They weren't wrong. But when the final votes are counted, a defeated President Trump will have shattered a theory that animated Democratic politics, especially on the left, for decades. The highest turnout since 1908 led to record support for both major parties. Joe Biden found 9 million more votes than Hillary Clinton had four years ago; Trump found at least 7 million more votes than he did in 2016. The new Republican turnout smashed Democrats' ambitions and curtailed their power down the ballot. And they did not see it coming.
“If you asked me before the election, ‘What does this higher turnout across the country mean?' I'd have suspected it was a verdict against Trump,” said Faiz Shakir, who managed the presidential campaign of Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont. “I'd have said they were coming out for the first time because they were frustrated by the way this country is going. But there were a fair number of people coming out for the first time who wanted more of it.”
This election debunked a story Democrats had told themselves for decades: that when more voters turn out, they win. When they saw turnout spiking, even in Republican-friendly areas, they assumed that the low-propensity voters heading to the polls were theirs. Sanders repeated it in most of his campaign speeches: “Democrats win when the voter turnout is high,” and “Republicans win when the voter turnout is low.” Beto O'Rourke said it throughout his 2018 campaign for the Senate, premised his brief presidential campaign on it, and returned to it when urging Democrats to spend money to turn Texas blue.
“Texas is not a red state, nor is it a blue state. It is a nonvoting state,” O'Rourke said this summer in an MSNBC interview about whether Biden should invest there. “It is the result of decades of voter suppression focused on Black voters and brown voters.” With some votes left to count, Biden had smashed Democratic turnout records and run more than 1.3 million votes ahead of Hillary Clinton. But Trump beat his 2016 total by more than 1.2 million votes.
The vote broke that way in state after state, with both parties hitting or exceeding their “win numbers” — the raw total estimated to deliver a win, no matter what the other party pulled off. And both parties had been clear about their plans. The president launched his campaign hours after his 2017 inauguration, and the Republican National Committee minted money for three years, telling anyone who would listen that it was trying to find new voters. Until the pandemic put a lid on the president's traditional rallies, the campaign would often tout how many people in the crowds had not voted in 2016, or had left the Democratic Party.
Republicans happily dished about that strategy, inviting reporters to watch them organize and knock on doors, arguing — correctly, in most places — that media polls did not pick up the new voters they were finding. Many Democrats were skeptical, because this contradicted both Republican resistance to laws that would make voting easier and decades of Republican rhetoric about the electorate. Liberals liked to quote Moral Majority co-founder Paul Weyrich from 40 years ago: “Our leverage in the elections, quite candidly, goes up as the voting populace goes down.” Efforts in the 1970s to make same-day registration available in every state were killed by conservatives who warned it mean Republican “euthanasia.”
Efforts this year to let ex-felons vote were blocked by Florida Republicans, and Democratic proposals to expand early voting sites or absentee ballots drew lawsuit after Republican-backed lawsuit. Simultaneously, Republicans were turning out two kinds of voters: supporters of the president who had not gotten their act together to vote four years ago, and non-White skeptics of the 2016 Trump campaign who he won over during his presidency.
“I expected that all of his efforts would pay off in some way, but it was it was more than I even anticipated,” said Democratic Rep. Conor Lamb of Pennsylvania, who won reelection in the suburbs and exurbs of his Pittsburgh district by a narrower margin than he'd expected. “We have to just acknowledge they have an impressive turnout operation. They built it, and it's going to be around for a while. I think it's going to be a fact of life.”
With many elections still not called thanks to piles of absentee ballots, factions inside the Democratic Party have already begun fighting about what worked and what didn't. Left-wing Democrats, who had resisted Biden's candidacy in the primaries, rejected the blame they were getting from moderates for talking about issues that Republicans could weaponize — reducing police funding, replacing private health insurance with a comprehensive government plan, and rapid transition away from fossil fuels.
The left has made two arguments so far: that moderates were simply wrong, and all Democrats simply need to work harder to combat conservative misinformation. In an interview with the New York Times, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York said she was surprised by “the share of white support for Trump” but that the Democrats already blaming slogans such as “defund the police” for costing them votes were making excuses for bad campaigns.
