IOP Fellow Addisu Demissie is a Founding Principal of 50+1 Strategies, a political consulting and organizing firm. He holds twenty years of professional experience in political advocacy and campaign strategy. He has run or been involved with campaigns for US Senator Cory Booker, California Governor Gavin Newsom, former secretary John Kerry, former secretary Hillary Clinton, and former president Barack Obama. He also served as senior advisor to the 2020 Democratic National Convention Committee. The Gate sat down with Demissie to discuss the 2020 presidential election and its lasting impact on the nation.
The Gate: The 2020 election has definitely been one for the history books. Starting off with the Democratic Party, do you believe the Democrats made the right choice in nominating Biden? Do you believe any other candidate could have won the election, such as Senator Bernie Sanders, who was a serious challenge to Biden, or Senator Booker, whose campaign you advised?
Addisu Demissie: I think we did make the right choice. I think that other candidates might have been able to win. It's hard to play out the counterfactual. But I think that Biden was probably the strongest candidate we had to offer, knowing what we know now. And specifically, I think that means just how energized Trump's rural white base was and how much they turned out. As to the coronavirus pandemic, I think how much Biden's profile as an empathetic, experienced leader fits the moment that we are all living in right now in a way that a younger candidate, a less experienced candidate, a [more left-leaning] candidate may not have been able to withstand. So yeah, I think others could have won—who knows what would have happened in another world, but I think Biden was the right man for the moment. And I think the results kind of show it.
The Gate: Do you believe that the pandemic played a very critical role in the sense where, if the pandemic hadn't happened—200,000 plus lives wouldn't have been lost, the economy wouldn't have dropped as much as it did—do you think that Trump would have had an easier election and would have been able to win?
Addisu Demissie: I definitely think that Trump's number one argument for his reelection was that the economy was relatively strong. And I think we saw in 2012 and in ‘96, it is hard to defeat an incumbent president. And it is particularly hard when the economy is on the up. So Trump is taking his strongest argument off the table. I think the flip side of that is had there been a competent, sane response to the coronavirus, there actually could have been a sort of rally around the flag. [A] we're all in this together, wartime mobilization kind of moment that Trump could have benefited from politically, that he simply didn’t . . . take advantage of and so he made it worse, no doubt about it. And I think that ultimately there are a lot of voters who might have given him the benefit of the doubt on the economy. And even still, even through September and October, might have been willing to remember what it was like in 2018, 2019 for them, but ultimately voted for Biden because they couldn't take the way that that he had responded to the biggest crisis that we've seen, certainly in nineteen years and maybe ever in our country.
So I guess it's a long-winded way of saying I think that pre-coronavirus, Trump was—I don't think he was necessarily the favorite—but he was in a strong position to be competitive with Biden or whoever the nominee was. And I think he blew it. You know, over the course of the last eight months and he had his trump card—no pun intended—taken away from him with respect to the economy.
The Gate: And he and his administration did, throughout the past couple of months, especially as the election was nearing, try to downplay the effects of the virus and try to say that the pandemic wasn't a problem. Even when Trump himself tested positive, they were still trying to downplay what it was. It's a hoax, etc. Do you think that was a smart move? Do you think maybe actually taking stricter action near the election would have helped?
Addisu Demissie: Pure politics. I think the fact that Trump recovered from coronavirus quickly, personally, [created the opportunity for] a personal testimony as to why it wasn't that dangerous. It may have helped him with his base in particular—politically, again, not in any other way. But I think the cake was baked in March and April and May, when he had the potential to respond as a president should respond to a national crisis and didn't. And so, by the time we got to November, it kind of was what it was. And so they just doubled down, as Trump always does, on what I would call a wrong decision.
The Gate: I wanted to move on to the almost the other half of this election—the Republican Party and their role in the election. There's been a lot of contention regarding voter fraud during this whole election, but the GOP admitted to placing unofficial ballot boxes in the state of California yet refused to take them down afterwards. What do you believe was the intention of this action?
