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The 2020 election is over (mostly) ... What happened?

National political pundits are desperately trying to explain unexpected inconsistencies in federal elections. But the same dynamics also occurred in Utah

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Andrew Harnik, Associated Press

National political pundits are desperately trying to explain unexpected inconsistencies in federal elections. But the same dynamics also occurred in Utah. We suggest that this confusion can best be explained by two people with addled brains — your columnists.

The presidential contest was much closer than projected in polling. Although former Vice President Joe Biden won the popular vote (and most likely the Electoral College), Democrats unexpectedly lost U.S. House races, and are unlikely to win the Senate.

In Utah, GOP congressional contender Burgess Owens was leading Democrat Ben McAdams at our Thursday deadline. Yet, Utah Democrats are likely to increase House seats, protect incumbents and they came close in other races. What is going on?

Pignanelli: “On Election Day, there was huge support of each political party. But there’s a ton of warning signs for them. They got a lot of votes but people weren’t satisfied with either party.” — Matthew Dowd, ABC News     

ALERT: All the smart political people do not reside on the East Coast. Thankfully, the essential KUED program “The Hinckley Report” (skillfully hosted by Jason Perry) offers weekly televised opportunities for Utah journalists and politicos to offer their important perspectives. During a recent episode, Deseret News Opinion Editor Boyd Matheson opined that a great shift is occurring among voters as they become increasingly issue-oriented. He defines this trend “transactional” as citizens focus on specific concerns, not political parties. Matheson observed this is good for the republic in fostering compromise, coalitions and quality government.

For example, what was once the Democratic base of working-class America is now the stronghold of Republicans. Conversely, Democrats are performing better in suburban arenas, but losing large portions of the country. These shifts are grounded on issues, not ideologies.

Yeah, I risk being accused of toadying to Matheson — the patient newspaper boss for LaVarr and me. But he describes well what is happening across the country and in Utah. Voter turnout was massive and yet there were no “waves” for either party. In a pandemic, Americans demonstrated their concerns for country, state and community by concentrating on issues.

Once again, the Utah talent gets it right.

Webb: Democrats hoping for an election mandate to take the country in a more liberal direction were absolutely rebuffed. They did win the White House, defeating a divisive, flawed president severely damaged by a rampaging pandemic and an economic collapse. Even then, the presidential race was much closer than it should have been, given the president’s weakness.

And down ballot, Democrats can find little comfort. Republicans will still control the Senate, they increased their strength in the House, more than held their own in state legislatures across the country, and picked up one governorship. Republicans will control redistricting next year in many states. A Washington Post reporter noted that Biden’s victory came with the weakest coattails in 60 years.

I believe the election shows that we remain a center-right nation with a large contingent of working, middle-class Americans who dramatically disagree with coastal elites, big-city liberals and the establishment news media. These Americans see the aforementioned groups undermining traditional American and family values. The election shows that a large swath of voters don’t believe that big government is the solution to all of America’s problems.         

Is what happened in 2020 unique because of the personalities involved in the presidential contest or are we observing what could be long-term trends?

Pignanelli: One hundred years ago society and politics were forever changed by the Great War, new technologies and the 1918 pandemic. The recent elections demonstrated similar impacts of disease, technology and global chaos. What happened in 2016 was not a fluke. Mixed outcomes in the presidential and congressional elections reveal realignments of demographics and priorities are occurring. As in 1920, these irreversible dynamics hold challenges but much promise for the future.

Webb: It would be a big mistake to underestimate the magnetic pull Trump has on his passionate base. His bombast and contrariness touch multimillions of Americans on a visceral level. Through Trump, working-class Americans rebel against political correctness, identity politics and big government. Liberal elites will never understand this. They dismiss such people as ignorant bumpkins. But the Trump base is, and will remain, a significant force. It’s unclear, however, whether a Republican other than Trump can keep these Americans politically active and energized.     

Will such election results be reflected in public policy decisions?

Pignanelli: Absolutely. Although partisans are loathe to admit it, concerns regarding health care, the environment, race relations, innovation, economic opportunity, preserving capitalism and traditional values are bleeding across party lines, and will influence national and local legislation. Thank goodness.

Webb: With Biden presiding over a divided government, I do believe opportunity exists for compromise and progress on a range of important issues, especially immigration, health care, energy policy, climate change, infrastructure and economic stimulus.

But there will be no large leftward lurch. No court-packing, no Green New Deal, no big tax boost.

Republican LaVarr Webb is a political consultant and lobbyist. Email: lwebb@exoro.com. Frank Pignanelli is a Salt Lake attorney, lobbyist and political adviser who served as a Democrat in the Utah state Legislature. Email: frankp@xmission.com.