“We need to do a lot of anti-racist, deep canvassing in this country,” Ocasio-Cortez said, referring to an organizing tactic that involves long, substantive conversations with potential voters. “I think a lot of Dem[ocratic] strategy is to avoid actually working through this. Just trying to avoid poking the bear. That’s their argument with defunding police, right? To not agitate racial resentment. I don’t think that is sustainable.”
That's what many on the left said after 2016, too. Higher Republican turnout has made it a much harder sell. The circumstances of the 2016 election — last-minute hacks of Democratic campaign email, a decline in the Democratic vote, a surge of third-party and write-in votes — fed the theory that Democrats simply had failed to organize. And no Democrat or Republican born after 1986 has voted in an election where the Republican candidate for president won the popular vote.
After other recent losses, Democratic leadership had fretted about swing voters and whether their party needed to move to the center to expand its appeal. But after winning the 2016 popular vote and gaining seats in Congress, many Democrats believed that any Democrat but Hillary Clinton would have won the presidency. By early January 2017, when activists organized surprisingly large rallies across the country to save the Affordable Care Act, even Democrats who'd grasped toward the center after other defeats, such as Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer of New York, were tapping into energy on the left.
The result was the nomination of one of the most moderate Democrats in the crowded 2020 primary on the party's most liberal platform since at least the 1970s. Joe Biden, an original supporter of the antiabortion Hyde Amendment, had come out against it. A party that touted “clean coal” and “all-of-the-above energy policies” endorsed the gradual phaseout of fossil fuels. In 16 years, Democratic nominees went from photo-ops with hunters to videos with tearful gun-control advocates.
Democrats won the presidency anyway, but the party's losses in rural areas stamped out the idea that most voters who picked Barack Obama in 2012 and Donald Trump in 2016 were simply against Hillary Clinton. Before Tuesday, both the party's left and its moderates thought they had winning strategies for rural, White, working-class voters. After Tuesday, neither of them seem to. Sanders, who premised his 2020 campaign on winning back these voters, lost them by landslides in the Democratic primary. Biden, the candidate who Democrats in these areas saw as a savior, did worse in places such as southeast Iowa and eastern Ohio than Clinton did.
The party's left is used to getting blamed in situations like this, and it's fighting back now. Ocasio-Cortez argued that the centrists blaming activists for bad messaging, such as “defund the police,” had made their own errors in digital messaging and canvassing. Justice Democrats, the group founded after 2016 to elect Democrats such as Ocasio-Cortez, whipped together a chart of the wins and losses in key districts to argue that candidates who rejected Medicare-for-all, among other left-wing goals, did worse than those who didn't.
“The swing-district Democrats who fell off the most from their 2018 results were more conservative than the candidates who outperformed their 2018 results,” said Justice Democrats spokesman Waleed Shahid.
The chart was not convincing to many Democrats. It made calculations about results in New York, for example, that will be altered when absentee ballots are counted, and it counted Democrats who had co-sponsored left-wing bills as left-wing candidates; many, such as Maine's Jared Golden, had backed the legislation but rarely campaigned on it.
And down-ballot disappointments complicate the plans the left had for 2021, when it hoped to prove its theory: Once put into action, their ideas would be popular and benefit all Democrats. Although Florida voters resoundingly raised the minimum wage to $15 per hour, Republicans, who blocked that policy in the Senate last year, had the votes to block it again. Instead of scrapping the filibuster to expand courts or pass major legislation, the left may be pressuring a president to deliver through executive actions. They had underestimated how many people Trump could turn out to resist their agenda. But their operating theory, that voters would like it once they saw any part of it enacted, survived.
“You know, the Green New Deal; we had some plans on passing some federal legislation,” Wally Mazon, an activist with the Sunrise Movement, said on a call this week about plans for how to fight climate change under a Biden presidency. “This isn't quite what we envisioned. But if we look at history, the New Deal, FDR, started with executive action. Right? And history repeats itself.”
“Joe Biden triumphs over Trump, says it is ‘a time to heal’ even as Trump does not concede,” by Toluse Olorunnipa, Annie Linskey and Philip Rucker
The state of the race: Finished, and unfinished.
