Nothing that's happened in 2020 followed the rules of a normal political year. The 2020 primary season, which started in Texas on March 3 and ended in Delaware on Tuesday, lived up to that standard.
States that voted after early March — that was nearly all of them — adjusted to the pandemic either by delaying the vote or sending out record numbers of mail ballots. Turnout hit record lows in some places, like Puerto Rico, and record highs in others, like Massachusetts. Millions of voters expanded Medicaid, and millions more picked criminal justice reformers to replace their district attorneys and sheriffs. And dozens of adherents to a wild conspiracy theory, one that did not even exist three years ago, won Republican nominations.
Turnout was up, once states figured out the novel coronavirus. The Democrats' presidential primary was effectively over by mid-March, when most of the country had yet to hold any primaries for down-ballot races. Not since 2004 had both Democrats and Republicans picked their presidential nominees so early, before the vast majority of states began nominating candidates for House and Senate. And not since 1918 had a pandemic made traditional door-to-door campaigning so much harder, with one party nearly halting it altogether. It wouldn't have been surprising if turnout fell, relative to the last few primary seasons.
But it didn't. Turnout exceeded the levels of 2016 and 2018 in most of the country, as states implemented more early voting and easier absentee voting. (That's why we're not just publishing raw then-and-now numbers.) In states that held both presidential and down-ballot primaries on the same day, turnout was actually up from 2016, when every single state voted while the primary between Hillary Clinton and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) was still being contested. Some years both parties have hot Senate primaries, some years there's nothing at the top of the ballot.
The coronavirus complicated things, too. Turnout in Arizona, Florida and Illinois, which held presidential primaries March 17, was mixed: lower than 2016 in Illinois, flat in Florida and higher in Arizona. All three states voted at the moment when they were shutting down to handle the pandemic; Arizona's tradition of early voting and super-early absentee voting made the difference.
But what happened next was that most states rushed to copy what worked, and most campaigns adapted. For example, while Illinois bundled all of its primaries in March, Arizona and Florida, as usual, held an early presidential primary and a separate down-ballot primary. In Arizona, turnout in the Republicans' Senate primaries surged from 591,330 in 2016 to 732,880 this year, while turnout for Democrats jumped from 334,094 to 666,071. Both races were comparable, with the party anointing its favorites before the primaries, though the GOP base flirted with conservative challengers. And more voters decided to participate.
In most states, Democrats had the bigger turnout surges, or the steadier vote patterns. In Minnesota, where Sen. Tina Smith (D) won a 2018 special primary and a regular primary this year, turnout was flat — from 570,190 in 2018 to 570,694 in 2020. That was still higher than expected, given that there was a tight gubernatorial primary driving out votes in 2018. Republican turnout fell from 300,861 to 244,313, and while it fell off less in rural areas, the story of the day was the primary challenge to Minneapolis-area Rep. Ilhan Omar. What had been a 135,318-vote primary in 2018 became a 177,948-vote primary in 2020, a massive activism of the sort of voters who usually vote in only November, if they vote at all.
Republicans had better news in red states, as places like North Dakota and West Virginia, winnable for Democrats just 20 years ago, continued to see higher GOP turnout. In the latter, 208,282 voters turned out to renominate Democrat-turned-Republican Jim Justice, while just 186,254 voted in the Democratic primary. It was the first time in West Virginia history that Republicans outvoted Democrats in that race, a lagging indicator in what's become one of the most Trump-friendly states in the country. And the president had taken a key role, campaigning to turn out his vote for a sure-thing nomination, winning more primary votes than any other incumbent president who didn't face a serious intraparty challenge.
