Divided We Fall sat down with Professor Peter Acsay and political operative Blaine Milligan of the University of Missouri St. Louis to discuss Election 2020. Peter and Blaine are instructors for the course, “Hot Topics: Are Presidential Elections Broken?”
Parisa Syed contributed to this article. This interview has been cut and edited for clarity.
Joe: Thanks for joining us today, Peter and Blaine. To start, I’d like to hear both of your perspectives on the 2020 election in general. What happened? Did it align with expectations? What are your major takeaways?
Blaine: I really think we still need to let the dust settle and give this time. But overall, I think this election looks like the death of polling. Polling over the last two elections has been so wrong. In Maine, you had Susan Collins behind for an entire year. She never led in one single poll and ended up winning handily. That is just the tip of the iceberg. In terms of the actual results, it looks like Biden is going to break 300 electoral votes, including states like Georgia and Arizona. That’s pretty amazing because we don’t have these landslide elections anymore like we had with Lyndon B. Johnson and Ronald Regan. I think we’re going back to divided government and I think Americans are almost embracing that—the practice of having one party in the White House and then another one in Congress to check each other. I think that’s where we are right now.
Joe: I am sure this answer is going to change over time as we get more information and analysis, but do you have an initial reaction or see an overarching narrative in this election so far?
Blaine: I think that overarching narrative is the rise of the suburbs. I really think moving forward, you’re going to see the suburbs dominate and be more prominent in American politics for the next decade. The cities that are now diehard blue are not going to budge and the rural areas that are diehard red are not going to budge either. That’s what you’ve seen, for so much of this election; talk about how the suburbs are shifting blue, but not as quickly as everyone thought.
I think another takeaway is that the voters really do want a divided government. There were a lot of areas this election where, on a national level, moderate voters looked at someone like Trump as someone who drives them crazy, but their saw their local congressman, who happens to be very moderate, and maybe happens to be a Republican, more favorably. And when election time rolls around, they think, “Okay, I’m going to get rid of the President, but I like my local congressman, and I feel my congressman and Joe Biden can get along and work together.”
Joe: Peter, I would love to hear your initial takeaways from what we’re seen in the 2020 election.
Peter: As Blaine said, the issue of polling really needs to be addressed. I’m not a political scientist. I take polls as seriously as any other person, but something is fundamentally wrong with their methodology. I know they’re very serious and that there is big money in polling. But there are were errors at the national level on down. Take St. Louis, Missouri, for example. There was a lot of polling saying the governorship was a toss-up and US Congressional District House 2 was close. But nothing was close at all. I suspect that when people hear their party is ahead by 10 points, they don’t turn out. I am not totally convinced on this, but that could be a contributing factor.
The other thing, of course, is division between the urban and rural areas. In Missouri, it’s complete division. You see islands of democratic voting—Kansas City, Columbia, St. Louis—amidst seas of Republican territory. One last element was the issue of COVID-19. In terms of response, the governor of Missouri was one of those governors who said, “I’m going to do nothing. I’m going to mandate nothing,” essentially following the President. It appears neither candidate; neither Trump, nor Governor Parson; paid any price of anything, I guess. They gained votes, from my point of view, by their tepid response. I think that’s noteworthy.
Joe: Hypothetically, if there were no pandemic, what would this election have looked like? We wouldn’t have as serious unemployment. And seniors, which are key demographic normally for Republicans, went 60/40 for Biden in some of the exit polls. Personally, I think if there was no COVID-19 pandemic, Trump would have been reelected. What are your thoughts?
Blaine: I think the determination to keep businesses open plays well with voters who’s main, and only issue is the economy, even if it’s the wrong decision for health reasons. People are scared that they’re going to lose their job, that they can’t pay their rent, can’t feed their kids, or can’t get their prescriptions. It doesn’t matter if you’re a Republican or Democrat, or how important other issues are; the “need to support my family” narrative is very real and strong.