“How Trump’s erratic behavior and failure on coronavirus doomed his reelection,” by Ashley Parker, Josh Dawsey, Matt Viser and Michael Scherer
Inside the defeat of President Trump.
The scene in Joe Biden's city before the call.
“Democrats underperformed among voters of color — except in Arizona. Here's why,” by Aída Chávez, Ryan Grim
The long-term organizing that moved Latinos.
“In Georgia, a Biden supporter realizes the power of her ballot,” by Stephanie McCrummen
The story of one vote.
The Republicans jumping to defend the president.
“Trump-associated firm tied to unmarked texts urging vote protests in Philadelphia,” by Tony Romm and Isaac Stanley-Becker
Underneath the Astro Turf.
“Stacey Abrams garners praise from Democrats on the verge of achieving a long-held dream: Flipping Georgia,” by Vanessa Williams and Reis Thebault
How much credit does one party star deserve?
“Trump’s gains in Texas and Florida don’t tell the full Latino story,” by Laura Barrón-López, Sabrina Rodriguez and Renuka Rayasam
The Democrats' losses and why they happened.
There's an ongoing battle inside the Republican Party over something the party hasn't confronted in 60 years: conceding a close election that it clearly lost. One full day after Joe Biden won key states outside the threshold for recounts, leading to major news organizations and many foreign leaders calling him the president-elect, President Trump has yet to admit defeat, and Republicans have broken into three camps with different theories of how to proceed.
The first, and smallest, is the camp of Republicans who say that Trump has lost. They include George W. Bush, the only living ex-president from Trump's party, as well as 2012 nominee Mitt Romney. Just one other Republican senator, Alaska's Lisa Murkowski, has called Biden the winner of the election. Just eight House Republicans have done the same, of whom three will be members of the next Congress: Rep. Adam Kinzinger of Illinois, Rep. Fred Upton of Michigan and Rep. Don Young of Alaska.
“People think, well, gosh, can we remove him from office?” Romney said on CNN's “State of the Union” today, when asked whether Trump would concede. “You don't have to remove him from office. If he doesn't win on a legitimate basis, why, then, he ceases to be president when Joe Biden is sworn in. It's as simple as that.”
The vast majority of Republicans fit into two other camps: Republicans who say the president is right to wait for clarity on the results before conceding and Republicans who insist the election was stolen. From minute to minute, it's not clear which category Trump himself fits into — he has said a count of “legal votes” would deliver a victory for him but has stepped back from some of the threats being made by legal allies or local Republican politicians.
Most elected Republicans are simply saying that the president should exhaust his legal options. There are a few ways to argue that. One is to say that it's only fair to the president and his supporters to wait until states make the counts official, which hasn't happened yet.
“Seventy million Americans voted for Donald Trump, and they and the president deserve to have this process play out,” Sen. Patrick J. Toomey of Pennsylvania, who is not running for reelection in 2022, said on CBS News's “Face the Nation” on Sunday. “Now, I understand yesterday the media projected how this is going to end and the media projection is probably correct. But there is a reason that we actually do the count.”
Another version of this is that the president not only has the right to challenge results but that there have been stories of possible malfeasance that must be looked into. This is murky territory. Since Tuesday night, conservative activists have touted everything from online reporting glitches (since fixed) to stories from people who claim to have seen voter fraud as evidence that the vote must be audited. Sen. Lindsey O. Graham of South Carolina, who will chair the Judiciary Committee through the end of this year, shared an affidavit this weekend from a postal worker who claimed that he heard superiors talking about backdating ballots that arrived “in the Erie, Pennsylvania post office” after Election Day.
By the time Graham did so, Erie election officials had already raised questions about the allegation and noted that any ballots received after 8 p.m. on Election Day were separated from ballots received before that, as required by the state, pending a judgment from the Supreme Court about whether late ballots could be counted. The total number of ballots arriving after the deadline, across the county: 130, too small to affect the final count. The decision to separate the ballots, ordered by Democratic Attorney General of Pennsylvania Josh Shapiro, was done in part to guard against stories of ballots being added to the count at the last minute.