But the picture in swing states was brighter for Democrats, especially in the suburbs, mitigating some Republican enthusiasm in rural areas. Democrats saw more primary turnout in the three key 2016 states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, even in races they weren't prioritizing. In Pennsylvania's 1st Congressional District, where Democrats struggled to find a recruit against moderate Republican Rep. Brian Fitzpatrick, 92,308 people voted in their primary, up from 48,946 in 2018 and 84,177 in 2016. (The Bucks County district had slightly different lines that year.) In the Democratic held 7th District, GOP turnout rose from 31,793 in 2018 to 56,933, part of a tight, expensive race. But even though Democratic Rep. Susan Wild had no challenger, turnout in her primary rose from 45,119 in 2018 to 76,878 this year. Voters wanted to vote, just as long as their state made it easy.
Republicans nominated their most diverse class of House candidates, ever. After the 2018 midterms, Republicans publicly bemoaned not just their defeats but the similarity of the candidates who won. All but two new members of the House GOP conference were White men, while Democrats had elected the first majority in which White men were outnumbered.
The Republican establishment aimed to change that, and it largely succeeded. Of the 41 seats Republicans lost in 2018, they’ve nominated White male candidates in just 25 of them. Women and men of color make up the rest of the recruits, and one of them, Rep. Mike Garcia (Calif.), already won a May special election. (He has a rematch in November with Democratic state legislator Christy Smith.)
Republicans also picked more non-White and non-male candidates to seek safe seats, or seats where incumbents were retiring. Six White male Republicans will be replaced on the ballot by women: Reps. Kenny Marchant (Tex.), Paul Mitchell (Mich.), Phil Roe (Tenn.), Ted Yoho (Fla.), John Shimkus (Ill.) and Tom Graves (Ga.). (More about his successor below.) Indiana Republicans picked state legislator Victoria Spartz to replace Rep. Susan Brooks, and Florida Republicans picked Black state legislator Byron Donalds to replace retiring Rep. Francis Rooney.
There was no similar diversity push in Senate races, where the party nominated just one non-White candidate, Michigan's John James. But there was less at play — Republicans ran the table in 2014, the last time these Senate seats were up — and Republican voters nominated a more diverse class of state legislative candidates, like attorney Nicole Ziccarelli, who'll challenge a White male Democratic state senator in western Pennsylvania, and Kronda Thimesch, a school board member who's trying to win back a seat in the exurbs of Dallas that Democrats flipped two years ago.
“Even if we don't win the majority, we'll at least have made broad gains on the diversity front,” House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy told Axios last week. That will be true even if the party gains no seats at all.
The left made big gains and held its ground. Weeks after the 2016 election, liberal activists led by online video news pioneer Cenk Uygur created Justice Democrats, a project that would recruit and elect as many candidates as possible to replace the “corporate” wing of the primary. “The aim in 2018 is to put a significant number of Justice Democrats in the Congress,” Uygur told The Post at the time. “The aim for 2020 is to more significantly take over the Democratic Party.”
If you listen to Republicans, that already happened. If you look at the numbers, the left built real power inside the party, more than it has had in decades. This year, it replaced three incumbent Democrats with reliable left-wing candidates: Marie Newman in Illinois, Jamaal Bowman in New York and Cori Bush in Missouri. Each won with a different coalition — suburban Whites for Newman, White liberals and non-White Bronx voters for Bowman, and, in Bush's race, a landslide of St. Louis Black voters picking her over a long-serving but often absent Black incumbent. Bowman and Bush, in particular, described their victories as uprisings against the old politics.
“You know what Donald Trump is more afraid of than anything else?” Bowman said after his victory was declared. “A Black man with power.”
They were also testaments to the new, intense organizing strategies developed since 2016. All four members of “the squad,” the Justice Democrats-backed women who won safe-seat primaries in 2018, were renominated by landslides. (Rep. Ayanna Pressley (Mass.) had no opponent, but turnout was up statewide.) Liberals won more than they lost in open seats, pushing candidates like New York's Mondaire Jones, New Mexico's Teresa Leger Fernandez and Texas's Candace Valenzuela over the top. Where they lost, like in Massachusetts's 4th District, it tended to be where multiple left-wing candidates cannibalized the vote — a problem that Bowman solved, persuading a weaker left-wing challenger to leave the race.