You see these people in rural and suburban America who defy the restrictions and mask mandates and, if you’re someone like me, you want to say it’s idiotic and stupid. But if you really listen to them, it comes down to “needing to support my family” and survival. They’re explain, “This is my business. I can’t support myself without it. If I close my doors, I don’t have a home.” That’s not political. That’s reality for a lot of people. With the amount of messaging about shutting down, which Joe Biden is alleged to support, it scares people who can’t afford to shut down. What does that mean for their economic well-being in the future? That’s a strong message.
Peter: I agree with everything you said, Blaine. The ‘but’, though, is that the pandemic is going to drag on longer and be more damaging to the economy over time. The COVID-19 situation in Korea or Taiwan or China was dealt with swiftly by draconian policy, but they were back to normal relatively quickly as a result. Nobody wants policy like that in the United States, but it got those countries to where they are now. I’ve always said, I’m lucky because my paycheck is still rolling in. But I’m asking a question: Do voters think that dragging this thing pandemic out until the spring now is actually economically more advantageous? And the answer is yes because they voted that way.
Blaine: I think it’s almost like your evolution instinct versus your intellectual instinct, and one’s survival instinct comes into play. For some of these people, it’s, “I haven’t been able to pay rent for four months. I’ve got 2-3 thousand dollars of debt and my credit cards are maxed out.” All they’re thinking about is survival. They don’t care about, “Well, you’re right; if we do this, the pandemic going to last longer. But if I’m not going to survive tomorrow, how do you want me to think about next year?”
As far as your question, Joe, about how the election might have turned out without the pandemic, I really don’t know. 2020 has been such a crazy year. Remember this year started with wildfires in Australia and then Trump being impeached, and nobody has mentioned or even remembered any of those things. Then the pandemic hit and dominated the media, until what unfortunately happened this summer with George Floyd, Black Lives Matter, and Defund the Police that dominated the media for a couple of months until the passing of Justice Ginsburg and the Supreme Court broke that news cycle. And after that, it went back to, “So, is Trump crazy or not?” So it is hard to say what exactly drove voters to the polls.
Joe: Great point, Blaine. I would like to pick up on the topic of race. How do we think the ongoing conversations on race might have played in to the election this year?
Blaine: I think we need to talk about some of these issues that really matter to people but got swept under the rug, because so much of the media coverage this year has focused on COVID-19. For example, look at the Latino community and why turnout was so low with them. Nobody talked to them this year. There was so much conversation last year and the year before about immigration reform, the wall, travel bans, etc. It was such a focus. And this year, most of the media coverage focused on COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter; I’m not trying to take away from, or minimize the importance of Black Lives Matter, but the Latino community, and a lot of people in other communities were ignored this year, and didn’t receive the attention they deserve as well. They weren’t talking to you. It seemed like “because you didn’t give us attention, we won’t come out.” And they didn’t vote; they stayed home.
The one exception I think is Miami-Dade, Florida, where you have a very different demographic. You have the Cubans, Venezuelans, and a lot of people from other Latin American countries that have a negative history with Socialist dictatorships, and the fear of anything that resembles that scares them so much. Trump ran ads daily in Spanish calling Joe Biden a socialist, and comparing him to leaders like those in Venezuela, and that drove the turnout up down there because Trump directly spoke to that population. That doesn’t apply to the rest of the Latino population. In general, they didn’t get any attention.
I think to a degree, the bigger problem is tribalism. The Democratic Party is so diverse that you have to be able to have a message that’s inclusive to every member of the party. And sometimes I think Democrats only focus on certain segments of the party. If you look at 2016, Hillary made a huge effort with the Latino community; she put so much effort into it, and she did great. She expanded her margin with that community all across the country. But where she did really badly was the African American community. She took them for granted and she didn’t have a campaign that directly addressed the issues this community wsa facing. She didn’t really talk about any issues. For the most part, it was like, “I already know, you’re going to vote Democrat. I have a lot of endorsements from the African American community, I’m good.” That attitude was very offense to that community, and it’s understandable why that community didn’t feel like they mattered or were heard by her campaign. I think if you get too deep into tribalism, that’s always going to be the problem. Because if you just focus on one tribe, all the other tribes will ignore it. You have to make sure everyone’s included.
