Historic voter turnout, razor-thin margins in the swing states, protests, and legal battles foretell an escalation in our political conflict, not a new Democratic consensus.
A short, middle-aged woman wearing a star-studded, red cowboy hat greets us at the door. She’s happy and energetic, and wants to know if we were volunteers. “Yes?” I hesitantly reply, since I have volunteered in the past, but not that day, since I had to work. Election Day 2020 was not unlike a year ago, also unseasonably chilly for northern Virginia, when I stood near a polling place in the cold handing out election materials. Then, it was easy to predict which party would come out on top. Today, not so much.
The partygoers filling the small room at The Harbour Grille in Woodbridge, Virginia were dressed in an assortment of red and white attire with American-flag themed apparel. Some sported the ubiquitous red MAGA hats left-wing activists liken to KKK hoods. It reminded me more of sports fans on game day, and my wife and I suddenly felt out of place dressed in business casual. We found a seat close to the TV, which was tuned in to Fox News. Outside on the patio, a few diners watched the Occoquan’s dark waters flow slowly past.
Polls were scheduled to close at 7pm Eastern time in Virginia, along with Florida and Georgia, two states to watch closely. Turnout was projected to be unprecedentedly high. Nearly 9 million early votes were cast in Florida and more than 3 million in Georgia. Early voting in North Carolina nearly surpassed its total vote in 2016. Thanks largely to efforts to reduce in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic, over 100 million people had already pre-voted by election day, 36.6 million shy of the total 2016 vote. If voter turnout exceeded 60 percent, it would be the first time in 52 years.
Only the most optimistic partisans believed their candidate would be swept to victory on a popular wave. In the state and local election last year, Democratic volunteers in northern Virginia were highly organized down to matching t-shirts, and postcards for Democratic candidates flooded the mail, buoyed by a $2.5 million cash infusion from billionaire Michael Bloomberg’s gun-control lobbying group. Only a handful of Republicans showed up to that election night event to watch their party get trounced at the polls.
This time, the excitement and optimism was palpable. On my way home from work, I drove past a man holding a large Trump flag at a busy intersection, although Biden yard signs dotted the neighborhoods. I had the general feeling that anything could happen and that Republican enthusiasm for keeping Trump in the White House was almost as high as Democratic enthusiasm for removing him. This election would be a knock-down, drag out fight in which the winner would come down to a handful of votes.
Outside in the parking lot, a sign hung in a car window proclaiming “The silent majority stands with Trump.”
As of that morning, the FiveThirtyEight national polling average had Biden leading Trump 51.8% to 43.4%. It gave Democrats a 72 percent chance of controlling the presidency, Senate and House. Polling showed that even Texas was considered a swing state this year. But the polling was wrong in 2016. No one knew how wrong it would be this time.
Election results in Florida came in fast, and Texas remained solidly red. With Trump leading in Florida, Pennsylvania, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan, I went to bed fully expecting to wake up knowing who won the presidency. Instead, as mail-in votes trickled in, Wisconsin and Michigan turned in Biden’s favor. The margins were razor thin in nearly every swing state.
Over 72 hours after the polls closed and we still don’t know who our next president will be, though a trickle of votes currently has Joe Biden ahead. States like Nevada and Arizona seem to be in no hurry to finish counting all their ballots, while the Trump Campaign has demanded recounts and filed lawsuits in Wisconsin, Michigan, Georgia, and Pennsylvania. Biden might very well be our next president, but the next few weeks is going to make Florida circa 2000 look like a model of sanity and efficiency.
If Democrats thought the election would be an unequivocal repudiation of Donald Trump and the Republican Party, they were sorely mistaken. The Senate is evenly divided (with two special elections predicted to go Republican’s way), and Republicans are projected to gain up to ten seats in the House. Nothing in politics is certain, and if the enthusiasm I witnessed on election night is any indication, this struggle for the nation’s future is far from over.