BY MATTHEW J. SCHMIDT, OPINION CONTRIBUTOR — 11/06/20
Joe Biden’s victory is a signal that the ordinary Americans counting our votes, both left and right, shows we still have a participatory democracy. A democracy where average people participate in deciding who gets to decide how to use the strength and resources that are collectively ours as a nation. The election has shown how precariously we share the same ideas about how to use those resources through health policy, taxes, or foreign affairs. But the center of our national project holds. For now.
What we know now is that there are two Americas separated by very different visions of both the present and the future. Trump’s America is angry and in a mood to keep tearing down the institutions it feels have turned against it. Biden’s country is aghast that there are people who don’t see the very different future it does.
Biden’s America is the clear majority, and the numbers will bear that out in the end. But they likely won’t show a bigger popular will to be a part of a Democratic vision of the future than Clinton’s win in 2016. Part of that is because there are many uncast votes on the West Coast because the Electoral College makes casting them largely pointless in a system as unique, in a bad way, like ours. Part of why the divide between the Americas is so wide is that we don’t know exactly who we are as a country. The current system is like a warped mirror that only shows us vaguely whether we’re a center-left or center-right people. The Electoral System has to go or we’ll never clearly see who we are.
Trump’s America is committed to its community, and they take possession of it seriously. The results will likely show no expansion of Red America. It’s almost certain to be the same group, disaffected whites mostly, with enough smatterings of color to allow a disingenuous picture to painted with careful stage-managing of who’s in front of the camera.
That isn’t to say the two America’s are the best thought of as racial divides. Biden’s support is white, too. But White Men may be the best metric to use if there is one single difference between the two nations. Manliness in Trump’s America is mostly for a certain kind of disaffected male. Biden holds a broader sense of what it means to be a man. And therein is the truth that is most uncomfortable to admit. Trump’s map marks a community of fervency, of the last stand. It’s a parody of the High Noon myth uneducated males are likely to construct for themselves as a safe space where they can be the kind of men they fantasize about.
The irony of the idea that Trump America is a safe-space is too delicious to ignore, of course. It’s also frightening. When people are scared enough to need such spaces, they’re likely to risk extremes to secure their existence. The insecurely attached young male has always been the bane of republics. Big Armies and long foreign campaigns historically kept their numbers down and their presence away from the homeland. But today I worry that it’s the army of such men and their retinue that will make the war in order to give them meaning.
Whatever else this election tells us, it reinforces that Trump’s country is showing the fervency of the last stand. It’s a duel to hold the 21st century at bay. Trump’s future denies the future we know is coming. Climate change isn’t real in Red America because people want to deny the idea that the repair shops their sons inherit won’t smell like oil and gas and might require access to computer classes that don’t exist in their town.
These are justified fears. And though Trump drowned out Biden’s vision for community colleges that would help allay some of this anxiety, Blue America kids itself if it thinks education is enough. This is about identities, and even if an electric car repair shop is possible in Racine, Wisc., it will take years or decades to make it not seem out of place, out of the norm — not who the people there thought they were.
Maybe this realization of the long haul yet before the nation as it emerges beyond its 20th-century self has also turned into some fatalism that kept blue voters away. Maybe anger is the stronger emotion.
Few people are willing to vote against the communities they identify with. We all need to belong somewhere, that somewhere is now one or the other of these diverging nations. But still, the center holds. For now.
Matthew J. Schmidt is a professor of National Security and Political Science at the University of New Haven, Connecticut.
Nothing about the results so far suggests the election will break the country’s long-term political stalemate.
NOVEMBER 4, 2020
The clearest message of this week’s complicated election results is that the trench is deepening between red and blue America.
Late vote counts in Michigan and Wisconsin put Joe Biden in position to oust Donald Trump so long as the Democrat holds his leads in Nevada and Arizona, which he appears likely but not guaranteed to do. Biden edged past Trump by amassing big margins around the large population centers of virtually every state—a showing that could push him well past 50 percent of the total popular vote and possibly put both Pennsylvania and Georgia in his column. With Biden’s near-certain popular-vote victory, Democrats have now won the most votes in seven of the past eight presidential elections, something no party has ever done since the formation of the modern party system, in 1828.
