The fragile blue wall: analyzing geographies of the 2020 US presidential election
From Firenze University Press Journal: Italian Journal of Electoral Studies (IJES)
John Agnew, Department of Geography, University of California
Michael Shin, Department of Geography, University of California
Only once in the past forty years has a US president been denied a second term in office. In 2020, President Donald Trump’s 46.8 percent of the vote share was surpassed by the 51.3 percent for Joe Biden. Despite desperate social media efforts, public denials, legal actions, his refusal to concede, and the incitement of a violent and deadly insurrection, President Trump lost the election. Only the Electoral College’s bias towards states with a knife-edge polarization between the two major parties, the Republicans and the Democrats, in which rural voters have a heavier weight in the outcome saved Trump from a crushing defeat. The US presidential election is an indirect election with votes aggregated individually by state to determine the out-come. It was arguably an existential election in the sense that Trump did not compete on policies as much as proposing himself alone as a representative of “true” Americans, and the 1950s America he was in the process of resurrecting, like he had done for himself after his own bout with Covid-19 and his miraculous “cure” in early October 2020 (O’Toole 2020).
Trump is a national-populist who portrays himself as an outsider, even though his entire business career in New York commercial real estate had been dependent on lobbying politicians and exploiting the income-tax code. He appeals to possible voters more as a Christian nationalist and scourge of the federal government than as a conventional politician, even as his main legislative accomplishments in office were very much in line with conventional Republican party positions — tax cuts for the wealthy and appointing ultra-conservative federal judges — since the 1990s (e.g. Jones 2020; Lozada 2020). The Democratic candidate Joe Biden represents a volatile coalition of groups held together by a loose ideology of inclusion, a commitment to active government, and a horror of Donald Trump.
Biden was possibly the perfect candidate to both paper over the cracks in the Democratic coalition, given his moderate bona fides, and to bring back the voters in the swing states of Michi-gan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, the so-called “blue wall”, who had voted for Obama in 2008 but then had drifted away from the Democrats in 2016 (Peters 2020). After all, he had been Obama’s vice-president and had been born in Scranton, Pennsylvania. In the face of a once in a generation pandemic and in the aftermath of his impeachment for inappropriate pressure placed on the president of Ukraine, Trump was seen as the under-dog. A state-by-state predictive model using presidential approval ratings and the condition of state economies estimated a rather accurate outcome (with a reasonable allowance for error) in which the election would come down to the usual suspects: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, with Biden as the likely winner (Enns and Lagodny 2020). Long before the election Trump laid out a scenario in which if he lost he would claim the election was “rigged”. He would then have his allies in crucial states, and in the courts, decide the election in his favor. He was particularly hostile to the use of mail-in ballots, used to a much greater extent in many states than typical given that a pandemic was raging, suggesting that they were both more subject to fraud and more beneficial to Democrats than had in fact ever been the case on either count in previous elections (Thompson et al. 2020). Trump seemed desperate from long before the election to prepare a fallback for his prospective defeat in which he would be a victim of malfeasance rather than the agent of his own defeat.
The heterogeneous state-by-state way in which federal elections are organized in the US leaves open the suspicion that any innovations, such as early or mail-in voting, could be compromised. Trump took advantage of this to avoid conceding defeat and to raise funds for his future either in or out of national politics. Including Michigan in the strategy proved especially reckless, however, given that Trump lost that state by more than 154,000 votes (Alberta 2020). Recounts only yield a few thousand votes at most and typically only a few hundred. Trying to have state election boards and courts make up for lost votes turned out to be more farcical than he could have anticipated, as his “personal lawyer”, Rudy Giuliani, made a fool of himself and his client in multiple failed court filings and in disastrous press conferences in the aftermath of the election (Shubber 2020). The attempt at reversing the verdict of the electorate was based entirely around the notion that the election had been “fixed” by the Democrats in the largest cities in the swing states. Trump went so far as to claim that Biden had to prove that he had indeed won the election (Fox News 2020). America was “a place where there is no such thing as defeat, only broken scoreboards” (Schwartz 2020).To highlight the peculiarities of contemporary U.S. presidential elections, and to complement the often narrow and complex methods used to study electoral out-comes and political behavior, we offer an accessible approach that blends political inquiry with a few simple maps.
Rather than provide incremental confirmations of accepted models of political behavior, our approach frames the 2020 election geographically to show how and where Trump lost, and why he lost. For instance, we show that the big cities were exactly not the places where the election was decided in terms of shifts since 2016, despite Trump’s anti-urban rhetoric, and the rediscovery of the urban-rural divide by political scientists (Alberta 2019; Hohmann 2020a; Rodden 2019). We also discuss how the typical framing of voters and the American electorate, from the blind acceptance of census categories to the persistence of the red-state/blue-state dichotomy, in fact contribute to increasingly inaccurate polling, and propagate and perpetuate rather basic and limited understandings of American politics, voters and electoral outcomes. By identifying the limits to such approaches, a more complete understanding of the 2020 U.S. presidential outcome is achieved, as is the possibility of advancing electoral studies beyond ascribed individual voter characteristics.
Read Full Text: https://oaj.fupress.net/index.php/qoe/article/view/10161