Case Study US Election 2020

Presidential elections in the US take place every four years, on the first Tuesday after 1 November. This has been the unvarying practice even in wartime conditions, as in 1864 (the Civil War) and 1944 (Second World War).

Context of the Campaign - The Pandemic

The Covid-19 global pandemic affected the US from late January 2020 and became the subject of a national emergency in mid-March. Criticism of President Trump’s handling of the pandemic was the most significant factor in the outcome of the contest.

Perhaps the biggest reason Biden won the presidency was something entirely out of his control.

The coronavirus pandemic, as well as claiming more than 230,000 lives, also transformed American life and politics in 2020. And in the final days of the general election campaign, Donald Trump himself seemed to acknowledge this.

"With the fake news, everything is Covid, Covid, Covid, Covid," the president said at a rally last week in Wisconsin, where cases have spiked in recent days.

The media focus on Covid, however, was a reflection rather than a driver of the public's concern about the pandemic - which translated into unfavorable polling on the president's handling of the crisis. A poll by Pew Research, suggested Biden held a 17 percentage point lead over Trump when it came to confidence about their handling of the Covid outbreak.

The increased use of mail-in ballots led the Trump campaign to claim that the election might be unfairly ‘rigged’ against him, and he refused to give a binding commitment to accept the result. Trump’s critics argued that this was a partisan attempt to suppress voting for his opponent, as Democrat voters were less likely to vote in person in the pandemic. They also pointed out that the incidence of fraud in modern elections is very low. The deadlines for accepting mailed ballots for counting became a politicised issue, with the Supreme Court ruling in October against a bid by Republicans to block extensions beyond 3 November in Pennsylvania and North Carolina.

By election day the US had suffered the highest number of deaths from the virus in the world (over 200,000), with more than eight million confirmed cases. Trump was widely perceived as having been too complacent about the spread of the virus, inconsistent in his public statements and failing to give a clear lead at a time of crisis.

The Economy 'It' the economy, stupid!'

In 1992 Clinton's campaign manager, James Carville, told his staff that if they wondered what elections were about they should tell themselves 'It's the economy, stupid' and indeed this is true of most elections in the USA and UK. In 1980 Reagan asked the American people to judge Carter's four years in power by asking themselves 'Am I better off now than I was four years ago'.

Without the advent of the pandemic, it's likely that a majority of Americans in 2020 would have answered 'yes' and voted for Trump. However, the severe economic effects of the virus undermined the President’s claim to have guaranteed prosperity for the American people. The unemployment rate reached a peak of 15 % in April before dropping to just under 8 % by October. This was still almost double the rate that Trump inherited in 2017. A week before election day, it was shown that GDP had risen by 33 % in the third quarter of the year – an impressive recovery, given that the second quarter had seen a 31% decrease - but it was too late to reverse the decline in Trump’s fortunes.

The significance of the running mate.

The two major party candidates, Trump (aged 74) and Biden (77), were the oldest individuals in US history to run in a presidential election. This made the choice of Vice- Presidential candidate unusually important, as there was a real possibility that the winner might not serve a full four-year term. Trump stuck with his first-term choice, the conservative Mike Pence. Biden selected a leading African-American female candidate, Kamala Harris, as his running mate. She was a California senator and former attorney-general for the state, some 20 years younger than Biden, who had herself launched and then discontinued a campaign for the presidential nomination.

During the campaign to be the Democratic candidate, Biden's competition came from his left, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren who ran well-financed and organised campaigns that generated rock-concert sized crowds.

Despite this pressure from his liberal flank, Biden stuck with a centrist strategy, refusing to back universal government-run healthcare, free college education, or a wealth tax. This allowed him maximise his appeal to moderates and disaffected Republicans during the general election campaign.

This strategy was reflected in Biden's choice of Kamala Harris as his running mate when he could have opted for someone with stronger support from the party's left wing.

Law and Order

Another issue which made this an exceptionally divided election was the demonstrations in many US cities. This followed the killing on 25 May of the African- American George Floyd by a Minnesota policeman. Demonstrations organised by the pressure group Black Lives Matter focused attention on the treatment of ethnic minorities by the police. Many cities also saw campaigns to remove statues perceived as racist, such as those commemorating figures from the slave-owning Confederate side in the Civil War.

