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Maddy Mitchell / Gavel Media

Who Really Won on Election Night? Clough Center Discusses Significance of 2020 Election

The Clough Center for the Study of Constitutional Democracy at Boston College held a discussion on the results of the 2020 Election on Monday, November 23. The discussion featured Kay Schlozman, the J. Joseph Moakley Professor of Political Science at BC, along with R. Shep Melnick, the Thomas P. O’Neill, Jr. Professor of American Politics at BC, and Professor David Hopkins of the Political Science Department.

Following the disparity between polling in 2016 and the actual results of the election, many changes were made to try and correct this issue. Once again, however, polling data and results seen on Election Day were wildly different. Though this came as a shock to many, Professor Schlozman argued that the close results of this year’s presidential election were closely predicted by fundamental principles. As the nation has become more polarized in recent history, with no genuine landslide victory for any candidate since 1984, it should be no surprise that the election would be hotly contested. While Democrats have historically had a disadvantage in the Electoral College in recent years, losing twice in 2000 and 2016 while winning the popular vote, President Trump’s consistent poor approval ratings and his poor performance of the economy due to the COVID-19 pandemic—an issue that Republican voters care more about than their Democratic counterparts—were just enough to put President-Elect Biden over the finish line. 

Professor Melnick shared this view that the cards were mostly stacked against President Trump, but emphasized that they were not equally stacked against the GOP at large. Indeed, Republicans won big across the country on Election Night, gaining seats in the House and forcing two runoff elections in Georgia to determine the fate of the Senate. Far more important than either of these were Republican victories in state legislatures, which with this year’s census practically guarantee GOP dominance at the state and local level nationwide thanks to their power over redistricting laws. This disparity between Trump’s failure and overall GOP success can be attributed to the difference between more conservative and traditional GOP voters, who saw Trump as a genuine threat to constitutional democracy, and Trump’s strong base who saw a Biden administration as an existential threat. Funnily enough, however, is the fact that despite Trump’s claims of a Biden administration bending the knee to the “Far Left,” the results on Election Day actually saw the moderates in the Democratic Party maintain their influence and curb the growing progressive wing; Biden himself has spoken out against the Green New Deal and made many efforts to cater to Republican moderates rather than cement relations with progressives and social Democrats in his own party. 

Professor Hopkins made a great effort to emphasize just how close the 2020 Election truly was. Response rates to polls have never been lower, leading to a false sense of how much support each candidate had in contested swing states. With the highest voter turnout in over a century, and most swing states only being decided by approximately 1% of the vote, Trump’s claims of election rigging—though repeatedly proven to be incorrect, even by his own officials—are still solid enough to maintain the political clout that has lead him to spearhead the development of the GOP and shape it in his image, moving it away from the party of Reagan and Goldwater into something of his own. Indeed, Professor Hopkins argued that Trump has a genuine chance of leading the Republican ticket in 2024, and the GOP even has a shot of winning the House in 2022 if a Biden administration is unable to play its cards perfectly. As more rural Americans feel threatened and left behind by the changing culture and demographics of the nation, Trump has more opportunities to maintain and even grow his influence on American politics even from the sidelines thanks to the popularity and influence of conservative TV pundits.

A major point shared by all three professors is that the Biden administration must tackle the rising deficit gained during the COVID-19 pandemic while providing relief to Americans nationwide. Indeed, with the GOP likely to maintain control of the Senate, that is most of what they can do in regards to passing legislature because the “negative partisanship” of the nation makes politicians reaching across the aisle for the sake of the country less and less likely.

Even still, Biden is likely to maintain and build upon Trump’s heavy use of executive orders since a split Congress is unlikely to pass meaningful legislation in a timely manner. Additionally, Biden has a strong chance of making progress with foreign policy and rebuilding the relationships tarnished by the Trump administration, but only time will tell how successful the Democrats will be with making enough significant progress to bolster their presidential victory with gains during midterm elections and a potential reelection campaign in four years. “Trumpism,” the three agreed, will be a major hurdle the Democrats will have to face likely for at least the remainder of the decade, and the actions and policies of President Trump are not likely to go silently into the night anytime soon.

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