Why Couldn't Democrats Ride the Blue Wave?

Charlie Cook New
November 13, 2020

This is both a narrowly and deeply divided country.

If you wanted to sum up the election results in a few words, those words might be that by the barest of majority, voters were anti-Trump—but they were not anti-Republican. As of early Monday evening, even while President Trump became only the fourth elected incumbent in the last century to lose, not one of the 166 Republicans seeking reelection to the House of Representatives has lost. Meanwhile, at least nine of the 220 Democratic incumbents running to retain their current seats lost, with five more in races that have not yet been called. The overall House outcome looks likely to be a net gain for Republicans of about eight seats.

On the Senate side, there were 12 Republican and two Democratic seats in some degree of real jeopardy. The GOP won nine out of 12. As this column has noted before, the Senate races rated Toss-Up at the race’s end tend to break for one party. This time it was for the GOP. Control of the Senate will be determined by two Georgia runoffs on Jan. 5. Only if Republicans drop both will the chamber be 50-50, and Kamala Harris, the vice president as of Jan. 20, would hold the tiebreaking vote.

The outcome of the presidential race should not be a surprise, given President Trump’s job-approval ratings. In fact, it would have been extraordinary had he won. The margins were narrower than expected, but the directional arrows should not be a surprise. All 21 states rated Solid, Likely or Lean Democrat in the final Cook Political Report ratings went for Biden, just as all 20 states that were rated as Solid, Likely or Lean Republican went for Trump. Four of the six Toss Up states went for Trump, as did Maine’s 2nd District. But as in the Senate, the close ones tend to break in the same direction.

So, what happened to the Democratic wave, if there ever was one?

It is difficult for me to fathom that so many polls, conducted by dozens of pollsters from both parties using different methodologies, could all be wrong, and in the same direction.

In my judgment, there was a blue wave building, a pretty big one, then something happened, like a fish getting spooked before taking a bite out of a lure. Too many of the most experienced political operatives in both parties could see it coming. My guess is that while a majority, albeit a small one, wanted to unseat Trump, they got skittish about giving Democrats unified control. Was the electorate willing to put Biden in the driver’s seat, but not give him the full tank of gas and a credit card that a Democrat-controlled Congress would provide?

Did the label of “socialist” finally give enough swing voters cause for hesitation? What about charges that Democrats were going to push Medicare-for-all, or pack the Court? What about questions of exactly what would be in a Green New Deal and what would it do to jobs during a fragile economy? Was there a fear that Democrats would or could not keep law and order, given the “Defund the Police” movement?

This argument got some reinforcement when Democratic pollster Stan Greenberg and Democracy Corps, a group he founded decades ago with James Carville, conducted a 2,000-person phone sample in 16 battleground states from Oct. 31 to Nov. 4. Greenberg’s argument, based on that study, was: “The big story is Donald Trump led an incendiary, race-laden working-class revolt against the elites, fueled by attacks on defunding the police, ads with Black urban violence and his demand for law and order that cost Democrats dearly in rural areas, with older voters and white working-class men, some GOP defectors, some suburban voters, and ... an unprecedented rush of white working-class voters in the blue wall states. Trump pushed his white working-class men’s vote up 7 points at the end to match the support he got in 2016 and pushed up his rural vote 14 points to exceed it.”

In an Election Day survey of 1,600 voters, the Republican firm Public Opinion Strategies found that while 81 percent of voters made their minds up in the presidential race before September, just 60 percent had made a decision on their vote for Congress. Both late deciders for president and Congress broke toward Trump and Republicans, respectively.

This is a center-right country, one that may have been ready to abandon the Trump experiment, but the more they thought about it, were not so sure about going all in for Democrats.

Finally, were there “shy Trump voters?” Although I was skeptical, it would appear that there were. In the POS Election Day survey, 19 percent of Trump voters indicated that they had hidden their support for him from most of their friends, while just 8 percent of Biden voters kept keep their support for him to themselves. The survey quoted one woman as saying, “I got called a white supremacist and a racist so I kept it to myself so I wouldn’t hear those words.”

This article was originally published for the National Journal on November 10, 2020.