Trump’s attempt to depict himself as the guardian of law and order drew parallels with the 1968 election, when Republican candidate Richard Nixon similarly appointed himself the spokesman of the ‘silent majority’ in his bid for the White House. By deploying federal troops to areas where riots took place and opposing the campaign to remove monuments, Trump came into conflict with the civil rights movement. He won approval from conservatives by attacking the Democrat Party faction that proposed defunding the police but Biden himself was careful not to support this radical option. Less positive for Trump was public reaction to his decision to stage a photo opportunity outside a Washington DC church, holding a Bible, which was widely seen as inappropriate. Law and order became a salient issue during the summer as disturbances broke out in states including Oregon and Wisconsin. Trump accused the Democrats of being soft on crime and excusing violent law-breakers, whilst Biden charged the President of having fomented disorder through his divisive language. Law and order, therefore, was not a decisive issue- supporters of both candidates tended to have their views confirmed by events.

Party policies and the polarisation of US politics

Joe Biden did not adopt the most radical policies of his party’s progressive wing, as advocated by Bernie Sanders. For example, he does not favour ‘Medicare for all’ – universal, government-funded health insurance replacing private insurance. Nor has he adopted the radical ‘Green New Deal’ espoused by the left of his party, which seeks to transition to renewable energy within ten years. However, Biden has moved away from the party’s centre in some key areas. At the Republican Convention Trump did not announce a new policy platform but restated his commitment to the ‘America first’ agenda announced for the 2016 election. This slogan, though never precisely defined, carried connotations of nationalism, isolationism and possibly intolerance. In office Trump distanced the US from international commitments entered into by previous Democrat and Republican administrations. There is a continuing gulf between the two parties. Democrats stand for diversity and support for minority groups, and a more internationalist view of the USA’s role in the world. Republicans have a more traditionalist, conservative vision of America, and under Trump’s leadership have become more inward-looking. Social and moral issues have become an increasingly important dividing line. Democrats are the more socially liberal of the two parties. For example, on abortion Biden is committed to reversing Trump’s executive order which stopped taxpayer funding of the pro-choice Planned Parenthood organisation. This reflects his party’s greater sensitivity to women’s rights issues. Gun control is another issue. The Democrats do not directly challenge the Second Amendment right to gun ownership, but they favour more controls, including a ban on the sale of assault weapons and stricter background checks on purchasers of firearms. This contrasts with Trump’s more clear-cut commitment to the right to own firearms; he has stated that ‘the right of self-defence doesn’t stop at the end of your driveway’.

Policy area How the parties differ


Biden would increase the top rate of income tax and corporation tax and use the revenue to invest in ‘green infrastructure’ projects. Trump has cut both income tax and corporation tax. This links to the different philosophies of the parties – Democrats prioritise helping middle- and low income people, whereas Republicans focus more on business interests and reducing the role of government in the economy.

Health care

Biden would extend the 2010 Affordable Care Act, known as ‘Obamacare’, which extended healthcare insurance to uninsured people. Republicans are hostile to the level of government intervention represented by the policy. Trump removed the requirement to buy insurance or pay a tax penalty.


Biden would make it easier for people to claim asylum at the border with Mexico, reversing Trump’s more restrictive policies. He supports the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) policy, which allows people brought illegally into the US as children to stay. Trump is opposed to this policy.


Biden is keener than the Republicans on renewable energy. He has promised net-zero emissions by 2050 and the electrification of the transport sector. Trump supports the continued exploitation of oil and gas. He replaced Obama’s Clean Power Plan, which set targets for cutting greenhouse gas emissions, with the less ambitious Affordable Clean Energy Rule. He repudiated the Paris climate agreement, to which Biden would return.

Campaign finance: what part did it play?

The 2020 election reinforces the argument that the ability to raise campaign finance is crucial to success for candidates in the USA, both for the Presidency and Congress. Spending on all the November elections was close to a total of $14 billion – more than twice the amount spent in 2016. In the presidential race, Trump’s team began with the advantages associated with incumbency, building on the 2016 support network to establish a $72 million lead in the spring of 2020. By early October, however, the Biden campaign had $144 million more cash in hand than the Trump campaign. This enabled the Democrats to run extensive TV and digital advertising campaigns in battleground states, outspending Trump by a wide margin. The Democrats’ impressive resources enabled them to target particular demographics such as Puerto Rican voters in Florida and Mexican Americans in Arizona. Although they did not win all the swing states, their efforts put the Trump campaign on the defensive.

