Nov 08, 2020 -5 days to Nov 03, 2020
The Surge

Slate’s guide to the 2020 races and politicians everyone’s talking about this week.

The Surge is not in good shape, folks. We have barely slept since Tuesday. Our body is composed entirely of melted cheese, gin, stale chips, and Advil. Our retinas burn from screen consumption. There’s a cat in our house. Is it ours? We think that Steve Kornacki is our father.

But: Joe Biden is president-elect of the United States. Kamala Harris is the first-ever female vice president–elect of the United States. And in a few months, Donald Trump will no longer be president of the United States.

In a few months, Donald Trump will no longer be president of the United States. That is the only real takeaway from this insane week that matters at the moment, to be honest. But in this special edition Surge, we’ll run through some others anyway. These takeaways are most certainly not all great for Democrats, who had a pretty crummy election night outside of the presidential race. But let’s start with what the Biden campaign got right.

Joe Biden.
Photo illustration by Slate. Photo by Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images.

Rank 1

1. Biden (re)built the wall

His campaign never took Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania for granted.

The story after Hillary Clinton’s loss in 2016 was that her campaign devoted too many resources into expansion and not enough into nailing down the “Blue Wall” of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, states Republicans hadn’t carried in decades. That left her susceptible to a Trump surge among white noncollege voters who are a disproportionate segment of those states. (The Clinton campaign would push back on some of the hyperbolic expressions that it “ignored” these states, and the campaign put more work into Pennsylvania than is popularly remembered.) There are some things that don’t impress the Surge about the Biden campaign. But the campaign never lost focus, even when polls were (it turns out erroneously) showing them well ahead in these states, that the straightest path to a majority was through Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. They kept the campaign visits and resources flowing there first. They ground it out, cutting Trump’s margins or adding to their own margins by a few percentage points here or there. The Biden campaign strategy was not the sexiest, and it didn’t produce the landslide repudiation of Trump that so many Democrats were hoping for. But their first priority was to rebuild the “Blue Wall,” and they did it.

Rank 2

2. Polls suck

Congrats to every pollster on your new F-minus rating.

After four years of reworking their models to correct a major polling error concentrated in the Midwest states, and to make sure they’re capturing Trump voters in that region, well, some news: Our gold-star pollsters ate it again! Relative to the FiveThirtyEight forecasts—and this isn’t really the forecasters’ issue, it’s that of the pollsters who input the data—the margin was well off in Michigan, Wisconsin, Iowa, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Florida. (Georgia pollsters did a good job!) Senate and House polling was a catastrophe. Maine Sen. Susan Collins, who never led a public poll all year, won comfortably, while House Republicans are poised to pick up about the same number of seats that House Democrats were projected to pick up. There was never any indication of this happening in district polling, generic congressional ballot polling, Republican polling, or Democratic polling. The polling industry cannot figure out how to account for Trump surge voters. If Trump runs again in 2024 (ha-ha, but also… why not?) and the Esteemed University Institute of Polling Sciences and Maths says, Hmm, yes, Wisconsin, Trump is down exactly 24 points, please know that it will be within a point either way.

Rank 3

3. A magical night for down-ballot Republicans

You can either laugh or cry.

Trump brought out a surge of the Republican base, who voted Republican up and down the ticket. Biden brought out a surge of anti-Trump voters—not just Democrats, but some Republicans and moderates who split their tickets between Biden and down-ballot Republicans. That’s a devilish combination for Republicans not named Trump: They used the president for surging base turnout and now don’t even have to deal with him anymore. Republicans kept their Senate losses down, picked up seats in the House, and held their dominating state legislative advantages heading into a redistricting cycle. We’ll wait until the Georgia runoffs in January to determine conclusively who’ll control the Senate. But even if Democrats could scrounge out 50-50 Senate control with a Kamala Harris tiebreaking vote, that tightness and the narrowed House majority would trim Democrats’ legislative ambitions. And looking ahead, Republicans will have an excellent chance of retaking the House in the midterms under fresh gerrymanders. So where are congressional Republicans right now? They’ve already used Trump to get tax cuts and a revamped federal judiciary, which will be able to stop much of what the Biden administration can get done. They’re in position to retake all of Congress in two years. They could have another trifecta in four. And now they won’t even have reporters bugging them about the president’s insane tweets all the time.

Rank 4

4. The narrowing racial gap

Will it continue?

