campaign knew if it could rebuild the “Blue Wall” of the industrial states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin which traditionally voted Democratic but did not in 2016, while holding on to all the states that Hillary Clinton won in 2016, the Democrats would make Donald Trump a one-term President and so they banked on that.
Flipping Arizona and potentially Georgia from “red” to “blue” provides an extra margin of victory in the Electoral College, potentially bringing Joe Biden the same vote total there as Trump received in 2016, which the President then described as “a massive landslide victory” for himself.
Biden-Harris won by such a large margin in part because they brought many Democrats home.
Still, voters showed they favour split government, keeping (at least for now) control of the Senate in Republican hands, which, in the best case, will lead to compromise to address key issues facing the country, from the pandemic to healthcare to climate change and beyond.
FOCUSING ON OBAMA NON-VOTERS AND MIDDLE-GROUND SWING VOTERS IN KEY STATES
From the get-go, the Democrats knew they had to win over a few key voter segments.
In 2016, there were 4.4 million people who voted for Obama-Biden in 2012 but did not bother to vote at all for Clinton-Kaine. Joe Biden knew he could win if he could get a fraction of those voters in the right states to come out for him in 2020.
In addition, there were 2.3 million Obama-Biden voters in who voted for a third-party candidate in 2016. Again, if Joe Biden could get a fraction of those voters, he would win.
As such, the Biden-Harris campaign targeted those voters heavily. In particular, with its hallmarks of being well organised, well thought out and well funded, the Biden campaign never lost focus on rebuilding the Blue Wall.
“If I’m going to beat Donald Trump in 2020, it’s going to happen here,” the President-elect told voters in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania during his first address of his primary campaign in April 2019.
Joe Biden spent US$169.2 million on advertising in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin alone. By contrast, Joe Biden spent US$100 million less in Texas and Arizona.
Democratic strategist Michael Meehan remarked it would have been cheaper just to buy a bunch of radio stations in those states.
The campaign did not just spend money there. Bernie Sanders went to Michigan in the waning days of the campaign to ensure college students and younger voters – including the Bernie Bros – came out to vote Democratic this time. Sanders also dropped out months earlier this time than in 2016 from the Democrat primaries, allowing the party more time to consolidate.
And Vice-President-elect Harris spent Election Day in Detroit, making sure every possible voter came out for the Democrats.
It turned out to be time and money well spent.
In addition to bringing out core Democrats, the suburbs there turned against Donald Trump, with families opposed to his absolutist position on gun rights and tired of having to home-school their children due to a failure to implement a national plan to combat the pandemic.
For example, Biden received about 150,000 more votes in 2020 than Clinton did in 2016 across Philadelphia’s four suburban counties, more than enough votes to offset Trump’s victory last time.
Trump may claim he lost due to fraudulent voter turnout in the cities, which have been shown to be baseless, but he failed to beat Biden in both the cities and the suburbs.
A TRANSITION UNLIKE ANY OTHER WITH NO HONEYMOON IN SIGHT
The transition of power from Donald Trump to Joe Biden will be unlike any other Presidential transition in history.
Donald Trump will no longer be President starting at noon on Jan 20, 2021. But the question remains when and how he will concede defeat, if he does at all.
His administration already denies the Biden organisation access to the traditional resources granted to incoming new administrations. No transition office space or salaries, no Inaugural planning or support.
Instead, Trump continues his fight against Joe Biden without abatement.
While George W Bush and a few other Republican leaders have congratulated Biden, the question also is whether the majority of the Republican leadership will back Trump’s position.
President-elect Biden should expect no middle ground for a while when he comes to office. He and his team will need to act quickly when it comes to their legislative agenda – meaning there can be no traditional honeymoon period.
There will be a tug-of-war within the Democratic party between the progressive and liberal wings on the one hand, which will want to enact as much of their agenda as possible, while the more moderate wing may first want to try for compromise, reaching out across the aisle to attract once again the working-class vote.
As strategist Bruce Mehlman points out in his post-election analysis, President-elect Biden needs to find a way to address the real concerns of many of the 70-plus million who voted for Trump, including the harm globalisation has caused the middle class and the fear that the new economy can leave them behind.
He has started doing so. Speaking at his victory celebration, Joe Biden said:
With the campaign over, it’s time to put the anger and the harsh rhetoric behind us and come together as a nation.
But with President Trump refusing to concede and receiving continued support from segments of the Republican party, and the left-wing of his own indicating it will push forward their agenda, President-elect Biden will have a difficult time bringing the nation together.
But at least he will try.
After all the United States has been through in 2020, the country has that for which to hope.