The origin of political donations is an important issue. Both candidates ignored the availability of public funding for their campaigns. This was because the official system, established in 1974, allowed candidates to claim federal funding to match privately raised contributions, but in return they have to accept relatively low spending limits. Biden and Trump followed a pattern established in the three previous elections, in which the major party candidates relied exclusively on private funding, thus allowing them to increase their legally permitted expenditure. The 2020 election saw 20 per cent of campaign funds come from small donors, who contributed a maximum of $200 each, an increase of 6 per cent on 2016. This is an encouraging sign for US democracy. More than half of Democrat fundraising came from small online donations. It was boosted by public reaction to several incidents in the course of the campaign, including the popular selection of Kamala Harris, the death of Supreme Court Justice Ginsburg and the first presidential debate. However, the role of a small number of wealthy contributors continued to be a concern. These are people who do not reflect the wider community whose interests are at stake in the election. One research group found that in 2020, more cash came from Washington DC than from twenty states combined, and that Biden raised 10 per cent of his funds from just six zip codes, concentrated in Washington DC, New York and Indianapolis. Soft money, indirectly donated to a campaign by individuals or organisations, remains an issue in US politics. Super PACs, which seek to influence electoral outcomes without directly supporting a candidate, played an important role as they had in 2016. The highest-spending PACs were almost equally divided between conservative and liberal positions, with two (America First Action and Preserve America PAC) backing Trump and two (American Bridge 21st Century and Unite the Country) for Biden.

In the wake of potentially damaging revelations about Donald Trump’s tax affairs, polls suggest that he came off second best in a very scrappy first debate with Joe Biden. Then news broke that the President was hospitalised after testing positive for COVID-19, and his general health and recovery were questioned. The attention then switched to his running mate Mike Pence and his debate with Democratic opponent Kamala Harris. After all, if Trump’s condition were to deteriorate then Pence might be playing a much bigger role in the future. The first 2020 presidential debate did not go well for Donald Trump. Viewers were turned off by the president’s constant hectoring of Joe Biden. And many were alarmed when he not only declined to denounce white supremacists but went so far as to tell a far-right neofascist group to “stand by.” Polling by FiveThirtyEight revealed that 50 percent of people who watched the event rated Trump’s performance as “very poor.”

Pence and Harris produced a more orderly contest than the chaotic display put on by the presidential candidates, featuring fewer interruptions and more policy discussion, despite headlines being bizarrely hijacked by the fly that landed on the Vice President’s head.

In another twist, after the Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) determined that the next Trump-Biden head to head would be an online affair, the President announced that he wouldn’t participate on the basis that the whole idea was “ridiculous” and that the moderator could “cut you off whenever they want”. The second debate was then cancelled, and the clear reluctance of Trump to take to an online platform to debate, combined with the safety concerns of a face-to-face interaction have led to uncertainty not just over the format and schedule of the this year’s debates, but also about the future of Presidential debates altogether.

While the first televised debate was clearly newsworthy and headline grabbing, there is compelling evidence showing that these televised contests matter little to voters.

The appearances of two white men aged 74 and 77 could also be key in 2020 given the continuing jibes from both sides doubting the other’s physical and mental wellbeing. Given Trump and his wife’s positive COVID tests and his wider family’s refusal to wear face masks in the studio when asked to do so, the first debate might yet prove to be of critical importance to the health of those coming into contact with them, especially in light of the increasing number of COVID cases within the Trump camp.

The electoral college and the outcome of the presidential contest

The outcome of the US presidential election is not determined by the total popular vote, even though Biden received a record number of votes. Instead, voters choose an ‘elector’ to represent them in the electoral college. Each state is allocated a number of votes in the college linked to its representation in Congress. This ensures a balance in terms of the weighting given to smaller and larger states, but it is not strictly proportional to population. To win the presidency a candidate must win a majority of electoral college votes – at least 270 votes out of a total of 538. Apart from Maine and Nebraska, all states have a ‘winner takes all’ policy, whereby the candidate who wins a majority of the vote takes all of the electoral college votes for the state. The election result proved closer than many commentators expected. Biden was consistently more than 8 per cent ahead in national polling but it was the ‘swing states’ that mattered most, and here his lead was smaller. Trump held Florida, even though it was reported that the high percentage of retired voters in the state had become disillusioned with him for his stance on the virus. The state’s 29 electoral college votes went to Trump, largely because of the sizeable, conservative Cuban exile community, who responded to his depiction of Biden as a puppet of the radical left. Trump also retained Texas, Ohio and North Carolina. However, the other key swing states of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona declared for Biden. He won the largest popular vote in US presidential history, as well as a clear majority in the electoral college. This was the largest turnout since 1900 – 66.7 %. At the same time, it is important to note that Trump won the second-largest vote share of any presidential candidate, which helped to generate claims on the Republican side that he had been unfairly robbed of victory. Third-party and independent candidates, of whom the most successful was Jo Jorgensen of the Libertarian Party, gained less than 2 % of the national vote between them.