Joe: Initially, this was going to be a conversation about the Electoral College. It looks like that won’t be as much of an issue, since Joe Biden has won both the electoral college and the popular vote by over 4 million votes. Does that mean the end of conversations about the electoral college? Do we only talk about these topics when they become a problem, like in 2000 and 2016? Or do you think the conversation will continue?
Peter: Our students are talking a lot more about the assemblage of voting systems and processes across the 50 states and the District of Columbia. They don’t think this is an effective way to run an election and would like to see some kind of federal legislations. Obviously, Democrats are not going to be as motivated to change the system if they win because winners are generally happy with the system. Nonetheless, close to 60 percent of Americans support abolishing the electoral college.
Blaine: I think that people who aren’t really interested in politics don’t really care about the electoral college. The average American only thinks about it when it becomes an issue. And it hasn’t been an issue recently except for the 2016 and 2000 election. Other than that, it’s been working. People who don’t pay attention to politics don’t worry about something that’s working. If this was an election where all these states were super, super close though, and weren’t matching the popular vote, most of the country would pay attention, and would be upset. I think all of a sudden, the electoral college would be a hot topic, and there’d be so much discussion about what do we need to do to fix.
But if it’s playing out the way it is now, where Biden’s going to win all those, I think those people are like, “Oh, it’s working? I don’t need to worry, why do I need to fight it?”
Peter: I think the most effective way to address this is in a nonpartisan manner. Some very high level individuals on both sides of the aisle will have to put their names behind this effort. But I think it’s a pretty much a non-starter. And for the foreseeable future it’s just going to be a Democratic Party issue.
Joe: I would be curious to hear both of your thoughts regarding the impacts of mail-in and early voting. The 2020 election had the highest turnout in 100 years. Although, of course, we don’t have a counterfactual and cannot know how much greater turnout would have been on account of the popularity or unpopularity of the candidates, population growth, etc. Do you think some of these pandemic-related changes will continue in the future?
Peter: It is pretty much common knowledge, if you will, that the post-Civil War elections had tremendously high turnout. And it is also fair to say a lot of it had to do with how significant and central politics were to leverage people in the period. Nineteenth century and early 20th century Americans were immersed in politics in a way that was personal and tangible. I think this year was an anomaly and that in general, we have drifted away from that.
Blaine: I think the changes we have seen to voting as a result of the pandemic have the potential to become permanent, in large part because people really like them. Early-voting, mail-in voting, and curbside voting have all made the processes easier and more accessible. I think that resonates with a lot of people, whether you’re a Democrat or Republican.
Peter: My sister’s up in Washington State and they’ve had mail-in for 20 years. I’m 65 now, and I’ve got medical condition. I’d never in my life done absentee voting before, but I’ve done it for the last year, now. I think a lot of people understand it’s not difficult to do absentee or mail-in voting. And the older and younger people simply see it as a sensible way to help run an election on a nonpartisan basis just for efficiency sake. I think this is a trend that’s not going to be reversed. And I’m all for it, but obviously they need checks and balances like anything. I think it’s certainly doable it’s up to the Secretary of State to do.
Blaine: Yeah, I agree. I think this is a trend that is really not reversible. I think overall the record turnout has been a victory for American democracy. And that sounds cheesy. But it’s the truth. I worked the polls for the first time as an election judge this past Tuesday, and from 7am until 5:30-6pm, the line was constantly full and people were voting – we did not have one break during that time. Turnout was 82% in my precinct where I was. It was absolutely incredible. And if you’re looking at overall turnout in America right now: I think they’re projecting record turnouts around 70% or so. Joe Biden and Donald Trump have received more votes than anybody in the history of our country. It’s wonderful. I think that’s absolutely wonderful.
Peter: I do think people realize, though, that voting is broken in this country. It’s a mess. They have that there are really 51 different elections and there are 51 different systems and 51 different set of rules about how we’re going to do this.