The left did even better in binary-choice races. Criminal justice reformers made gains in local offices, with liberal counties like Travis (Texas) and Fulton (Georgia) nominating district attorneys who promised to revisit tough-on-crime policies. In several safely blue states, like Delaware, New Mexico, New York and Rhode Island, unified liberal campaigns ousted conservative Democratic state legislators. The left-wing Working Families Party invested in this, but it was supplemented by local organizations, like chapters of Democratic Socialists of America in New York and Reclaim RI in Rhode Island.
“After the presidential primary was over, we had such a good leadership team of over a dozen people,” explained Reclaim RI's Daniel Denvir. “We decided to keep going and it worked.”
Conservatives made some down-ballot gains, too, and two low-key Republicans, Reps. Scott R. Tipton (Colo.) and Denver Riggleman (Va.), were ousted by challengers who ran to their right. But one irony of this primary year was that a renewed Republican focus on attacking “socialism” took place as self-identified socialists scored their biggest electoral wins since before World War I.
Conspiracy theorists had a breakthrough year. Next to the victory of Mike Garcia, nothing cheered House Republican leaders more than Iowa's June 2 primary, where a state legislator named Randy Feenstra ousted Rep. Steve King. That was a long time coming, with King being stripped of his committee assignments at the start of 2019, allowing local Republicans to portray him as not just reckless, but powerless. In one night, the GOP conference had ousted a defender of white nationalism, a complement to their diverse candidate recruiting across the country.
One week later, Colorado Republicans picked Lauren Boebert as their nominee in the red-tinged 3rd District; two months later, Georgia Republican Marjorie Taylor Greene won the nomination in the state's safely red 14th District. Both had expressed some level of interest in QAnon, Boebert by saying she knew people who believed it, and Taylor Greene embracing the QAnon concept that an international ring of murderous pedophiles was being hunted down by the president.
According to Media Matters researcher Alex Kaplan, 39 Republican candidates for Congress or for state legislatures have flirted with or endorsed QAnon. The vast majority won nominations in safely Democratic seats, where their party didn't try to recruit stronger candidates. But Greene is headed to Congress after her Democratic opponent (always a long shot) dropped out, and there's been no effort to sanction or distance the party from candidates who've advanced conspiracy theories. Delaware's Lauren Witzke, who won the GOP's U.S. Senate nominate this week, said in an interview that the party, which had endorsed her opponent, quickly got behind her on election night. (More about that below.)
A few dozen candidates aren't representative of an entire party's agenda or values. But belief in a wild conspiracy theory that got wide coverage for years was not a turnoff for base Republican voters, not without pressure or a message from the president. The story of 2020's primaries might be simple: More people are voting, and their agendas are reshaping the parties, not the other way around.
“Trump and his campaign try to allay concerns about trailing Biden in television ads,” by Michael Scherer and Josh Dawsey
Operation: Put the president on TV more.
“Trump crams policy moves — real and imagined — into final weeks,” by Meredith McGraw
Behind the flurry of executive actions that may or may not stick.
“Ten days: After an early coronavirus warning, Trump is distracted as he downplays threat,” by Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey and Yasmeen Abutaleb
A look at the first days of the coronavirus crisis, with new details from Bob Woodward's interviews.
“Sean McElwee is begging the left to grow up,” by Elaine Godfrey
The left-wing data analyst who called some of 2020's biggest upsets, but made enemies in the movement.
The tempting of Turning Point USA.
"The gray wall," by Jim Newell
Why Joe Biden has an advantage with older voters.
Dems in disarray
In the final days before presidential debates, both campaigns tend to downplay their own expectations, or portray the opponent as a skilled combatant.
The Trump campaign, eschewing that strategy, is talking about teleprompters. Specifically: Does Joe Biden use one? Can he operate without one? Are the questions he gets, and the answers he gives, printed out for him in advance?
