Welcome to the Undecided States of America. The decisive result that Joe Biden expected on election night was denied to him — instead the election went to a knife edge and a dispute over postal votes and late ballots that could drag on for days, even weeks. American democracy looks a sorry mess. Is anyone really that surprised?
Donald Trump started crying foul weeks, even months ago. ‘This is a fraud on the American public,’ he declared in the early hours of Wednesday. ‘We were getting ready to win this election. Frankly, we did win this election.’ Pundits huffed and puffed: such talk is improper, they said, irresponsible, unpresidential. It is. But Trump may have a point.
Biden, meanwhile, has tried to put a brave face on what was undeniably a deeply disappointing night for him and his party. The truth is that the Democrats and the pundit class had written off Trump, once again. And Trump proved them wrong, once again.
Can we just agree never to pay any attention to polls from now on? Or whizzy mathematical election models? The big pollsters all assured us that they had learned the lesson of 2016. They had tweaked their models to better account for those pesky non-college-educated voters in those swing states. Pah! Some projections even gave Biden a 97 percent chance of winning. Everyone who isn’t delusional knew that was absurd. In the past few weeks, the media’s stock line was that short-sighted commentators were over-spooked by Trump’s victory of four years ago. All the smart analysts could see that he would lose this time.
The hubris of the anti-Trumpers was mind-boggling. One outlier polling firm, the admittedly pro-Republican Trafalgar Group, kept pointing towards a factor that mainstream analysts were missing — ‘social desirability bias’. What Trafalgar meant was that respondents do not admit that they will vote for Trump because to do so out loud is to invite condescension and scorn. Celebrity statisticians on Twitter — take a bow, Nate Silver — dismissed Trafalgar as right-wing loons. But Trafalgar, it seems, was more right than wrong.
Trump calls it his hidden power — the people the experts can’t see; the people who shun the polls or just lie to them. Trump’s base has always understood that their movement was more powerful than the pundit class could ever realize. At a Trump rally last week in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, I met Mike, a fifty-something Greek-American, who described Trump’s appeal: ‘He has tapped into these deep cultural veins that they just can’t reach or even understand,’ he said. By ‘they’ he meant the Democrats and much of the media. He was right. Trump fans are often wiser than the people who loathe them.
Perhaps we all need to take our assumptions about how and why Americans vote and turn them on their head. It’s not about race or racism. It’s about class. Even if Trump doesn’t win, he has still forged a ‘rainbow coalition’ of the working classes that means Republicans can win in decades to come. He might just fall short in the coming days. But he has reinvented the Republican party as a winning proposition in a multi-racial America for the foreseeable future. The Trump operation ran an especially imaginative and successful campaign in Florida. He appealed to Latinos — not just Cubans, but Puerto Ricans, Guatemalans and Colombians. In Texas, too, Trump showed that he can swing Hispanic voters en masse.
According to exit polls, Trump improved his 2016 performance in every race and gender group apart from white males. It seems Trump actually lost some of his more racist voters from 2016 — his criminal justice reform and his slowness to condemn the Black Lives Matter riots in the early summer depressed his more rabid followers. America’s most famous white supremacist, Richard Spencer, came out for Biden.
A grand realignment continues. Under Trump, the Grand Old Party has moved towards being the party of the poor, the badly paid and the downtrodden, regardless of race. Look at the donors — the professions that gave most to Biden were high status: marketing executives, lawyers and Google employees. Trump’s donors, with some very rich exceptions, were small business owners, farmers, construction workers and police officers.
Biden won back white working-class voters in places like North Carolina, Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. Republican attempts to portray him as a radical leftist backfired. Yet Team Trump’s suggestion that Biden was a ‘Trojan horse’ for socialism may have registered with voters, especially those Latin American immigrants in Florida who have fled socialist regimes.
We heard, relentlessly, that Trump’s inept COVID response meant that he could not be reelected. There can be no doubt that voters were less than impressed with the President’s eccentric views on the virus. In Arizona, it seems, voters chose Biden over Trump because of the health crisis. But all the talk that Trump had frightened off seniors, who are rightly most scared of dying of or with COVID, seems for now to have been more Democratic hot air.
The real effect of the pandemic was to fog up the whole election so that it became very hard to see what was going on. Biden’s campaign had very little visible enthusiasm, but that could be put down to the fact that Democrats were far more COVID-secure. Observers couldn’t quite trust their eyes: Trump, having himself survived his brush with coronavirus, was evidently mounting an extraordinary charge on the last days of the campaign. No, no, no, said the pollsters — the battleground states may be ‘tightening’ but Biden’s ‘favorability score’ meant the race was ‘stable’. Wrong. The pollsters also said the Democrats were strong favorites to win the Senate and the House of Representatives — a clean sweep. It looks like they got that wrong, too.
If elections were judged by effort, Biden deserved to lose. The Democratic strategy was obvious: keep as low a profile as a presidential candidate possibly can, and let the election become a referendum on Trump. If it had clearly worked, we would all be saying how brilliant and bold it was. As is, it looks like monumental folly. For the last few weeks, the Biden campaign didn’t actually campaign. Biden’s team kept calling ‘lids’ — campaign speak for the end to the candidate’s official day — before lunch. Maybe it was the only thing they could do. Some 77-year-old men are lively for their age; Biden is not one of them. His lifelong speech impediment gets worse when he is tired. He often seemed not to know where he was. He made a big mistake in the final TV debate when he said he would ‘transition’ America away from oil, which undoubtedly lost him votes in the several states, notably Pennsylvania, where the fracking industry has generated large numbers of jobs.
Maybe, as Team Trump kept suggesting, Team Biden had to keep their man under wraps because he was just physically and mentally unable to lead the fight. Biden himself admitted last month that if he lost, it would mean he was ‘a lousy candidate’. Such moments of occasional frankness are exactly what people like about Old Joe. But maybe he was just rubbish at campaigning.
Trump, meanwhile, spent the last days of his campaign visiting up to four states a day, doing rally after rally. He may not be a good president. But even his enemies should now admit that he is the greatest political campaigner of our time. He is a man who refuses to be beaten. At a short press conference with his campaign team on election day, hopeful observers said he looked defeated. He was probably just exhausted. Septuagenarians shouldn’t have to fight 21st-century elections. But Trump, who is some four years younger than Biden, was clearly better equipped for the battle.
From the last TV debate onwards, Trump showed the better side of his peculiar nature. In his speeches, he was funny, even — dare I say — charming. His comedy dancing on the podiums was deeply entertaining, and lent itself to social-media sharing. He was also optimistic, especially about the pandemic. Biden promised Americans a ‘long winter’ of death. Trump told them not to be afraid of coronavirus. ‘Don’t let it dominate your life,’ he said, after he was discharged from the Walter Reed Medical Center on October 5. For a lot of Americans, fed up with months of fear over this mysterious disease, that was exactly what they wanted to hear. Yet again, Trump has proved how well he understands his country and his people.