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We Should Have Known

In the battle between polls and polarization, polarization won.

By late last night, it had become abundantly clear that poll after poll after poll that had projected a 1992- or 1996-style popular-vote and electoral wave for the Democrats had been wrong, wrong, wrong. Ever since, I’ve been pondering a single thought: In the battle between polarization and polls, polarization won.

In other words, as I wrote in a brief essay in Time, Americans were confronted with two conflicting streams of data. One was the avalanche of polls showing that Biden was clearly in the lead and that if the polling held, he could potentially win 350 or more electoral votes plus an eight or nine point popular vote victory. The other was the decades of data outlining the rise of negative partisanship and increased American tribalization.

We were also often confronted with a conflict between the polling data and the testimony of our own senses. If you live in Trump country you saw the enthusiasm of Trump voters. If you talk about politics at all on social media, you could read the intensity of the division. 

The central reality of negative polarization predicts outcomes just like this week’s results. Remember, the definition of negative partisanship is that you vote for your side not so much because you love your own side, but rather because you dislike your opponents. Therefore, no matter your candidate’s failings, he has one abiding and unassailable virtue—he’s not the other guy. 

Thus we go back to one of the central political realities of the Trump era. In the midst of tremendous volatility in the news cycle, there has been enduring stability in partisan politics. 

We’ve gone through an economic boom and bust. We’re in the midst of one of the worst mass-casualty events in American history. The president was impeached. Riots have swept through American cities. Yet the political coalitions remain largely unchanged. I’ve written about this before, but the ingredients for 2020 include a dash of 1998 (impeachment), a helping of 1968 (urban unrest), a serious dose of 1918 (pandemic), a hint of 1929 (economic crash) and now potentially a sampling of 2000 (election contest). Through it all, American politics have hardly budged. 

No, that doesn’t mean they haven’t budged at all. Given the closeness of our politics, a few thousand votes here and a few thousand votes there can flip the Oval Office. Trump won in 2016 by less than 75,000 votes in three states. Right now, Biden’s lead hinges on roughly 150,000 votes in four states and one congressional district (with the count changing hourly). 

To put that in perspective, that’s 150,000 votes out of almost 140 million counted so far. 

Moreover, if you look at the best available information on the composition of the competing coalitions, you can see that they tend to mobilize the same people in roughly the same percentages. Yes, I know exit polls can be suspect, but they still represent the best apple-to-apples comparisons available, and the stability of the coalitions is remarkable.

In 2016, Trump won 58 percent of white voters, 8 percent of black voters, and 29 percent of Hispanics. In 2020, those numbers were 57, 12, and 32, respectively. In 2016 he famously won 81 percent of white Evangelical voters. In 2020, it looks like he won 76 percent. These changes are so small we don’t even know if they’re real. (My colleague Sarah Isgur scorns exit polls, for many good reasons.)

I’m reminded of a political version of trench warfare. During World War I the combatants on the Western Front expended an enormous amount of blood and treasure to move the lines a mile here and a mile there, only to see them snap right back after the next counteroffensive. The effort was overwhelming. The gains were often nominal.

And so it is here in American politics. And the giant amount of effort often helps us understand the sheer vitriol directed at in-group dissenters. Don’t you know we need every man on the ramparts? How dare you stand down? They cannot be permitted to win. 

But the problem is that the very imperatives of negative polarization often require the combatants to twist themselves into moral and ideological pretzels to stay in the field of battle. Can you imagine telling a pro-life conservative in 2014 that in a few short years, he’d be scorning mask-wearing during a pandemic, mocking the idea that deficits matter in politics, and defending presidential praise for the dictator of North Korea to help keep in office a president who’d paid hush money to a porn star, faced multiple corroborated claims of sexual assault, and who repeatedly lied to the American public about the nature of a deadly disease?

Of course that’s not Trump’s full record, but I raise those facts in part because the 2014 pro-life conservative would have found multiple elements of Trump’s biography and record to be utterly disqualifying. 

And yes, it’s absolutely crystal clear that millions upon millions of Democrats went to the polls not to support Joe Biden but to defeat Donald Trump. As Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez put it, absent the political imperatives of the two-party system, she doubts she’d even be in the same party as the Democratic nominee. 

