What Now? Panelists Analyze the Outcome of the 2020 Election with the Rockefeller Center

On Thursday, November 5th, 2020, Carlos Algara, an Assistant Professor of Political Science at the University of Texas at El Paso; Jamil Scott, an Assistant Professor of Government at Georgetown University; and Amber Spry, an Assistant Professor in the Department of Politics and the Department of African and African American Studies at Brandeis University, spoke with Dartmouth students and community members at the Rockefeller Center’s eighth Rocky Watch event of the term. Rocky Watch is a weekly series of live broadcasts that foster a virtual common space for community discussion in this time of social distancing and remote learning.

The panel discussion focused on the outcome of the 2020 presidential election and was moderated by Mia Costa, an Assistant Professor of Government at Dartmouth College.

Professor Algara opened the panel with some remarks on the outcome of the election, which at the time of the event had yet to be called for Joe Biden. Algara noted that “it appears Joe Biden is positioned to be declared the winner shortly.” For President Trump to have won reelection, he would have needed to “replicate his electoral coalition in the upper Midwest and the sunbelt.” In the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, Algara says, President Trump struggled to match his 2016 performance in these midwestern states. Moreover, Joe Biden’s “robust” lead in Arizona and Nevada put him on a clear path towards election.

In spite of this, Algara emphasizes that it is far from clear if the election will be a “robust repudiation of Trumpism.” While Joe Biden is on track to win the popular vote, the tightness of the election in swing states indicates that there wasn’t the “widespread revolt” against President Trump and the Republican party that Democrats hoped for. Whether the results of the election are a repudiation of Trumpism is “a bit of a hazy picture.”

Next, Professor Scott discussed polling in the election. First, Scott critiqued the secrecy with which election forecasters build their models. The Trafalgar Group, for example, has been unwilling to share their forecasting formula. Second, Scott emphasized that pollsters must be careful about how they are “weighting as voters” due to how difficult it can be to determine who will turn out on election day. Third, Scott pointed out that the election demonstrated that minorities vote in ways that are “not as homogeneous as we would assume.” For example, there is a “growing immigrant black population” and “there are some native-born black Republicans that we need to consider here as well.” Overall, Scott believes that we need to be clear about “who we’re talking about when we’re saying that someone is a part of a group and what that might mean for their voting behavior.”

Professor Spry echoed this sentiment, arguing that we must contextualize “what all of these group identities and group ties mean.” For example, Latino voters had varied preferences this election, indicating the limits of using group identity as a proxy for voting preferences.

Professor Costa then asked the panelists to address the political environment in which the election was held. In particular, Costa was curious about how the pandemic and the protests against racial injustice impacted the election. Responding to this, Spry pointed out that these events “happened simultaneously,” shaping one another. Due to the pandemic, people were “forced to be insular and on their phones” making it impossible to ignore the death of George Floyd and the protests that erupted after his death. In turn, this forced people to start “talking about justice” and questioning their identities. “Racism has been a pandemic happening at the same time as the coronavirus,” and Americans are becoming increasingly aware of this fact.

Next, Scott discussed turnout in the election. Biden performed “better with uneducated white men” than Hillary Clinton did in 2016 but did not make significant gains with “educated white women.”

On the topic of Texas, Algara noted that “Texas was supposed to be ground zero” for democratic gains in this election, and yet Biden fell flat in the state. “The real story here in Texas is the drop-off in Latino support for Joe Biden,” Algara says. Among Latinos, “Biden dramatically unperformed not only Hillary Clinton but also Beto O’Rourke.” Scott agreed with Algara, arguing that President Obama’s legacy as the “deporter-in-chief” damaged Biden’s standing with Latino voters. Building on this point, Spry was fascinated by the story Texas Latinos tell of “how people are thinking about their ties to their ethnic group” in the context of other parts of their identity like “class ties” and “religion.” Clearly, voting behaviors are complex.

Finally, Algara emphasized that “there are some huge warning signs for democrats” coming out of this election. Specifically, the United States Senate has become an “institution that is decoupled from the preferences of national voters.” The median senate seat, Algara says, “is about 7 or 8 points more republican than the country at large.” As a result of that – if Republicans retain control of the senate – Joe Biden’s hands will be “completely tied” when he becomes president. So long as the senate so heavily favors the minority party, the U.S. political system will be gridlocked. This is a “long term institutional problem” that will require “a lot of transaction costs to change.”

By Ben Vagle ’22, Rockefeller Center Student Assistant for Public Programs

Rocky Talk Podcast w/ Dr. Carlos Algara: Apple Podcasts and Spotify.