Yet the election did not deliver the unequivocal repudiation of Trump that Democrats and his many Republican critics had hoped for. Even amid a pandemic whose death toll is approaching 250,000 Americans, record campaign spending by Biden, and unprecedented defections from prominent former Republican officials, Trump demonstrated that his grasp on the places and people drawn to his belligerent approach is almost unbreakable.
In all these ways, the election showed the two parties as the 2020s begin, confronting each other from across deep and well-defended fortifications. For the most part, the shifts in the political landscape that the election produced were only modest ones: single-digit gains for Trump among Black and Hispanic men, and a slight improvement for Biden among non-college-educated white voters (especially women) and seniors. While a significant shift in Sun Belt metros toward Democrats does point toward longer-term changes in that region, the balance of power in the states that appear likely to again decide the outcome shifted only minimally. In 2016, Trump won Wisconsin by just fewer than 23,000 votes; Biden now leads there by just fewer than 21,000. The shift in Pennsylvania, where Trump won last time by only about 44,000 votes, may be similarly slight.
In 2016, as I wrote at the time, Hillary Clinton fell between the Democratic Party’s past and its future: Her coalition crumbled in the Rust Belt slightly faster than it coalesced in the Sun Belt, leaving her just short in the key states on both fronts. Biden may narrowly avoid that fate, maintaining just enough of the traditional Democratic coalition to claw back Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, while mobilizing enough of the new coalition to flip Arizona and maybe Georgia. But nothing about the results suggests that he has decisively broken America’s national stalemate, an outcome symbolized by the likelihood (though not certainty) that Republicans will still control the Senate in January. As one Democratic operative close to the Biden campaign put it to me: “I feel like this win is more relieving than inspiring.”
Democrats broke through to capture Senate seats in Colorado, where Biden won comfortably, and Arizona, where he holds a narrow advantage; they now control all eight Senate seats across the Southwest. But Trump’s hold on working-class and nonurban voters helped other Republican senators fend off challenges from exorbitantly funded Democratic opponents.
Despite record fundraising, Democrats such as Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, Theresa Greenfield in Iowa, and Steve Bullock in Montana suffered decisive defeats in states that Trump carried easily; Cal Cunningham is trailing more narrowly in North Carolina, a state that’s also bending narrowly toward Trump. Maine Republican Susan Collins may be the only Senate candidate in either party who won in a state that the other side carried at the presidential level.
House elections also produced a broad standoff. Republicans ousted about a half-dozen Democrats who held seats in rural, small-town, and blue-collar areas that stampeded toward the president this year, including first-term Democrats in New Mexico, upstate New York, and Staten Island. Final counts could add a few more Democratic victims to that list. And with the exception of losses around Atlanta and (possibly) Phoenix, Republicans defended multiple seats that Democrats had targeted in white-collar districts inside the major metros, including in Texas, Missouri, and Ohio. Yet Democrats mostly preserved the large number of suburban seats they captured in 2018. That leaves the core of Democrats’ House majority largely intact, even if some of its members experienced contests closer than they had anticipated.
Those extraordinary results, like the continuing high correlation between presidential and Senate outcomes, underscore the extent to which American elections are becoming a quasi-parliamentary system, with voters basing their choices less on their assessments of individuals than on their views of the two parties. The tightening relationship between attitudes toward the president and votes in congressional races also reinforces how the parties are partitioning America into two almost unassailable spheres of influence.
Biden flexed formidable muscle inside the metropolitan centers—not only the urban core, but also the inner suburbs—in virtually every state. The former vice president seems likely to substantially outpace Clinton’s showing in large cities with significant Black populations, such as Philadelphia, Detroit, Cleveland, Milwaukee, and Atlanta. He far exceeded Clinton’s margins in white-collar counties centered in Madison, Wisconsin; Columbus, Ohio; and Charlotte, Raleigh, and Durham in North Carolina. He appears likely to do the same in Montgomery and Delaware Counties outside Philadelphia. He cruised to a comfortable win in Colorado with help from an astounding margin of almost 400,000 votes in Denver and its three surrounding suburban counties—more than a 50 percent increase over Clinton’s advantage there in 2016.
