The 2020 US Election Wrap-Up, What Happened?

Art by Sian Williams
Edits by Aditi Dubey and Lily Pang

The US election is the most publicised election worldwide. Being a global superpower and a bastion for Western democracy, the implications for the entire world, even Australian folks, are tangible. Whether you missed it because you were studying for exams or whether you were biting your nails the entire time, here’s a quick wrap-up of the US election, how the results unfolded and what this means for the US going forward.

Before the Election

Multiple pollsters, pundits and psephologists predicted a landslide victory for Biden. The Economist predicted that he had a 92% chance of winning the electoral college with clear landslide victories in the Rust Belt states (especially Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania). Gallup polls put Trump’s approval rating nationwide before the election at only 46%. Early victories were predicted to be possible in the traditional Republican heartlands of Texas and Florida, despite Texas having last supported a Democrat nominee in 1976. The polls put Biden on track to the White House in what would have been a national repudiation of Trumpism.

What were the key issues before Election Day? Pew Research Centre polls listed the following ‘most important’ issues from their surveyed sample: 79% of respondents cited the economy, while health care trailed not too far behind (68%) and of course management of COVID-19 (62%) featured high on the list. Whether you’re a white working class man, suburban professional woman or African-American university student, the pandemic was an especially contentious issue given that over two-thirds of Americans know someone who was diagnosed with COVID-19. These were the issues set to define the election and how Republicans and Democrats could engage with voters nation-wide.

What unravelled on election day, however, showed that despite Biden’s win, Trumpism and its causes cannot be underestimated or seen as a mere aberration. Trumpism has created a lasting impact on the American political landscape.

Election Day: 3rd November 2020

When polling booths opened across the nation, it was widely expected to be a landslide victory for Biden. Biden campaigned heavily in the Rust Belt, Barack Obama campaigned in Florida, and Cindy McCain – wife of former Republican presidential candidate John McCain – disparaged Trump in Arizona. Record low approval ratings, poor polls, and mismanagement of COVID-19 set an unfavourable stage for Trump. However, it became quickly apparent that Trump’s voters were not to be underestimated and that the election was going to unfold in unexpected ways.

Contrary to the polls, Trump and Biden were neck and neck in Florida and Texas on election day. Early ballots favoured Biden, yet the red mirage of the Lone Star State and the Lighting Capital turned into a red curtain. Biden’s potential early victory and clear pathway to the White House was crushed. As Trump made unfounded, early declarations of victory, it quickly became apparent that this was going to be an election fought to the last ballot, tooth and nail. As safe states such as Alaska, California, Oregon, Washington, Utah, Ohio, Hawaii and Indiana were called, all eyes were focused on Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Nevada, and days later, on Georgia and Pennsylvania. The red mirage prevailed and election day votes heavily favoured Trump. Biden was trailing by wide margins in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. Trump also seemed to have a comfortable lead in Georgia, a Republican stronghold for decades.

Multiple pathways to winning the electoral college meant that at this point, both candidates still had options available, but Biden could afford more losses. Trump had to win Georgia, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Alaska, Michigan and Wisconsin. Biden, being bolstered by safe Democrat states such as California (with 55 electoral college votes), only needed Michigan, Wisconsin, Nevada and Arizona. As mail-in ballots, (which heavily favoured Biden) were delivered, Trump’s lead narrowed and Arizona flipped blue. Trump began to run out of options and his chances of re-election were slimming as millions of mail-in ballots were counted in favour of the Democrats. Pennsylvania, Nevada, Michigan, Wisconsin, Arizona and Georgia (a miracle since the state was last won by a Democrat nominee in 1992) delivered Biden the presidency with a solid 306 electoral college votes. Trump scored a total of 232 electoral college votes, 72 votes shy of his 2016 performance. It was an incredibly tight race, one that the world watched, increasingly on edge as it progressed. Biden won Arizona by only 10,000 votes, Pennsylvania by 63,000 and Wisconsin by 20,000.

As protests, allegations of voter fraud, attempted entries into vote counting centres and Trump campaign lawsuits mired results sporadically, we have to ask one question. What’s the enduring political narrative that led to one of the most divisive elections in US history?

Polling, What Happened?

