American Democracy's Stress Test Is Nearly Complete

Charlie "Chuck" Cook
December 4, 2020

In just 51 days, the United States will close a bizarre chapter of American history. Things will probably never return to “normal,” at least as defined by pre-pandemic standards, but to borrow the title of a great 2013 political documentary about contemporary race and politics in New Orleans, Getting Back to Abnormal maybe should be our goal.

Contrary to the dire predictions of many, the election went off without a hitch, despite circumstances being anything but typical. The U.S. has faced some enormous crises over the last 120 years—the influenza pandemic of 1918, the 1929 stock-market crash and resulting Great Depression, Pearl Harbor, and the current pandemic. Having a close election during such a calamity in the midst of the worst political division since Reconstruction was certainly a challenge.

Indeed, there were plenty of ways it could have gone badly. Polling places could have been forced to close for lack of poll workers. The pandemic could have closed facilities outright. Voters could have avoided casting their ballots out of fear of infection.

But, in fact, turnout was sky high, counting and reporting went off fine, and there were no signs of significant foreign interference, nor major violence after the results were known. Other than the behavior of a petulant loser, the election went quite well. It was a bit reminiscent of the misplaced worries over Y2K.

For the one year of the 2016 campaign and four turbulent years as president, Donald Trump has challenged the norms of his party, government at all levels, and the entire political process. We are now almost at the end of an incredibly challenging stress test. It seems we’ve passed—if just barely. As Peter Baker and Kathleen Gray wrote on the front page of The New York Times this weekend, “in the end, the system stood firm against the most intense assault from an aggrieved president in the nation’s history because of a Republican city clerk in Michigan, a Republican secretary of state in Georgia, a Republican county supervisor in Arizona, and Republican-appointed judges in Pennsylvania and elsewhere.”

While many Democrats and more than a few independents have complained that more Republican elected officials and party leaders didn’t stand up to Trump, a few did—and paid a steep price. Think former Sens. Bob Corker and Jeff Flake, or former Rep. Mark Sanford. In the current party environment, disloyalty to the president was unforgivable. As the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last month found, 54 percent of registered Republicans or independents who leaned Republican considered themselves supporters of the president more than supporters of the party. Only 38 percent were more loyal to the party.

Two big unknowns remain, relating to the two Jan. 5 special elections in Georgia that will determine control of the Senate. Given the razor-thin margin in the 2018 gubernatorial race, the quarter-point victory by Joe Biden in the state, and the fact that neither side won 50 percent in combined party vote in either race last month, a strong case can be made that it is the most evenly divided state in the country. If Republicans hold both seats or even one, they will remain in the majority. But if both seats go Democratic, the Senate goes to 50-50 with incoming Vice President Kamala Harris able to break ties. The lack of ticket splitting, coupled with our current extreme partisanship, makes it very likely that this is a double-or-nothing event, with one party taking both seats.

Understandably, the spending levels are colossal. For the full-term seat, Democrat Jon Ossoff has bought $28 million in future television buys after this week, according to Advertising Advantage, bringing his total TV spending to $46.3 million. Sen. David Perdue has booked $27 million in future buys for a total of $33 million. In the special election, Democrat Raphael Warnock’s campaign has plunked down $35.4 million for the future for a total of $54.6 million. Sen. Kelly Loeffler has put down $31.2 million for future buys, bringing her total to $43 million. None of this counts spending by Republicans’ Senate Leadership Fund or Democrats’ Senate Majority PAC.

What could possibly move the electorate? First, if Congress manages to pass a coronavirus stimulus spending bill during the lame duck, it could have an impact, as Perdue and Loeffler head home to tout their roles in the accomplishment.

Second, Trump’s postelection behavior may have an effect on Georgia voters. He's no longer the guy his supporters believed was a born-and-bred winner, and his post-Nov. 3 behavior might marginalize him some. But there have been hundreds of incidents over the last five years that could arguably have diminished his standing with the party base. None have so far.

This article was originally published for the National Journal on December 1, 2020.