Fewer elected Republicans have suggested that the election may actually have been stolen, pending proof. That is the premise of some “Stop the Steal” rallies, which unfolded in some state capitals after the election. And it's implied in the increasingly incoherent arguments made by presidential attorney Rudolph W. Giuliani, who on webcasts and tweets has claimed that he'll have dozens of witnesses challenging the vote count. As this newsletter pointed out Thursday, a few conservatives, such as Trump administration veteran Michael Anton, have already argued that the slow count was so suspicious that Republican state legislators should be ready to appoint rival slates of electors, defying the popular vote and reelecting the president.
At the moment, that's a fringe view. But no Republican tipped as a potential candidate for president in 2024 has suggested that the race is over, and Biden won.
“You have so many of these states that are still in play,” South Dakota Gov. Kristi L. Noem, who spent the final weeks of the campaign stumping for Republican candidates on trips that also took her to Iowa and New Hampshire. “All I'm asking is that you don't break this country.”
Jon Ossoff, “Path to Recovery.” The first ad by the Democrat in Georgia's “regular” runoff election echoes not just the many, many Ossoff ads that have run in the state since 2017; it sounds very close to the ads that closed out Joe Biden's presidential campaign. Ossoff's priorities if he joins the Senate are managing and fighting covid-19, helping small businesses and passing an infrastructure bill. “We need leaders who bring us together to get this done,” he says. Republicans have not put out new ads for the runoffs yet.
Like many Democrats yesterday, Senate Democratic leader Charles E. Schumer went into the streets to find a party. He cheered alongside revelers in Brooklyn, dialed the president-elect so Joe Biden could hear the crowd, then gave a rallying cry.
“Now we take Georgia, and then we change America,” Schumer said, which was captured by the left-wing news channel StatusCoup.
No use pretending: The upcoming runoffs for Georgia's Senate seats will be another nationalized election. Appointed Republican Sen. Kelly Loeffler and Democratic Rev. Raphael Warnock secured spots in the Jan. 5 election early Tuesday night. On Friday, as votes from across Atlanta were counted and drove him below 50 percent of the total, Republican Sen. David Perdue was forced into a rematch with Democrat Jon Ossoff.
“We have all the momentum. We have all the energy,” Ossoff said Friday. “It is clear that a majority of Georgia voters have rejected Donald Trump and rejected Senator Perdue's reelection.”
That's technically true, but a majority of Georgians didn't choose any Democrat on Tuesday. As they did 12 years ago, supporters of a Libertarian candidate provided the balance of votes to force a runoff for the two major parties — 114,451 of them, so far. The majority of votes in the “jungle primary” that produced the other runoff were cast for either Loeffler, Republican Rep. Douglas A. Collins, four other little-known Republicans, or one of five Libertarians and independents.
Democrats, as a rule, do not win runoffs in Georgia, even when they start in the lead. Two years ago, after the record-breaking turnout in the state's gubernatorial election, Democrat John Barrow forced a runoff with Republican Brad Raffensperger in the race for secretary of state. Barrow trailed in the first round by 16,278 votes and lost by more than 65,000 votes in the second; turnout overall had fallen by half. Twelve years ago, when turnout surged in the race between John McCain and Barack Obama, then-Sen. Saxby Chambliss went to overtime with Democrat Jim Martin. Chambliss led the first round by three points and the second by 15.
That made Republicans optimistic about the runoffs. Schumer's comment aside, most of the people nationalizing the race were pitching it as a chance to deny Democrats total control of Washington. Two Republican losses in January would split the Senate equally between Democrats and Republicans, giving Vice President-elect Kamala Harris a tie-breaking vote on legislation and nominees. And Democrats, on the verge of winning Georgia's electoral votes for the first time since 1992, were nervous that this would motivate more of the other team than of theirs; one strategist worried that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), freed by his easy reelection, would dispatch his own top talent to supplement the sometimes wobbly Perdue and Loeffler campaigns.
The first Republican volley came Thursday, when the publication Jewish Insider published a letter Warnock had co-signed, comparing Israel's occupation of the West Bank to “the military occupation of Namibia by apartheid South Africa.” More is on the way, depending on how much Perdue and Loeffler can raise, and the wealthy Loeffler had already put more than $20 million of her money on the line to make the runoff. People familiar with fundraising on both sides said that Democrats were raising money quickly, and so was the GOP.