Vote counting was an issue in the 2020 contest. As a result of the pandemic 101 million votes were cast early, many of them by post. Democrat voters were more likely to use this method in order to avoid physical contact at polling stations. It is up to the states to set the rules on when they start to count mail-in ballots, with most not allowing them to be opened until the end of polling day. This was one reason why there was a delay of several days in announcing the election result. Trump then refused to concede defeat, making baseless claims that he had in fact won. His legal team launched lawsuits in states such as Pennsylvania, to disqualify votes that they regarded as illegitimate. However, they produced no substantive evidence and failed to change the result of the election. Trump continued to dispute the result but eventually agreed to the transfer of power to Biden. Nonetheless, before he left the White House there were violent scenes on 6 January 2021 when, after a Trump rally in Washington DC, some of his supporters invaded Congress in a bid to disrupt the formal approval of the election result. Despite the violence, a handful of Republican senators and a larger number of Congressmen still voted against certification.

Voting patterns

It is important to understand the part played by various demographics in the outcome of the election, although it should be noted that experts do not claim that the available data is entirely accurate. Race was an important factor in voting behaviour. As expected, Biden was the more popular choice for ethnic minority voters, winning up to 90 percent of African American votes and 70 percent of Latinos. This reflects the Democratic Party’s traditionally strong links to these communities. However, Trump was relatively successful with Hispanic people in areas such as Florida and Texas. As noted above, this can be attributed to the politically and socially conservative attitudes of these voters. In Texas, Trump’s economic policies may have garnered support among workers in the oil and gas industries. Gender had been predicted to be another major dividing line between the two sides, with women less likely than men to vote for Trump. This turned out to be justified, with an estimated gender gap of between 8 and 12 points. Levels of education continue to be an important divide. College-educated non-white voters remained loyal to the Democrats, with female voters in this category preferring Biden by an average of 22 points. Trump raised his support among non-college-educated non-white voters from 20 to 25 percent between 2016 and 2020. He won 63 percent of non-college-educated white voters. Trump lost some support among older voters – 51 percent of over-65 voters supported him, compared to 52 percent in 2016. It had been expected that the oldest voters, who were most vulnerable to the virus, would desert Trump, but the results do not bear this out. However, younger voters remained loyal to the Democrats. Among voters in the 18 to 29 age group, 62 percent supported Biden and just 35 percent supported Trump.

An important development that helped Biden was a shift towards the Democrats in suburban areas, particularly those in rust belt and southern swing states. These included Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, which had been historically Democrat prior to 2016, and Georgia, which went Democrat in 2020 for the first time since 1992. This may be because these areas, although still mainly white, are becoming more racially diverse. By contrast Trump’s vote held up in rural areas and small towns.

Explaining the outcome

As the incumbent Trump possessed the advantages of the office itself: instant name recognition and media attention; an aura of authority as the nation’s chief executive; and a ready-made, well-resourced campaign team. He also had authority over his own party – though he did face four short-lived challenges from other Republicans in 2019 before finally securing the nomination. Only one previous president in the previous 30 years, George HW Bush in 1992, had failed to win a second term. Trump’s main disadvantage, however, was that his poll ratings suffered as he was perceived to have mishandled the health emergency and to have dissipated the promise of economic prosperity made in 2016. A decade of manufacturing jobs growth disappeared in a matter of months as the disease took hold. This was the record on which Trump was judged by voters. The polls began to narrow by the end of August. This was largely due to the outbreak of race-related rioting, much of which took place in Democrat-controlled cities such as New York, Portland and Seattle. Trump sought to shore up his core vote by arguing that his opponents had lost control and that lawlessness was the responsibility of their far-left supporters. Ultimately, however, this proved to offer false hope to the Trump campaign.

