No, Democrats Didn’t ‘Lose’ the Election

But that inaccurate narrative is good for national stability.

Some commentators are inaccurately claiming Democrats lost the election. I’m referring here not to false conspiracy theories about rigging and fraud — Attorney General William Barr is the latest high-profile figure to acknowledge that there’s no evidence  for that— but to claims of a conservative moral victory, a better-than-expected result with which Republicans should be happy.

Explaining “the meaning of the 2020 election,” Commentary’s Noah Rothman argues that “Trump lost. And so, astonishingly, did his pursuers. Joe Biden had a triumph. The Democratic Party has a disaster.” More specifically, according to Andrew Sullivan, the election was “clearly and unequivocally a rejection of the woke left.” Others offer alternative explanations, but they share the interpretation that 2020 was bad for the Democratic Party.

The most-often cited example is the House of Representatives. With two races left to call, Democrats won 222 and Republicans 211, a net gain of nine for the GOP. “House Republican leaders are taking a victory lap following their surprising strength in the election,” reported the Wall Street Journal. Taking this sentiment to absurdity, as is his wont, Dinesh D’Souza claimed “it was a red wave, not a blue wave, in the House of Representatives.”

At the risk of pointing out the obvious, the entire House is up for re-election every two years. Democrats won a majority of seats, so they won the House. Republicans lost by less than they did in 2018, but they still lost. And if you’re searching for a Republican mandate in the House popular vote, you won’t find it. More Americans voted Democratic.

Of the 13 House seats Republicans flipped in 2020 — Democrats flipped three and a Republican won the seat vacated by Michigan libertarian Justin Amash—all but one, Minnesota’s 7th District, was held by a Republican in 2017–18. What happened is obvious. Many Democrats turned out for the 2018 midterms and gave the party a few seats in Republican-leaning districts, then both parties turned out for the 2020 presidential election and the Republican majority in these districts reasserted itself. If anyone claimed the Republican Party was finished, they’re wrong. But a repudiation of Democrats this was not.

Similarly, Republicans will have between 50 and 52 Senate seats (depending on runoffs in Georgia). But Democrats gained at least one. If Republicans maintain control of the chamber, it’s because Maine voters re-elected Susan Collins (which is likely specific to Maine and Collins) and North Carolina voters narrowly elected incumbent Thom Tillis over Democrat Cal Cunningham (which may be specific to Cunningham’s sexting scandal). No national mandate there.

Joe Biden’s 306-232 Electoral College margin is convincing enough that Republicans are left pointing toward marginal gains among some demographics. For example, exit polls show that Trump won 8 percent of black voters in 2016 compared to 12 percent in 2020, and 28 percent of Latinos in 2016 compared to 32 percent this year. It makes sense for Republicans to be happy about that improvement, but still, he lost both groups by a lot.

As Varad Mehta notes in Arc Digital, Republicans genuinely succeeded at the state level, retaining control of every state legislative chamber they held pre-election and the redistricting powers that come with it. But that just shows that red states are red. It doesn’t say anything about America as a whole, except that the country remains polarized.

The expectations game.

In 2016, Democrats lost the White House, lost the House while gaining six seats, and picked up two senators, but no one described that as the American people rejecting the Republican Party. And yet, a mirror image result in 2020 is supposedly a rejection of Democrats.

Some of this is optimistic spin from Republican partisans. Some of it is a variation of the pundit’s fallacy, with commentators declaring that their pet issue just happens to be the one that decided the election. But a lot of it is expectations set by polls.

Polling averages like the one from RealClearPolitics and weighted polling models like FiveThirtyEight’s had Biden beating Trump by 8-plus points in the popular vote and winning close to 350 electoral votes, Democrats holding or even gaining House seats, and Democrats taking the Senate. In 2016, they predicted Hillary Clinton would win, with Democrats about 50–50 to take the Senate. Compared to both sets of predictions, Democrats did poorly. 

In a sense, Republicans are acting like their football team beat the spread. Sure, it’s not a win, but it’s a closer-than-expected loss and you can hold your head high.

But modelers predicting the election are not like casinos setting a betting line. Pollsters aim to accurately measure the electorate, not to encourage betting and maximize profit. In 2020, as in 2016, they undercounted Trump support, likely by missing a type of low social trust voter he activates. So anyone who said polls were undercounting Republicans can claim vindication. But that doesn’t mean Republicans did any better or worse in the election. It just means the polls were wrong.

Think of it this way: If polls missed in the other direction and underestimated Democrats — as they did in 2012 — perhaps by predicting that Biden would win the national popular vote by two points and lose narrowly to Trump in the Electoral College, the results would be the same, but the narrative would be totally different. We’d be flooded with takes like “Americans rejected Trumpism” and “can the Republican Party ever win again?” despite no difference in final result.

Quite a few political commentators are treating the election like it’s a presidential debate or a company earnings announcement, with success defined as outperforming expectations. But while a stock price might fall if a company earns a lot but falls short of analysts’ predictions, political candidates and parties gain or lose institutional power based on vote totals, no matter what anyone expected.

Beating expectations isn’t an achievement if the expectations were set by erroneous polls.

An opportunity to calm down.

With elections, the one place where beating expectations matters is partisans’ feelings. Thinking your party is screwed and finding out that it’s not feels better than thinking your party’s winning and finding out it didn’t. And people who feel good about an election — or at least don’t feel bad — are more likely to accept the results and move on.

The 2020 election bequeathed divided government (or close to it), with Democrats controlling the presidency and the House, and Republicans either controlling the Senate or going into opposition with the largest possible minority. And the upside to divided government is not that it forces bipartisan compromise — the evidence that it does is thin, especially in the 21st century — but that it creates stability by making both sides feel they have a seat at the table.

Democrats know the alternative after finding themselves shut out in 2017. The party preferred by a plurality of 2016’s voters had no institutional power, relying on anti-majoritarian techniques (like the filibuster for Supreme Court nominations, which the Republican majority removed) and appeals to principle (which a united Republican Party mostly ignored).

Democrats are understandably unhappy that they won’t get the same unchecked power in 2021, but leaving almost half of American voters without an element of federal power breeds considerable anger. Things were pretty tense leading up to the 2020 election, definitely more so than in 2016. If Democrats once again won the most votes without winning power, the left may have exploded in protest. Similarly, Republicans believing they did well and feeling optimistic about their future gives the right an offramp; a way to walk back from the brink while saving face.

If Republicans were staring down the barrel of total Democratic control — with worries that D.C. statehood and court-packing could reduce their power further — some might be more open to Trump’s un-American attempt to overturn the election. Some might even turn to violence. Instead, as bad as Trump’s attempt may be, much of the Republican establishment is trying to humor him while looking forward to obstructing Biden in the Senate, rather than putting their full support behind the effort.

It looks like the election accidentally produced an ideal result for letting America take a breath. Not many love it, but not many hate it either, and few are panicking over what their political enemies will be able to do. Republicans lost, yes, but they lost in a way that lets them tell themselves it was a moral victory, and that makes our volatile politics a little more stable.