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 Economy 'It' the economy, stupid!'
The significance of the running mate.
Law and Order
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.
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.
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.
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