Okay, obvious, yes. But at this point, Biden is on track to notch the third-highest popular vote share since 1988 — with the only candidate beating him being his running mate Barack Obama in both 2008 and 2012.
That win is due in part to the lack of formidable third-party and independent candidates, but Biden is also something of a rarity these days in that he was actually elected as someone most people liked. Exit polls show 52 percent of voters had a favorable opinion of Biden, versus 46 percent unfavorable.
Biden also concluded his remarkable recovery from being left for dead by some in the Democratic presidential contests earlier this year, after losing the first three states. And his electoral college margin is on pace to be 306 to 232. That’s the exact margin that his opponent in the 2020 election, President Trump, deemed a “landslide” in 2016.
At least in Biden’s case, though, he won the popular vote — and handily. The electoral college was better for Republicans, as it is these days, but Biden’s popular-vote margin is likely to grow substantially in the days and weeks ahead, particularly as late-counting California adds its totals.
The suburban Democratic shift
Although the election was closer than Democrats would have preferred, there was one way in which the election lived up to their hopes: a shift in the suburbs.
While there was much attention paid to late-counted mail ballots in urban areas that put Biden over the top in states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, the bigger shift was in the suburbs. In fact, there’s evidence that Trump actually improved his lot slightly in urban areas, which made the suburbs crucial for Biden.
In 2016 exit polls, Trump won the suburbs by four points, 49 to 45. This time, Biden won them 51 to 48 — a seven-point shift in the margin. Biden also joins Obama as the only Democratic presidential candidate to carry the suburbs since 1992, if the exit polls don’t shift from now. The New York Times has a great visualization of the shift from 2016.
Democrats’ suburban edge was also slightly bigger than in the 2018 election in which they won the House, when those areas split about evenly. And given that the suburbs account for about half the votes these days — and growing — Democrats will want to keep that going.
The only problem for them — and it’s a big split between the presidential race and down-ballot races — was that this performance didn’t stretch to the conservative-leaning suburban seats Democrats were hoping to take from Republicans. So Democrats need to ask themselves whether this is really about the new reality or whether it was just about Trump, who underperformed his party in many ways, but particularly in these areas.
This one comes with a caveat, which we’ll get to, but: If you have to pick the biggest disappointment for Democrats in this election, it was the Senate.
Potential pickups in Maine and North Carolina didn’t materialize, and Iowa wound up a rout. That leaves them with a net gain of one seat at this point, out of three that they needed to take the chamber. They’ll very likely need to win both of two January runoffs in Georgia — which will be very tough — to get a 50-50 split and effective control off the Senate (with Vice President-elect Kamala D. Harris breaking the tie).
It’s the second straight election in which Democrats have won the most votes but failed to take the Senate. And at the end of it all, they’ll be in about the same place in the Senate as before — and potentially worse. That’s reflective of the difficulty of winning the Senate in a country with mostly red states, yes, but it’s also likely to be a significant obstacle when it comes to passing their agenda over the next two years.
The good news for Democrats is that they have plenty of pickup opportunities in 2022. But history suggests that winning them with an incumbent Democratic president will be difficult, because midterms usually favor the other party.
Georgia political junkies
Georgia, you are among the states that will help decide a presidential race. Your reward: two months of wall-to-wall campaign ads, text messages and partisan fighting for not one but two Senate races.
The runoffs for Sen. David Perdue’s (R) and appointed Sen. Kelly Loeffler’s (R) seats will, as we noted, probably decide control of the Senate. That means both parties will absolutely pour resources into them in the coming weeks. And by weeks, we mean nine weeks. Senate control in 2020 will be decided in 2021, on Jan. 5.
The Fix’s Amber Phillips notes that these races will be difficult for Democrats to win — in part because GOP candidates took more votes in both on Election Day and in part because Georgia runoffs usually favor them. But with no other federal races up for grabs, the eyes of the nation and the money of the nation’s political donors will be focused in the state that just split about evenly in the presidential race. Buckle up.
Trump — and Trumpism
The result was closer than Democrats would have liked, yes. It also means that, to the extent GOP leaders want to move beyond the Trump era, it will be more difficult because Trump can plausibly say he could have won.
