But outside Georgia — and apparently the Oval Office — the political year is over. This was the first presidential campaign The Trailer was around to cover, and we're closing it out with a few awards, starting with “campaign of the year.” That one isn't surprising. Hopefully, the rest of the plaudits will be.
Campaign of the Year: Joe Biden for President. No way around it. If you were reading The Trailer one year ago, you knew about Joe Biden's weakness in New Hampshire and Iowa, the worries Democrats had about nominating an “old white guy,” and the grass-roots organizers who'd lapped the former vice president on the ground. In mid-February, Biden was in the weakest position of any perceived front-runner since Howard Dean; by mid-March, he was about to wrap up the nomination faster than any Democrat since John Kerry.
But Kerry lost the presidency and Biden won it, in part by mastering what failed candidates had never figured out. He was fast to respond to a charge of impropriety, which faded quickly as an issue, unlike the attacks on Kerry's service in Vietnam. He invited allies of Bernie Sanders to shape the party's platform, which kept the left inside the Democratic tent with only minimal risk. He had one consistent message, and his convention had a single goal, which it achieved: Make voters comfortable about Biden becoming president and handling everything from civil unrest to a mass vaccination. Biden benefited from Democratic unity, and the intensity with which his base focused on defeating President Trump. But other candidates have had that, and lost — and never took the risk of pausing in-person campaigning for months while their opponent continued it.
Campaign of the Year (nonpresidential): Mike Garcia for Congress. The first-time candidate started his campaign last year, as a long-shot challenger to Democratic Rep. Katie Hill. When she resigned under pressure from a sex scandal, Garcia still had to beat the district’s former Republican congressman, win the first special election of the pandemic era, and hold the district as Joe Biden carried it in November. He pulled it off — the last part of it by just a few hundred votes.
Runner-up: Susan Collins for Senate. Unlike Garcia, she entered her toughest race with universal name recognition, and with most voters having supported her in the past. But Collins had had a target on her back since her 2018 vote to confirm Justice Brett M. Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court; she faced an opponent with bottomless resources and the blessing of national Democrats; and she trailed in every poll.
State Party of the Year: The Democratic Party of Wisconsin. First there was the primary, bundled with a state Supreme Court race that Ben Wikler's Democrats couldn't afford to lose. Then came the campaign, with Democrats simultaneously battling in court to expand voters' options and run an absentee chase program big enough to endure pandemic conditions. The Democratic National Convention was downgraded from a Milwaukee-based coronation to a virtual telethon, and a police shooting in Kenosha, followed by street protests, became a pivotal moment in the campaign, with Republicans seeing a way to win back suburban voters. But Wisconsin Democrats held onto enough voters to win, protected one of the last House Democrats whose district was carried by Trump, then survived a wave of lawsuits designed to overturn the election — by a single vote, thanks to winning that court race.
Runner-up: The Florida GOP. The math looked bad for Republicans this summer, with the president losing steam with older White voters. Chairman Joe Gruters forged ahead, building on the party's Latino turnout efforts, reinforcing its grass-roots canvassing operation and focusing on turning out hundreds of thousands of voters who liked the president but had skipped the last election. It worked brilliantly, with the party gaining ground at every level, even in the sorts of places that trended hard toward Democrats in other states.
Pollster of the Year: Ann Selzer. Who doesn’t love a comeback story? Selzer’s year began with a debacle, when a blunder on one call sheet led to the cancellation of her final poll before the Iowa caucuses. It ended not just with a triumph, but with a repeat of one of her greatest triumphs — a pre-election poll that showed Trump and the rest of the Republican ticket rebounding in Iowa. Selzer’s final 2016 poll captured the trend that swung the election in the Midwest, and her final 2020 poll portrayed what even Republicans doubted — after flirting with Democrats all year, rural white voters without college degrees were sticking with Trump. That kept Iowa red and it made the Midwest much closer than many other pollsters expected. Again.
Runner-up: SurveyUSA. “America's neighborhood pollster” takes an approach usually frowned upon, relying on automated callers rather than humans to conduct interviews. This year, amid speculation that many Trump voters didn't want to admit who they supported, this worked out well: SurveyUSA was one of the few pollsters to show Biden with a margin-of-error lead in Georgia, and revealed that the president's push for Minnesota was being stymied. In a bad year for the industry, that stood out as perceptive.
