It felt pretty good to be wrong this time. History rhymed, it did not repeat. The Biden-Harris campaign overcame a bunch of historical hurdles, an unorthodox opponent in the sitting President, and a global pandemic. They did so with intelligence, grace, and dignity (compare Jen O’Malley Dillon to Brad Parscale). I assiduously avoid partisan views, focusing instead on the data. However, I have to say that election fraud rhetoric from the White House and Trump campaign has been despicable. It calls into question our most sacred institution, and it has no merit. Brave Americans (both Republicans and Democrats) are sitting in crowded rooms, masks on, doing the unsung work of counting votes. Many of these folks are career civil servants who have counted and called elections for Republicans and Democrats alike. They should be thanked and applauded, no matter what the result.
I am advocating for only brief reflection (for the time will come for more of that), and urge all to focus on the next two months. The Biden win has parallels to FDR in 1932. That transition occurred against the backdrop of the Great Depression; today’s transition during a once in 100-year pandemic. Jeremi Suri and Jeffrey K. Tulis have written a great piece on the topic here. Ego and politics in 1932 cost many Americans their livelihoods and possibly cost lives. There is much work to be done right now as we battle COVID-19 and its resulting impact. The Biden team is clearly up to the task. Let’s hope history continues to rhyme, not repeat. This is what matters now.
On an intellectual level, I was pleased with my analysis, despite being wrong about the binary outcome. All data below is based on currently available election results which continue to change as counting is finalized. To summarize:
- In estimating 278 electoral votes for Trump as my base case, I predicted the correct outcome in 8 out of 11 swing states (Pennsylvania, Arizona, Georgia were the exception)
- I spent more time contemplating the states Democrats have begun to lose over the last few elections (Upper Midwest, Florida, Ohio), than the states they are now newly competitive in (Georgia, Arizona, North Carolina). This was a miss, easily corrected with more analysis
- Pennsylvania did some unexpected things. I vastly underestimated Biden votes in Alleghany County (home to Pittsburgh) and overestimated Biden votes in Philadelphia. That outcome surprised me
- I underestimated total turnout for both parties – in retrospect, this was an easy fix had I spent more time on early voting data
- The shy Trump voter absolutely exists – many pollsters got that wrong. As of this writing, 26,090,521 votes were cast for Trump in the 11 swing states, versus 25,521,847 for Biden. Enough of them don’t exist or didn’t vote to produce the upside scenarios I contemplated for Trump. To Biden’s credit and good fortune, where they voted made the difference
- This was not a blowout election. The country and our leaders need to reckon with that. As of this writing, a flip of ~50k votes in Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin produce a 269-269 tie in the electoral college. A flip of ~76k votes in Pennsylvania, Arizona, and Wisconsin hand Trump an outright victory. Both are smaller flips than Hillary Clinton needed in 2016.
- Simple beats complicated and crowdsourcing works. When it comes to the margin of error of final votes in the 11 swing states, my simple Random Forest model outperformed 538. Both models underperformed the RealClearPolitics final averages. Of course, both 538 and the RCP averages were projecting a Biden win, which I was not.
As I said above, there will be a lot of time for analysis. Right now, the next two months are what matter the most.
Let’s Rhyme, Not Repeat the Next Two Months
The Biden-Harris ticket shattered many historical norms we know well:
- Biden will become the oldest President in American history
- No sitting President had lost a second term election without a major third-party candidate since Hervert Hoover (more on that below)
- The winner of Ohio has won the last 14 elections; the winner of Florida the last 6. Both streaks ended this week
- Only 5 Vice Presidents were ever elected President (9 others ascended due to a President’s death or resignation). It’s not considered the best electoral pathway to the top job
- Vice President-Elect Harris is the first woman and woman of color to be elected Vice President
- The campaign broke past the hurdles I mentioned when comparing 2020 to 1948
One area worth more examination is the comparison to FDR’s win in 1932, the last time a sitting President lost without a major third-party challenger. Then and now, the country is enmeshed in crises
Active and passive observers should take note of the challenges and risks of the next two months. The Hoover to FDR transition was marred with contempt and disagreement, based on two polar opposite views of how to tackle what would become known as the Great Depression. I would expect similar discord this time.
To quote Suri and Tullis, there was an effort to undermine and constrain the President-elect:
Despite his defeat, Hoover was unrepentant, and doubled down on the very actions that voters had rejected. He used the long period between the election and the March 4 inauguration to sow discord, undermine the economy, and constrain his successor’s options. . .Source
There was a defeated President, now unconstrained by popular opinion:
Like Trump, Hoover felt unconstrained by popular opinion. He believed that his critics had lied to the public and distorted the facts. Roosevelt’s promised New Deal would undermine the sound basis of the American economy, as Hoover understood it, and he would do everything to prevent the newly elected president from carrying it out. Hoover began by telling his fellow Republicans and foreign allies that he would remain uncompromising in his last months, even on the moderate reforms the Democrats sought around currency devaluation and assistance for banks and local communities. Even after the voting was done, Hoover continued his campaign to undermine public confidence in his successor’s relief program.Source
And there was a defeated President unwilling to act on the most pressing problems of the day:
When American banks began to fail because they could not recoup bad loans and cover their depositors, the country entered a truly desperate situation, made worse by Hoover’s continued refusal to take action. By February 1933, the entire American credit system was in freefall and the Federal Reserve asked President Hoover to declare a bank holiday to preserve reserves and restore some public confidence. Hoover appealed to the president-elect, demanding that Roosevelt endorse the bank holiday and Hoover’s larger economic program. Without a compromise on policy aims to accommodate Hoover’s economic orthodoxy, he would not save the banks, and he threatened to blame Roosevelt for their failure. Hoover’s coercive efforts continued as late as the night before Roosevelt’s inauguration. Even in the last hours of his presidency, he demanded an agreement from Roosevelt before he took any action to help the banks. When Roosevelt refused to tie his own hands, the outgoing president allowed the economy to continue its tumble.Source
Any opinions or forecasts contained herein reflect the personal and subjective judgments and assumptions of the author only. There can be no assurance that developments will transpire as forecasted and actual results will be different. The accuracy of data is not guaranteed but represents the author’s best judgment and can be derived from a variety of sources. The information is subject to change at any time without notice.