It was supposed to be a night of celebration for the Democratic Party. Final polls the day before the election had presidential challenger Joe Biden ahead of incumbent Donald Trump by eight points. For the presidency, Arizona voted “blue” for the first time in twenty-four years. Democrats are set to win Georgia for the first time since 1992. Highly competitive congressional races in key Republican states promised to give Democrats full control of Congress for the first time since 2009. The 2020 election was supposed to be a resounding denouncement of both President Donald Trump, as well as the Republican Party as a whole. The actual results told a different story.
Midnight came, and Trump threatened to pull off another upset as Michigan and Wisconsin polled in favor of the incumbent, giving him the requisite electoral votes to win a second term. Even though president-elect Joe Biden was ultimately declared the winner by the Associated Press, the margin was less than predicted by the polls. Democratic candidates in key Senatorial races failed to regain control of the Senate, despite record-shattering funding by the Democratic Party. Worse still for the Democrats, the Republican Party narrowed the Democratic majority in the House of Representatives and may retain control of the Senate—the two Senate races in Georgia are headed to a run-off, in which case the Democratic Party would have to win both races in order to give Vice President elect Kamala Harris the tie-breaking vote. What happened?
Surprising Results from Polls and Voter Turnout
Some point to the Democratic Party’s misplaced reliance on polling statistics that predicted a “blue wave” for creating a sense of complacency in the party. Echoing the results of the 2016 election polls, the actual results of the 2020 election were vastly different than those predicted. Although there is still a possibility that presidential election polls will fall within the margin of error, key polls on voter demographics seem to be extremely skewed. The final poll taken by The Wall Street Journal had Biden leading by twenty points among women and twenty-three points among seniors. Instead, a survey conducted by the Associated Press found that Biden won among women by only eleven points and lost among seniors to Trump by three points, a nearly twenty-six point swing.
Initial theories as to why polls faltered cite potential distrust by respondents for the institutions conducting the polling and potential biases in polling techniques that did not account for white, working-class voters in swing states—feeling that they were too little to affect results—as possible causes for the error in polling data. Others point to the Democratic Party and pollsters underestimating voter turnout amongst rural populations and those without four-year college degrees. The disparities of both the 2016 and 2020 election polls, and the Democratic Party’s reliance on them, have left many in the party questioning the effectiveness of their outreach attempts.
Another surprise for the Democrats was Republican voter turnout. While many are celebrating the fact that Biden shattered the record for most total votes cast for a presidential candidate—breaking the previous record held by former president Barack Obama — others are quick to point out that Trump also broke that record as well, potentially setting the stage for Trump to run again in 2024. Although many had predicted this election to have a historic turnout, few anticipated Trump to have such a strong showing. Jeff Horwitt, a Democratic pollster, mentioned that Trump was able to win several key states because of his ability to change the electorate and win over voters who sat out of the 2016 election. In Butler County, Pennsylvania, Republicans were able to register nearly ten thousand voters and saw an increase of 10 percent participation from voters who did not cast a ballot in 2016. This surge of enthusiasm amongst new voters for Trump came as an unsettling surprise as the Democratic Party anticipated most undecided voters would either sit out or lean toward the Democratic Party.
Florida’s Hispanic Voters Ditch Democratic Party
Even more concerning for the Democrats, a large amount of this support came from the Hispanic population. This led Trump to win Florida and make a twenty-three point dent in 2016’s Democratic vote share in Miami-Dade County, a populous and traditionally blue Florida county with a large Hispanic population. This surge of Hispanic support also helped the Republican Party win both Senate seats and almost every competitive House seat on the ballot.
Maria Elena Lopez, vice chair of the Miami-Dade Democrats, blamed this poor showing among Hispanic voters on the Democratic National Committee’s failure to invest enough in local communities, as well as the perception amongst Hispanic voters that the Democratic Party is becoming too socialist. Regardless of the reason, Raul Martinez Jr., the district director and campaign manager for US Representative Donna Shalala said it best: “It was a bloodbath across the county.” Meanwhile, House Democrats are putting the blame solely on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi for failing to defend vulnerable colleagues up for election by focusing too heavily on healthcare and not doing more to combat the “socialist” label placed on the Democratic Party. These issues led to Democrats ultimately losing the majority of state legislature battles.
Democratic Initiatives Fail with Voters
Along with the surge in Hispanic support and failure to reach rural voters, possibly the most telling sign of danger for the future of the Democratic Party came in the results of a series of resolutions voted on across the country. In Illinois, voters signaled their displeasure with current Democratic Governor J.B. Pritzker by voting down the Illinois “Fair Tax” Amendment that would replace the current flat tax rate with a graduated one. Many analysts saw the failure of the amendment as less of a condemnation of the bill itself and more as a signal of voter distrust in the Democratic-controlled government. Pritzker pointed to voter concerns surrounding corruption allegations against State Representative Michael Madigan, the current state Speaker of the House and Democratic Party chairman, for the waning popularity of Democratic officials in Illinois.
In California, a historically Democratic state, voters overwhelmingly voted against Proposition 16, which would have allowed public institutions like universities and government agencies to give preferential treatment for admissions or hiring based on race, gender, and other identifiers. Touted as an “affirmative action” bill, the failure of the legislation came as a blow to the Democratic Party, which had been campaigning on the platform of addressing social inequality and police brutality in the wake of the Eric Garner and George Floyd murders. While advocates of the bill claim the loss was due to confusing language in the proposition and failure to properly educate the populace, opponents declared it a firm admonishment of the Democratic Party and progressive policies as a whole. The state also failed to pass Proposition 21, which would have expanded the cities’ abilities to implement rent control, and passed Proposition 22, which overturned a state requirement for gig companies like Uber to provide their employees benefits afforded to full-time workers. These results show voters turning away from the Democratic platform of government oversight and regulation.
With the election results more or less certain, the Democratic Party is going to be left with many questions and few answers. What promised to be a sweeping condemnation of Trump and Republican policies fell well short of expectations, leaving many to wonder what went wrong. Unexpected enthusiasm amongst voters for Trump and the Republican Party, failure to gain traction with rural voters, slipping support amongst Hispanics, and the inability to garner support for progressive policies in solidly blue states have left the Democratic Party scrambling to find the right path forward. Despite winning the presidency, Democratic politicians now have to combat a divided country, a global pandemic, and world-wide economic uncertainty all while attempting to push progressive reform policies without further alienating voters. With the next election only four years away, the Democratic Party is going to have to do some rigorous soul-searching if it hopes to maintain control of DC moving forward.
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