Ad of the Year (30 Seconds): “Defend.” The later, celebrity-voiced ads got more attention and had snappier production values. But Joe Biden's most distinctive and effective ad had almost no production at all, cutting together snippets of the section of his Democratic National Convention speech dealing with the coronavirus. There was no musical soundtrack, which helped the ad stand out, and the focus on Biden's words helped counteract a problem: voters who thought he was too old and doddering to be president.
Runner-up: “Latinos por Trump.” A theme song so catchy it rewires your brain, clips of the president awkwardly dancing, and visions of the “good life” if the president gets a second term. The Trump campaign so frequently resorted to negativity that it sometimes drowned out its intended pre-pandemic message: Aren't things basically great?
Ad of the Year (Short Film): Ed Markey, The Green New Dealmaker. The left had a strong year in primaries, ousting three incumbent House Democrats and replacing them with grass-roots activists, but its biggest coup was helping the 74-year old senator fend off Rep. Joe Kennedy. With this online spot, Markey pitched himself as a master legislator who could literally save life on Earth, and got into Kennedy's head with one line: “It's time to ask what your country can do for you.”
Runner-up: Texas Reloaded: Greatest Joint Campaign Ad in History. Is it cheating when the title of an ad informs you that it’s going to be the best? Rep. Dan Crenshaw of Texas, who gained unexpected celebrity after a “Saturday Night Live” joke about his war injury, leaned hard into his image for what became the first in a series of ads portraying Republicans as members of an elite strike force. Most of them won, and the ads captured the ethos of post-Trump GOP politics: Look cool, talk confident and own the libs.
Worst Ad of the Year: “Break In.” After the election, Democratic leaders and liberal pundits blamed some of their down-ballot disappointments on “Defund the police,” a slogan coined by Black Lives Matter activists and immediately weaponized by Republicans. Yet the initial Republican advertising on the slogan was so ham-handed that it fell flat; in Pennsylvania, it was in rotation with an ad blaming Biden for high incarceration rates, clashing directly with its message. The Trump campaign's cartoonish view of the suburbs, and Biden, was costly, even if similar messaging worked against less well-defined opponents.
Runner-up (tie): “Bounty.” The Lincoln Project, a coalition of prodigal Republicans who devoted themselves to defeating Trump, made some of the year’s buzziest ads, born to be viral. They were also frequently ineffective. This ad dramatizes a story that Trump critics could not believe was not bigger news: Russia paying bounties to Taliban fighters who killed Americans. The combination of its heavy-handed presentation and its focus on an issue that wasn't connecting with voters exemplified a mistake that Biden, mostly, didn't make: chasing the worst story of the day about Trump instead of making a pitch for himself.
“Sex Changes for Kids.” The conservative American Principles Project had a theory: Democrats had given conservatives a potent culture-war issue by embracing transgender rights. Claiming that its ads had moved votes in Kentucky's 2019 race for governor (which Republicans narrowly lost), it re-upped spots about the threat of “boys” playing “girls' sports,” and used a Biden answer on trans acceptance to claim, incorrectly, that he'd fund “sex changes for kids.” In every swing state where the ads ran, Trump lost.
Book of the Year: Rick Perlstein, “Reaganland.” Since 2001, when he told the story of Barry Goldwater’s failed revolution in “Before the Storm,” Perlstein has emerged from the archives every few years with a monolith-sized history of American conservatism. His timing has never been better. “Reaganland” covers the months from Jimmy Carter's election to Ronald Reagan's first victory, explaining the collapse of liberalism along the way. A constant theme is how the political analysts of the day were too slow to understand what was changing, then too hasty to explain why or write it off. When Perlstein writes about conservatives stopping legislation to end the electoral college, or Democrats panicking and endorsing an anti-tax measure because it has surged in the polls, you can see one version of the future as well as the past.
Runner-up: Gabriel Pogrund and Patrick Maguire, “Left Out.” How can a study of the U.K.’s Labour Party help you understand American politics in 2020? Because the American left took inspiration from the U.K. left, viewing Jeremy Corbyn’s takeover of Labour as what could have happened had Bernie Sanders won the Democratic nomination in 2016 — promoting a real working-class agenda and bringing disaffected voters back to the polls. Pogrund and Maguire start with Labour’s unexpectedly strong 2017 election performance and end with its 2019 landslide defeat.
