The Communications Clinic
The Communications Clinic
November 9, 2020

Originally published in the Sunday Independent

Perception in politics matters – when a flawed perception is allowed to persist, it soon transforms into an accepted reality.

The perception and narrative that has been established is that this was a narrow victory by Joe Biden; that he limped over the finish line and should be criticised failing to win big.

A flawed interpretation of reality. And one that will help the spectre of Trumpist politics survive if it becomes the remembered version of history. This wasn’t a narrow win for Biden. He won a significant, clear and dominant victory.

With counting still incomplete, Biden received more votes than any candidate in US history and is likely to win around 51pc of the popular vote, beating Trump by more than four million votes. Only Obama had a better popular vote percentage in the last 32 years. And this win transferred to the electoral college.

Biden was selected, primarily, to rebuild the blue wall of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania that Trump claimed in 2016 – he did that, relatively comprehensively.

Biden held every state Hillary Clinton won and likely flipped two states that would have been unthinkable this time four years ago. Historic, unlikely victories that shouldn’t be undervalued or underestimated, are close to being officially achieved in Georgia and Arizona.

A Democratic candidate hasn’t received a majority of the votes in Georgia since 1980, when Jimmy Carter carried his home state.

You have to go back to 1944 for the last time one got over 50pc in Arizona.

The narrative of a limp Biden victory was erroneously established by the unusual timeline and order of the count and the high expectations set by Biden’s now deceptively strong pre-election polling. If the election count had followed the same timeline of 2016, this dominant defeat of Donald Trump would’ve been clear early.             

Early indicators would have shown us the foundation of the newly rebuilt Rust Belt wall and by 3am Georgia would have been strongly tipped to turn blue.

Joe Biden would have been president by around 6am. And the ink on the recorded history would have dried.

Biden didn’t win in a complete landslide, primarily because Donald Trump had an unexpectedly impressive election. It’s possible for two sides to perform well at the same time. Trump’s vote didn’t collapse, in fact it expanded – making Biden’s clear victory all the more remarkable.

We’ve always known that 40pc of Americans consistently approved of Trump’s performance as president. That never wavered, it was never in doubt. And it was unaffected by his response to Covid-19 or his demeanour and behaviour as president.

Trump’s base-first strategy delivered a historic vote, his core voters turned out to vote in numbers the polls didn’t predict and that dwarfed his 2016 performance.

Trump received at least eight million more votes in 2020 than he did four years ago. Most of these voters weren’t ever going to switch to Biden’s side, they were for Trump or for no one.

The idea that, without Covid, Trump would have walked to victory, has also become pervasive.

You can’t disprove a hypothetical, but this is far from certain and a strong argument exists that the pandemic actually aided Trump’s turnout in the final month.

His voters approved of his coronavirus response and a majority of voters trusted him to rebuild the economy – they’re wired to approve of everything he does. And his denial of the pandemic allowed him to campaign and canvass in ways that Biden couldn’t justify.

Political rallies work. Knocking on doors to ensure turnout works. They’ve worked for generations.

And Trump was able to capture huge momentum and drive record turnout via mass rallies in swing states and by activating the Republican electoral machine on the ground.

Rallies also unlocked Trump’s real genius as a campaigner. He has a brilliant instinct for telling voters, in person, what they want to hear. Trump was able to point messages to small but influential groups in key states.

Trump had a decisive win in Florida, he was powered to victory by Cuban-Americans who deserted the Democratic party due to Trump’s constant focus on anti-Venezuela and Cuba foreign policy rhetoric and his successful fear-mongering about a socialist takeover of the US government.

Similarly, Trump won a majority Native American district in North Carolina by 70pc to 30pc; a vote significantly influenced by a pledge to support full federal recognition of North Carolina’s Lumbee Tribe.

The polls clearly underestimated Trump’s turnout. And this inflated expectations of a blue wave – but this election still pointed to the future blueprint for Democratic success.

Georgia was the big success story for the Democratic campaign. It points to the dual approach needed for the Biden-Harris presidency to be electorally successful.

They won this state through a combination of tightening the margin of losses with white voters and by significantly boosting turnout with Democratic voters.

The mobilisation efforts were led by progressive campaigners, like Stacey Abrams, who need to be charged with building a Democratic apparatus across the country.

As president, Biden needs to detoxify the Democratic party with the non-college-educated white voters who feel left behind and neglected. Biden must talk their language while tackling their legitimate concerns and convincing them that a green agenda can revitalise American manufacturing.

It’s not about running away from the Democratic social and economic platform, it’s about framing policies correctly.

Kamala Harris, the now de facto leader of the next generation of Democrats, needs to build a party and a message that’s designed to mobilise and motivate the new Democratic base; mobilisation being the future to electoral success in a divided nation.

Trumpism won’t evaporate but it’s likely to morph to meet a new environment.

In 1964, Barry Goldwater lost in a true landslide to Democratic president Lyndon Johnson.

Goldwater was a hardline and unconventional conservative. As a candidate he alienated moderate Republicans, advocated aggressive anti-communist foreign policy positions – “Let’s lob one (a nuclear bomb) into the men’s room at the Kremlin” – and promoted extreme fiscal conservatism.

One of Goldwater’s biggest supporters was an actor from California – Ronald Reagan.

After his defeat, Goldwater Republicans identified and proactively promoted Reagan as a more palatable and persuasive conduit for their hardline conservative philosophy.

It took until 1980, but eventually Ronald Reagan gained the Republican nomination and the presidency.

Democrats need to build a vision and a movement that could stand against a 2024 version of ‘The Great Communicator’.

A platform and a personality that could recreate their 2020 turnout against a less polarising opponent, in a more traditional election.

Trump was soundly defeated. The issues that allowed Trumpism to emerge remain. The work for the Democratic Party has only just begun.

Lorcan Nyhan is head of training at The Communications Clinic