Elections have consequences, as the saying goes. And sometimes elections are the consequences.
Donald Trump has lost the presidency, as the television networks and decision desks have now declared. It will take time to sort through the results and talk to voters, in order to figure out exactly why they decided to oust him after one term. But Trump’s job performance surely had some impact.
The question is how much.
For most Americans, assessments of Trump lined up with prior political convictions: Republican voters thought he was doing well, Democratic voters didn’t. It is still very much a red America and a blue America, maybe more than at any time in modern history.
But partisans still must decide whether to vote. One reason Hillary Clinton lost in 2016 was that not enough of hers did. And then there are the less committed partisans ― the ones who don’t lean so strongly in one direction or the other, who think about the previous four years and the next, and who ask themselves which candidate promises to be a more capable, responsible leader.
Some combination of higher turnout among Democratic partisans and more of these independents voting Democratic is the reason that President-elect Joe Biden narrowly carried Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin ― three parts of the fabled “blue wall” that Trump had won narrowly in 2016, giving him the win.
It feels like a narrow victory, even if Biden also holds his current leads in Arizona and Georgia, because both the Electoral College itself and the results within those tipping states are genuinely close. But those thin margins are a product of the geographic distribution of the population and belie the much larger margin in the popular vote.
As of Friday, Biden’s lead over Trump in the popular vote was more than 4 million. By the time the counting is done, it could reach as high as 7 million. Biden’s final share of the popular vote is likely to end up around 52%, according to FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver.
That would be close to what Barack Obama got in 2008 and more than any Republican since George H.W. Bush in 1988.
Overall, the verdict in this election is unambiguous: The majority of citizens want Biden, not Trump, to run the country. Looking back on the last four years, It’s not at all hard to imagine why they might have made that decision.
Mismanagement of COVID-19
The most important issue of the past year and the one that reflects most directly on Trump’s job performance is his management of the COVID-19 pandemic. At last count, more than 230,000 Americans are dead, millions more have been sickened, and the country is in the middle of a third surge that epidemiologists predicted but that Trump insisted wouldn’t happen.
In the final week before Election Day, Trump barnstormed the country at rallies that were likely superspreader events, insisting that the country was “rounding the corner.” It was just the latest example of Trump pretending the crisis did not exist and failing to respond even when his own experts were asking and sometimes begging him to act ― a pattern that stretched all the way back to January, when Trump reportedly dismissed early warnings as “alarmist.”
When the numbers became too big to ignore, Trump promised that the outbreak was under control and would go away soon. It wasn’t and didn’t. When doctors, nurses and other health care providers were struggling to get protective supplies, Trump said the states should take charge ― even though, traditionally, the federal government did that.
Eventually the administration took more control of managing the crisis and at least one of its big initiatives, a big investment in vaccine development, seems likely to yield real relief soon. But that success always took place against the backdrop of Trump’s unscientific pronouncements on fighting the virus, from the hyping of hydroxychloroquine to the suggestion that injecting bleach was something to explore.
More consequently, perhaps, Trump dismissed the importance of masks and openly mocked Biden for wearing one. He continued to do this, amazingly, even after the White House event for Supreme Court nominee Amy Coney Barrett became a superspreader event ― and, even more amazingly, after he contracted the virus himself.
The ultimate Trump failure on COVID-19 was his apparent embrace of “herd immunity,” the concept of letting the virus run rampant while protecting the elderly and most vulnerable. Most public health experts rejected the strategy, partly because actually segregating the elderly and the vulnerable turns out to be difficult if not impossible ― which means that, in reality, it’s a strategy for more mass death among those groups.
Even COVID-19 Deaths Weren’t Enough To Shake Most Partisans
It’s clear that there were still plenty of Americans who looked at this record and agreed with Trump’s take ― or, at the very least, did not hold him responsible for the pandemic’s impact.
Some chafed at exhortations to wear masks, which became a cultural signifier in the red-versus-blue political wars, while others dismissed reports of sickness and death as “fake news.”
Those sentiments go a long way toward explaining what seems, at first blush, to be the most confounding result of the election: The counties with the biggest COVID-19 surges right now also gave Trump some of his biggest support.