We are hesitant to dig too far into exit polls, since—as you have read above, and know anyway, because you had a panic attack Tuesday night—polls suck. Eventually the exit polls will be reweighted to the results, and we’ll have clearer information, but at this point there’s enough evidence to bear out a narrative of this race: The racial gap narrowed, as Trump performed a little better with racial minorities, and Biden better than Clinton with white voters. We’re talking a handful of points in each direction, and since white voters are a bigger slice of the electorate, the narrowing netted to Biden’s favor. The trends were also localized, as, for example, Hispanic voters in South Texas and Florida moved sharply in Trump’s favor, while those in Arizona put Biden on the cusp of victory. What we’ll be looking for going forward is if this narrowing holds: Was there something unique to Trump that nudged Black and Hispanic men, in particular, in his direction, or are the niche curiosities of white liberals that drive so much of the elite Democratic conversation pushing them away? Are the college-educated, largely suburban voters whom Democrats picked up over the last two election cycles part of the coalition for good, or were Democrats just renting them for the Trump era? We’ll let you know!

Rank 5

5. Thank you, Milwaukee

Where were YOU the moment election night turned?

Let’s recap the thrill that was Tuesday night! For the Surge, there were three defining moments over the course of the long evening. The first, which now comes right on cue each cycle, was when quick-reporting Florida made everyone lose their minds. Miami-Dade County’s release of early votes showed a Biden 20-point underperformance in the state’s most populous county. Even though the Surge specifically warned against letting Florida play mind games on you, the human brain is only so strong against Florida’s tricks. If you wanted Biden to win, this singular moment set a dour tone for hours, and underperformances in Texas and Ohio didn’t help. The mood began to turn later in the night when Fox News and the Associated Press called Arizona for Biden, even though they probably shouldn’t have. What the dweebiest and most restless of us will remember, though, came deep into the night. Most of Wisconsin, a must-win, had been counted, and Biden was down around 100,000 votes. The only thing to wait on was a big drop of votes for Milwaukee that might not be enough—and it just was. From then on, the Surge felt pretty confident that Biden would win, knowing that Michigan would likely run a couple of points in Biden’s favor ahead of Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania would fall somewhere in the middle. Of course, there was plenty of reserve anxiety to fuel us through the next few days of counting, too. But after the Milwaukee vote drop, the outcome of the race was never really in doubt.

Rank 6

6. The “virtual campaign” debate

How many opportunities did Democrats miss?

It didn’t take long for Democrats’ down-ballot underperformances to unleash long-standing tensions within the party about in-person campaigning. In short: The Biden campaign’s message that the Trump administration didn’t take the coronavirus seriously necessitated changes to its own strategy that some state and local Democratic parties and organizations felt were too harsh. National Democrats banned in-person, door-to-door voter outreach and argued that their “virtual” canvassing efforts were sufficient. The Biden campaign eventually loosened the policy in October. But how much of an advantage had they already given the Trump campaign, which never gave a shit about COVID? Republicans outpaced Democrats in new voter registrations in numerous swing states, for one thing. And Democrats’ disastrous performance among Latino voters in South Florida and South Texas, especially, might have been directly hampered by that lack of in-person persuasion. “It’s very hard to do effective campaigning with Latinos unless you’re talking to them in person,” Texas Democratic Party chair Gilberto Hinojosa told the HuffPost after the election. “We didn’t do this. Nobody did this.” The intense postmortem debate among Democrats is not just because officials are getting things off their chest. There will be two January special elections in Georgia to determine control of the Senate, and a quick readjustment is necessary. “We’re going to have to sit down and take a serious look at how to run these senatorial campaigns in Georgia,’’ House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn told USA Today after the election. “We’re not going to win these campaigns if we run those the way we ran Biden’s campaign.”

Rank 7

7. Decency won

Really though, that was the margin.

We know, what a cheeseball phrase. But we mean that it quite literally decided the race! Republicans did well across the country on Tuesday. Trumpism isn’t as unpopular as Democrats had hoped. But most presidents get reelected, and most in-parties have good down-ballot performances when their president gets reelected. Why Donald Trump lost, when the rest of his party did well, is because he is an all-time, world-class, singular asshole. He has used the power of the United States presidency as a means of ensuring you cannot go an hour without being reminded that he is an asshole, because being an asshole is the most efficient way to get attention. Joe Biden was a strong match against Donald Trump because, whatever you think of his policy views, he is straightforwardly not an asshole. People like him. COVID, the economy, policing, immigration, Ukraine, impeachment, fracking, Hunter’s laptop—put these things aside. Joe Biden matched up well against Trump in 2015 when he decided against running, he matched up well against Trump during the primaries, and he matched up well against Trump during the pandemic. The choice was between a person known for being decent and a person known for being an asshole. The majority spoke.