Going into the 2020 election, the polls suggested a blow-out for the Democrats. Public opinion showed Joe Biden in 2020, like Clinton in 2016, with a seemingly-insurmountable lead. However the blue wave never occurred. Instead, we’ve seen a red one in favour of the Republican party — and not just Donald Trump, its standard-bearer. If Biden pulls ahead in a few still-disputed states, he will win only by a nose. It also appears that the Republicans will retain majority control of the Senate and pick up seats in the House.
While it is still likely that Joe Biden will win the American presidency, the Democratic party has suffered a shocking setback this year.
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What happened? According to the conventional wisdom, shared by Democrats and Never Trump Republicans, Trump’s victory in 2016 had been a fluke. Hillary Clinton would have defeated Trump easily, save for one or more contingent factors — alleged Russian interference, the FBI investigation into Clinton’s personal email server, the weakness and unpopularity of Clinton as a candidate.
In 2020, Democrats and their anti-Trump Republican allies told us, normality would be restored. Other than the socialist Bernie Sanders, it was thought, practically any Democrat would be able to knock off Trump, one of the least popular presidents in American history, even in the state-based electoral college, which in 2000 and 2016 allowed the loser of the popular vote to become president.
The 2020 election was supposed to have been shaped by a wave of public revulsion against not only Trump but also against his party. The Republicans would lose control of the Senate and lose seats in the House of Representatives, giving the Democrats control of all three branches of government. Robert Reich, Bill Clinton’s former Labor Secretary, called for a South African-style Truth and Reconciliation Commission, to identify the accomplices of Trump in his supposed four-year reign of terror. The Republican Party would be exiled to the political wilderness forever.
Or perhaps it would be rebuilt as a new party which came to grips with modern America by internalising the norms of woke Democratic media, academic and business elites, so that in time there would be two enlightened American parties devoted to rooting out white privilege, defunding or radically reforming the police, and promoting a Green New Deal and open borders immigration policy.
The hopes of Democrats for a new era of one-party Democratic rule in Washington, D.C. depended on two groups — college-educated white suburbanites and Hispanics. Their hopes have been disappointed. According to exit polls, white college graduates were almost evenly-split. Democrats, over time, may benefit from the drift of former highly-educated Republicans to their party, but the 2020 result is far from the overwhelming repudiation of Trump by moderate and progressive whites with college degrees that Democrats hoped for.
An even greater shock was movement in the Hispanic vote toward Trump. Overall, according to exit polls, Hispanics favoured Biden by 66 to 32%. But Cuban-Americans with their strong anticommunist tradition helped Trump to win Florida. Trump’s share of the Hispanic vote in Florida rose from 35% in 2016 to nearly half in 2020.
The Democratic advantage with Hispanics between 2016 and 2020 eroded elsewhere, including Georgia (40% advantage to 16%) and Ohio (41% to 24%). In Texas, Trump’s share of the largely Mexican-American vote climbed from 34 to 40%. In Starr County, Texas, the county with the largest proportion of Hispanics in the U.S., between 2016 and 2020, the Democratic candidate’s margin of victory shrank from 60% in 2016 to 5%.
In another Texas district along the U.S.-Mexican border, Gina Ortiz Jones, the Democratic candidate who was widely favoured to win, lost her race for a congressional seat to Tony Gonzales, a Republican. Previously the majority-Hispanic district had been represented by an African-American Republican, Will Hurd.
These results are not entirely surprising. Trump did better with Hispanics in 2016 than Romney had in 2012, and the Republican share of the Hispanic vote inched up in the mid-term elections of 2020.
But Exhibit A in the progressive indictment of Trump has been the claim that he is a Mexican-hating xenophobe whose emphasis on curtailing illegal immigration is motivated by white nationalism. Trump’s much-hyped border wall was compared by liberals and leftists to the Berlin Wall. The separation of unauthorised immigrant families in detention (a practice that began under Obama) was Hitlerian and the U.S. Border Patrol was the new Gestapo.
This entire political narrative, shared by the mainstream media and the overwhelmingly-Democratic professoriate with the Democratic party, has imploded, undermined by the drift of Hispanics toward the Republicans in 2016, 2018 and 2020.
The conventional wisdom was right about one thing: Trump was an incredibly weak candidate. By the standards of other presidents, he has been consistently unpopular. He has been a failure in all three of the traditional roles of the U.S. president, who combines the offices of ceremonial head of state, leader of a party in Congress and commander-in-chief of the U.S. military. Trump is incapable of reassuring the public in his role of head of state, as his clownish, narcissistic performance during the early months of the COVID-19 epidemic showed.
As an outsider who won the Republican nomination against the wishes of most Republican leaders, he has always lacked leverage in dealing with Congressional Republicans who would prefer a continuation of Bush era policies to his economic nationalism and rhetorical (more than real) populism. As commander-in-chief, like Obama he has failed to extract the U.S. from simultaneous forever wars in the Middle East and Central Asia. Unlike Obama, who launched U.S. campaigns in Syria, Libya and Yemen, Trump has not started any new wars.
In addition to all of these weaknesses, Trump has been more demonised by the media than any president in history, including Richard Nixon, who was not accused of being a foreign agent as well as a criminal. The Mueller investigation into fanciful claims that he was an agent of Vladimir Putin installed by the Russians in the White House in 2016 consumed most of his term. When Mueller’s legal team absolved Trump, the furious Democratic majority in the House then impeached him over claims of misbehaviour in investigating Joe Biden’s son Hunter’s dubious business dealings in Ukraine. The Republican Senate majority had to save him from being removed from offices.
Nevertheless, this unpopular, weak, and widely-despised president will either win the 2020 election by a hair or lose it by a different hair. As a result, both Republican and Democratic strategists must be thinking: what if Trump had been a more attractive, conciliating and competent figure?
The Democrats can take comfort in the fact that they appear to be on the way to winning the popular vote, although that does not matter if they lose the electoral college. But they must be disturbed by the fact that if Biden wins the electoral college as well, it will probably be by a slight margin. Moderate Democrats will argue that their party veered too much to the left on issues like Black Lives Matter, abolishing the police, immigration, and “interrogating white privilege”. Populist Republicans will argue that the Republicans can do even better following a policy of Trumpist national populist conservatism with a less divisive candidate. And both moderate Democrats and populist Republicans will be right.