In any normal year, Americans would have dealt with the stress and suspense of a presidential election for just one night. However, as the past eleven months have made abundantly clear, this is not a normal year.
In an era defined by uncertainty, who expected this election to be predictable? For months, pollsters attempted to make sense of the variables presented by the pandemic. Mail-in voting, provisional ballots, postmarking dates – though forecasts placed Vice President Joe Biden in a steady lead, the situation seemed ripe for a game-changer on Election Night. Would the presidency come down to the Supreme Court like in 2000, determined by the newly cemented conservative majority? Would the election be compromised by cyber-adversaries like Russia and Iran? Record-breaking numbers of Americans cast their votes in the weeks leading up to November 3 – but when the polls finally closed, many struggled to sit back and accept that the results were out of their control. A tsunami of anxiety flooded the nation as the numbers trickled in.
Democrats settled into their couches on Tuesday evening with a sense of cautious optimism. The polls showed their man cruising to victory in most battleground states. Yet, they had learned to be wary of overconfidence; inflated forecasts in favor of Hillary Clinton made Donald Trump’s win come as an earth-shattering surprise four years earlier. When early results showed Trump with swing states Florida and Ohio in the bag, many Democrats were sent scrambling with flashbacks to 2016. Was it all going wrong again? Trump had made crucial gains among Latino voters, a demographic which Biden had been accused of taking for granted in the past. Earlier polls had shown Biden ahead by several points in these states and others – so what happened?
As Americans drifted to sleep on Election Night – rather, sleep for an hour, wake up in a cold sweat, check the polls, doze off, rinse and repeat – election officials were feverishly counting ballots. Numerous court cases in certain states had complicated the counting process, with some having to wait to count early or mail-in votes and release the results after Election Day. That’s why on the evening of November 3, the numbers looked decent for Trump. He won Florida and Ohio, as aforementioned, and led in the ‘Blue Wall’ states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. However, on Wednesday, his leads started to diminish. Due to months of partisan rhetoric, there was a major split in how Americans voted – Republicans overwhelmingly voted on Election Day, and Democrats early or by mail. This was a crucial factor in the progression of the election through the days – initial counts on Tuesday night created a ‘red mirage,’ giving the illusion of a Trump lead, only for Biden to chip away with every batch of mail-in ballots released. Biden took the lead in the Midwestern states that sealed Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016, eventually winning Michigan and Wisconsin by a formidable margin. The Blue Wall was back. Pennsylvania, however, was a different story: Trump maintained his slim lead there for several days before mail-in ballots from Philadelphia swung the race the Vice President’s way. All the while, Biden held a steady lead in Nevada. Many were surprised when he pulled ahead in deep-red Arizona and Georgia, both of which hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate in almost thirty years. The race was starting to evolve in Joe Biden’s favor.
However, there were doubts as to the legitimacy of the ballot-counting procedures across the aisle. President Trump maintained that he was winning the election, even prematurely declaring victory early Wednesday morning. He alleged that there was widespread voter fraud aiding Biden’s leads in swing states, particularly concerning mail-in ballots. Since the beginning of the pandemic, Trump had repeatedly molded his messaging around mail-in voting being fraudulent, an unsubstantiated claim. Crowds of Trump’s supporters gathered outside election facilities in Phoenix and Detroit, demanding that officials either stop counting or continue counting, depending on the time and place. The President and his inner circle sued and demanded recounts in several states. Former New York mayor and counsel to the president Rudy Giuliani addressed reporters from the Four Seasons in Philadelphia (no, not that Four Seasons) and spearheaded Trump’s flailing legal efforts. Trump needed a miracle – rather, a series of coordinated miracles in several states – to invalidate counts and put a dent in Biden’s lead. According to a New York Times report at the end of the week, Twitter had censored or labeled 38% of Trump’s tweets since Election Day for misinformation. As his path to re-election narrowed and Biden’s lead grew, Trump fought the growing consensus against him – one hour before the election reached its conclusion, he tweeted “I won this election, by a lot!” in his signature all-caps style.
Americans were battered by broadcasters for four days, with pollsters presenting projections and panels of pundits pontificating around the clock. It took a mental toll on many; concerned voters were glued to their screens, anxious for analysis on that last batch of ballots. Some of these frustrated viewers found solace in the fatigued charisma of on-screen personalities like Steve Kornacki, who seemed to be running on fumes as he tore through counties and counts on a touch-screen map display. Together, yet so divided, the American people experienced an extraordinary few days. Some would call it collective trauma. Others call it democracy.
Around noon on Saturday, media outlets finally made the call: Joseph R. Biden Jr. would become the forty-sixth president of the United States of America with his victory in Pennsylvania. Donald Trump, remaining defiant, refused to concede the race. Biden addressed the nation from Delaware, painting a vision of bipartisan unity and extending an olive branch to his opponents: “For all those of you who voted for President Trump… let’s give each other a chance.” Thousands took to the streets in cities across America and the world in an impromptu celebration – an end to a long election week, and an even longer four years.
