The final results of the 2020 presidential and congressional elections remain unresolved this morning. Even absent an outcome, there are many in the U.S. and around the world who will call Tuesday’s closer-than-expected election a disaster, an abject national humiliation, and a punch in the throat to every medical professional who waded into Donald Trump’s pandemic wearing trash bags and masks dipped in Lysol so they could help save lives.
How very quickly we forget.
No, this is not 2016, when half the country voted “couch” instead of heading out to their polling places. In fact, one of the bright spots of the night is that turnout was the highest it has been in 120 years. Just under 67 percent, the country outperformed its turnout mark for the 1960 Kennedy/Nixon election. You can’t, and won’t, do much better than that these days.
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And right there comes the nasty little turn. Many devoutly believed Trump needed to be thoroughly and unquestionably routed last night, and not just to avoid a protracted and messy legal battle that could wind up before a badly compromised Supreme Court. More than that, the hope for a full Trump routing last night was also a hope that the entire grotesquerie that is Trumpism itself might be torn down, burned and buried under salted earth before the watching eyes of the whole wide world.
Well, after a huge turnout, that did not happen. Instead, an election that many expected to be a Democratic “Blue Wave” has become a nip and tuck affair that has seen Democrats actually lose seats in the House of Representatives. Democrats still hold the majority in that chamber, but it is a slimmer one today, and the GOP minority will surely be emboldened after outstripping expectations. Dreams of a Democratic Senate majority are slowly but surely falling to dust.
Ah, yes. Expectations, otherwise known as “polls,” form an entire industry that has once again proven itself unequal to the task it claims expertise in. I’m not one to casually quote neoconservative fiends like John Podhoretz, but in this specific instance, he cuts it right down to the bone.
“Political polling is a fraud,” Podhoretz correctly declares. “It claims to measure something that, it is now unmistakably clear, cannot be accurately measured. Polling’s seductive promise is that it will take the guesswork out of understanding a complex and changing set of circumstances and replace that uncertainly with something that looks like science. But it’s less like the physics that helps us shoot rockets into space and more like the set of the spaceship on ‘Star Trek.’ It’s shiny. It has a lot of dials and lights. Things beep. But if you put it on the Cape Canaveral launchpad and lit it on fire, you would just burn to death.”
I pledge to you upon this day, November 4, 2020, that I will never again stain this page with numbers from a poll, and I apologize abjectly for having done so in the past. Polls are the Wonder Bread of political journalism; they help fatten articles and hit deadlines, but as far as valuable information goes, they have the caloric equivalent of gravel. Never again, you have my word.
The race at present is down to a white-knuckle clutch of seven states: Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Michigan, Georgia, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona. The last of those, Arizona, was called late last night by Fox News in favor of Joe Biden, which motivated Trump to erupt in a frenzy of fraud accusations and authoritarian victory declarations that, impossibly but surely, stained this elaborate debacle even more deeply. “We’ll be going to the U.S. Supreme Court,” he railed. “We want all voting to stop.”
The outstanding districts in those states are almost all urban centers that contain millions of uncounted votes. Tallying those ballots is what Trump wants stopped, and what will likely motivate him to bring this election to court if Biden eventually prevails. At the end of that path lies the Supreme Court, clearly what Trump is hoping for.
To be sure, there were a great many joyful victories recorded last night. Reps. Ilhan Omar and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez obliterated their opponents to secure a second term for themselves, and Jamaal Bowman won the seat for New York’s 16th district. Sarah McBride won her race for Delaware state senate, making her the highest-ranking transgender official in government.
All small-time drug possession in Oregon has been decriminalized. Arizona, Montana, New Jersey and South Dakota legalized marijuana. Mississippi approved the removal of the Confederate banner from its state flag. Florida passed a $15 minimum wage. Nebraska and Utah passed measures closing the loophole that allowed slavery to continue for those convicted of a crime.
But Lindsey Graham still has a job, as does Mitch McConnell, and probably as majority leader to boot. The “Blue Wave” was transmogrified into lost ground in both the House and Senate, and if Biden wins this thing, it will be by a whisper-thin margin that can fully expect to spend the next couple of months in court. In any event, the counting goes on and it will probably be days before a final result is reached.
We will be spending a long time picking apart the details that led to last night, the missed clues and overstated chances. Was Joe Biden the best choice as a nominee, or just another in a seemingly endless line of doomed DNC Dembots straight out of central casting? Certainly, Biden has not lost yet, and may well prevail… but the moment begs a question: Would we be here if Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren were standing in Biden’s place? We will never know, and now we wait.
Two facts stand out: First, the urban/rural voter split is more pronounced than ever, and the urban voters are surprisingly evenly matched in numbers with their rural brethren. There is no blaming turnout this time, not after matching a 120-year-old high mark. We appear to be as evenly divided a nation as we’ve been hearing we are, and this newest nose count underscores the grim truth of it.
Second, and more importantly: Despite the horrors of the COVID-19 pandemic and his ridiculous handling of the crisis, despite the shattered economy, the ceaseless bombast, the overt racism, all of it, Donald Trump remains popular enough to make a razor-thin contest out of what many (hand raised) expected would be a blowout. More people voted in this election than ever before in all our history, and at least half of them think Trump is worthy of a second term. Maybe more, if the deal goes down his way.
As election officials steadily process the ballots before them, I am processing the meaning of last night’s results. I gravely misunderstood the nature of my country coming into this contest, something I felt I’ve had a handle on for years. Nearly 66 million people surveyed the roiling, hateful, plague-raddled disaster zone the nation has become under Trump’s administration and decided he should have another four years to do more of the same.
It’s not over yet, but no matter the final outcome, this feels very much like a resounding setback, if not a defeat in its own right. Even if Biden wins, he would need a Democratic majority in the Senate in order to effectively govern. The ground was ripe for the Democrats to do much better last night, with the surrounding circumstances altogether vehement in their pressing relevance… and then, this.
It is going to be a very long week, again. Stout hearts.