Reflections on the election

November 9, 2020 • 9:00 am

JAC: Note that this post is by Greg, and many readers seem to miss the bylines. This reflects Greg’s views, and comments should be addressed to him. (I’m not saying I disagree with him; that’s just the proper disclaimer!)

by Greg Mayer

I’m writing this on Sunday, November 8, the day after Joe Biden and Kamala Harris were projected the winners of the 2020 election, and they can now rightly be called President-elect and Vice President-elect, respectively. Some observations on the election follow.

My house on election day, November 3, 2020.

Something’s gone quite wrong with political polling. For the second presidential election in a row, the polls have been somewhere between not very good and terrible. This was not always the case. In the 2012 election, pundits misunderstood the nature of sampling error, and thus made invalid criticisms of the polls. In that election, most of the error seemed to be sampling error, and thus the poll aggregators did quite well in their prognostications. But in 2016 and 2020 there were large systematic errors. Efforts of pollsters to account for their failings in 2016 and counteract them in 2020 (e.g., stratifying by education, continuing to poll right up to election day) apparently did not work.

The true nature of the errors cannot be fully known until all the votes are in, but a preliminary look shows major deficiencies. As of this writing, Biden leads nationally by 3%, and in Wisconsin by less than 1%. Biden’s national lead will grow as state’s complete their counts, and might even reach 5%, but Wisconsin’s results are essentially complete and will change little, if at all. Here’s what four well known poll aggregators had as their final estimates on the morning of election day:

The Upshot (New York Times): Biden up nationally +8, in Wisconsin +10.

FiveThirtyEight: Biden up nationally +8, in Wisconsin +8.

Electoral-Vote.com: Biden up in Wisconsin +8. (They only aggregate state polls.)

The Economist Biden up nationally +9, in Wisconsin +8.

If Biden finally wins the national popular vote by 5%, that will be near the lower end of what’s compatible with merely sampling error on an 8% lead. But all the aggregators (and thus, on average, all the polls) were way off for Wisconsin. Nate Cohn of The Upshot expressed what apparently happened in a pre-election piece entitled “What Trump Needs to Win: A Polling Error Much Bigger Than 2016’s”. He was absolutely right. There was a bigger polling error in 2020 than in 2016, but it wasn’t big enough.

“All politics is local.” Having been a constituent of Tip O’Neill for some years, I’ve always been fond of his saying that “All politics is local.” This may be less true now than it was when he said it, but Brian Leiter used the phrase when pointing to the article “Queens man evicted“, which appeared in the Queens Daily Eagle, Donald Trump’s home town newspaper. (Other front page articles were “Broken water main floods swath of Oakland Gardens” and “Koo says Flushing Waterfront rezoning has ‘many merits’.”) Money quote from “Queens man evicted”:

A 74-year-old Jamaica Estates developer has less than three months left at his current address after Americans overwhelmingly voted him out of the White House, the AP projected Saturday.

President Donald Trump, a Republican, lost his bid for reelection after a days-long vote count, becoming the 11th commander-in-chief to lose the presidency after a single four-year term and the first major-party candidate from Queens to twice lose the popular vote.

This is my favorite account of the results of the election so far.

The electoral college has got to go. Despite the cliffhanger in the electoral college, it was clear late on election night that Biden would win the popular vote by a substantial amount. Topping 50% of the vote with a difference of 3% (which will likely go up) is actually a convincing win, comparable to Obama’s win in 2012, and greater than any Republican winner since Bush vs. Dukakis in 1988. Only the electoral college made it seem like the result of the election was up in the air.

The electoral college was designed in the late 18th century to deal with the difficulties of communication over a large area with a dispersed population. Only the most well-informed people, living in the cities connected most directly by post roads and shipping, could expect to know what was occurring throughout the country, and who the leading men were. But within states, it would be expected that knowledge would be greater, and that a group of well-informed leaders from each state– the electors– could be elected by the people, and the electors would then gather in a conclave to elect the president and vice president. The electoral college, contrary to what some Republicans say now, was not designed to protect the minority from the tyranny of the majority– there are other safeguards in the Constitution for the minority; it was certainly never intended to enable a tyranny of the minority.

In the 19th century, the winner of the popular vote failed to win the presidency three times, the latest in 1888. There were no other such cases till 2000, and it occurred again in 2016, both times putting a popular-vote-losing Republican in office. It almost happened in 2004, when Democrat John Kerry would have won the electoral college with just a small shift of votes in Ohio, despite losing the popular vote; and it could have happened in 2020, where a shift of something on the order of 100,000 votes, distributed among the closest states, would have re-elected Donald Trump, despite a convincing win by Biden in the popular vote.

That in the six presidential elections from 2000 to 2020, the “loser’ became president twice, and that in two other elections it was a close run thing, is intolerable. I don’t know the best way to move to a national popular vote, but it must be done, or else the most powerful official in the country will frequently not be the choice of the people.

“I’m a fan of math. Math doesn’t respond well to opinion.” I’d never encountered John Fetterman, the lieutenant governor of Pennsylvania, before– why would I? But on first impression, I like him.

I may have underestimated Stacey Abrams. I had thought that Stacey Abrams was overhyped, in much the same way as Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg: sure she mounted an interesting challenge a couple of years ago, but she lost fairly convincingly, and had no important political victories. But she organized relentlessly in Georgia, and now Biden has apparently won the state, and both Senate races will go to a runoff. Kudos to her and her Georgia collaborators.

