For months leading up to the American election, political analysts had been insisting that this election was more a referendum on Donald Trump rather than an assessment of the suitability of Joe Biden as president. As Election Day approached, amidst escalating Covid-19 cases, continuing racial tensions, and a crippling economy, some were predicting a severe retribution of Trump by the electorate. We were constantly reminded how 2020 was fundamentally different from 2016 and that this time Trump would not be able to repeat what he pulled off back then. There was also a talk about how this election was a battle for the soul of America as a nation, and that if Biden attained victory by a huge margin it would show that the nation still had its heart in the right place.
There were countless polls suggesting that a “Blue wave” was on the horizon, a kind of landslide victory for the Democrats, which would rewrite the electoral landscape and would also signal that the electorate in the world’s oldest functioning democracy was still vigilant and ready to punish incompetence in the presidential office despite their internal differences.
Well, the US electorate has spoken. As I write these sentences votes are still being counted, and Biden appears to be in pole position,. But to be honest, this impending victory cannot be called a resounding victory nor is it retribution on part of the voters. While Biden is leading the popular vote, the margins are far closer than the polls had predicted. After all, let’s not forget that the national polls were on average giving Biden a lead of more than 8%, but right now his lead is less than 3%. Likewise, Democrats have not been able to take back the Senate, and even their majority in the House of Representatives has shrunk.
Yes, Biden has gotten the most amounts of votes ever received by a presidential candidate as a Democrat, but then so has Trump as a Republican. Yes, Biden has been able to improve a lot upon Hillary Clinton’s performance, but so has Trump in his own performance. While Democrats have been able to increase the turnout of their base, so have the Republicans.
Biden has “flipped” some battle ground states, but by the slimmest of margins. Polls were suggesting he would comfortably win some of these states. In Wisconsin, the polls were suggesting on average a lead of 8% for Biden, while his actual margin of victory is less than 1%, well below the lower end of the margin of error. In Michigan, he was predicted to win by over 7%, but his actual margin of victory is less than 3%. The polls were not wrong when it came to Biden’s share of the votes, but they definitely underestimated Trump’s popularity.
The fact remains that a huge number of Americans have little to no problem with Trump. Despite his apparently atrocious demeanour, reckless attitude, blatant racism, and, above all, complete mismanagement of the pandemic, a significant number of Americans are still prepared to give him four more years in the White House. Some of his supporters may actually like him because of these qualities, not in spite of them. Whatever one may think of his voter base, they have defied pollsters’ projections and have come out in droves to vote for Trump.
This election, even if Biden wins, has revealed just how divided and polarised America is. Although a certain polarisation has been a feature of US society over the past few decades, the way this election has highlighted it has come as a shock to many. I pointed out in a previous piece for The Express Tribune that when society becomes so divided then the supporters of one political party don’t punish the incompetence of their own leaders as they mistrust the other side even more. In this scenario, they back their own political party regardless of the repercussions. In this scenario, elections are mainly won less by trying to appeal to the ‘median’ voter but by riling up the party’s base. This explains why both sides were able to increase voter turnout by huge margins, and this also shows why, in terms of the popular vote, the percentage difference between Biden and Trump is roughly the same (slightly more than 2%), just as it was between Hillary and Trump four years ago.
So why has Trump over-performed? Why does his base still stick with him? Why is America so polarised that Trump’s base backs him through thick and thin?
The answer perhaps lies in the social cleavages based on race and the rural-urban divide. The reality is that the majority of Americans vote in line with their race. In the case of whites, barring college educated women and some young liberals, a huge number still back Trump. While Trump’s share of black voters has increased marginally, his base is still largely white, particularly those who reside in rural areas. Likewise, America’s coloured population as well as college educated women and white liberals residing in urban areas largely vote for Democrats. Over time, these patterns have become entrenched as the demographic changes occurring in America have made these identities more politically charged.
For of a large number of whites, there is also a fear that changing demographics, particularly in the environment of high political correctness in the media, is going to hurt them a lot. A friend of mine, who like me is a political scientist in the making, put it very eloquently: “Trump is a symptom of white racial antagonism. He may be the last breaths of a majority that is losing its grasp on power. But that’s why it’s so keen to fight it out at whatever cost.”
So how will all this unfold? There is absolutely no doubt that Trump, if defeated, is not going to accept his loss. For months he has been openly casting doubts on mail-in ballots. Now since his lead is eroding because of mail-in ballots, he is again repeating the same claims. Unfortunately, his hold over his base is strong and he may use it to incite agitation. Moreover, he is also going to take the matter to the Supreme Court, where he is banking on the conservative majority. If that fails, there is another strategy of taking his case to House of Representatives. This election is far from over.