US election: nail-biter or decisive win?
Why the result wasn't as close as it initially seemed
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Election Day in the US certainly turned into Election Week. The winner of the presidential race is usually declared the night of Election Day, but this time it took more than three days before Joe Biden was projected as president-elect.
The prolonged contest gave the impression that it went down to the wire, but I’m not quite sure that it did. Let’s take a deeper look at various indicators and see what they tell us.
Out of more than 155 million votes counted so far, Biden is beating Donald Trump by almost six million votes, or about 3.8 percentage points, and is poised to build on this advantage as more votes are tallied.
Of course, the US president is not elected by popular vote but the electoral college (a system where each state is allocated electoral votes roughly based on population and those votes go to the winner of the state). Biden has 306 electoral votes while Trump has 232, and Democrats are gleefully pointing out that when Trump won by the same margin in 2016, his supporters called it a “landslide, blowout, historic” victory.
Kellyanne Conway @KellyannePolls306. Landslide. Blowout. Historic. https://t.co/ObYZDo8cBq
To be clear, 306 is not an outstanding performance but also far from the weakest if you look at the last few decades. Bill Clinton and Barack Obama won their elections with between 332 and 379 electoral vote, while George W. Bush scrapped by with 271 and 286 in his two elections.
Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin
In 2016, Trump pulled off shock wins in these three states that were part of the reliably -Democratic blue wall. Four years later, he looked to be repeating that feat when he led in those states by hundreds of thousands of votes shortly after polls closed.
But that lead was only because in-person ballots were counted before mail-in ballots, which were much greater in number than usual because states made it easier to vote by mail in light of the pandemic.
Each state sets its own ballot processing rules. According to an AP article, some states started counting their mail-in ballots weeks before Election Day, while others chose not to:
But other states such as Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, all with Republican-led legislatures and all of them swing states, made a conscious decision to wait so there would be no counting of mail-in ballots prior to Election Day. Michigan did eventually allow election officials to process some ballots one day earlier, but the counting of the ballot still had to wait until Nov 3.
Mail-in ballots take longer to process than in-person votes, giving the impression that Biden took days to slowly catch up to Trump and that it was uncertain if he could make up the huge deficit in these three states.
Yet some of the data experts — after looking at votes left to be counted and which areas they were coming from — were pretty sure Biden would inevitably overtake Trump. Trump’s unceasing attacks on voting by mail and constant downplaying of the pandemic also meant that mail-in ballots were overwhelmingly from Democrats. For instance, in Pennsylvania, Democrats returned more than two-and-a-half times the number of mail-in ballots than Republicans.
This was tweeted out two days before Pennsylvania was eventually called for Biden, putting him over the top to clinch the presidency. And indeed, he ended up winning Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin by a combined margin of more than 250,000 votes, about three times Trump’s combined margin of about 78,000 votes when he carried the three states in 2016.
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Analysts at The New York Times used the same methods to predict that Biden was favoured to win Georgia even when he was behind by seven percentage points.
And in case in you were wondering, the reverse happened in states that processed mail-in votes before Election Day. Biden racked up leads in the hundreds of thousands in North Carolina and Ohio but ended up losing both convincingly.
Other battleground states
It is when considering the wider battleground states that Biden appears to be on shakier ground. The Cook Political Report shows Trump won about a million more votes in battleground states than Biden.
Although this number is padded by deep-red Texas’ inclusion as a battleground state, it nevertheless shows that Trump was competitive and counts had to be near completion in most of these battleground states before a winner could be projected.
Just another election or democracy at stake?
Biden rebuilt the blue wall, is the first Democrat to win Arizona and Georgia since 1996 and 1992 respectively, and is only the fourth challenger since World War II to defeat an incumbent president. He did this by garnering over 79 million votes (and should surpass 80 million when the count is completed), the most ever for a US presidential ticket.
The final result would have been seen as a handsome victory for Biden if
Vote counting didn’t take so long and the above were known on the night of Election Day, and
His opponent weren’t Donald Trump.
After all, Biden’s campaign cast this election as “a battle for the soul of America”. And if you agree with Trump’s harshest critics that he is an institution-destroying, wannabe dictator, then nothing short of an unprecedented repudiation would suffice, at least on the level that the French meted out to Marine Le Pen in 2017. Instead, Trump got the second highest number of votes for a presidential candidate, beaten only by Biden.
So by conventional measures, this was a decisive win for the incoming president Biden. But if you see Trump as the second coming of Hitler, then the search for America’s soul continues.
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