Lessons from 2020 (that I can't yet prove)
The year 2020 threw a lot at us. While (hopefully) the year will remain a fairly unique one in our history, surely there are some useful political lessons we can draw from it. So what follows is an incomplete list of lessons we’ve learned that I’m pretty sure are true but can’t yet prove empirically.
1. Covid cost Trump the election
Given how close the election was in a number of swing states, any number of things could have plausibly changed the outcome. But Covid undoubtedly scrambled things a good deal. Trump was trailing Biden by roughly 4 points prior to the pandemic and by roughly 8 points by June. Assuming we can trust those numbers, a lot of Trump’s 4-point decline was probably the result of an uncontrolled and deadly virus, tens of thousands of deaths, and an economy that swiftly shifted from solid growth to deep recession. Honestly it’s stunning that such a dramatic shift in the country’s well-being would only hurt the incumbent by four points, but given how close presidential elections are these days, that’s plenty.
Relatedly, had Trump pushed for a Covid relief bill in the fall, instead of scuttling a deal in a steroid-induced stupor, that might have been enough to save his presidency. What's more, had Trump temporarily signed over presidential authority to Pence during the few days he was in the hospital being treated for Covid and more manic than usual, that deal might have gone through, and Trump might well have won reelection.
2. Biden was the right nominee for Democrats
Democrats were unusually obsessed with electability in the 2020 presidential nomination contest, and they came up with Joe Biden. One of the big problems with electability, of course, is that we never really get to test it; we can’t run the 2020 election again with Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren or Kamala Harris at the top of the ticket. But from what little polling evidence we have from back during the nomination contest, Biden outperformed other Democratic candidates against Trump by just a hair, and he won states like Arizona and Georgia and Wisconsin by just that hair.
Sometimes you don’t need to go with the most electable candidate — it might be worth nominating someone closer to your desired policy preferences even if that shaves a little off their vote. But in 2020, it looks like Democrats didn’t have any vote margin to spare.
3. BLM protests made a huge difference in policy, less so in the election
The protests that erupted all across the country in large cities and small towns following the killing of George Floyd at the end of May drew enormous attention and fundamentally changed how Americans talked about race and policing. We also saw a number of cities and states make substantive changes in how policing is conducted, changing liability laws, outlawing some deadly police tactics, and more. It’s difficult to directly demonstrate that the protests themselves caused these policy changes, rather than them occurring as a response to Floyd’s killing, but it’s plausible.
My impression is that the Black Lives Matter movement made significant changes in the way policing is done, although probably had less of an impact on the election than many expected, as attitudes toward the protests polarized in a predictably partisan way fairly quickly. Yet the movement showed a lot of strength and will likely exert considerably more influence over the Democratic Party and the Biden administration than it likely would have if the protests of this past summer hadn’t occurred.
4. Trump is an underperformer
Trump’s effect on elections is tricky. He seems to have a particular knack for boosting turnout among Republican leaners who don’t always show up to vote. But he underperformed economic forecast models in 2016, and was far less popular during his first three years than an incumbent should be who presides over strong economic growth, low unemployment, and relative peace abroad. It’s really hard to decide what the “fundamentals” were in 2020: the economy was on a rollercoaster, GDP and disposable income moved in opposite directions for a while, and the pandemic was functionally unprecedented in a presidential election year.
But Trump has a knack for alienating people he doesn’t need to alienate. His racism, sexism, pettiness, and generally unorthodox style of speaking, tweeting, and governing may excite a substantial chunk of the electorate, but it likely mobilizes even more people against him. American voters have a broad range of indifference about the personalities and behavior of their leaders, and will generally reward the party in power or punish it based on the conditions of the country and those in their own lives. But Trump operates outside that range, which is part of the reason he lost, despite a huge Electoral College bias in his favor, even while Republicans in Congress and state legislatures had a pretty decent election.
5. Covid cut short the Democratic nomination contest
Joe Biden was already the likely Democratic presidential nominee after Super Tuesday in early March. But Bernie Sanders was in a position to run the sort of campaign he ran in 2016 — a long insurgency unlikely to succeed but able to draw attention to him and the policies he cared about. It didn’t happen. Sanders and Biden debated in mid-March, Sanders turned in steadily weaker numbers in later primaries and caucuses as Covid cases increased, and he withdrew in early April. Why?
At least part of this is likely because of the legacy of 2016; Sanders didn’t want to be perceived as having divided the party costing it two elections in a row. But also, the pandemic changed his political calculations. It was no longer possible to hold large rallies, which are Sanders’ lifeblood. It also wasn’t at all clear what a Democratic convention might look like, which made any chance he had at influencing the party and its nomination even more murky. What’s more, a continued campaign was dangerous, not only to his supporters, but also to Sanders, who’d suffered a heart attack just a few months earlier. Covid may have helped unify the Democratic Party and avoid a similar spectacle to 2016.
Hopefully we'll get some more evidence on these questions in the year to come. In the meantime, here's wishing you all a happy and healthy new year.