‘People of color’ is not a thing. The election revealed the racialist essentialism of both wokeism and white supremacy to be defective. Although the phrase ‘people of color’ has a distinct, historical meaning in the Francophone world, as does ‘colored people’ in American English (e.g. the NAACP), the recent usage of the phrase in English never seemed meaningful to me. It concatenated people of extremely diverse interests, histories, political inclinations, and races into what was portrayed as a monolithic entity. ‘Latinos’, for example, usually thought of as ‘people of color’ by people who use the term, while correctly identifying aspects of linguistic heritage (although does Portuguese or French count?), encompasses a huge diversity of individual experiences, historical experiences, and races. ‘Latinos’ may be any race– white, black, American Indian, etc.– and any ‘color’: ‘Mexican’ or ‘Cuban’, like ‘American’, is a nationality, not a racial group.

The failure of such facile essentializing is revealed both by (still preliminary) polling data– Trump outpolled all Republicans since Nixon among ‘people of color’, while whites moved toward Biden, and provided the majority of his votes– and by incontrovertible election results. In south Florida, the embrace of Republicans by Cuban-American dominated districts doomed Biden in Florida, and sent two Democratic congresswomen packing. In Wisconsin, American Indian dominated Menominee County was deep blue for Biden, while Robeson County in North Carolina, home of the Lumbee Tribe, went for Trump. It’s amazing how much the woke and white supremacists have in common, and how wrong they are.

Now that’s a concession speech. In 2008, John McCain devoted the beginning of his concession speech to a reflective and evidently heartfelt appreciation of the historic nature of Barack Obama’s victory. I wonder what the opening theme of this year’s concession speech will be?

Every vote counts. Voting by mail is difficult. Rules vary tremendously, and state and local officials can make it more or less difficult. My daughter votes absentee, and a few weeks before the election she was notified by the city clerk that her ballot had been invalidated because upon opening the envelope her ballot was visible (a ‘naked’ ballot). The clerk had notified her so that she could send another ballot, and remarked that the same flaw was evident in a number of ballots. What evidently happened is that the clerk’s office uses a slicer to open ballot envelopes, and cut open both inner and outer envelopes at once, revealing (and thus spoiling) the ballot. My daughter resent her ballot by Priority Mail, which includes a large, cardboard outer envelope, distinct from the enclosed ballot envelope. Good on the clerk for notifying voters whose ballots were spoiled in this fashion, so that they could be resubmitted.

Although most absentee voters use standard envelopes supplied by the clerk, military and overseas voters supply their own envelopes, of varying sizes, and the opening process was apparently not working with noticeable frequency on these envelopes.  I contacted city hall, suggesting this might be an issue for military and overseas voters. The clerk took the suggestion to heart, and quickly informed me that henceforth all military and overseas ballots would be opened by hand. I hope that this enabled a number of voters to successfully cast their ballots.

Biden had more of a ‘ground’ game than I thought. Democrats around the country largely eschewed in-person canvassing and get-out-the-vote (GOTV) efforts due to the pandemic. Here in Wisconsin, the Biden campaign blanketed the media (broadcast, streaming, web), but no one came round, persuading, identifying and encouraging supporters. But they had a sophisticated campaign that I had not anticipated. My daughter got a call from the Biden campaign on the afternoon of election day, telling her that her ballot had been set aside, and not counted. As soon as she could, she called the clerk. The clerk reassured her that her ballot would be counted, but that military and overseas ballots required special handling, and would be processed later.

The reason for this is that military and overseas voters receive their ballots by email, and must print them for filling out and return to the clerk’s office. They are thus on varying paper sizes and thicknesses, and must be copied over for feeding into the vote-counting machines. The Detroit Free Press has a brief explanation:

At 7 p.m., about 1,200 military ballots were still being counted, Detroit election officials said.

Kahn said the process for counting military absentee ballots is complex and takes longer because the ballots have to be re-created.

“It has to be done, by the way, with one GOP and one Democratic challenger at the table,” he said. “They open it up and then they copy the Xeroxed ballot onto a regular size ballot, and that’s the one that gets counted. So it’s a very safe process. There’s a lot of people standing around, challengers, everything.” )

The remarkable thing to me is that a Democratic poll observer at the local polling place (which is where absentee ballots are counted) saw that the ballot had been set aside, knew that it was the ballot of a likely supporter, informed the campaign, and that the campaign could then contact the voter to see if any rectifying actions could be taken, all in ‘real time’. This is ahead of even the Obama campaign’s in-person methods of identifying supporters, and light years ahead of the Gore campaign in 2000, which could only identify favorable wards for GOTV efforts, not individual voters. I was impressed.

All glory is fleeting.”* Despite the celebrations on Saturday, and Joe Biden’s true-to-form call for unity and reconciliation, I couldn’t help but be mindful of the difficult work ahead, and that success is not guaranteed. I was reminded of the scene in the film A Bridge Too Far, about an unsuccessful Allied offensive in the fall of 1944. Dutch civilians thronged an advancing column of British tanks, singing “War is over!” But the war was not over, and it went on for many horrible months afterwards, even for the Dutch. The same, I fear, is true for the American republic. (* This is not quite what was whispered in the ear of a Roman general celebrating a triumph, but it’s close enough.)

A toast to victory. My family, spread from the Eastern to Pacific time zones, raised a glass to honor Joe Biden and Kamala Harris as they gave their victory speeches on Saturday night.

Victory shots, November 7, 2020. Rhum Barbancourt, 5 Star, which I have been saving for a special occasion for about 20 years.

Know hope.

h/t: Brian Leiter, Andrew Sullivan/Fareed Zakaria