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The complexity of the American voter

By Kevin Martin

Whether you enjoy the results or not, it appears that the election is over and that Joe Biden will be the 46th President of the United States. Simply put, there does not seem to be any feasible path forward for Donald Trump—unless mass voter fraud is proven in the courts, which is extremely unlikely. With that clear, we need to take time to reflect upon the results of the election and make an effort to interpret what they mean. I’d like to discuss a few notable outcomes: First, Trump's persistent "popularity" amongst a large segment of this country. Second, the exit polls and what they can tell us about the potential realignment of longstanding political dynamics in this country. And, finally, the unexpected down-ballot victories of the Republican Party in the House and Senate, and what that can tell us about the general sentiment of the American people.

Although Trump has lost this election, his overall performance was somewhat of a surprise to those in the political world, and, to an extent, a victory to those on the right. As of right now, Trump has surpassed 72 million votes nationally. To put this into perspective, he will win around 3 million more votes than President Obama did in 2008 when he was popularly swept into office. As it stands, Trump has the second-most votes of any presidential candidate in history, second only to Joe Biden himself. He accomplished this despite his unpopular character flaws and the ever-apparent pandemic that has thrown our country into social disarray and economic deterioration. This electoral performance is noteworthy, and we all ought to realize that there is a reason behind each and every one of these votes. Certainly, the popular contention that all Trump voters are racist, sexist bigots, who justified their votes with racist, sexist reasons, must be put to rest. It is plainly wrong and, truthfully, simple-minded. This unfortunate contention does not even attempt to grasp the complexity of the American voter, and it undoubtedly will fail to change the minds of anyone who voted for Trump.

No, the American voter is not easy to understand, but by taking the time to examine the exit polling, we might be able to gain a better understanding of the transforming political dynamics that are taking place in this country. Interestingly, exit polling shows that Trump outperformed his 2016 numbers in every racial group in the country except for white men, where he lost ground. Biden overwhelmingly won the majority of the non-white vote; however, Trump won over a quarter of that vote in this election. That means Trump won the largest share of the non-white vote of any Republican presidential candidate since Richard Nixon, sixty years ago. It is unquestionable that the Republican Party has far to go before it becomes competitive for the non-white vote. And it need not be mentioned that the party has shamefully failed to reach out to these communities in good faith until recently. However, these results demonstrate that no presidential candidate should ever assume the support, or lack thereof, of any particular voter, especially due to their race. If the trends we have witnessed in the past two presidential elections continue, the non-white vote may continue to become more competitive, leading to a transformation of how candidates campaign and increasing the power of those communities to exert their political will.

Finally, let’s examine the down-ballot races, specifically in the House and Senate. Before the election, many predicted that the GOP would lose their Senate majority. This caused Democratic donors to spend hundreds of millions of dollars in races in Kentucky, South Carolina and Iowa, among other key races. Money is not everything, however, as it appears that the GOP is on track to maintain their majority, though we will not know for certain until the run-off elections are held in Georgia. Those Senate races in Kentucky, South Carolina, and Iowa, saw embarrassing losses for the Democrats, where they lost by nineteen, ten and six points, respectively. The House elections tell a similar story. Democrats were predicted to expand their healthy majority by taking Republican-held seats in suburban areas. What took place was much different. Democrats lost multiple seats, leaving them with a likely six-person majority, the smallest majority either party has held in decades.

It is difficult to discern the exact causes of these Democratic underperformances. Within the party, there is heated debate over this exact issue. The more moderate wing blames the progressives for "extreme rhetoric" such as defunding the police, while the progressives blame the moderates, who were largely the ones who lost, for not offering voters a progressive policy agenda, such as Medicare for all. Of course, the explanation for these losses is likely not this simple; it rarely is. It is plausible that the reason the Democrats underperformed was a combination of unpopular rhetoric, uninspiring policy proposals, failure to pass an additional stimulus package, threats to pack the Supreme Court and many other issues.

Do not underestimate the complexity of the American voter: that is the message we ought to take away from this election. President Trump lost to Joe Biden; nevertheless, it was a slim victory, and if around two hundred thousand votes had gone differently, Trump would have returned to the White House. Political dynamics are not stagnant, just as the American people are not stagnant. Furthermore, down-ballot victories are still possible for political parties that lose the presidential race, which further complicates understanding how Americans vote. Moving forward, it would benefit us all to take time to observe these voting patterns and consider what they mean. Let us attempt to understand those who have voted differently than us, not to degrade them for our benefit, but to comprehend their motivations so that we may empathetically relate to them.


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