The US Presidential Election and Beyond

People watch a broadcast of the first debate between Trump and Biden in California. ©Mario Tama / Getty Images

The US Presidential Election and Beyond

Many Americans may unite to oust Trump on November 3, writes Paul Saunders, but America’s internal discord will likely persist regardless of who wins the presidential election.

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As the November 3 US presidential election approaches, observers increasing expect a victory for former Vice President Joe Biden. Nevertheless, growing confidence around this likely outcome leaves many important questions unanswered. More than that, a Biden victory in itself is unlikely to resolve America’s domestic political troubles.

President Donald Trump’s shrinking political stature is evident in analysis by the prominent political website fivethirtyeight.com (named for the total number of electoral votes in US presidential elections), which currently describes Biden as “favored” to win the election. This assessment is based on the compiled results of 40,000 simulated elections; on October 8, Biden won 85% of these simulated votes, with only 15% producing Trump victories. This doesn’t mean that Trump can’t win—15% is a little better than a one in seven chance, which is far from nothing. And, of course, the US election is still weeks away, though about 5.6 million Americans had already voted as of October 8. In 2018, the United States had 233 million eligible voters, of whom about 153 million were registered to vote.

Assuming a Biden victory, four questions loom large: (1) the extent of potential post-election unrest, (2) the margin of victory and its implied political mandate, (3) party control of the US Senate, and (4) Biden’s ability to unify and lead a divided Democratic Party and to lead the country as a whole. 

Political Tension

According to a September poll, 47% of Americans expect that the election will not be “fair and honest,” slightly over 50% expect that Americans will not “generally agree on who is the legitimately elected President,” and almost 56% expect “an increase in violence as a result of the election.” Much of the distrust centers around voting by mail, which President Trump has repeatedly called into question. Whatever their source, however, statistics like these are not reassuring, and suggest that post-election uncertainty, protests, and violence are entirely possible. The scale and impact of election-related protests is unknowable, though a close outcome may lend more energy to the loser’s supporters than a major defeat.

A Close Call or a Landslide?

From this perspective, it is notable that as of October 8, 37% of fivethirtyeight.com’s simulations produce a Biden victory by over 200 electoral votes, 28% generate Biden victories with a 100 to 200 electoral vote margin, and 20% are victories by under 100 electoral votes. Looking at a chart presenting the smoothed rolling average of all 40,000 simulations, the most common outcomes give Biden well over 400 of the 538 electoral votes.

In most past elections, a victory on that scale would represent a strong electoral mandate for an incoming president; in postwar America, it could rival Dwight Eisenhower’s victories in 1952 (442 electoral votes) and 1956 (457 electoral votes) or George H.W. Bush’s success in 1988 (426 electoral votes). The only better performances would be Richard Nixon’s 1972 reelection (520 electoral votes) and Ronald Reagan’s two elections, in 1980 (489 electoral votes) and 1984 (525 electoral votes). Comparing a 2020 Biden win to Eisenhower’s, Nixon’s, or Reagan’s reelections somewhat understate his political success, in that he would prevail by defeating an incumbent president.

Yet for exactly the same reason, electoral college totals could also overstate Biden’s achievement: if he wins, Biden’s only real mandate may be a mandate to be someone other than Donald Trump. He will have become president with the support of many Republicans who want Trump out of office but reject Biden’s policy agenda, especially his domestic agenda. Leading under these circumstances could be particularly challenging because Biden will also have won with support from progressive Democrats eager for their new president to deliver results in areas they see as priorities, including justice reform, climate change, healthcare, immigration, and education, among others.

Senate Control

What Biden can accomplish in these areas and others will depend in part on his leadership and political skills and in part on the cards he is dealt—most notably in the US Senate, where many see control of the chamber after the 2020 election as “too close to call,” though others argue that Democrats are “slightly favored” to take control away from Republicans, who currently enjoy a 53-47 majority. Should Democrats take control of the Senate, the next key questions will be whether their margin of control is sufficient to overcome parliamentary procedures like the filibuster—which is unlikely—or whether Democratic Senate leaders rewrite Senate rules to circumscribe or eliminate the filibuster (at the cost of facing similar constraints on future Senate Democratic minorities). Assuming that Democrats keep control of the House of Representatives, Senate rules could determine what legislation passes, or doesn’t.

Victory’s Challenges

The final big question after the 2020 elections surrounds the unity of the Democratic Party. A Biden victory will inevitably prompt speculation about the future for divided and defeated Republicans, but the Democratic Party will face its own significant internal challenges. Perhaps unexpectedly, in some respects a more decisive Democratic victory may ultimately prove more threatening to Biden and his party than a closer win; the reason is that significant victories often fuel political and policy overconfidence. Most obviously, a big victory could lead to over-interpretation of Biden’s mandate as well as that of Congressional Democrats, prompting either or both to overreach on divisive policy issues and resulting in electoral backlash.

The more subtle danger for Democrats is that as Democratic politicians and activists become increasing confident of their party’s ability to defeat Republicans in 2022 and 2024, they will inevitably focus greater attention on ensuring that the “right” Democrats—whether these are centrist or progressive depends on each individual’s preferences—are in power.

This process inherently stokes division within party ranks over near-term decisions like a potential Biden administration’s cabinet, subcabinet, and judicial nominations and medium-term issues like forthcoming primary elections. If elected, Joe Biden will have to manage these divisions even as he tries to bring along anti-Trump Republicans (at least on some issues) and the country as a whole, something that will likely make it harder to accommodate progressive Democrats. Yet Biden’s failure to satisfy progressives could disappoint many who were already suspicious of their party’s 2020 nominee.

The bottom line is that America’s internal discord seems likely to persist for the time being, regardless of who wins the presidential election. Many Americans may unite to oust Trump on November 3, but by November 4, their numerous differences will probably begin to reemerge.

Paul J. Saunders

  • Senior Fellow in US Foreign Policy at the Center for the National Interest

    President, Energy Innovation Reform Project