None of this is new. I raise it because it’s vital to understand the context of last night’s polling miss. It’s vital to understand our political reality going forward. There is nothing about last night that will inherently heal our land. There is much about last night that will inflame our national divides. 

And that’s why I’m finding it difficult to take too much solace from last night’s results—in spite of the fact that I belong firmly in arguably the tiniest constituency in American politics, the very small number of Americans who wanted Donald Trump to lose the presidency and the Republicans to keep the Senate. Remember the “burn it down” wars of this summer? Back when (until about 9:00 p.m. last night) Democrats and many Never Trumpers had the electoral power to purge the GOP? I wrote this:

I’m going to go ahead and admit to a sad reality, right up front. I want what the best available polling tells me that I’m highly unlikely to get. I want Donald Trump out of the presidency and the GOP still in control of the Senate. In other words, in the furious argument over the future of the Republican party and political conservatism, consider me squarely in the camp that seeks to dump Trump but not to seek vengeance on the rest of the GOP. 

A rage, fury, and a “burn it all down” mentality is one of the maladies that brought us to the present moment. Repeating that same impulse, but with an entire party in the crosshairs, will only compound our political dysfunction. 

Besides, it’s not necessary for those who seek to send a message that Donald Trump is an unfit president. And it’s counterproductive for those of us who still believe that the conservative elements of the Republican party provide the best prospects for securing the liberty, prosperity, and security of the American republic. 

Going into this election, I was deeply concerned that the necessary removal of an unfit president would also lead to the enactment of multiple progressive statutory reforms that I believed were bad for the country. A Democratic president ushers Trump off the stage. A Republican Senate not only holds the bulk of American law in place until the next election season, it can provide oversight and accountability in the event of administration scandals or abuse. 

But the underlying disease of American division and polarization remains. If anything, a divided government will cause it to intensify. And the nature of the division will deepen each side’s worst fears. Democrats are deeply frustrated that their enduring electoral majority (the GOP has won exactly one popular vote since 1992) cannot rule—it’s blocked by the Senate, and their presidential victories are rendered precarious by the Electoral College. Republicans look at the proposed Democratic agenda and fear majoritarian tyranny. There is no clear path forward. 

But this essay has been too bleak. There is still much to be thankful for. In spite of our immense divisions and increasing animosity, we are conducting an orderly and (so far) peaceful count. An astonishing number of Americans participated in American democracy. We enjoy liberty and prosperity at a scale that billions of citizens of the world can scarcely comprehend. 

These are anxious days, but it is still a profound blessing to be an American.

One more thing…

More on this later (and on the Advisory Opinions podcast), but I can’t let November 4th pass without noting a potentially promising development for religious liberty. My friends at the Becket Fund argued Fulton v. City of Philadelphia before the Supreme Court today. I’ve written about Fulton before:

The petitioners in Fulton seek protection from a Philadelphia rule that required a Catholic foster care agency to provide written endorsements for same-sex couples (in violation of church teaching) as a condition of participating in the city’s foster care system. 

In addition, the petitioners are asking the court to revisit Employment Division v. Smith, a 1990 Supreme Court opinion that substantially restricted the strength and scope of the Free Exercise Clause. If the petitioners prevail, it could well represent the most significant advance for religious liberty in decades.

Tune into Advisory Opinions tomorrow for a deeper analysis, but in the meantime I’d refer to you the tweet thread below from Becket’s Luke Goodrich. As is often the case in First Amendment cases, it looks like the Court’s ruling may not break down neatly on ideological/philosophical lines, and one or more of SCOTUS’s more progressive justices may join with their conservative colleagues and protect or expand religious freedom. 

But we shall see. Oral arguments are not always a good predictor of judicial outcomes.

One last thing…

Have you started watching Season 2 of The Mandalorian? No? Shame on you.

Baby Yoda just might be the last, best hope for a united America.

Photo by Seth Herald/AFP via Getty Images.

David French is a columnist for the New York Times. He’s a former senior editor of The Dispatch. He’s the author most recently of Divided We Fall: America's Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.