Checking in on American Politics: 2020 Edition

The results of the 2020 United States Presidential election are well known by this point, and much analysis has been offered, including by myself on Twitter. For the first time on this blog I would like to offer some of the thoughts I’ve expressed in my tweets and some new material on the 2020 election results and what they might mean for the longer-term future of American politics.

Joe Biden, the Democratic nominee, won 306 electoral votes, clearing the 270 needed to win outright, and Donald Trump, the Republican nominee and incumbent President, won 232 electoral votes. Famously in American politics that is the relevant metric for Presidential elections, but it’s also worth noting that Biden won 51.3% of the popular vote against Trump’s 46.9%, a margin of victory of 4.4%.

That’s a rather remarkable result for Trump considering he faced the headwinds of a global pandemic, an economic depression, a gratuitous trade war, personal unpopularity that ensured he never in any reputable poll enjoyed an approval rating much over 50% (he averaged low to mid 40s). Sure, he had tailwinds working in his favor too, but with all the new headwinds he didn’t have to deal with in 2016 one might have expected a substantially worse result in 2020.

One Percentage Point: all that stood between us and a Trump Re-Election!

Yet in 2020 his popular vote margin of loss of 4.4% was only 2.3 points worse than his result in 2016, a 2.1% loss (he won the electoral college that year). All that working against him, not to mention a much less toxic candidate than Hillary Clinton in the form of Joe Biden, and 2.3 points is all the bump the Democrats could get?

Still, you might ask, 4.4% might be narrow, but it’s a convincing margin of victory, right? Not exactly. If you look at the electoral college map it looks even worse. In both 2016 and 2020 the tipping-point state was Wisconsin, which went for Trump by 0.77% in 2016 and for Biden by 0.63% in 2020. Less than one percentage point both times! Biden’s victory was even narrower than Trump’s! If Trump was able to do even one point better across the nation than he actually did he would have been re-elected. Wow.

The Dance of the States

Narrow it might be but Biden did flip quite a few states. Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin reverted to their 2012-vintage place in the blue column, Biden won Arizona by 0.31%, the first Democrat to win there since Bill Clinton in 1996, and perhaps most notably Biden won Georgia by 0.24%, the first Democrat to win there since Bill Clinton in 1992. Nebraska’s 2nd Congressional District, basically the Omaha area, was the electoral vote that flipped the hardest; Trump won it in 2016, but it went for Biden in 2020 by a full 6.5%.

Biden failed to flip North Carolina, losing it by 1.35%, and he lost Florida by 3.36%; notably, Trump actually increased his margin in Florida by 2 points over 2016, bucking the national trend against him. The net result is that Florida voted 7.81% to the right of the country in 2020, the furthest away it’s been from the national popular vote since 1988. Florida may well be exiting the field of swing states, reverting back to the red-state column. Another notable weak spot was Nevada, which Biden won by 2.39%, voting a full two points to the right of the nation; so much for it being a blue state.

Biden did show strength elsewhere, though; he won Minnesota by 7.11% (an increase of 5 points over 2016, i.e. it trended left), New Hampshire by 7.35% (after Hillary Clinton nearly lost it in 2016, i.e. a sharp leftward trend), and Maine by 9.07% (another leftward trend), though he still lost the northern Congressional district by 7.44%. However, nothing compares to Colorado, where Biden won by 13.5%, 8.59% more than Hillary Clinton received; voting almost 10 points to the left of the country, indicating Colorado may be out of reach for Republicans now bar a landslide election.

Democratic Weaknesses

But in my view what will be most consequential going forward are the Democrats’ weak spots. Notably, 31 out of 50 states voted to the right of the country in 2020, in line with the longer-term upward trend. Biden’s 4 point popular vote win meant he won 25 states, but in my view Democrats can’t count on winning the national popular vote forever.

First of all, their victories have been narrow (in hindsight even Obama’s 7 point victory in 2008 was tepid) and by their nature tenuous, but secondly the GOP has demonstrated they can win national elections. They won the national popular vote for the House of Representatives in 2010, 2014, and 2016; the last one they won by 1 point or so with full Presidential election turnout, debunking the idea they can only win when just old white people show up. 2022 will likely be another GOP national victory.

The Inevitable permanent Republican Senate Majority

So the old rule of thumb of taking a 50-50 national election as the baseline still holds, and with that in mind the Democrats’ future in the Senate looks grim. If Senate races in the next few cycles follow Presidential voting patterns, which they increasingly have in recent years, then Republicans can expect 62 seats by the late 2020s, a filibuster-proof supermajority. If the GOP win a few national elections by even a few points, as they did in 2010, then they could easily enjoy a two-thirds (veto-proof!) supermajority.

