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How to Make Sense of the Very Mysterious 2020 Presidential Election

Αssociated Press

FILE - In this Oct. 26, 2020, file photo an election worker sorts vote-by-mail ballots at the Miami-Dade County Board of Elections in Doral, Fla. (AP Photo/Lynne Sladky, File)

I continue to feel like I’m living on a tiny island in between two oceans of absolutism, one convinced that Joe Biden’s victory over Donald Trump was an obvious and inevitable no-brainer, and the other insistent that the Democrats must have cheated. One side argues that Trump most likely would have lost in 2016, except a lot of people underestimated how intensely his main general election opponent, Hillary Clinton, is disliked. In their view, the eminently unelectable Trump was fortunate to face an even less electable rival in 2016, whereas all the mild-mannered, reasonably well-liked and relatively centrist Biden had to do was show up in 2020 and not pass out during any of his scant public appearances. The other side swears that the ever-growing Trump revolution should have garnered Trump a landslide victory, and that Biden’s win is attributable to blatant and rampant cheating by Democrats, enabled by their media allies and a growing chorus of Republican never-Trumpers.

Here’s an alternative view: Biden actually received more legitimate votes than Trump did, but why he did makes less sense than any election since Truman-Dewey in 1948 or maybe even Adams-Jackson in 1824.

There’s still room on the island in case you’d like to hop aboard.

A mixture of nonsense and insanity pollutes each ocean. Some (but, thankfully, not nearly most) Trumpies think the right thing to do was attempt a revolution, and so they had little or no problem with what happened at the Capitol on January 6.

In the other ocean there’s panic that any criticism of election processes will cause Democrats to lose one or maybe both houses of Congress in 2022 and the presidency in 2024, and so they deem such points of view – however plausible or implausible – to be censorable speech.

I have very little patience for wacky conspiracy theories, but such theorists – insufferably annoying though they are – have a right to be heard. That includes that the moon landing was fake, that 9/11 was an inside job, that Elvis is still alive, that half the world’s population was involved in the Kennedy Assassination, that the Clintons and a host of other Democrats are blood-drinking, satanic pedophiles, that the Chinese Communist Party joined Venezuelan strongmen to change oodles of Trump votes into Biden votes, and that the new president – much like the Trump Derangement Syndrome sufferers said about the old one – is a traitor who will throw America under the bus to advance his own self-interests.

(Sigh) – what’s a presidential historian to do?

As I see it: 1) for the first time ever, Biden’s victory does not square with my tried-and-true formula of picking presidential winners, eleven in a row until last November; but 2) that does not lead me to believe that just because I got it wrong there’s no other reasonable conclusion except that the Democrats cheated.

The most plausible explanation I’ve encountered thus far stems from a recent conversation I had with someone – let’s call him ‘Steve’ – who is a lifelong Republican and voted for Trump in 2016 but not in 2020. Mind you, Election Day came before the January 6 Capitol Breach, and so Steve’s reasons for turning away from Trump had nothing to do with that. Here’s the important part of the conversation: I asked Steve why he voted for Trump the first time but not the second, and he replied: “because Trump acted like a petty child” during his entire presidency. My follow-up question was: “but didn’t Trump act the same way on the campaign trail in 2015 and 2016? It’s not as if Trump acted completely differently until he got elected and then showed us a different side of him.” Steve responded that he hadn’t really paid attention to what Trump said or did before getting elected, but after observing him for four years in the White House, Steve got a clearer picture.

That answer was very eye-opening to me. I don’t know Steve – we were very recently introduced by a mutual friend – and so I’m not sure how politically tuned in he is. Just because he’s voted all his life doesn’t mean he pays attention to what’s going on in the political world as closely as I and many others do. It’s quite possible Steve’s just a straight-ticket, party line voter, saw that Trump was the Republican candidate in 2016 and pulled the lever. Maybe Steve didn’t follow the news closely enough to hear or read enough about the things attributed to Trump (some correctly, others not) back then to have become disgusted.

All of this caused me to consider how many other Steves are out there – people who really don’t pay much attention to any politician unless he’s the incumbent president. Thousands, maybe even millions of previously-Trump-supporting Steves stayed home or voted for Biden this time around.

But what about the opposite of Steve: voters who thought Trump would be a monster that would send America into a depression and World War Three, but were pleasantly surprised that he didn’t and voted for him this time? Well, that Trump gained 10 million more votes in 2020 than in 2016 doesn’t necessarily mean he didn’t lose any: 10 million net could mean he gained an extra 15 million but lost 5 million. Add to that an unusually motivated Democratic Party that mounted a relentless voter drive, not to mention all sorts of actions that made it ridiculously effortless for Democrats to vote, and that amounts to the most plausible explanation as to why Biden won that I’ve heard thus far.

Nonetheless, “most plausible” is a relative term. It remains highly unusual that an incumbent who gained votes actually lost the election to a candidate about whom hardly anyone was truly excited. Which is why I’ve got more election analysis ahead of me; but I’m not going to resort to concluding that “the Democrats must have cheated” just because I haven’t yet figured out a better reason than the Steve story.