“BIDEN IS A FRAUD!” read a text from the Trump campaign to donors Thursday afternoon. “He uses a teleprompter for TV interviews!”
The argument tests one of this campaign’s big questions — whether a besieged Trump can will a story line into existence. The president’s campaign has, for a year, portrayed Biden as a figure in decline, unrecognizable from the vice president who won two debates in 2008 and 2012.
Over the past few weeks, it’s highlighted moments when Biden said the sort of phase that is usually in a speech’s notes (“topline message”), when he beckoned with his hand as if asking text on a prompter to be moved, and when he showed a family photo to CBS host James Corden, with a prompter visible in the reflection.
Fox News host Bret Baier was the first reporter to put the Biden campaign on the spot, asking spokesman TJ Ducklo if Biden had ever “used a teleprompter during local interviews or in a Q&A with supporters.” Ducklo rejected the premise, and not until a Playbook interview with campaign manager Jennifer O’Malley Dillion did the Biden campaign explain that the candidate did, sometimes, use a teleprompter “when giving a speech.” And Corden, separately, told viewers that the video of the reflection was showing his setup, not Biden’s.
The Trump campaign’s response: insisting that Biden is constantly reading prepared remarks and exploiting the Biden campaign’s refusal to “rebut” this. That’s a pattern for the Biden campaign, which has laughed off everything from Trump’s challenge of a pre-debate drug test to a cognitive test that can determine the scale of Biden’s decline. The campaigns frequently operate in different worlds — Democrats sharing Biden’s events and remarks in their entirety, while conservative media and the Trump campaign share compilations of Biden’s worst moments.
“For a number of different reasons, I don't think Joe Biden ever should have run for president,” Sen. Ron Johnson (Wis.) said in a radio interview Tuesday. "Just take a look at the compilation videos of the obvious age deterioration. It's sad.”
Johnson was referring to content created to make Biden look disoriented, and presenting it as if Democrats were covering it up, a recurring theme in the campaign's final weeks.
Joe Biden, “Little Brother.” The Democrats have released a series of health-care-focused spots with specific family stories, all on the same theme: what happens if the Supreme Court sides with the Trump administration and overturns the entire Affordable Care Act. “If Donald Trump gets rid of our health-care law, our son would no longer be protected,” a mother says here, similar to other mothers in other Biden ads, who focus entirely on insurance.
President Trump, “The Last Thing American Small Businesses Need is Joe Biden.” The Trump campaign's economy-focused ads sometimes are drowned out by their message-of-the-week ads, like the volley of commercials linking Biden to civil unrest. But the economy spots follow a theme: The economy is coming back, it was “the best it had ever been” pre-coronavirus, and Biden would wreck it. One spot attacked Biden for saying he would shut down businesses if scientists demanded it; this one gives a female small-business owner the microphone, to warn that Biden would raise her taxes.
Thom Tillis, “Anything.” North Carolina's first-term Republican senator ran against the Obama administration in 2014 and is running as a bipartisan fixer this time; here, attacking Democrat Cal Cunningham for criticizing the Cares Act and its Paycheck Protection Program even as he worked for a company that got a loan. “He lied about it at first,” says Tillis.
Cal Cunningham, “North Carolina First.” The Democrat has repeatedly emphasized his military service, a factor that's also drawn groups like VoteVets into the race to pound Tillis. Here, Cunningham focuses on a topic that, for a lot of people, came and went from headlines. “When Thom Tillis failed to act when the Russians pay bounties for dead Americans, something is deeply wrong.”
Presidential election in Wisconsin (Washington Post-ABC News, 702 registered voters)
Joe Biden: 52%
Donald Trump: 46%
The Post's look at Wisconsin is the last in a rush of polls that tested the state's attitudes after protests of the police shooting of Jacob Blake turned violent. Each one of those polls has put Biden ahead, contradictory to what many expected as the Trump campaign accused Biden of being too soft on crime. And 51 percent of Wisconsinites say they have favorable opinions of Black Lives Matter protests, another result we've seen echoed in other polls — and some evidence that the backlash to the protests is still confined to conservatives whose presidential vote was set.
