Now that the US election results are known and the suspense is over, I have four takeaways, two of which derive from my Canadian perspective.
Different Types of Mobilization
When all votes are counted, the total presidential vote will be close to 150 million, representing a turnout rate of close to 70 percent, which is substantially higher than the turnout rate of 60 percent in 2016 and indeed the turnout rate in any election since 1900. Trump’s vote increased from 63 million in 2016 to 71 million plus, a gain of at least 8 million votes. But Biden’s 75 million plus votes topped Hillary Clinton’s 66 million by at least 9 million votes.
The Trump campaign mobilized by using traditional methods such as large rallies to generate enthusiasm and lists of names and in-person canvassing to get the vote out. The Biden campaign, taking precautions against Covid – 19 by dispensing with rallies and in-person canvassing, resorted to telephone and online contact and providing tools to support mail-in voting. Many observers, by focusing on polling errors regarding the Trump vote (my next point), have overlooked the fact that the Biden campaign was, if anything, more successful than the Trump campaign in getting the vote out.
It has been ruefully observed by many pollsters – especially the ones whose forecasts led to the averages constructed by fivethirtyeight.com – that they overestimated Biden’s margin both nationally and in many states because they underestimated Trump’s share of the vote. The reason for this error seems not to be that Trump voters were shy and lied about their intentions, but that they were contemptuous of pollsters and refused in droves to participate. However much pollsters tried to correct for the under-representation of likely Trump voters such as whites without college degrees, it wasn’t enough.
In posts on October 26 and November 1, I discussed the frenetic, even frenzied, social media activity by Trump supporters in terms of visits to Trump’s YouTube channel as evidence of the strength of Trump’s support. Anthropological observation of Trump Nation led my college classmate and friend Peter Sage to a similar conclusion.
Public opinion research is based on the assumption that there are sufficient would-be interviewees in the population who are willing to trust the researcher enough to reveal their politics. That trust is breaking down in the US on the part of Trump Nation. It may also be breaking down on the part of populist groups in other countries (Nacion Bolsonaro, etc.). Public opinion researchers will have to find other ways to reach that segment of the population.
My suggestion would be studying social media activity. If I were doing public opinion research on politics I would use observation of social media to triangulate with survey results. This will not be easy, and will require conceptual and methodological advances, but I expect it will happen.
America’s Allies Speak
After the major US networks declared Joe Biden President-elect late Saturday morning, I wondered how long it would take for Prime Minister Trudeau to congratulate him. Canadians are a cautious people and our governments are reluctant to poke the bear. I was pleasantly surprised when Trudeau issued a statement 45 minutes after the networks. Most of the US’s major democratic allies quickly followed Trudeau.
On reflection, it seems to me that Trudeau and his close advisers were carefully considering when to go public with their recognition of the Biden Administration and that Canada and what we refer to as “like-minded nations” were contemplating coordinated action.
There were two reasons for quick recognition: the opprobrium among America’s traditional allies that Trump has brought upon himself and, similar to the sending of election observers to fragile democracies, an attempt to nudge an imperiled democracy towards renewal.
Unsurprisingly, though, Trump’s soul-brothers – Putin, Xi, Bolsonaro, Erdogan, Kim – have still maintained their silence, which speaks volumes.
Better Election Practices
We Canadians speak modestly about building a better Canada. Our American neighbors quote the Constitution’s ambitious objective of building a more perfect union. Whatever terminology is used, the US could do much to improve its election practices.
In Canada we have concluded that the best way to conduct elections is to give the responsibility to independent agencies such as Elections Canada and Elections Ontario and we support the objective of making it as easy as possible for citizens 18 years or older to vote.
On US election day and after, we watched dedicated front-line election workers struggling to cope with difficult situations created for them by their political leadership, such as legislatively-mandated restrictions on counting mail-in ballots in advance. And we Canadians must remember that American ballots are always more complicated than those in parliamentary elections, and especially so in a presidential election year.
In the US, voting has always been a much more contentious issue than in Canada. It was a path to better lives for newly enfranchised Blacks following the Civil War, but the suppression of their voting rights was a powerful tool in the hands of white supremacists. Even now, Trump’s Republican Party continues to find ways to suppress the vote, while Democrats try to expand it. And this conflict will play out in the Republicans’ court challenges in the next few weeks.
Under the Elections Clause of the Constitution, the federal government has the power to intervene in the conduct and regulation of elections. In my view, the Biden Administration could bring about better and fairer elections through the creation of a non-partisan national elections commission tasked with objectives such as making it easier for qualified citizens to vote and ending the gerrymandering of electoral districts for the House of Representatives. I don’t underestimate the difficulty of doing this, especially if after the two senatorial runoff elections in Georgia, Republicans control the Senate. Electoral reform will also compete with a long list of other priorities for the Biden Administration. But even a purely advisory commission established by executive order that did nothing more than create league tables assessing electoral practices in the fifty states and advocate best practices would be a step forward.