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The U.S. Elections: Lessons Learned, Lessons Confirmed
Dr. Louis Perron - Political Consultant Dr. Louis Perron - Political Consultant
Sunday, November 15, 2020


A week after announcing Joe Biden as the winner, the TV stations have also called the last states. The electoral vote now stands at 306 for Joe Biden versus 232 for Donald Trump. Biden won back the so-called blue wall (the Midwestern states Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin) and was able to flip Georgia and Arizona. But in many of those states, the race was extremely close, and in fact, too close for comfort.

Who knows what would have happened without the corona crisis? The fact that Donald Trump almost got away with by and large claiming that the U.S. is rounding the corner, remains simply mind boggling to me.

The polling error seems almost bigger than in 2016 (and 2018). The popular vote currently stands at 50.8% – 47.2%. This might still change, but we are far away from the 7%-lead that the average of nationwide polls showed heading into election day. In addition, Democrats are poised to lose seats in the House and did not even come close to beating some of the Republican incumbents in the Senate that were considered vulnerable. And all this happened while Democrats were literally burning money. My lessons learned and lessons confirmed:

An election with an incumbent is foremost a referendum on the incumbent. Joe Biden's vote share (50.8%) is actually fairly close to the number of voters who disapprove of the job Donald Trump is doing (52.4%). While this gives credence to the referendum thesis, another lesson has also been confirmed: An opposition party that merely banks on the vulnerability of the incumbent party, no matter the screw up of the incumbent party, is often overestimating its chances to win.

The polls were particularly off regarding the Trump vote. If I compare the average of the polls with the actual results, it is particularly Trump's vote share that is different (by 3.2% nationwide, 4.2% in Florida, 7% in Ohio, 4.5% in Wisconsin). It is possible that people lied and there indeed exist the "shy Trump voters." As one Republican pollster argued all along: People lie to their doctor, their spouse and tax authorities. Why would they honestly tell a stranger over phone how they vote? While that guy seems really smart now and has my full attention, it is also possible that polls did not capture new Trump voters, or that undecideds went overwhelmingly for Trump. While listening to some focus groups, it always did seem to me that voters who self-identified themselves as undecideds were actually leaning Trump. Whatever it was that pollsters got wrong, it is clear that if there is herding among pollsters, meaning that they copy each other and base their raw data on the same wrong assumptions, taking the average of polls doesn't make the data better.

"It's the economy, stupid" James Carville famously said some 28 years ago. While Joe Biden emphasized his middle-class background, the campaign did little to build up economic competence (do you remember anything in that respect from the convention or the debates?) I will never forget a focus group respondent after the first debate say that while Trump's behavior was despicable, "it does not affect my bottom line." The economy does. So in that sense, it's the economy first, last, and forever.

- Multiple paths to 270: Ever since John Kerry had to make the painful decision back in 2004 whether to invest limited resources into Florida or into Ohio, having multiple paths to 270 became a mantra for Democrats. It takes money to be in a position to do that, but it has paid off. I am sure that many Democrats thought so during the days when the entire world was watching John King at the magic wall walk us through Joe Biden's, well, multiple paths to 270.

Candidates matter: The fact that Joe Biden finished the campaign with a net positive approval rating (50% favorable, 44% unfavorable) is quite an accomplishment during these polarizing times. A more liberal candidate would probably have had a difficult time withstanding attacks focusing on the "radical left agenda." This being said, I also think that a 25-years younger Joe Biden would have won this thing more convincingly and probably had more coattails for Senate and House candidates.

Looking to the future, Joe Biden will at least try to unify the country. He campaigned as a unifier and built a coalition ranging from the left wing of his party up to moderate Republicans. He therefore might very well govern as a unifier. "Let's give each other a chance", was the key sentence in that respect from his victory speech. Even if the senate remains controlled by Republicans, divided government does not have to lead to a gridlock. In fact, some of the most impactful legislation happened when control of power was divided in Washington D.C. For example, this was the case for the civil rights legislation, the federal highway system, or social security reform. This is, of course, if the country wants to be unified.

Dr. Louis Perron is a political scientist, consultant and TEDx speaker based in Switzerland. During the past years, he has helped two dozen candidates and parties win election and referendum campaigns.

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