Senate race in Maine (Quinnipiac, 1,183 likely voters)
Sara Gideon: 54%
Susan Collins: 42%
Democrats never got close to Collins in her reelection races, but Gideon has built a lead in polls and fundraising and benefited from the first all-candidate debate: Collins refused to say whether she'd vote for the president in November. (She wrote in Mike Pence's name in 2016, one of several elected Republicans who declined to back the ticket.) The numbers in this poll are better than Democrats are willing to believe, with Joe Biden not only winning Maine but decisively winning the rural 2nd Congressional District, and Gideon leading Collins on every issue and quality asked about. By a 10-point margin, voters say Gideon is more “honest' than the senator; by a 24-point margin they say Gideon ”cares more about average people."
Senate race in Arizona (OH Predictive Insights, 600 likely voters)
Mark Kelly: 52%
Martha McSally: 42%
Kelly has never lost his lead in this race, seeing a few ebbs in his support but never falling behind McSally. More than a year into the campaign, Kelly remains better liked. Fifty-four president of voters view him favorably to just 44 percent who view McSally favorably, and the numbers are more lopsided in Maricopa County, where most of the state's votes will be cast: a 13-point favorability gap. McSally, who represented part of the Tucson area during her two House terms, has struggled in the Phoenix area for her entire statewide career, and isn't helped by the presence of Trump on the ballot.
Pennsylvania Democrats won a series of legal battles today, as the state’s Supreme Court removed the Green Party from the ballot and ruled that mail ballots postmarked by Election Day can be counted if they arrive by that Friday.
The Green Party case, like a similar case that got the party removed from Wisconsin’s ballot, rested on incompetence. State law required the Greens to file paperwork in person. They didn't do so. That wasn't a problem for a lower court, but the high court, which has been dominated by Democratic Party-endorsed judges since 2016, ruled against them. And doing so will allow ballots to be sent out, with just three parties on the presidential line: the Democrats, the Republicans and the Libertarians.
Democrats also succeeded, for now, in preventing a change that would allow poll-watchers from other parts of Pennsylvania from doing that work in other counties, a change Republicans wanted and Joe Biden's party feared. (Their worry: Rural Trump voters who believe the election may be stolen challenging voters at Philadelphia polling places.)
By the end of Thursday night, both President Trump and Joe Biden will have completed televised town hall meetings in Pennsylvania; Trump did ABC News in Philadelphia on Tuesday, and Biden is doing CNN in Scranton tonight. Before that, Biden's campaign reemphasized his tax plan and how no one making less than $400,000 a year would pay more — a sore point for the left, but a message Biden wants out there as Trump ads accuse him of favoring massive tax hikes for everyone.
Biden also called in to a Colorado-based fundraiser, responding to Trump's refrain that any election he does not win will have been unfair. “It’s not an exaggeration to suggest that he’s trying to lay the seeds that the election is not legitimate,” Biden said.
Trump and Biden also traded shots on the pandemic and the possibility of a vaccine made available before the election, something the president has suggested for months.
“Let your people have freedom,” Trump said on Wednesday, addressing governors of states with lockdowns. “And it’s unfair to your people to keep them closed at this stage. We know the vaccine — we know the vaccines are coming, but we know the problem; we understand who the vulnerable are, which is primarily people with medical problems, but in particular, people with medical problems that are older. So open up your states.”
Biden, earlier in the day, delivered a speech laying out his plan for any vaccine: He'd build a committee of scientists and go on their recommendations for safety and distribution.
“I trust vaccines. I trust scientists. But I don’t trust Donald Trump,” Biden said. “And at this point, the American people can’t, either.”
… one day until early voting begins in Minnesota
… 12 days until the first presidential debate
… 20 days until the vice-presidential debate
… 47 days until the general election
… 88 days until the Electoral College votes