Addisu Demissie: They are trying to confuse people and trying to make a point, I think about voting-by-mail in ballot boxes, and how unsecure they supposedly were. I think it's something—if not illegal, absolutely unconscionable, morally—to try and confuse people about where to vote and vote safely. So whatever their motives were, it was a misguided attempt to do something that undermines confidence in democracy. And that to me is unforgivable. Voter fraud is not a thing. It's certainly not a thing as a widespread, coordinated level, in the way that the White House, the Trump campaign, and apparently, now the Republican Party nationwide, seems to want to believe that it is.
It should be the province of our political parties and people who are involved in the political system to try to both secure and instill confidence in elections and not do the opposite. And I think that, in order to save face, Trump and his Republican Party have tried to do the opposite. And it is doing damage to democracy and doing damage to our country. That won't have any effect on the election results in 2020. But I think it can have lasting impact and that makes me both angry and upset.
The Gate: What do you think is the impact of Trump's specific failure to concede the election in the current status quo? And do you believe that this will become a precedent for future sitting presidents that might lose reelection?
Addisu Demissie: I hope to God the answer to that last question is no, The reality is that [Trump’s] willing to throw a lighter, onto gasoline, to burn our democracy to save face. He lost, he's a loser, and he does not want to be branded as such. And so he is trying to claim that the game wasn't fair. It is a childish and completely narcissistic impulse. But knowing Donald Trump, as we have learned over the last five years, it is completely predictable.
It's going to take Biden showing us what presidential leadership is again. It's going to take Republicans, who are right now not showing much of the backbone, to show some backbone, particularly after January 20 when Trump is no longer president and not to kowtow into that kind of politics and indulge his delusions anymore.
The Gate: Trump couldn't have done everything that he did and his administration couldn’t have accomplished as much as they did without the support of the Republican Party. And even right now, he continues to receive their support. Why do you believe that so many Republican politicians are hesitant in denouncing Trump's actions? And to keep this concise, because it could be such a long answer, could you answer specifically to his failure to concede the election.
Addisu Demissie: I think, for the most part, if I'm putting the best possible spin on it, they know that it is much ado about nothing, and they are letting him basically blow off some steam to get ready for the inevitable result that comes along. Now, I think it has damaging effects on our democracy in the long run. But that is the best case scenario, in my opinion.
What I actually think is happening in a lot of these places is that Donald Trump has a hold on Republican voters. He has a loyal base of people who give money, who show up to his rallies, and vote. We saw this election he's gonna end up with 10-11 million more votes than he had last time. He has a loyal political base. And there are Republicans who want to inherit the benefits of that loyal political base. They are willing to sacrifice what I would say is country, and in many cases ideology, for their ultimate political game. And there are these Republican politicians who kowtow into it and are afraid of the wrath of Trump if they go the other way.
There are some politicians who deserve credit—the Republicans that deserve credit for not doing that. So I don't want to paint the whole Republican party with that brush. And those people have a huge responsibility after this thing is all over in January to help Joe Biden knit the country back together and be a loyal opposition.
The Gate: So following up on that, because we kind of are getting into this idea of what happens post-Trump, especially as Biden's message throughout his campaign was this message of unity. He's trying to bring the nation together as difficult as that might be right now, given our polarizing nature. But do you believe centrist Republicans that have been afraid to be anti-Trump because they might lose their base, will embrace Biden as President? Or has Trump really destroyed any sense of center for the Republican Party?
Addisu Demissie: I think they will. The further away in the rearview mirror his presidency gets, the less power he will have. And I know it's hard for us to believe and everyone's like, he’ll always have Twitter and whatever. But turns out, Biden will have the authority to do things, McConnell will have the power in the Senate if the Democrats don't win both seats in Georgia, and Pelosi will have the power in the House. And so those are the people who are going to have the biggest megaphones. I do think that his power is going to wane over the party and over the elected officials that represent the party, because he is no longer one.