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Stalemate 2020

Column: America's polarized and divided politics aren't going anywhere.

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The polls were wrong. The blue wave was no tsunami. The Democratic majority did not fully emerge. Parts of the "coalition of the ascendant" drifted to the right. For a generation, American politics has been closely and bitterly divided between the parties. There has been high turnover in office, and frequent shifts in power. Majorities are unstable. No victory is permanent, no realignment durable. The stalemate goes on.

If Joe Biden becomes president, he is more likely than not to take office with Republicans in control of the Senate. That hasn't happened in 116 years. He will certainly take office with a reduced House majority—the Democrats have a net loss of six seats at the time of writing. Six of the nine Supreme Court justices are Republican appointees. The partisan breakdown of state legislatures and governor's mansions will resemble, almost precisely, the pre-election status quo. It's a good thing Biden campaigned as someone willing to work across the aisle. He'll have no other choice.

If Trump wins a second term, practically nothing will have changed in American politics, except that both Nancy Pelosi and Mitch McConnell will have fewer votes to work with.

The country remains split. The New York Times exit poll says 37 percent of voters were Democrats and 35 percent Republicans, with 28 percent identifying as independents "or something else." The Fox News/AP voter analysis pushed "leaners" toward one party over another. It says that 47 percent of voters were Republican or lean Republican, and 48 percent were Democrats or lean Democrat.

Only 24 percent of voters in the exit poll identified as liberal. The rest said they were moderate (40 percent) or conservative (37 percent). The Fox News voter analysis has similar results, with a slightly higher percentage of liberals (30 percent) and a lower percentage of moderates (33 percent). Conservatives were at 38 percent.

The sorting of parties by race, education, marital status, and religious practice has polarized our elites and made politics heated, noisy, and apocalyptic. Every election is billed as the most important in our lifetimes, the potential end of democracy and our ways of life. For all the fire and fury online and on cable news, however, elections continue to be decided in the middle.

Look at the suburbs, where a lot of those moderates and independents live. They backed Bush in 2004, then went for Obama in 2008. Two years later, repelled by Obamacare, Republicans won 56 percent of the suburbs and 56 percent of independents. Obama won reelection in 2012 by erasing those margins. The electorate in 2014, however, looked almost exactly like it did in 2010. And in 2016, Trump won the suburbs by 5 points and independents by 6 points. (He lost moderates by 11.)

According to the 2020 exit poll, Trump lost the suburbs by 3, independents by 14 (a 20-point swing), and moderates by 31. In the Fox voter analysis, Trump lost suburbs by 10 points, independents by 14 points, and moderates by 25 points. Both campaigns turned out their supporters. But the Trump campaign assumed its base would be enough to win. It looks like they were wrong.

If Trump loses, it will be because voters in the middle grew tired of his antics. The public assessment of Trump's actions was filtered through its distaste for his comportment, rhetoric, and behavior. And Trump's personality often overshadowed or undermined the progress of his own administration.

These dramatic self-owns became most obvious, and most harmful, during the coronavirus pandemic. The elected officials who demonstrated steadiness, compassion, and concern these past eight months have seen their job approval numbers rise, no matter the actual status of their communities. Trump's scattershot response prevented him from building on the slight uptick in support that he enjoyed last March. The voters who said the coronavirus was their most important issue went for Biden overwhelmingly.

This rejection of Trump was personal. It did not extend to the entire Republican Party. Several GOP senators ran ahead of him. The gains in the House speak for themselves. At the moment, the only governor's mansion to flip is Montana's. It's a Republican pickup. Voters rejected a graduated income tax in Illinois and affirmative action in California. Even if Democrats sweep the two Georgia Senate runoffs, and Chuck Schumer gets to be majority leader thanks to Kamala Harris's tie-breaking vote, the chances now that he will abolish the filibuster, pack the Court, and grant statehood to Puerto Rico and Washington, D.C., are nil. The Democrats dreamed of legislating the GOP out of existence. That's not going to happen. It's why they are so morose about these results.

The Republican challenge today is the mirror image of the party's dilemma after 2012. Then, the GOP needed to retain its support in the suburbs while boosting support among whites without college degrees. Now, it needs to retain its support among whites without college degrees while boosting support in the suburbs. And it needs to solidify its gains among black males and Hispanic voters who responded to policies aimed at tight labor markets and economic empowerment.

It's a tall order. But, as always, the Republicans' best allies will be Democrats, who like all winners will interpret an electoral victory as an ideological mandate. Overreach is inevitable. And so is the backlash. The vote counting isn't over, but the GOP comeback has already begun.