Some Post-Election Thoughts

We have just been through a bruising and difficult election. In some cases, elections are still being contested and finalized. But now that the dust has mostly settled, I think it’s a good time to offer some post-election thoughts – my amateur political analysis and some glimpses into the future.

The President Lost Because He is Unpopular

In some circles, this is still a controversial statement, but I’ll say it anyway: the President lost the election. He lost both the popular vote and the all-important Electoral College vote. And the main reason this happened is strikingly simple. It’s because he is unpopular.

He was never really popular. In fact, he was historically unpopular. Here’s a page with an interesting chart comparing Trump’s approval poll ratings with every president back to Truman. The President has approval ratings that are consistently worse than every prior, except Carter (who lost his second run) and George HW Bush (ditto). Notice the unsurprising pattern – unpopular presidents lose reelection races.

In fact, the President’s disapprovals were always more than his approvals. This is astonishing. Every single prior president in the last 75 years managed to stay net positive for most of their terms. Even Johnson was above water in his popularity ratings until the very end. Nixon never had popularity ratings below his unpopular ratings. Even at the very end, when he was about to be impeached for the crimes he had committed, his approvals were going up! The President’s consistent unpopularity was truly unprecedented.

It’s hard to win when more people disapprove of you than approve. In fact, in both 2016 and 2020 more people voted for other candidates than for the President. So the result in 2016 was actually the fluke, while 2020 was a reversion towards a more normal voting pattern.

It’s Hard to Win Presidential Elections

The 2016 results were so surprising because the President did something that was very difficult.

The electoral map is hard for a Republican. The Democrats start out with a huge lead in the Electoral College thanks to the guaranteed blue states (like California, NY, NJ, Illinois, Maryland, Massachusetts, Washington, Virginia). Those alone get a Democrat well over halfway to 270. The guaranteed GOP states fall far short of that, and some of them are clearly shifting toward the Democrats (e.g., Arizona and Georgia).

The big “swing” states that Trump won in 2016 are hard to win for a Republican. Pennsylvania and Michigan had been consistently blue – before 2016, they had last voted for a Republican in 1988. Wisconsin hadn’t gone for a Republican since 1984.

It’s also a fact that there are just more Democratic voters in America than Republicans. And their numbers have been growing enough that they are putting states like Georgia and North Carolina in play. The GOP hasn’t gotten a majority of the presidential vote since Bush 2004. Before that, the last GOP majority was in 1988!

So to win the presidency, a Republican has to capitalize on the nature of the Electoral College and win a few key swing states. Democrats have an easier time getting their electoral votes to 270, but even for them it’s difficult because only a couple of states can make all the difference.

If the President had held onto the three swing states he won in 2016 (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin) he could have won this election. He just couldn’t pull it off.

This Was a Winnable Election

Going into 2020, it was generally understood that this was going to be a close election, and that the President has a good chance of being reelected. The economy was doing well, which always benefits the incumbent. No major wars had broken out, and there had been some noteworthy foreign policy successes. The Democrats were significantly divided, and their front-runner was a multiple loser in prior presidential races.

Coronavirus intervened, of course, and completely changed the political landscape. It tanked the economy, thus neutralizing the strongest issue that the President had going for him. But it also offered an opportunity to show genuine strong leadership. A good politician would have grabbed that opening with both hands and could have won this election. Professional politicians are actually good at winning races. That’s their specialty.

The President isn’t a professional politician – that is a large part of his appeal and why he was elected in 2016. But it hurt him this year. He bungled the Coronavirus response with conflicting messages and unnecessary conflicts. And he ran a terrible campaign – no message discipline, no consistent themes, no plan for the future, no touting the genuine accomplishments, too much time in red states and not enough in purple. He almost unfailingly chose to take the unpopular position on the issues most people cared about (e.g., the COVID relief bills). He was short of money when it mattered most. He relied too heavily on ad hominem attacks, and those backfired. That doesn’t sway independents or cross-overs, particularly those who voted early before the President put on his big push. The opposition was highly motivated by their hostility to the President, which he unceasingly fueled.

