Three Short Lessons From The Election

For Democrats And Republicans Alike

Tomas McIntee
Dec 6, 2020 · 5 min read
Colored maps showing the results of the 2020 elections for Congress and the President.
Colored maps showing the results of the 2020 elections for Congress and the President.
2020 election results. (Own work.)

Demographics is not destiny. Moderate politicians are more electable. The Electoral College system is fragile and should be replaced. Each one of these lessons was illuminated clearly in the 2020 elections.

Trump filed a raft of lawsuits challenging results in individual states and attempted to convince state legislatures to throw the election results out. If Biden dies at any time before electors vote, everything would go haywire. A national popular vote, on the other hand, would be in no danger of reversal and could not be litigated, contested, or easily thrown out.

Moderates are more electable

Democrats went through a large and very public debate over which candidates were more electable. Conventional wisdom (and the median voter theorem) says that candidates who are closer to the median voter generally do better. A more heterodox view, saying that radicals are more electable because they generate more enthusiasm in their own base, has become fashionable recently. There is little evidence of note in favor of this theory.

The 2020 election returns were in line with the traditional theory: Candidates need to try to persuade swing voters in order to win competitive races. Out of the small number of incumbent House Democrats who improved on their 2018 performance and gained votes, almost all came from the moderate wing of the party. Most of the party shifted leftwards; most of the party lost ground. Similarly, the incumbent House Republicans who improved on their 2018 performance the most came from the more moderate side of their party.

It’s true that most incumbents (Republican or Democrat) held safe seats that were not at risk in the general election, but even in safe seats we can see significant shifts in voting behavior. For an example of an incumbent losing ground in a safe district, consider Minnesota’s 5th district. Ilhan Omar won re-election by 38 points, which sounds impressive. However, in 2018, the district voted Democratic by a 56 point margin, while in 2020, Joe Biden won the district by a 62 point margin.

Most key indicators pointed towards Biden being a stronger candidate than most other Democrats. The 2020 election results confirmed this prediction. Biden won the popular vote 51.3% to 46.9% (margin of 4.4%); House Democrats, in the mean time, earned 50.8% of the vote to 47.7% of the vote (margin of 3.1%).

While there were individual Democratic politicians who outran Biden in their state or district, most ran significantly behind Biden — especially candidates who positioned themselves as radical via rhetoric and policy stances. It is both possible and plausible that a less electable Democratic presidential candidate would have narrowly lost to Trump.

Gallery of notable Democratic presidential candidates. Candidates highlighted opposed both decriminalization of illegal border crossing and a ban on private health insurance, two unpopular stances common among candidates and pundits. Photos of Steyer, Williamson, Yang by Gage Skidmore (1 2 3), others public domain.

Swing voters still make up a critical margin in many battleground states and districts. For example, in the key battleground state of North Carolina, at least 5% of all voters decided to vote a split ticket for the Council of State; a mixture of Democrats and Republicans won statewide. Swing voters are still pivotal nationally as well as in battleground states and districts.

Demographics is not destiny

For as long as I can remember, opinion-mongers have been making the following argument: Democrats do better with nonwhite voters, the non-white fraction of the population has grown via immigration, and therefore Republicans are doomed as a matter of demographic destiny. Starting in 2008, these opinion-mongers also added the fact that the youth vote had shifted dramatically in Democrats’ favor.

And yet, Republicans are still around. While the share of the population belonging to Republican-leaning demographics has shrunk, Republicans have made gains within demographic groups. In 2016, Republicans made major gains with white working class voters; in 2020, Republicans made major gains with non-white voters, most notably Hispanic voters. This came in spite of widespread perceptions that the Republican party was anti-Hispanic.

Anti-Trump pro-immigration protest in 2017. (Source.)

Based on returns and limited exit polling, Republicans also made modest gains among African-American and at least some groups of Asian-American voters. (Notably, the Asian-American community has been increasingly at odds with the Democratic establishment over educational issues in both California and New York.)

It’s worth going into greater depth on why Democrats lost ground among Hispanic voters, because the shift in returns in Hispanic areas was both large and significant. Since the election of President Trump in 2016, many Democrats have employed two key tools to try to drive up Hispanic engagement with the Democratic Party: Opening the country to more immigration and adopting the new politically-correct term “Latinx.”

The word “Latinx” is neither widely used nor popular among the group it’s applied to. Most prefer “Hispanic,” with a significant share preferring “Latino.” It is an umbrella group including multiple distinct communities with different dates and methods of entry into the US, such as Tejanos (annexed 1845-1848), Puerto Ricans (annexed 1898), and the Cuban exile community (mostly immigrated 1959–1973).

If millions of non-citizen immigrants voted regularly (as frequently and baselessly alleged by Donald Trump), then staking out a pro-immigration stance in contrast to Donald Trump would be an easy way to win votes from non-citizens. However, Hispanic voters are Hispanic citizens — mostly citizens by birthright who were born in the United States. Citizens inherently do not have the same stake in immigration policy as non-citizens.

Tying it together

Nonwhite voters are not any more politically radical as a group than white voters. There are a few “woke” Black voters, but plenty of moderate and conservative black voters. There are a few “woke” Latinx voters, but plenty of moderate and conservative Hispanic voters.

The Republican Party has been trying to reach out to those voters and persuade them — and, in some cases, is succeeding. One reason why is that they have been able to successfully portray Democrats as too politically radical.

Radical candidates may generate enthusiasm among their own base, but they also energize opposition. Voters show up to the polls to vote against candidates as much as they show up to vote for candidates. A radical candidate who energizes base turnout may also energize opposition turnout.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse.

Tomas McIntee

Written by

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

Tomas McIntee

Written by

Dr. Tomas McIntee is a mathematician and occasional social scientist with stray degrees in physics and philosophy.

Dialogue & Discourse

News and ideas worthy of discourse. Fundamentally informative and intelligently analytical.

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