Note: This article was originally published for the National Journal on November 6, 2020.
If someone told you a month (or even a year) ago that Joe Biden would win the presidency by holding all 20 states (plus D.C.) that Hillary Clinton won, then flipping back Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, that would have seemed quite reasonable. More importantly, it would have totaled 278 electoral votes, eight more than needed to win. Throw in Arizona and Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District for 290 electoral votes, and that would not have seemed an unusual outcome at all.
To be clear, Arizona and Nevada have not yet been officially called for Biden, but as of this writing they sure look like they will be. North Carolina has not been called for President Trump, but he will likely hold onto it. Trump still leads in Pennsylvania, but given that most of the uncounted votes are mail-ins and/or from heavily Democratic cities, he won’t be for long. Georgia is up in the air as Biden continues to close the gap, but for the sake of argument, let’s put it in the Trump camp. Even still, this looks to be over.
As this column has noted, it seems like a million times, the best predictor of whether an incumbent is going to be reelected is job approval. More to the point, one who has never seen his job approval hit 50 percent in a single major national poll is not a favorite for reelection, no matter what the betting markets or conventional wisdom say. The electoral-vote calculus above should not have been a surprise.
The surprises lurked downballot, below the presidential level, where Republicans had been bracing themselves for serious losses. Pre-election polling was showing the suburbs in general—and white, college-educated suburban women in particular—to be a horror show for the GOP. It didn’t happen. Yet small-town and rural America held fast. Exit polls showed Trump winning 93 percent of Republicans, 64 percent of noncollege whites, and 54 percent of those who live in small cities or rural areas.
In the House, Republicans now look on track to gain, not lose, between five and 15 seats, a result that would have seemed perfectly reasonable in early 2019 but in recent months seemed a pipe dream. I confess to thinking my friend Fred Upton, the Republican congressman from Michigan, nuts when he predicted to me on Election Day that House Republicans would lose only one seat. Who would have thought that even he was a tiny bit pessimistic?
There is a fair chance that Senate Republicans emerge from this election with only a one- or two-seat loss, dropping them to a 51- or 52-seat majority. A couple of weeks ago, Republicans were bracing themselves for a brutal night, losing not only a majority but maybe an additional four, five, or six seats. That can happen when you have nine of your own seats teetering on the knife’s edge, compared to just one seat in real danger for the other party.
As things are currently going, both Georgia Senate races will head to a Jan. 5 runoff. If Republicans hold both, they’ll hold 52 seats next Congress. Losing one of them still gives them a 51-seat majority. Only if they lose both, resulting in a 50-50 Senate tie, would a Vice President Kamala Harris tilt things in Democrats’ favor.
While this was truly an off cycle for governor races, with only 11 on the ballot and just two of them competitive, Republicans feared more bad news on the state-legislative level. Yet their fears were unfounded again. The GOP was not significantly harmed heading into redistricting season, in what really is a huge and largely unreported story.
We are going to be unpacking this bifurcated election for a while, but so far two things are clear: First, both party bases turned out to a massive degree. Second, there was little ticket-splitting. Depending upon what happens in Georgia, it looks like only one state (Maine) voted for one party for president and the other for the U.S. Senate. Four years ago was the first time since the direct election of senators began in 1914 that every single Senate race went the same direction as the presidential race.
In retrospect, Tuesday night was bound to defy predictions. It was the first presidential election during a pandemic in 102 years. Many voters cast their ballots for the first time in new ways. Election officials had to count those ballots in new ways, with rules about opening, counting, and reporting them varying from state to state, often county by county. No matter which side one was on, it was an emotional rollercoaster. After an election season like no other, it was an Election Night like no other. It was, on one level, an outcome that should not be terribly surprising; on another, it was a head-scratcher that perplexed the most experienced operatives in each party. For those in congressional races, it was the dog that didn’t bark.
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