The President had to thread a needle to win this year. It was doable, but he just didn’t pull it off.

Facing Electoral Reality

There have been a lot of allegations that the election was stolen. But no real evidence of any kind of widespread fraud has been presented thus far. Localized misconduct and errors undoubtedly happened, but there is no evidence that it occurred at such a scale that the election results would be overturned.

For those who are interested in following the various allegations of fraud, here’s a useful website, which is run by the Daily Caller (a conservative magazine) and associated with Fox host Tucker Carlson.  The Annenberg Center, which is a mainstream journalism/academic think tank, also evaluates them. They’ve both debunked virtually all of the allegations that are floating around in social media.

The way to adjudicate these issues is in court, not on Twitter. If there’s any real evidence, they’ll have to put it before courts. That’s the way the process works. But court challenges and recounts very, very rarely overturn the initial vote counts. And the cases so far have been almost all decided against the President.

The final votes still have to be certified by state officials, and the remaining challenges will work through the courts. But I have no real doubt that when the Electoral College meets in December, there will be a new President.

It’s hard to admit defeat. But reality is an uncompromising thing.

Elections Have Consequences

The President’s defeat is a significant loss for our causes. His Administration has done a number of very significant things to promote the cause of life, to defend religious liberty, and to oppose gender ideology. His judicial nominees will hopefully lead to a re-balancing of the federal bench and a more favorable interpretation of the Constitution. Unfortunately, however, most of the Administration’s accomplishments were done through executive orders and regulatory actions, which will be reversed by the incoming Administration.

We have to remember that an election is not just about candidates, but also what the administration will be like. A dysfunctional and divided Congress has led to less legislation and thus a more active Administrative State. In recent years, the number of executive orders and regulations has mushroomed. In fact, most of what government does these days is through regulatory and enforcement actions by political appointees.

A Biden Administration would be a disaster for some of the causes we hold most dear. There is no question that the Democratic Party has been getting more and more radical on abortion. The party’s platform is adamantly opposed to any limitations on abortion. It stonewalls and calumnies judicial nominees who might be inclined to cut back on abortion. The Chairman of the national committee has said that support for abortion is “non-negotiable” for Democratic candidates. As a result, there is not a single pro-life Democrat in Congress, and support for abortion will be the non-negotiable criteria for judicial nominees.

On religious freedom, we can expect very narrow interpretations – or outright or non-enforcement — of federal conscience protection laws. Very few and narrow religious exemptions will be granted to regulations and contracting provisions. Most alarmingly, the Democrats are committed to gutting the Religious Freedom Restoration Act by way of a bill with an Orwellian name – the “Equality Act”. We will also see a serious promotion of gender ideology, particularly through conditions imposed on federal funding for schools.

On the other hand, the new Administration will certainly lift some of the harsh immigration policies of the Trump Administration. We can look forward to a restoration of the refugee program to more normal levels, and a renewal of the Dreamer program. I also hope that the new Administration will stop any federal executions, make care for the environment a priority, and put human rights at the forefront of our foreign policy. These policies won’t outweigh the negatives outlined above, but they would still be welcome.

Now What?

So we have a tough road ahead of us in the public policy arena. The pro-life movement will have to reorient itself away from its “all in” support for Trump, and re-calibrate its political priorities away from Washington and back to the states. There have been tremendous strides in pro-life legislation on the state level, and this should be built upon. Of course, most of these gains have been or will be challenged in court, so the battle will certainly continue there.

The fight to defend religious liberty will become much more significant in the coming years. We need to prepare for this, and support the organizations that are leading the fight, like the Becket Fund and Alliance Defending Freedom. We also have to seriously discuss the options of conscientious objection and civil disobedience. And we will have to make difficult decisions about the Catholic identity of institutions and whether they merit continues sponsorship by the Church.

And so the work goes on. The Church has been in the business of dealing with governments for a long, long time. She is an expert in not trusting princes, but instead trusting the Lord. So perhaps in the aftermath of this difficult election, we could all pray for a renewal of our trust in God.

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