Whether it’s Biden or Trump, here are six things we've learned so far from the US election 2020

The blue wave predicted by the polls did not come—and America may face days or weeks of litigation

November 04, 2020
Joe Biden and wife Jill Biden rally supporters as the votes are counted. Credit: CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images
Joe Biden and wife Jill Biden rally supporters as the votes are counted. Credit: CNP/ABACA/ABACA/PA Images

Another bitter, drawn-out election in the US. It’s Wednesday morning in Texas, where I currently live. The predicted “blue wave” for the Democrats failed to emerge (although they have retained the House of Representatives). So much for the pre-election polls. Texas remains a red state. The Republicans have done surprisingly well but have certainly not won yet, as Trump groundlessly claimed a few hours ago. It seems that Joe Biden is the most likely winner at this stage. Many postal votes still have to be counted in the key “rust-belt” states of Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, and those votes will be crucial in determining the outcome. So with no clear winner yet, I’ll make the following observations.

1. This is an election like no other. Why? First, it is being held in the middle of a pandemic. Over 230,000 Americans have died of Covid-19 (certain racial groups being disproportionately affected) and many more have suffered economically. Trump has not received high ratings for his handling of the pandemic and that ought to be a defining issue of the election, but it has become politicised. Scientists and experts are not always believed, and wearing a mask may be taken as a sign of political affiliation as much as a public health measure. Conduct of the election has altered as a result of the virus: postal and early voting has been extraordinarily high—over 100m voted before election day. Nonetheless, voters still managed to elect a candidate to the state legislature in North Dakota who died of coronavirus a month ago.

2. Trump has been a highly polarising President, and the US is an extraordinarily divided country. He has even divided his party. Confirmed Republicans—such as John McCain’s widow Cindy McCain and former Arizona Senator Jeff Flake—endorsed Biden. In the streets of Dallas there are signs reading “Republicans for Biden.” This election has seen the highest turnout for over a century, with strongly entrenched views on both sides. It is deeply riven by what Carl Bernstein described as a “cold civil war.” Democrats tend to do well in cities, with younger voters, and in more racially diverse areas. Republicans do better with older voters (apparently despite the higher toll of Covid-19 on the elderly) and in rural populations, and with some of the very wealthy. Women are more likely to vote Democrat, especially women of colour. All of these factors feed into America’s changing demographics, so that the voting profile in some states is beginning to look different—as in Arizona, for example, a notable gain for Biden last night.

3. There have been many calls for patience—to wait until every vote is counted. The ghost looms of the 2000 Bush-Gore election battle—eventually decided weeks later by a Supreme Court decision. However, US elections are erratic, and many previous contests have been decided relatively quickly. In 2008, the race was called (by Fox News!) for Barack Obama by 11pm ET. In 2012 it was declared for Obama at 11.38 ET. And in 2016, where the race was very tight between Clinton and Trump on election night, it was called for Trump at 2.29 ET.

This time round, postal voting is slowing things down. Although Florida was able to declare pretty quickly for Trump, because ballots there could be processed ahead of election day, different states have different rules for counting mail-in ballots. Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan could not start counting until the day itself. With coronavirus running rampant, one could surely predict an increase in postal ballots—so why not count them early? In Pennsylvania, the Republican-led state legislature adopted a law that prevents tallying of votes in advance. So it may take days to count all of those (many likely to be Democrat, who are more likely to vote by mail). Verifying signatures takes an especially long time.

4. If there is no clear result on 4th November, we still have to wait. Trump has repeatedly said that votes should not be counted after the 3rd. This is a ridiculous statement. There is no law stipulating that vote counting must stop on election day or shortly thereafter. Voting has continued for several days on many occasions—each state has its own rules. The electoral college meets on 14th December, so all vote counting should have ceased by then. But in the meantime, there may well be claims (eg by Trump himself, who already tweeted and stated this on election night), that continued vote counting is evidence of Democrats trying to “steal the election.”

5. Is American democracy struggling? Some things are going relatively well. So far vote casting has been regular, with no violence and few malfunctions (in comparison to the primaries earlier this year). Social media companies have pledged to remove posts containing lies—a misinformation label was placed almost immediately on a Trump tweet claiming a “big win” and that the Democrats were trying to steal the election. But however quickly Facebook or Twitter label a post in that way, time has passed, and the message has had plenty of time to circulate.

Looking ahead, there are at least two sources of contention. First, the situation grows more and more febrile as postal votes continue to be counted in key states. Lawsuits are being brought to attempt to stop the counting, and this may end up in the Supreme Court, in a repeat of the 2000 case. One might hope that courts would have Bush v Gore in mind, and as a result be reluctant to resolve a case that could determine the outcome of the election. But with the Supreme Court now having a 6:3 conservative majority (one rushed in at the last moment, as Trump explicitly stated, to be there in time to adjudicate a disputed election—and three of whom worked for the Bush side in the Bush v Gore litigation) can one be so sure?

If Biden loses this election, a Democratic candidate will have won the popular vote in every presidential election since 1992—with the exception of 2004—but will not have won the presidency on every occasion. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won it by over 3m, and yet the Democrats lost the presidency and both houses of Congress. Biden may win the popular vote by a greater margin than Clinton (if we can believe the polls) and yet still lose the presidency. That would be a damning indictment of the electoral college and American democracy. Another victorious Trump administration would be unlikely to change that system. But how legitimate would that system then appear? Even if Biden wins, it will not be with the certainty of a large victory, and would not achieve the sense of closure that clearly ousting Trump could bring. The US will remain unsettled.

6Finally, this election doesn’t only concern America. The world is watching. A Trump win would have an impact on Britain, making a no-deal Brexit more likely, as Trump has held out the prospect of a rival US-UK trade deal (however unlikely such a deal might actually be). Such a deal would be unlikely under a Biden administration in the event of a no-deal Brexit seen to threaten peace in Northern Ireland. The impact of another Trump presidency on climate change could be huge. Trump took the US out of the Paris climate accord and any further American initiative to counter climate change at international level would be very unlikely. Churchill famously said that “Europe is where the weather comes from.” Now, in an almost literal sense, that remark is true of America.