While ballot counting in battleground states on Wednesday kept the nation on edge and the presidential election undecided, UMD experts already found some takeaways from the 2020 fight for the White House.
In a panel discussion hosted by the College of Behavioral and Social Sciences and the Philip Merrill College of Journalism, faculty shared their insights with more than 450 members of the University of Maryland community about which election observers and prognosticators struggled or succeeded, who dropped the ball in strategy, and the repercussions of the results.
Republicans outworked Democrats in Florida
One of the early headlines of Election Night was President Donald Trump’s success with some Latino voters in Florida, showing how they are misunderstood as a political monolith. Republicans increased their previous electoral support from groups such as Cuban and Venezuelan Americans through a strong ground game in the state, with messages tagging Joe Biden as a socialist finding lots of purchase on radio and social media and little pushback from the Democratic Party or former vice president Joe Biden’s campaign, said Stella Rouse, associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics and director of the Center for Democracy and Civic Engagement.
“(Trump) laid the groundwork in Florida … Joe Biden’s campaign did not,” she said. “It was a huge mistake, I think, for Democrats not to counter that.”
The media has handled the narrative well so far
With Trump declaring victory before millions of ballots had yet to be counted and casting doubts on new totals that put him behind, the media had to make sure it properly framed the story as one involving an ongoing count and unsupportable claims from the incumbent, said Rafael Lorente, associate dean for academic affairs and director of the master’s program at Merrill College.
“So far, last night and what I’ve seen this morning, people have been careful about that,” he said.
The Senate results are high-stakes
Although Democrats were hoping for a clean sweep of the White House and Congress, the odds of them gaining control of the Senate waned quickly as incumbents held onto seats previously considered at risk. While the presidency is the ultimate prize, even a Biden win there would still leave Democrats with a heavy lift to pass judicial and Cabinet appointments, let alone push through more ambitious reforms such as abolishing the filibuster or a public health care option, said David Karol, associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics.
“Everything (Biden) ran on can and probably will be blocked,” he said.
Polling was a problem—again
A slew of pollsters came in for immediate recrimination online on Election Night as it became clear Biden would not enjoy the sort of comfortable margins—or even the landslide—many of them had predicted. So while a similar result in Trump’s 2016 win prompted many polls to reevaluate their models, it’s clear they are still struggling to adequately represent rural voters and those without college degrees, said Shibley Telhami, Anwar Sadat Professor for Peace and Development.
“We thought we had a day of reckoning (in 2016),” he said.
But there also should be a reckoning in terms of how the media and general public understand polling, said Michael Hanmer, professor in the Department of Government and Politics and research director for the Center for Democracy and Citizen Engagement. The minute a poll is publicly released, its findings can prompt voters to act in new ways and create different outcomes.
“One of the problems is with our expectations,” he said.
The tight race reflects a polarized country
Trump’s approval rating has been steady for years and always enjoyed the support of most Republicans, so the close race should not have been so surprising, said Lilliana Mason, associate professor in the Department of Government and Politics.
“It’s very difficult to get people to vote against their own party,” she said.
Whether a longed-for middle ground reappears is difficult to imagine in the near term, Mason said, particularly as “Trump doesn’t just disappear into thin air” even with a Biden win.
“The Republican party hasn’t demonstrated in any way that they’re interested in going a different direction,” she said.
(Original news story written by Liam Farrell)