At one level, the result was a solid defeat of Trump and Trumpism. President-elect Joe Biden’s projected electoral college vote matches Trump’s from four years ago, which back then the president called a “landslide.” Biden’s popular vote margin is approaching 6 million votes, more than double Hillary Clinton’s edge four years ago.
The long-term problem for the country, however, is that the outcome marks the near complete Trumpification of the GOP, and a far deeper partisan divide than existed even two years ago. A look at the election data from 2018 and 2020 shows that the alignment between the Trump vote and support for down-ballot Republicans, particularly in races for the House of Representatives, is closer than ever.
Democrats are tearing each other apart because they not only failed to advance in the House; they actually lost seats. According to the Cook Political Report vote tracker, Republicans have netted 11 seats in the House with five races left to be decided.
What occurred is less mysterious than the polemics between the party’s wings would suggest.
The Democratic victory in House elections in 2018 was sweeping. The party flipped 43 seats and lost only three for a net gain of 40. More importantly, the Democrats achieved an unprecedented turnout of their supporters. Democratic House candidates won 60.7 million votes, compared with 51 million for the Republicans. Republicans got 10 million more votes than they won in the 2014 midterms, but the Democrats won an astonishing 25 million more.
When you look at where the big 2018 turnout increase came from, it’s obvious that Democratic-leaning constituencies intent on punishing Trump far outperformed Trump’s core constituencies, perhaps because Trump himself was not on the ballot.
The Census Bureau found that turnout among those with college backgrounds, who tend to be Trump critics, rose significantly more than it did among those who didn’t attend college. Turnout in metro areas was up 12.2 points; in non-metros — Trump territory — it rose just 7.7 points.
But in 2020, Trump voters came out in droves and thus boosted down-ballot Republicans. Trump won over 10 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016 — exit polls suggest that 6.5 million of his ballots came from first-time voters — which means he brought new supporters into the electorate who were important to this year’s House GOP victories.
As one Democratic strategist noted, “2018 was a wave year because our people showed up and theirs didn’t. 2020 was like a reversion to the mean because both sides showed up and right now we’re feeling the whiplash because no public or private data saw it coming.”
Nothing is clearer in the outcome than how closely the presidential vote matched the vote in House races. The latest count in the presidential race shows Biden with 51 percent of the popular vote. Cook’s tracker shows Democratic House candidates with 50.4 percent of the vote.
Democrats still managed to hold on in more than two-thirds of the 30 districts that went to Trump in 2016. But this achievement has a telling backstory: On the current count, it appears that at least 11 of the 30 Trump districts in question switched to Biden, and several more may eventually move Biden’s way. In these places, the Democrats’ strong showing in 2018 House races was a leading indicator of what was to come. So far, Republicans have picked up House seats in only four 2016 Clinton districts, with two others on the edge.
Going forward, figuring out how Trump won an additional 10 million votes is one of the most important questions in politics. Here’s a plausible and discouraging theory: Given Trump’s intemperate and often wild ranting in the campaign’s final weeks and the growing public role in GOP politics of QAnon conspiracists, the Proud Boys and other previously marginal extremist groups, these voters may well be more radical than the party as a whole. This means that Republicans looking to the future may be more focused on keeping such Trump loyalists in the electorate than on backing away from his abuses.
Trump’s bitterest harvest could thus be a Republican Party with absolutely no interest in a more moderate course and every reason to keep its supporters angry and on edge. Ignoring reality and denying Trump’s defeat are part of that effort.