But the correlation makes perfect sense given that places where COVID-19 is now hitting hardest are predominantly rural counties in the Dakotas, Montana, Iowa and Wisconsin ― in other words, some of the most politically conservative pockets of the U.S. where Trump has always been most popular.
That doesn’t mean voters elsewhere felt the same way. Especially in states like Michigan, Trump’s attacks on more popular Democratic governors addressing the crisis more aggressively may have backfired ― not because voters in those states believed their governors were making all the right decisions, but because they could see their governors taking the threat seriously, listening to the scientists and showing compassion for constituents who were suffering.
These are very basic, simple tasks that come naturally to most leaders but were evidently foreign to Trump. And that is something that almost surely resonated with voters, especially when they considered him alongside Biden ― who has a record of managing government projects, who made clear his intentions to listen to scientists, and who, as even his critics acknowledge, is famous for his shows of empathy.
Did that prove decisive with a large portion of the electorate? Clearly not.
Did it make enough of an impression to change outcomes in the tipping states? Quite possibly, especially insofar as Trump’s management of the crisis was a constant reminder of an erratic, tumultuous presidency many Americans simply have come to find exhausting.
Obamacare Repeal Effort Also Made An Impression
COVID-19 was not the only issue on which voters could judge Trump. And on some issues, like the economy, voters overall seemed to approve of his job performance. Wages were on the rise before the pandemic and the COVID-19 relief package, which Trump signed, went a long way toward maintaining living standards, especially for lower-income workers.
But before the pandemic, arguably the defining policy episode of his tenure was his effort to repeal the Affordable Care Act ― an effort that occupied much of his first year in office, ultimately failed, and sent his approval rating tumbling down.
The proposed repeal of “Obamacare” proved deeply unpopular once voters realized that promises of an adequate replacement were false. It’s easy to forget now, but Trump as a candidate promised, “I am going to take care of everybody. I don’t care if it costs me votes or not. Everybody’s going to be taken care of much better than they’re taken care of now.”
He made similar vows repeatedly, noting that it was an “un-Republican” thing to say. But once in office, he outsourced policymaking to Republican leaders in Congress and did everything he could to help pass repeal proposals, which envisioned many millions losing coverage. The popular backlash was a major reason House Republicans lost their majority in the 2018 midterms.
Any chance to get past that debate ended when Trump decided to back a far-fetched lawsuit against the health care law, which is now headed for the Supreme Court. It put Trump squarely on the side of taking health insurance away from millions, and preexisting condition protections away from many more, right in the middle of a pandemic.
Here, too, there’s no reason to think this position hurt Trump with his base. On the contrary, polling late in the cycle showed that the vast majority of Republicans thought Trump would actually do a better job than Biden of protecting people with preexisting conditions.
But independent voters noticed and, in the polls, preferred Biden on that front. Again, it would have taken only a small shift to have an impact on those closely divided swing states.
Democrats Have A Big Debate Ahead Of Them
A big question going forward ― and one that will take analysts some time to parse ― is the extent to which the election results were a verdict on Trump as opposed to the conservative ideology he embraced. That has important implications for the next four years, because it will undoubtedly influence how Biden governs.
Democrats quickly closed ranks behind Biden after a tumultuous primary because they were so determined to oust Trump. But they remain divided ideologically and temperamentally, with arguments already breaking out. On Thursday, progressives and moderates within the House Democratic caucus fought on a conference call, arguing about why the party, which had hoped to pick up a few seats, instead lost several.
More immediately, Democrats must figure out how best to meet the needs of a public still very scared of the virus and experiencing financial pain because COVID-19 relief has lapsed. And they must do so in a world where ― unless they manage to win both of the coming runoffs in Georgia ― Republicans control the Senate.
But like the Electoral College, the makeup of the Senate is a misleading indicator of public sentiment; the small-state bias gives Republicans disproportionate power. But it is also a fact of political life, one Democrats at the moment are powerless to change.
These fights are likely to get more intense, not less, in the coming weeks and months. But they will take place against the backdrop of a Biden presidency, which is an opportunity Democrats will happily take.
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