“Let this grim era of demonization begin to end, here and now,” proclaimed the President-elect. “I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide, but unify – who doesn’t see red states and blue states, only sees the United States.”
This election is historic in several ways. Joe Biden will be sworn in at the age of seventy-eight, the oldest president ever. The previous holder of the record was Ronald Reagan, who was around Biden’s age when he left office after two terms in 1989. Biden won the election on November 7, forty-eight years to the day since he began his career in the Senate. He will also be the fifteenth veep to serve as president, albeit the sixth to be elected rather than sworn in after death or resignation. Senator Kamala Harris will become the first woman to serve as Vice President – as well as the first person of African or Asian heritage and the first daughter of immigrants to hold the office. On the other hand, Donald Trump will become the first one-term president in almost three decades. He will join that club, encompassing presidents from John Adams to George H.W. Bush. In an extraordinary set of circumstances, Trump will leave office the only president to be impeached, lose the popular vote, and only serve one term. Joe Biden, however, attained the most votes of any candidate in the history of this country, beating his old boss’s record from 2008.
It was a bittersweet victory for the Democratic Party. President-elect Biden, with his third attempt, finally fulfilled the greatest aspiration of any politician in America. The Democrats have the opportunity to implement liberal policies for the first time in four years. However, this opportunity narrowed with Democrats’ underperformance down the ballot. This was clearly not the blowout rejection of the Republican Party that Democrats hoped for, rather a personal rejection of Donald Trump. Several Democrats lost their seats in the election, reducing their majority in the House of Representatives to a knife’s edge. In the upper chamber, they nearly lost sight of their dreams of a clean sweep. Democrats John Hickenlooper and Mark Kelly won their Senate races, flipping Republican seats, but Doug Jones lost in Alabama; the Democrats netted just one Senate seat when they needed three to reclaim a majority. In close, contentious races, candidates Sara Gideon, Theresa Greenfield, and Cal Cunningham lost their bids to unseat Republican incumbents. A more interesting development, however, came in Georgia, a state full of surprises. Both of Georgia’s seats were up for grabs this election. No candidate received 50% of the vote in either race; due to the state’s election laws, that meant there would be runoff elections held on January 5, 2021 between Georgia’s two Republican senators and their challengers, Jon Ossoff and Rev. Raphael Warnock. Democrats will need to win both races to total fifty Senate seats, a 50-50 split with Vice President Harris as a tie-breaker. Georgia will decide whether President Biden will have free reign over legislation or face deadlock for at least two years.
The Biden Administration’s future is not set in stone. Washington awaits Biden’s cabinet appointments – the names Susan Rice, Elizabeth Warren, and Pete Buttigieg have been thrown around – but a Republican Senate could impair his ability to nominate progressive or controversial secretaries. It could also throw a wrench in his plans to deliver on his campaign promises of expanding healthcare and fighting climate change, among other things. Democratic leader Senator Chuck Schumer described Biden’s plans for his first hundred days, including raising the minimum wage, forgiving student debt, and strengthening labor unions, an agenda which Schumer likened to that of Franklin Delano Roosevelt. However, a Mitch McConnell-led upper chamber could dampen those goals and force Biden to explore his options with executive orders. The Obama Administration was confronted with a Republican Senate, McConnell at helm, for most of its tenure. This limited Obama’s ambitions and forced him to compromise or risk stalemate. Joe Biden, however, is not Barack Obama. It will be intriguing to see how the President-elect’s approach to bipartisan negotiations will differ from his former employer, as Biden has worked on Capitol Hill for nearly half a century and developed long-standing relationships with many legislators of both parties – McConnell included. All eyes will be on the runoff races in Georgia in the coming months, which will determine the composition of the Senate, as Biden’s transition team moves him and his administration into the White House.
Meanwhile, President Trump hasn’t been so keen on packing his bags. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, when pressed on whether the White House will cooperate with the Biden team, alleged that there will be “a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” The president has yet to publicly acknowledge his defeat, and only a handful of Republicans have congratulated President-elect Biden on his apparent victory. Legally, a president does not need to concede for their successor to take office – it’s a traditional formality – but Trump is the first to repudiate the results of a presidential election outright. Two weeks after the election was called, the White House had taken no steps towards ensuring an orderly transition, echoing Trump’s past statements declining to commit to a peaceful transfer of power. It’s unclear whether President Trump will concede between now and Inauguration Day, and the lengths to which the Republican Party will back a lame duck president.
A new day is dawning in American politics, and the Silent Noise will never cease working to keep you in the know.