The far-too-normal election

Dr David Karpf

Associate Professor in the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. He teaches and conducts research on strategic political communication in the digital age. He is the author of two books: The MoveOn Effect: The Unexpected Transformation of American Political Advocacy (2012, Oxford University Press), and Analytic Activism: Digital Listening and the New Political Strategy (2016, Oxford University Press)

Twitter: @davekarpf

Section 1: Policy and political context

To be totally honest, I thought the 2020 election would be a blowout. Not because Joe Biden ran a particularly effective campaign (it was fine, just fine). Not because Donald Trump ran a particularly ineffective campaign (it was bad, but the same type of bad as 2016). But because of the grim reality of life in the United States in 2020.

This has not been a good year, to put it mildly. Over 200,000 people have died of the Coronavirus. The economy is in shambles. Our children attend their schools virtually now. They cannot visit their grandparents in nursing homes or, god forbid, the hospital. The pandemic has hit the United States harder than other wealthy nations because the government’s failed public health response.

And yet the presidential election results are basically what I would have predicted in January 2020. Three states that Trump narrowly won in 2016 flipped to the Democrat, with a handful of other narrow victories as well. Democrats lost a few of the House seats that they picked up in the 2018 wave, and they won a couple of Senate seats. Given Trump’s demonstrable unpopularity, that was well within the bounds of what one would have expected had 2020 been more “normal.”

Two possible explanations present themselves. It is possible that Trump was more popular than he seemed – that without the weight of the ruinous pandemic, he would have sailed to a second-term victory. If he came this close, despite all that has gone terribly wrong this year, then surely he would have done better in a world without the virus. The trouble with this explanation is that it requires us to disbelieve so many of the apparent facts-on-the-ground from the past three years. Trump was historically unpopular. He presided over an improving economy, but did nothing to unite an increasingly divided nation. He inflamed partisan divisions and gave comfort and encouragement to violent white nationalists at home while ruining America’s reputation abroad.

The second explanation is that partisan preferences are now so deeply entrenched in the United States (at least when filtered through the prism of political geography, in which marginal gains and losses in vote share only matter in a select few narrowly-divided states) that the entire apparatus of political campaigning has no effect on the outcome of Presidential elections. This explanation is in some ways even more troubling – particularly for scholars of strategic political communication like myself.

What choices could Trump or Biden have made that would have altered this outcome? What messages could they have distributed, through what media? Were there digital advertisements or analog campaign commercials that could have moved the needle? Untapped potential in bold new policy proposals? Innovations in field campaigning? If the lived reality of the pandemic did not change votes, hearts, and minds, then it is hard to imagine any of the granular strategic decisions made by the legitimate political campaigns could have.

And the same goes for the digital platforms. We spent years pondering how Facebook, Google, and Twitter would mediate electoral communications – both legitimate and illegitimate. Each platform made complicated and flawed decisions over the course of the election. They attempted to tamp down on the spread of misinformation and disinformation. They were at times somewhat successful, at other times less so. Yet, this explanation leaves me to wonder whether any of the platforms’ choices mattered to the eventual outcome. Would waves of misinformation and unchecked microtargeted propaganda have changed the results in Pennsylvania or Wisconsin, when the waves of hospitalization and empty storefronts did not? It is hard to fathom.

At the beginning of every semester in my strategic political communication course, I tell my students that “the answer to every question I will ask you this semester is ‘well, it’s complicated’.” I am sure as we delve through the data on 2020 campaigning in the months and years ahead, we will similarly learn that both of the explanations I ponder here are too simple – that reality was more nuanced and complicated.

But I also recall that my contribution to this volume four years ago was titled “The #LolNothingMatters Election.” I reflected in that essay on just how it was possible that a campaign as technically shoddy as Donald Trump’s could have won. I was baffled then, and I am baffled now.

If a pandemic of this magnitude leaves the mass electorate unfazed, then I have to wonder what (if anything) could move them.