Podcast of the Year: QAnon Anonymous. More than any modern election, this one took place in two realities: The one we live in, and the one drawn up by conspiracy theorists. Understanding the motivations and arcana of this alternate reality was essential to understanding what was happening, and sometimes, what was motivating the president. This podcast, hosted by three investigative reporters who often can't believe what they're hearing, was incredibly informative and frequently hilarious.
Runner-up: Bad Faith. Briahna Joy Gray was the host of Bernie Sanders's campaign podcast. Virgil Texas was (and still is) the elections expert on the left-wing show Chapo Trap House. When Sanders's primary campaign was over, they teamed up for a panel show that tackled news, policy, and political strategy from a perspective that rarely is reflected in big media, with top-tier guests (Noam Chomksy, Michael Moore, Ice Cube). If infighting on the right was a major story of the Trump years, the battle inside the left is going to be a defining one in the Biden years, and Bad Faith is right in the middle of it.
Movie of the Year: “Feels Good Man.” The story of Matt Furie, a low-key cartoonist whose frog creation Pepe was appropriated by white supremacists, is also an alternate history of the past five years. The Trump era is willed into existence by “meme magic.” The rise of the alt-right is halted by a copyright lawsuit. Matt Braynard, whose Voter Integrity Fund is currently trying to compile enough fraud allegations to overturn the election, shows up as a meme guru who thinks Furie should be grateful that his character was adopted by the MAGA movement. Everything makes more sense when viewed through the eyes of a guy who wanted no part of this.
Runner-up: “Boys State,” an immersive journey inside the storied good-government program for high-schoolers, focusing on the conservative-leaning version that is run in Texas. Take away billions of dollars in campaign spending — and actual, lived experience — and you start to ask how many of our political problems are inherent, not forced upon us. One scene got richer after the election: The teen boys talk themselves out of passing silly resolutions during a meeting in the same room that Texas's electors for Trump would occupy when they voted to deny the election results in swing states.
Twitter Account of the Year: @PopulismUpdates. It's anonymous, and a lot of its coverage focuses on news outside the United States, but no account is better at capturing the degree to which voters are throwing off the old political order. In an interview, the account's owner suggested that “parties and figures that employ creativity will be the most successful,” especially the ones who tap into “insurgent networks who simply know how to pose a more persuasive or exciting or motivating vision of the future than others.” That was a very useful lens through which to view our election; the coverage of collapsing neoliberal orders in other nations is a nice distraction.
Runner-up: @MattGertz. The Media Matters researcher was essential reading during the entire Trump era, for one reason: He watched the same conservative media as the president, and could trace nearly everything Trump talked about to a segment that put him onto it. As we march toward the first-ever case of an incumbent president demanding a congressional challenge to his defeat in the electoral college, all of it is foretold in Gertz's tweets.
Why the losers now think they're later to win.
“Inside Trump’s pressure campaign to overturn the election,” by Anita Kumar and Gabby Orr
A look at the people and theories the president is listening to, and the realities he's ignoring.
Why do so many Republicans doubt the Nov. 3 results, but only in one election? The president helped.
Why you're seeing conservative TV hosts publicly read a legal disclaimer about their “fraud” coverage.
“Ex-cop hits truck thinking it held 750,000 fraudulent ballots, police say. It held air conditioning parts,” by Shawn Boburg, Dalton Bennett, Neena Satija and Ken Hoffman
The nearly unbelievable story of a fraud conspiracy that got out of hand.
A guide to a new conservative cause that's looking very futile.
David Perdue, “Paid.” The documentary company run by Democratic candidate for Senate Jon Ossoff got a bit more than $1,000 from a Hong Kong media company when it purchased a film about ISIS. Perdue and allies have spent many, many times that amount on advertising that suggests the payment put Ossoff in hock to China. “Ossoff could face federal investigation,” a narrator says, as prison bars slam. “What else is he hiding?” The “federal investigation” referred to here is a Republican request for the Senate Ethics Committee to probe Ossoff; ironic, because Perdue has cited the committee's decision not to follow up on a Democratic watchdog's ethics complaint as proof that he was “totally exonerated” of insider trading accusations.
On the trail
A group of conservative House Republicans is on course to challenge the certification of the presidential election in Congress on Jan. 6 — egged on by the president, but getting a more muted response in Georgia.