Joe: Unfortunately, it seems that it takes things going very right to finally address and fix them. I think Florida is a case in point. Florida was infamous for their election issues in the 2000 Presidential election—recounts and a Supreme Court case that eventually decided the election itself. But those errors on the national stage led to calls for electoral reform in Florida and, you may have noticed, Florida’s election was conducted smoothly and efficiently this year. Perhaps the same thing will happen in Pennsylvania, Georgia, Arizona, and Nevada. Perhaps there is a need for some national system or standards here, but that might be hard if not impossible to establish legally.
Blaine: I love that you brought that up, especially in Florida. It is amazing to me that we are a country who can launch a rocket into space right now but in some states we cannot count the votes in a few hours or even a day. But in the end, this is not a technological issue. This is a political one. Florida’s successes in 2020 were a direct result of political changes they have implemented since 2000, from Governors Jeb Bush through Ron DeSantis. At the same time, many of the delays in the final states were political in nature as well. The Republican State Legislature in Pennsylvania would not allow early vote counting prior to November 3. Courts have ordered poll workers, in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, for example, to stop counting votes and to go home at various times. Republicans are doing this intentionally to disenfranchise voters and delegitimize the process by slowing it down. But the people are tired of waiting. Neither Democrats nor Republicans want to wait five days. So, I hope to see some bipartisan efforts to improve these processes.
I think the Secretaries of States are also responsible here. And it is up to the voters to look to the Secretaries of States and ask: What are you doing to make this work? How can we improve staffing? Should we really rely on a system based on volunteers to administer our elections? Or do we need paid, professional staff? These are all questions in need of answering.
Joe: Now that Biden has won the election, the conversation turns to the transition of power. Hopefully, a peaceful transition of power. But certainly, many are speculating about what happens if President Trump does not accept the election results. Many are wondering what the Republican Party will do in the Senate and House, as well as Republican Governors and Secretaries of State. I would love if you could provide some historical perspective here, Peter. Is there any precedent for a Presidential nominee not to accept the election results?
Peter: There are some historical examples regarding Cabinet positions. In an altercation that eventually led to his impeachment, President Andrew Johnson attempted to fire his Secretary of War, Edwin M. Stanton, and replace him with Ulysses S. Grant. There was a period of five months where both attempted to serve as Secretary of War.
As far as the Presidency is concerned, it does not matter what Trump or any President says. The system is such that the Secretaries of State send certified copies of the electoral votes to Congress. Congress then sits in a joint session and opens them but doesn’t have the latitude to say whether they accept or reject the certified returns. During the 1876 Presidential Election, state returns from Florida, Louisiana, and South Carolina were disputed. Eventually, Congress had to settle the dispute through what was later called the Compromise of 1877, which gave the Presidency to Republican Rutherford B. Hayes in return for the removal of federal troops from southern states. This was despite the fact that Democrat Samuel J. Tilden was the popular vote winner. Generally, though, there is no debate on the certified votes once they are sent to Congress.
Blaine: There is no precedent for what Trump’s doing. I don’t think we’ve ever had a sitting President in American history that has said the election is a fraud. Or that the other side is trying to steal the election. That’s scary language. And it has serious implications. We saw them last week with the protests in Nevada, Arizona, and Pennsylvania against vote counting, shutting down buildings, people brining weapons and threatening violence. Having said that, I think the Republican Party is going to abandon Trump on this issue. McConnel came out saying that all the votes are going to be counted. So I think there will be a peaceful transition.
But that shouldn’t conceal the fact that we need some kind of thoughtful, bipartisan effort to reform the election process. Not just the electoral college, but voting systems and processes to allow for people to participate more fully. I hope that is what comes out of this.
Joe: I am reminded of the Winston Churchill quote, who said: “You can always count on the Americans to do the right thing after they have tried everything else.” So maybe there is hope, then, but we basically tried everything else at this point. Thank you both for joining us for this insightful conversation.
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