What do the results mean for US politics going forward? Firstly, the polls got it wrong, awfully wrong. Even though Biden won, it wasn’t by the wide margins pundits predicted, not at all. Predictions had Florida flipping blue and Biden making a victory speech soon after election day. Multiple reasons have been suggested as to why the polls missed the mark yet again. The main reason: white working class voters refused to talk to pollsters, or they lied about their voting preferences. Commercial polls like Rasmussen and Gallup only reported results where 6% of canvassed voters responded meaning heavily skewed and unrepresentative results. These are challenges the polling industry will have to address in the coming years in order regain trust in the country, and more importantly regain accuracy for future elections, lest we hear more exclamations of “the polls got it wrong again.”

Mail-in Ballots and Changing Demographics

Why did early results favour Trump and how did Biden eventually pull ahead in so many states? Trump’s urging of voters to vote in-person on election day may have played a part in forming the red mirage we saw in those key battleground states. But mail-in ballots played a larger role. Millions of Republicans flocked to polling booths while many Democrats opted to vote by mail instead. The United States Postal Service, despite being a 600,000 strong employee service, was stretched incredibly thin as millions of mail-in ballots across the nation had to be delivered to counting stations. Trump’s early leads, mainly from rural conservative counties, were diminished because mail-in ballots (from metropolitan areas such as Philadelphia and Atlanta) heavily favoured Biden and contributed to states such as Pennsylvania and Georgia flipping well after election day. Flips in traditionally red states also represent a shifting demographic change in the US driven by young people moving south and growing minority populations. Georgia tells this story rather neatly where white voters made up 61% of registered voters in 2010. In 2020, they made up just 53% of registered voters, while Asian, African-American, and Latino voter registration, which generally favoured the Democrats, skyrocketed.

Trumpism is Here to Remain

Although this was an election which was proposed to be a historical and unified rejection of Trumpism and Trumpian antics, this was hardly a repudiation. Trump received 72 million votes (at the time of writing). This represents the second highest total of the popular vote for any presidential nominee (behind Biden who received 78 million votes at the time of writing). This is a staggering 10 million vote increase from 2016, when Trump received 62 million votes in total. Droves of educated people, university students, suburban women and African-American voters were predicted to turn the tide for Biden. Had the votes been distributed differently, and due to the democratic quirk that is the electoral college system, Biden might have lost by the slimmest of margins. Why didn’t the zeal and fervour of this demographic create larger margins in those key battleground states? Trump’s voter base diversified, especially amongst Latino voters. This rang true in Florida, where Trump’s campaign played a clever tactic in smearing Biden as a socialist delivering a crucial blow to his early pathway to the White House. Latino voters, especially those who fled socialist countries such as Cuba and Venezuela, voted for Trump in droves. Starr County in Texas also reveals some interesting truths. In a county that is 96% Hispanic, where 18.5% of people are unemployed, 50% completed high school and where the average annual income is $14,000 USD, issues such as racism, climate change and national division were unimportant. More critical issues were the economy and jobs. The Black Lives Matter Movement never resonated in Starr County, as joining the police force was seen as a pathway to economic security. The only Climate change-related concern was the potential closure of oil fields suggested by some Democrats, which could mean unemployment. Trump’s pro-life stance was also viewed positively by the largely Catholic county. Latino voters here believed that Trump would provide food on the table, while Democrats were seen as out of touch and a world away in Washington DC.

A Divided Nation Going Forward

The US election was monumental with several historical firsts which are incredibly progressive achievements for a nation that has grappled with a history of slavery and racism. Kamala Harris is the first woman and second person of colour to be elected as Vice President. Sarah McBride was elected as the first transgender state senator representing Delaware’s 1st Senate District in the Delaware State Legislature. New York elected Ritchie Torres as the country’s first gay African-American man to Congress. However, the enduring narrative which defined the election is that the US is a divided nation where politics is fractured by partisanship and that the American people are polarised. Biden has an incredibly difficult path ahead sewing national division and dealing with a slew of economic and health disasters that he has inherited. Mending the COVID-19 situation will be a monumental task. Controlling case numbers, which are increasing by 100,000 a day (at the time of writing), will not be easy. Restoring the economy and recovering from a recession will require a Herculean effort. Millions of Trump voters, of whom 65% wouldn’t accept Biden becoming President, feel disenfranchised by this election and many have lost faith in American democracy. Restoring their trust would be a miracle feat.

Note: the electoral college votes for each candidate may change over time. Biden’s 306 electoral college votes takes into account his 14,000 vote lead in Georgia, which has since gone to an official recount.