Welcome to American democracy: same as it ever was.
The most dangerous time to write an election analysis is when it is too late to predict what will happen, and too soon to know what happened. But we do know a few things already about what happened last night, and they illustrate the big, messy, infuriating diversity of our country.
There was a fairly unanimous pre-election consensus among the media, entertainment, and artistic elite who dominate American public discussion — and among active social-media users — that Donald Trump and the entire Republican Party were headed to a colossal defeat, repudiating the rule of a tiny, isolated minority of the population and sure to be swamped in a high-turnout election. It didn’t happen. Trump may well lose — at this writing, that seems the likely outcome — but Republicans appear to have held control of the Senate, gained seats in the House, won all but one of the seriously contested gubernatorial races, and generally seem to have done quite respectably down the ticket across the land.
They did so in an extremely high-turnout environment, maybe the highest in over a century. Trump got 1.2 million more votes in Texas than he did in 2016, burying the idea that Republican strength in the state is solely a feature of its historically low voter turnout. He got a million more votes in Florida, too. There was a blue wave, but there was a red wave to meet it. Republican senators who were supposed to face close races against lavishly funded opponents instead won in blowouts, such as Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, Mitch McConnell in Kentucky, John Cornyn in Texas, Steve Daines in Montana, and Dan Sullivan in Alaska. Joni Ernst was fairly easily reelected in Iowa, and it appears that Thom Tillis in North Carolina, Susan Collins in Maine, and David Perdue in Georgia may all have survived. Exit polls suggested an electorate that was not consumed by monolithic rage at Trump, and did not see the COVID-19 pandemic as his unique fault.
The Republican coalition that came out of the woodwork was neither the Mitt Romney coalition of 2012, full of well-heeled white suburbanites, nor the angry little mass of toothless rednecks that your Facebook friends see as the only possible Republican voter. Florida Hispanics, who had shunned Trump in 2016 while many voted for Marco Rubio and Rick Scott, backed the president in large numbers, and shifted House seats in the Miami area (including ejecting former Clinton cabinet secretary Donna Shalala from the House). Early indicators show the best Republican performance among non-white voters in over half a century, while the party bled support among white voters and suburbanites. Trump’s flaws and missteps may have cost him the presidency, but many, many millions of working-class Americans saw him as their champion.
We hear a lot, and rightly so, about increased polarization and the decline of ticket-splitting. Yet, somehow, we are likely to end up with a divided Congress and a Senate at odds with the White House. There were clearly a lot of voters this year who switched sides from where they were not very long ago — some going one way, some going the other. The significant non-white vote for Donald Trump, of all people, should make many of us rethink the simplistic categories of voters and the left-wing habit of casting every Republican as a white supremacist. Instead, some incensed progressives last night were already trying to read Hispanics out of the coalition of color. If the American electorate is becoming a little less polarized along racial and ethnic lines, that can only be a good thing.
Voters were also not rigidly predictable. Florida voters backed Republicans, but also jacked up the state’s minimum wage to $15 an hour. California voters delivered the usual landslide margins for Democrats, but decisively defeated efforts to expand rent control and restore racial preferences. As Trump ran as the champion of law-and-order against longtime drug warrior Biden and hard-edged prosecutor Kamala Harris, a variety of ballot initiatives legalized various drugs.
Change is constant. Arizona seems to have gone to Biden — only the second time since 1948 that the state has voted Democrat — and is now represented by two Democratic Senators. Yet Doug Ducey easily won reelection as the state’s Republican governor in 2018, and the state government remains in Republican hands. Republican governors cruised to reelection in Vermont and New Hampshire. We were told that Trump had reoriented the Republican Party around the shrinking states of the Rust Belt, at the risk of opening up major Democratic opportunities across the Sun Belt, with its growing and diverse populations that promise a larger share of the Electoral College by 2024. Maybe, when the votes are counted, Democrats will have held onto Arizona and claimed Georgia (where they have not won a presidential, Senate, or governor’s race this century), but Republicans mostly held the line across the region — and Trump appears likely to lose the election by virtue of failing to hang onto two or three of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania, the trifecta upon which he built his political reputation in 2016.
Objectively speaking, there were many reasons why Republicans should have been discouraged by Trump, why Democrats should have been uninspired by Biden, and why a pandemic should have suppressed the vote. But instead, new voters poured into the system from every direction, eager to make their voices heard, and willing to line up behind these two creaky old men. Trump will likely end with the most votes of any Republican in history, and maybe the largest share of eligible voters of any Republican in decades. On the Democratic side, the same may be true of Biden.
In the end, if Trump has lost, it will not be because the Democrats have some sort of natural, permanent majority coalition, or because the battle lines have been set in stone. If the counting leaves Trump short in a handful of key states, it will simply be a matter of the old American prerogative to make a choice every four years and judge an incumbent on his record, with a crucial swing of persuadable voters at the margin making all the difference. And if Biden takes office with a Republican-controlled Senate, he will do so not as a conqueror tasked with putting the defeated to the sword, establishing truth and reconciliation committees and de-Nazification style purges, and rewriting the rules to prevent a future Republican revival. No, he will do so as an old veteran of a bygone Senate who will need to cut a lot of deals that will be unsatisfying to everyone. Welcome to American democracy: same as it ever was.