That's still a shift from 2008, when Democrats made a haphazard effort to win the runoff and Republicans went all in. Although outgoing President George W. Bush was incredibly unpopular, defeated GOP vice-presidential nominee Sarah Palin rallied in Georgia for Chambliss, and the victorious Democratic ticket didn't. It was the last election to unfold before the Supreme Court removed limits on what some PACs could raise from individual donors. In other words, the race is unrecognizable now; Chambliss's $18 million in funds and Martin's $7.5 million have both been dwarfed by the cash already flowing into Georgia.
The 2020 presidential campaign is over. The campaigns of President Trump, Mike Pence, Joe Biden and Kamala Harris may not be. After world leaders congratulated them for winning the election, Biden and Harris delivered traditional victory speeches in Delaware, with Harris focusing on the history-making aspects of their win and Biden focusing on their mandate.
“While I may be the first woman in this office, I won’t be the last,” said Harris, wearing a white suit, evoking the suffragette movement. “Every little girl watching tonight sees that this is a country of possibilities. And to the children of our country, regardless of your gender, our country has sent you a clear message: Dream with ambition, lead with conviction, and see yourself in a way that others might not see you simply because they’ve never seen it before.”
Biden's speech revived many of the themes he'd campaigned on, including lines that sounded cornball to some Democrats last year but resonant once they were putting their weight behind the wheel for Biden. While emphasizing that he'd won a majority of the popular vote, which Trump had not four years ago, Biden called the next four years “a time to heal,” and promised not to stoke more political divisions.
“To those who voted for President Trump, I understand your disappointment tonight,” Biden said. “I’ve lost a couple of elections myself. But now, let’s give each other a chance. It’s time to put away the harsh rhetoric. To lower the temperature. To see each other again. To listen to each other again. To make progress, we must stop treating our opponents as our enemy. We are not enemies. We are Americans.”
The president has talked less than this since Tuesday; Pence hasn't said anything. The vice president has not even tweeted since sharing the latest jobs report and has been invisible since the race was called against his ticket. The president has tweeted his support for legal challenges, but he hasn't gone to the cameras since Thursday. It's not clear right now what he or Pence might do ahead of the Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia; the same is true for the Democrats.
When is this over?
It's a good question to ask as the president's allies continue to reject a concession and seek relief from the courts. The answer, like everything in America's ramshackle electoral process, is: It's complicated.
As was widely pointed out when Trump demanded the election be called Nov. 3, no state finishes counting votes or certifying them on Election Day. It's a logistical impossibility, considering the grace periods states have for receipt of ballots from voters overseas and provisional ballots cast by voters who for some technical reason were left off the rolls. (Their provisional ballots are counted after the election, when election officials determine that they're legitimate.)
But the results start getting locked in quickly. Joe Biden's own Delaware was the first state to certify election results, according to the National Association of State Election Directors. The state tabulated results with no challenge before Biden gave his Saturday night remarks. Over the next week, six states will begin certifying their results county by county, including Pennsylvania. Eight states join in the week after, including Georgia. Thirteen states, including Arizona and Nevada, start after that.
In most states, votes are still rolling in and results can't be challenged until official vote counts are issued. When the results are certified, states appoint electors, who meet in their capitals to cast their ballots Dec. 14. That's 36 days away, and, ironically, asking for recounts is harder in some states than it used to be, after Republicans blanched at efforts to contest the results of the 2016 election. In Wisconsin, for example, there's time for the Trump campaign to request a recount, but the margin of Joe Biden's unofficial win, smaller than the one Trump had four years ago, is big enough that any challenge would have to be paid for by Trump's campaign.
The Trump campaign has continued to ask donors to pay for recounts, but it's unclear, outside Georgia, where it will get one. (Georgia's first official count finishes Nov. 20, but the current Biden margin of slightly more than 10,000 votes would trigger a recount.) The donor appeals so far have earmarked 60 percent of donations to retire campaign debt, and just 40 percent for the Republican National Committee.
So, when will the results be official? On Dec. 14. When will states announce who officially won? Over the 36 days until then.
… 27 days until runoffs in Louisiana
… 36 days until the electoral college votes
… 57 days until runoffs in Georgia
… 73 days until the inauguration