If the rightward trend for the median state continues and the GOP do very well in the popular vote (10 points or so) for a few cycles in a row they could reach well into the seventies, perhaps even cresting 80 Senators. In that scenario the GOP could also reach a two-thirds supermajority in the House, although it would require rather ruthless gerrymandering.

Democrats forced to play Dictator?

In this future Democrats would find it the easiest to win the Presidency, but even if they did take the House the Senate would still be out of reach, precluding a federal Democratic trifecta. If Democrats perceive legislative action to be hopeless they might turbocharge the trend for Presidents to rule by decree, as this article by Dylan Matthews at Vox speculates might be the future, which I would add in turn likely turbocharges the trend of state-level nullification.

Impeachments and Judges: Paths to Republican Domination?

Perhaps most importantly, if Republicans have a two-thirds majority in the Senate and a simple majority in the House (the latter would be routine after a Democratic President’s first midterm) they could impeach, convict, and remove a President on a party-line vote. Republican margins in the Senate inflating makes that possibility more real than any other time in American history, very possibly serving as a check on any Democratic President who wants to play dictator in this future.

It’s worth noting there is already a trend of using the impeachment process more often; there have been more impeachments in the last 25 years (three; one against Clinton, two (!) against Trump) than in the previous 200 put together (one; Johnson, though Nixon would arguably count as a second).

Control of the Senate also matters immensely for control of the courts, which increasingly function as a kind of super-legislature. The President requires the cooperation of the Senate to fill court seats; even without the Senate exercising its right to keep a seat vacant until a friendly President is elected (e.g. after Scalia died in 2016), it’s well possible that any nominee that’s further left than moderately conservative won’t get the needed majority anyway.

Progressive Federalism FTW!

That all sounds like a grim future for Democrats and progressives, but there is one silver lining: the largest, most influential, and arguably most dynamic states will in most cases be under Democratic control. They can proceed on their own. Whether Democrats, liberals, and left-wingers like it or not “progressive federalism”, using the power of the states to advance their agenda at the state level, is the future, because the path to federal action will soon be blocked.

Local action is another possibility, but every state constitution considers localities to be creatures of the state government; there is already a trend of Republican state governments restricting local action, which will almost certainly increase, barring a decentralist awakening within the GOP (which can’t be ruled out).

Courts and Constitutions in the Republican Future

More concerning might be the federal courts using their authority to declare more and more of the Democrats’ agenda unconstitutional, which is a real possibility, but even in the Lochner era the courts permitted much flexibility in economic policies, so perhaps that’s a more remote threat.

Even more remote, but perhaps real down the road, is the possibility of the Republicans using the large number of states they control to pass constitutional amendments; under the American constitution three-quarters of the states if they agree can pass basically anything, so the Democratic agenda might be unconstitutional by not just court rulings but the very letter of the law.

At that point, barring the courts thinking the states have gone too far and invoking the can of worms that is the unconstitutional constitutional amendment doctrine, the best hope would be for secession movements to serve as political pressure to keep the states and the courts from overreaching.

Are the Democrats doomed?

All this might sound like I’m a “doomer”, that I don’t think the Democrats will ever win another national election again. Well, it’s not as drastic as that, but if you can only win 25 states and 50 Senate seats with a 4.4% popular vote tailwind and the long-term trend is for your vote to be concentrated in fewer states then something like I outline is going to be the future.

The only way of avoiding this, aside from reversing the trend and winning a voter coalition in a larger group of states, is to pad the popular-vote tailwind over time. If the Democrats could win the popular vote by 10 points in the average election in this future then they could enjoy routine Presidential election wins, majorities pushing veto-proof in the House, and a roughly 50-50 Senate.

Changing Demographics: a political Mirage?

Democrats have for at least the past two decades been counting on changing demographics to deliver just that kind of scenario, but unfortunately for them that just doesn’t seem to be happening. Their popular vote advantage hasn’t significantly increased since the 1990s, due to white working class voters’ defection to the GOP almost perfectly balancing out the demographic increase in people of color and white middle class voters’ defection to the Democrats.

Paths to Republican Growth

The net result in the past quarter century has been to keep national elections roughly 50-50 while states move around on the board, West Virginia and Ohio from the blue to red columns, Colorado and Virginia from the red to blue columns. Contrary to how it must seem in the favored haunts of the corporate media, there are still more than enough white working class voters that could defect to keep the GOP nationally competitive for decades to come.

The GOP have another path to increasing their vote share: doing better among people of color, particularly Hispanics. Trump was widely supposed to be toxic to Latinos, but in 2016 he did better than Romney in 2012, and in 2020 did better than any Republican since at least 2004. By 2020 a diploma divide had opened up among Latino voters much like white voters. It seems the same politics that work on the white working class also work on the Latino working class. To a lesser extent the Asian and even the black working classes are also trending in the same direction.