Trump’s gaffes, such as suggesting that injections of household cleaning products should be tested as coronavirus treatment, were relentlessly highlighted by the media. It also worked in the Democrats’ interests that their candidate had a track record of executive experience as Vice-President and could be presented as a ‘safe pair of hands’. Trump’s attempts to depict Biden as ‘Sleepy Joe’, a candidate who was simply not up to the task of being President, did not gain traction. Nor did voters believe the allegations that Biden was the passive tool of his party’s far left. His plans for increased public investment in infrastructure were consistent with the policies of earlier Democratic Presidents, notably Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal in the 1930s. They were viewed as essentially mainstream rather than ‘socialist’ policies. Trump was no more successful in depicting Biden’s running mate as an extreme left-winger. Although radical on issues of racial equality, Kamala Harris was to the right on law and order, with a track record of toughness on crime as a former California attorney-general. This was an extremely divisive election. Virtually every issue was politicised in a highly partisan manner. When wildfires devastated large parts of California and Oregon in September, the candidates out forward starkly divergent explanations. For Biden, this was further evidence of climate change, whilst Trump blamed the disaster on poor forest management by the state authorities. Another front in the campaign was opened when a longserving member of the Supreme Court, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, died on 18 September after a long illness. The removal of a key liberal justice gave Trump an opportunity to nominate a more ideologically congenial conservative to the Court. In a similar situation in 2016, when conservative justice Antonin Scalia died, the Republican-controlled Senate refused to hold a confirmation hearing for a replacement put forward by outgoing President Obama, on the grounds that this decision should be left until after the election.

In 2020, however, the Senate supported Trump by approving his nominee, Catholic conservative Amy Coney Barrett, just a week before election day. This infuriated liberals because it meant that the Court would have an inbuilt 6–3 conservative majority. It raised the possibility of previous liberal positions on issues such as abortion and Obamacare being reversed. The first televised presidential debate on 29 September highlighted the bitterness of the personal rivalry between the two candidates. It was widely condemned for bringing US democracy into disrepute, with the two men trading insults and talking over each other rather than seriously debating the issues. Afterwards, the commission responsible for supervising the debates proposed to change the rules in time for the next round. Then the announcement that Trump had tested positive for Covid19 disrupted the schedule. This dramatic news was what commentators call an October surprise – an unexpected news event, late in an election campaign, which may affect the outcome. At the height of the pandemic some commentators had argued that Biden would be disadvantaged by not being able to campaign in the traditional way, instead being obliged to broadcast from his home. This meant that he initially struggled to gain publicity, although he later made some public appearances. By contrast, as the sitting President, Trump automatically received continuous media coverage. He also placed great stress on attending campaign events in person, mocking Biden for being less publicly visible. Trump’s meetings were usually large, with supporters not wearing masks or socially distancing. Biden’s events were typically smaller-scale and much more cautiously managed. When Trump was hospitalised, this appeared a sign of recklessness rather than vitality, seriously damaging his credibility. It confirmed a growing impression among voters that he was not competent to be entrusted with power for a second term.

It did not help Trump’s cause when, returning to the White House, apparently cured after three days in hospital, he minimised the seriousness of the disease by claiming that he was now immune. Biden consistently presented a quietly reassuring persona which contrasted markedly with Trump’s flamboyant and aggressive style. This difference was highlighted by the ‘duelling town halls’ event which replaced the planned second televised debate on 15 October. Instead of appearing together, the two candidates were interviewed separately and appeared simultaneously on different TV channels. The final debate took place as planned on 22 October and saw the candidates engage more with the issues. However, the more orderly atmosphere was because the organisers had imposed stricter rules, including provision for turning off the participants’ microphones. Overall, this was one of the most ill-tempered and confrontational campaigns in US presidential history

The Congressional elections: from divided to united government

The Congressional elections produced some close results. The Democrats still controlled the House of Representatives, although losses meant that their majority (with New York’s 22nd Congressional district undecided) was now just 222 to 211 – a markedly weaker performance than Biden’s in the presidential contest. In the Senate the Democrats defeated incumbents in Arizona and Colorado but lost a seat in Alabama. Key Republican senators retained their seats – both those identified with Trump such as majority leader Mitch McConnell (Kentucky) and Lindsey Graham (South Carolina), and those who had consistently distanced themselves from him, notably Susan Collins (Maine). This points to the continuing power of incumbency as a factor in securing re-election, with long-serving senators running on the basis of their local record and connections.

One state whose representation was not resolved in November was Georgia where, uniquely, both Senate seats were contested. In both cases, neither of the top two candidates won 50% of the vote, which meant that, under the state’s rules, a run-off had to be held on 5 January. In a close contest both seats were taken by the Democrats. As a result, the Senate was split evenly, with both parties holding 50 seats. The Senate is chaired by the VicePresident, who has a casting vote in the event of a tie. This ended the situation of divided government which had prevailed since 2019, giving the Democrats the opportunity to pass their legislation and secure confirmation of their Cabinet appointments. The incoming Biden administration therefore had the benefit of a potentially strong political position. It is common for a new president to have his party in control of Congress at the start of his term, but this advantage is often lost in mid-term elections. The new administration faced major challenges, not only in public health and the economy, but also the need to reunite a deeply divided country whose institutions had been subjected to the most severe testing in living memory