But it’s also clear that Trump lost a pretty winnable election — one in which a more standard-issue Republican might well have won. I wrote Wednesday about how Trump underperformed GOP Senate candidates in the states with both competitive Senate races and a competitive presidential race. And that’s telling: The fundamentals were better for the GOP than Trump’s vote total suggests. And given that he’s losing most of the key states by around one percentage point or less, it suggests it was truly costly.
The GOP will have a tough time moving beyond the Trump era for one key reason: The Trump base is so vocal and motivated that no Republican who wants to win primaries in the future will want to alienate it. But the 2020 election clearly suggested that his approach leaves the GOP limited. His 2016 win was something of a fluke, and now he has lost. It doesn’t mean a Trumpified GOP can’t win elections, but it does suggest that it would be better off with another approach. That approach just isn’t in the offing.
The polls got a battering after the 2016 election — in some ways unfairly, in my estimation. They missed in some crucial states, but overall (and nationally) they weren’t that bad, and the decisive states didn’t have much quality polling.
The polls in the 2020 election, though, have no such excuses. They missed especially badly in the Midwest (again), in Iowa, Ohio and Wisconsin. But they also missed Florida by about five points and badly missed Sen. Susan Collins’s (R-Maine) clear win. Collins trailed in virtually every poll; as of now, she not only won, but she also avoided an instant runoff by taking more than 50 percent and leading Democrat Sara Gideon by more than eight points. Texas’s presidential race and the South Carolina Senate race also weren’t nearly as close as we were led to believe.
It’s time for a reckoning when it comes to how these polls are conducted. It’s difficult when political coalitions are changing, yes. But it’s getting to a point in which even leads that are outside the margin of error in many cases can’t be trusted.
All of this comes with the caveat, as in 2016, that national polls weren’t nearly so off. Biden led in them 51.8 percent to 43.4 percent, according to the final FiveThirtyEight poll average. Biden currently leads by about four points, and that’s expected to grow, especially with California always counting its votes late. The margins could also creep somewhat closer to the polls in key states, given most of the late-counted votes are friendly for Biden.
But the poll-doubters have been vindicated, to a significant degree. And any coverage in the future should reflect that increasing uncertainty.
The Squad and Bernie Sanders
The somewhat split decision between the presidency and Congress has been seen by some as a repudiation of the Democratic Party’s leftward trend. That might be too simplistic. But Democrats losing big ground in south Florida among Cuban Americans who were fed a steady diet of anti-socialism messages — among the many other areas in which Democrats thought they could win but didn’t — should cause some reflection.
But even if you set aside the causes, the fact is that the 2020 election put a true progressive agenda on hold. Biden will very likely have to deal with a Republican-controlled Senate. He’ll also probably be working with the smallest House majority in 20 years. That doesn’t exactly pave the way for the public option, the Green New Deal and packing the Supreme Court.
In some ways, that could be a blessing in disguise for Biden. He has clearly been reluctant to embrace some of the policies advocated by his party’s left flank, and now he can very credibly argue that they’re not even worth trying, because they have almost no chance of passage. Those things probably wouldn’t have passed before, either, but now it’s abundantly clear.
The real question for the Democratic Party now is how much it can tamp down the fervor among this group, which is unlikely to be chastened under any circumstances. It gave Biden plenty of latitude when the name of the game was winning the presidency, first and foremost, but now that they have some power, they’ll want to try to exercise it. It’ll remain a major and constant challenge for Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.).
On the list of the worst candidates of the 2020 cycle, near the top has to be the appointed Arizona GOP senator.
Not only did she lose her second Senate race in two years — handing both Arizona seats to Democrats for the first time since 1952 — but she was the rare GOP Senate candidate who actually underperformed Trump. In fact, she underperformed him by more than any candidate in a key state.
She was appointed after the 2018 election to fill the seat of the late senator John McCain (R-Ariz.), despite having lost to now-Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-Ariz.) at the time. Given how tight the result in Arizona looks like it might be, that decision by Gov. Doug Ducey (R) might well have cost the GOP a Senate seat.