On Monday, Rep. Jody Hice of Georgia and Rep.-elect Marjorie Taylor Greene were among the Republicans meeting with the president in the White House as part of an effort to lodge protests when the votes from swing states are presented to Congress next month. There's not much drama left about whether this will happen: It takes one member of the House to protest, and one senator to force a two-hour debate on whether a particular state's result can be certified.
Right now, the senator who has sounded most open to joining the challenge takes office on Jan. 3 — Alabama's Tommy Tuberville. Georgia's Republican senators, Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue, who will face voters in a runoff election just hours before the joint session of Congress, haven't been as enthusiastic. Perdue told reporter Lauren Windsor that he would help with the challenge, but a recording of his answer does not survive. Plus, as we noted in the last Trailer, there's no way that the winner of the Jan. 5 runoff will be certified in time to take his seat on Jan. 6.
Perdue's term expires with the end of this Congress. Loeffler's doesn't, as she's filling the rest of former senator Johnny Isakson's term, and will extend until she or Democrat Raphael Warnock is certified as the winner in the runoff. Loeffler has not said whether she'd challenge the electoral college count and has pivoted when asked about it. “What the president and I have spoken about is that we win Georgia,” Loeffler told reporters this week.
Republican leaders have viewed the electoral college fracas as a sideshow, with the Georgia outcome mattering far more than a protest vote that would, at most, delay the presidential certification by a few hours. Loeffler and Perdue have navigated these questions in part by pledging that the Jan. 5 vote will be more closely monitored for fraud than the Nov. 3 vote, with the issues animating conservative activists resolved in Republicans' favor. That hasn't happened yet: On Tuesday, a conservative challenge to tens of thousands of registered voters in deep blue DeKalb County, accusing them of being registered elsewhere, was thrown out of court.
In the states
The two unresolved House races of 2020 won’t be finished before Christmas. A legal battle over one county’s ballots has frozen the count in New York’s 22nd Congressional District, and Democratic candidate Rita Hart has filed her contest of the count in Iowa’s 2nd Congressional District with the House of Representatives.
Filed by Marc Elias, the Democratic election attorney who has steamrolled over Republican challenges to the presidential vote count, Hart’s contest asks that the U.S. House conduct its own vote count, and suggests that she’d win under those conditions. The math is simple: Although Republican candidate Mariannette Miller-Meeks led the certified count by six votes, Democrats have found “22 lawful ballots” that shouldn’t have been excluded, and adding them would put Hart up by 9. Instead of winning the closest House race in Iowa history, Miller-Meeks would lose it.
“These disparities affected the outcome of the election,” the contest argues. “They deprived Contestant Hart of votes that would have led to her certification and deprived her supporters of the right to select the candidate of their choice.”
Miller-Meeks and her Republican allies, with one voice, have accused Democrats of trying to steal the election. Getting that message through the din created by the other Republican cause of the moment — overturning the results of the presidential election — has been difficult. The American Action Network, one of the GOP’s main third-party organizations, conducted a poll of the district that found a majority of voters agreeing with the sentiment that Hart would be “illegitimate” if she wins.
“Rita Hart’s decision to bypass Iowa courts and ask Nancy Pelosi to hand her a seat in Congress is shameful and as antithetical to democracy as it gets,” AAN spokesman Calvin Moore said in a statement after the contest was published. “Hart’s choice today will backfire and is unlikely to be forgiven by folks back home anytime soon.”
If the Democratic majority takes up the challenge, and Hart's affidavits from voters who were left out of the count hold up, Hart could be the first member of Congress seated in 26 years through this method. The Republican effort to save Miller-Meeks would go to the House floor, as the party sought enough Democratic support to deny Hart's seating. In 1985, when the House voted to seat Democratic Rep. Frank McCloskey of Indiana after a contest, Democrats had 253 seats in the House but just 230 votes for that result. Convincing even a third as many Democrats not to seat Hart would sink her, but the post-2020 Democratic conference has far fewer conservatives than the party's old majorities — i.e., none.
Meanwhile, a question hovering over Senate Democrats got resolved on Tuesday, when California Gov. Gavin Newsom announced that Secretary of State Alex Padilla will replace Sen. Kamala Harris as she vacates her seat to become vice president. Padilla will be the first Latino ever to represent California in the Senate, but Harris' departure will reduce the number of black women in the Senate to what it was from 1789 to 1993, and 1999 to 2017: Zero.
… 14 days until runoffs in Georgia
… 15 days until a joint session of Congress to certify the presidential election
… 29 days until the inauguration