Joe Biden looks set to win the 2020 election, despite the litigator in chief, Donald Trump, filing lawsuits to stop the counting of what all neutral and creditable arbiters consider legitimate votes. Yet with such a close election, the post mortem of why the Biden landslide did not come to fruition has already begun.
Predictions before Tuesday’s election suggested that Biden would secure a strong – perhaps even historic – Electoral College victory, with all the swing states polling heavily in his favour and some red states even potentially being winnable for the former vice president. Yet, as things stand, he is sitting on 264 Electoral College votes, with Nevada (worth six Electoral College votes) being too close to call, but expected to fall for Biden.
This means that projections of him securing upwards of 350 votes – sweeping the sunbelt of Texas, Georgia and Florida, and the Mid-western states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – never came to fruition. He is instead going to squeak home, either with 290, or exactly the 270 a presidential candidate needs to reach in order to win.
His performance disappointed many on the left, particularly on election night, with many commentators saying that the ‘centrist’ path that the Democrats took, failed – particularly as Florida was called for Trump. Although optimism has crept up as it looks likely that Biden will win, the post mortem has focused on his failure to excite voters and bring them over to his ideas (or lack thereof – many of the criticisms have focused on his unspecific policy platform). Yet this approach perhaps is not back up in the early results.
Joe Biden, although not securing a huge Electoral College victory, managed to secure the highest number of votes by any presidential candidate in American history. In 2008, Barack Obama made history by achieving 69.4 million votes; surpassing the 62 million achieved by George W. Bush in 2004, but with some votes still yet to be counted, Joe Biden has smashed through the 70 million mark and in terms of raw numbers, massively surpassed the vote total of Hillary Clinton in the key swing states.
In Florida, Joe Biden has secured 5.3 million votes, almost 800,000 more than Clinton had achieved and had Trump not also had a massive increase in raw votes, he would have walked the state. If Trump secured the same number of votes in 2016, Biden would have won by almost half a million. What happened was not a Biden failure, but Trump causing another massive shock.
The same story is repeated in the mid-West; Biden has achieved more than 3 million in Pennsylvania, surpassing what Clinton achieved by around 200,000, enough to have won in 2016 and, with around 92% reporting, could be enough for him to take the state this time.
He achieved more 300,000 more votes in North Carolina than would have secured him a victory in 2016 and 400,000 more than Clinton had. Even accounting for increases in population and demographic changes, Biden’s campaign were extremely effective and in a ‘normal’ election year, would have walked into the White House with a striking majority.
The issue for Biden in the swing states that he lost was not whether he could get the vote out and flip voters, but that Trump managed to secure huge increases on his 2016 result, perhaps due to a sophisticated voter targeting and data-based campaign.
In Texas, the situation is likely slightly different. Republican Governor, Greg Abbott has been accused of purging as many as 100,000 voters from the voter rolls during his term as governor, which began in 2015. Although the purge was eventually reversed, it was found that tens of thousands of voters had been taken off the voter roll despite being legitimate voters, with leaked emails suggesting that Abbott had been encouraging the move.
More significantly, however, was a move to reduce the number of ballot drop places to one for every county. Citing ‘illegal voting’ (where have we heard that before?) Abbott said that all counties in Texas could only have one location in which they could drop off their early votes – with Democrats being predominantly early voters. This was despite there being almost no evidence of voter fraud in any recent elections within the state.
The decision meant that heavily populated counties, which tended to favour Democrats, would find it more difficult to cast their vote. In Harris County, there was just one ballot drop location for more almost 5 million people – Biden is currently on 5.2 million votes in Texas. Previously, Harris County (which includes the city of Houston) had 12 places in which to drop their ballots, with the move a clear attempt to disenfranchise voters in the area. Biden won Harris County in this election by 13% and more than 200,000 votes, but turnout was lower than many expected, perhaps suggestive that Biden’s failure to turn close polls in Texas into a material win is partly the result of systematic voter suppression.
The same was seen in Georgia, perhaps to an even greater extent, and can almost certainly be seen as a reason that the state was (at time of writing) going to Trump. In 2018, Stacey Abrams fought a tough race in the Georgia gubernatorial election, but there were cries of foul play after the Georgia Secretary of State (and her election opponent), Brian Kemp, had been purging legitimate voters from the voter rolls. Whilst purging voters is normal if, for example, voters have died or moved out of the state, there were irregularities.
The Secretary of State oversees the election for Governor and Kemp had was therefore effectively overseeing the legitimacy of his election, which also saw him moving polling places with short notice (predominantly in African American neighbourhoods) and rejecting ballots that most other states would have considered legitimate. Although many of these concerns since 2018 have been addressed – Kemp introduced legislation regarding these once he had beaten Abrams in a tight race – there is a belief that many eligible voters were denied a vote and that many African Americans, particularly around Atlanta, had been disenfranchised.
With the current margin in Georgia just 13,000 votes, it is not impossible to conceive that had these not been the case, Biden would have secured a victory in the state carrying him well beyond 270. He might still win the state, but it is clear that his underperformance in relation to many polls, was not solely down to his campaign failing to enthuse voters.
The other major factor here though is that Donald Trump pulled off a shock. In 2016, he achieved 62.9 million votes, that’s more than George Bush had achieved as the winner in 2004. Whilst he achieved a significant number of votes in 2016, he has grown that by almost 6 million.
Trump sits on 68.5 million votes currently, which would not just be the most ever achieved by a defeated presidential candidate, but more than Hillary Clinton had achieved in the popular vote in 2016. Clearly, the Trump campaign were able to find new voters that they couldn’t in 2016, even if Biden managed to find more.
This could be down to a number of reasons, the most likely being a sophisticated campaign. Whilst the headlines are taken by his rallies and the ridiculous dancing – set to the classic gay ballad, YMCA – on his Twitter feed, his online campaign is perhaps the most sophisticated in history.
With voter targeting that allows the campaign to predict the exact type of person a voter is, their interests, the issues that matter to them, and most importantly, what it is that would win their vote or make them show up to the polls. Using this targeting the campaign were no doubt able to show the voters exactly what they wanted to see; third party votes all but disappeared as Trump peeled libertarians back to the GOP and turned many more voters out to the polls than he had in 2016.
The result of this election is still not known. Although it looks likely that Biden will win, there is still a possibility that Donald Trump could claim Pennsylvania and Nevada, added to Georgia and North Carolina, this would take him to 274 and back into the White House – where he has spent the last three days hunkered down behind a fortified fence.
Biden may not have the landslide that many predicted, but he has also not failed as badly as has been suggested. He might still get across the line and has made history as the first to break the 70 million barrier; had the landscape not have changed so drastically in the last four years – and had there not been clear attempts to disenfranchise African Americans – he would have secured a historic victory.