Importantly, this pattern extended to Sun Belt metropolitan areas that until recently had remained resolutely Republican. The most obvious example was Maricopa County, centered in Phoenix, which was the largest county Trump carried in 2016. No Democratic presidential nominee has won Maricopa since Harry Truman in 1948, but Biden has a solid lead there. Likewise, while Biden lost Texas, he substantially improved on Clinton’s showing in the largest urban centers. He won the counties centered in Houston, Dallas, Austin, and San Antonio by a combined 900,000 votes (increasing Clinton’s margin in the same places by nearly half); carried big suburban counties around Houston and Austin; and sliced Trump’s 2016 advantage in Fort Worth and the two giant suburban counties outside Dallas. Biden’s remaining chances in Georgia are based on his enormous advance beyond Clinton in the giant Atlanta suburbs of Cobb, Gwinnett, and DeKalb Counties. The biggest exception to this pattern of metro-area gains was a crushing one: Though Biden performed well in Orlando, Tampa, and Jacksonville, Florida, an exodus of Hispanic voters, especially Cuban Americans, led to a catastrophic underperformance for him in Miami-Dade County, which keyed his surprisingly decisive loss in the state.
Yet the Democrats’ hopes that Biden might significantly dent Trump’s hold on blue-collar white voters, particularly in the weathered midsize industrial communities across the Midwest, fizzled. At best, Biden secured modest gains; at worst, none at all. The maps in Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan so far have largely replicated those from 2016, with a few splotches of blue in population centers submerged in a sea of red. Biden did win the county centered in Scranton, Pennsylvania, itself. But Trump still carried heavily white working-class counties such as Lorain and Mahoning in Ohio, Macomb in Michigan, Dubuque and Marshall in Iowa, and Racine, Kenosha, Brown, Outagamie, and Winnebago in Wisconsin. On Monday, Biden visited Beaver County, Pennsylvania, which Trump carried by almost 19 points against Clinton; Trump leads it today by about two to one in the latest count. On the same day, Biden’s running mate, Kamala Harris, barnstormed through Luzerne County, Pennsylvania, where Trump also beat Clinton by almost 19 points; he leads there now by a little more. (Mail-in-ballot tallies might reduce, but won’t eliminate, Trump’s lead in those places.) Nor did Biden make any appreciable inroads in the heavily working-class white counties around Tampa and Orlando that Trump dominated in 2016.
Biden wasn’t completely ineffective on this front: Exit polls in crucial Rust Belt battlegrounds showed him notching modest but pivotal gains in Clinton’s showing among white voters without a college degree (though not improving much among those voters on a national basis). The polls also showed Biden beating Trump among college-educated white voters in the key states that the Democrat may end up winning, including Wisconsin, Michigan, and Arizona (although exit polls recorded an even split among those voters nationally, a disappointing result for Democrats if it’s not revised). But Trump still carried a significant majority of working-class white voters in every seriously contested state, and the towering magnitude of his margin among them in the South represents a daunting hurdle for Democratic hopes in those states. And while the national exit poll showed Biden maintaining traditionally strong Democratic numbers among Black voters (87 percent to 12 percent) and Latinos (66 percent to 32 percent), subpar showings for Biden among the latter group in Texas’s Rio Grande Valley and especially Florida’s Miami-Dade County proved fatal for his efforts in those states. (Stronger performances with Latinos in Arizona and (to a lesser extent) Nevada were crucial to Biden’s advantages there.)
Once upon a time, a popular-vote victory as decisive as Biden’s projected win would likely have swept his party to broad congressional gains. Democrats’ only modest advances in the Senate and modest retreat in the House testify to the durability of the divisions between a Democratic coalition rooted in the places immersed in the changes forging 21st-century America and a Republican coalition that dominates the places most apart from, and skeptical of, those changes. In America’s domestic cold war, this election was more like Antietam, a brutally bloody stalemate that wounded both sides, than a Gettysburg or Vicksburg, which pointed to a decisive victory for one side over the other. The election did more to underscore the impermeability of the nation’s divisions than to offer a path toward the reconciliation and unity that Biden has promised.
RONALD BROWNSTEIN is a senior editor at The Atlantic.