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6 November 2020

Seven questions I have after four days of US presidential election coverage

Just for once I would like it to be the other side that’s blindsided by a polling error.

By Jonn Elledge

OK, so it all worked out in the end, probably. Nonetheless, the experience of watching the US election result play out, combined with a certain amount of sleep deprivation, has left me with some questions.

1. Why can’t we ever have anything nice? 

Every election campaign for what feels like forever, but is in fact about five and a half years, has taken me on a similar psychological journey. My natural pessimism has, gradually but inexorably, given way to an ill-founded suspicion that maybe this time, if only because of the law of averages, my side will win – until, by the time election night arrives, I am genuinely excited. You can probably guess what happens then. (The only significant election to have broken with this pattern was 2017, when Theresa May managed to lose her majority for no reason at all. That was brilliant, to be fair. The left still lost.)

Just once, just once, I would like it to be the other side that’s blindsided by a polling error – or at the very least, blindsided by the lack of a polling error. But no: for all the talk of how there would need to be a historically large polling miss for Joe Biden to lose, on Tuesday night it turned out that there might, in fact, have been a historically large polling miss. As a result, as we settled in for a happy evening of at last watching hubris meet nemesis, the first few hours of coverage were concerned almost exclusively with the fact that Florida, the first swing state to start counting, was actually more enthusiastic about Donald J Trump now that he’d spent four years locking migrant children in cages. 

That reminds me:

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2. Is it time to consider custodial sentences for pollsters? 

Hey, I’m just asking a question here. 

3. What the hell is up with the electoral college? 

I’m not going to apologise for counting the US presidential contest as a significant election, while ignoring, say, the recent success of the New Zealand Labour Party: the US is still just about hegemonic, and so who runs it is relevant to the everyone else on this planet in a way Jacinda Arden isn’t, and my complete West Wing box set is neither here nor there.

Nonetheless, I am coming to resent the way this setup requires us all to clutter our brains up with, say, the electoral geography of the rust belt, or the name of the county Las Vegas is in, once every four years. There are many good reasons for the US to do away with its silly, designed-for-the-convenience-of-18th-century-slaveholders electoral system. I just think “not torturing the rest of us” is an underrated factor.

[See also: Why Donald Trump’s loss of the popular vote could signal a longer term gain]

4. What the hell is up with American election coverage? 

This week I have seen many British Twitter users positively contrasting CNN’s data-heavy electoral coverage with the BBC’s preference for Andrew Neil glowering at random celebrities. I am struggling to reconcile this with the first two hours of CNN I actually watched, during which I witnessed 

a) a revolving banner which asked such deeply profound questions as “Will swing states be key?” (my guess: yes), and 

b) discussion of how Palm Beach County, FL, had just switched from Trump to Biden, which didn’t bother to mention that at the point it had been going for Trump it had counted precisely 91 votes, and that it was probably thus a bit premature for a major news network to colour it red and then discuss the fact. 

5. Why was this election so boring to watch? 

Hang on, this should have been really exciting! Historically high stakes! The US, and the world, on the brink! Constant reversals of fortune! It’s everything you could possibly want in a box set!

And yet, the reality of Tuesday night brought to mind that old cliche about the reality of war: long periods of boredom, punctuated by bursts of intense terror. Just hours and hours of nothing very much happening, interrupted by occasional drops of context-free numbers while we all scrambled for explanations from some guy called Nate. I should have gone to bed. I did not go to bed.

6. Why is it the left that always has to try harder? 

One point was made by so many commentators on the right that it actually managed to penetrate my sleep-deprived skull. Here’s Tim Montgomerie: “Too many people on the Left aren’t interested in understanding their opponents – just defeating them.”

This was the argument made in 2016, in the UK after the Brexit referendum and in the US when Trump won the presidential election the following November. But both those elections, you’ll recall, the liberal left lost. This time, it seems likely, it won – Biden certainly won the popular vote, by what looks to be a pretty decent margin (50.5 per cent to 47.8 per cent). So where are the exhortations that Trump voters get out of their bubbles and start listening to voters in real places such as San Francisco and Boston? Surely it wasn’t all just concern trolling?

7. Will it be worse next time?

I don’t want to be too down on an election that should, despite some jitters, end up with Trump’s ejection from the White House. But it is hard to avoid noticing a pattern. Every time the Republican Party has retaken the White House from the Democrats – from Eisenhower to Nixon to Reagan to Bush Jr to Trump – the guy they’ve put in there has been more terrifying than the last. 

I don’t want to speculate on how the next Republican president could be worse than Trump: I lack the imagination. But with the electoral college continuing to assist a party that has won the popular vote just once in the last 30 years, and without a rout on the scale promised by the polls, which might have made them think again, there is no particular reason to think the GOP will change its strategy now. 

The election may be finished. The Republican Party isn’t. And as someone who has to live on planet Earth, I’m a bit worried about that.

[See also: How Donald Trump could try to overturn a Joe Biden victory]

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