Famously Trump did much better among Cubans; Miami-Dade County went from a 29 point victory for Hillary Clinton to only a 7 point victory for Biden, the Democrats’ worst result there since 2004 (the worst since 1992 relative to the nation).

Much starker, though, was the immense trend seen in the predominately Mexican Rio Grande Valley. Hillary Clinton in 2016 won Zapata County, Texas by 33 points only for Trump to carry it by 5 points in 2020. Starr County’s trend was even starker, from Hillary by 60 points in 2016 to Biden by 5 in 2020. 55 points to the right in one election? That makes West Virginia’s trends look like peanuts. Worse still, the region has remained competitive in 2021, perhaps an indication that 2020 was not a one-off.

A coalition of the Anglo and Latino Working Classes? Unstoppable!

Alas for Trump the trend in places like Arizona and Nevada wasn’t nearly that strong, but if it’s a portent of the future that means that Texas will remain out of reach for the Democrats; the white middle class trend if augmented by Latinos will carry the state in a few cycles, but the white working class augmented by the Latino working class would be an electorally dominant coalition for the foreseeable future there.

Such a coalition would also be dominant in Florida. It would be even more dominant in Nevada, which would probably have gone for Trump already if not for heavy unionization and the Reid machine; it’s the sixth least educated state by bachelor’s degree attainment in the country. Nevada in such a future becomes a deep red state. Arizona reverts to solid red, and New Mexico becomes a red state as well.

A coalition of this nature would do well in both Rust Belt and Sun Belt states without threatening existing red states, so one can see why there is so much hype about the “multiracial working-class” future of the GOP. Such a future, however, is not compatible with conservatism as we know it; not that it matters a great deal, since the social and material base for conservatism is dying as we speak.

Right-wing Populism: Closer than You think

After all, there’s a reason why conservative parties around the world are turning to right-wing populism, because increasingly that’s by far the path of least resistance to victory for them. The GOP started to expand its ranks into the working class as early as the Nixon era using this strategy, and it became a pillar of their party under Newt Gingrich starting in 1994. And it’s worked very well for them!

Since 1994 the GOP has controlled Congress most of the time, losing both houses of Congress in only three elections: 2006, 2008, and 2020, and even then only 2008 was a decisive defeat. Most Governors and state legislatures have been Republican since 1994, and especially since 2010. Indeed, below the Presidential level the GOP has been dominant since 1994, like how Democrats were from 1932 to 1994. Republicans have only really had trouble with winning the Presidential popular vote, due either to some structural factor or, as weird as it might sound, bad luck. It’s not far-fetched to imagine that weakness ebbing in the near future.

Populism to Policy

As for what kind of policies we can expect to see from such a coalition, dominant or otherwise, we would be wide to withhold guessing, since a very broad range of policies can be enacted if the leaders will them into being almost regardless of what kind of coalition elects them. Given this, trends at the elite level matter the most.

Populist parties that draw votes from similar demographics differ markedly in their policy agendas: authoritarian, libertarian, and everything in between. Most famously, Poland’s right-wing populists govern as authoritarians across the board, whereas Hungary’s govern as conventional conservatives.

My own belief is that a libertarian populist strategy is the best and most obvious path forward for the GOP. Freedom appeals to the relatively non-authoritarian voters they increasingly need to win, and emphasizing fighting Wokeness and protecting religious liberty keeps social and religious conservatives, respectively, in line. It seems to fit together and make sense, but the things I think are obvious are the last things anybody with any say-so over anything is ever willing to do.

Why be a Libertarian Populist when we can be whiny Thugs instead?

So what will they do? Most likely something a hundred times dumber than that, perhaps the strategy of being a bunch of whiny thugs and wannabe bigmouths who blast overt bigotry in all directions they seem to have sleepwalked into after the rise of Trump, which I have to concede is more reflective of the true character of the average Republican than being a libertarian populist would be.

I have cruelly learned over the years that most people have very little in the way of standards and will tolerate or even venerate almost anything as long as it’s socially sanctioned; that might sound harsh, but if that’s not true why are we still dealing with hordes who actively support, among other indefensible horrors, the lockdown cult and the likes of the TSA?

So being a bunch of whiny and thuggish bigots might not cost them much at the polls, but I find it hard to believe that even the kind of people who make excuses for cops who choke innocent men on the street in cold blood will find whiny thuggery actively appealing.

Conclusion

Digressions aside, those are some of my thoughts about the 2020 election; this is the first time I’ve devoted a whole post to analyzing election results and what they mean, and I honestly quite enjoyed writing it. I hope you, dear readers, enjoyed reading it! Maybe I’ll write up a series of posts about what it would take to flip the various “safe” states from one party to the other, but in any event I kinda feel like giving blogging about electoral politics a rest for a while. It will be back, though, so if you really liked this post I’d advise you to check in from time to time and see if there’s anything new.

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