As of this writing, we don’t know who the president will be. That’s more or less what we’d been told would happen: The strange circumstances we live in (namely, the pandemic) were likely to cause more of an “election season” than an Election Day, featuring a huge number of votes by mail and an inordinate number of lawsuits. Delays would come partly because Republicans blocked every Democratic effort in swing states to count mailed-in ballots in advance to expedite the election results. But despite the many warnings we all issued one another over how long it might take to count every vote under these conditions, most people desperate for Trump to go still hoped that the night would deliver a quick and unambiguous answer. A lot of states that the Biden team were thinking of as toss-ups felt more like absolute must-wins for Biden supporters. The results needed to be definitive, and they needed to be a rebuke. If Biden had swept up Florida and Texas, say—unlikely, but indicative perhaps of a nationwide shift away from Trumpism—the election would be a wrap. We’d be done.
That’s not what’s happening. And regardless of what we learn Wednesday, or later this week, that’s a blow to the gut.
By now, it’s kind of a joke that despite the polls showing Biden ahead or Biden being almost ludicrously stable over time, Democrats refused to rely on them, anxiously telling one another not to believe them and to vote like never before. The trauma of 2016 ran deep, and Tuesday night, that instinct has proved correct. Trump voters have been no less motivated, and he’s been outperforming his polls with several demographics including Hispanics. This is not a repudiation. Not even close. We are not going to know enough tonight to get a result: North Carolina, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin are still counting. But we already know one thing: This isn’t a landslide, it’s a dogfight, and it’s going to be ugly. For all the talk about expanding the court with control of the Senate—which revealed an assumption that a revolution of sorts was coming, a “blue wave,” if you will—Democrats will be extremely lucky to win the presidency.
The fact is, if you’re anything like me, that quasi-superstitious rejection of the polls concealed a subconscious expectation that they were right at some level. Maybe you took them “seriously but not literally.” It was just hard to believe that poll after poll would show Biden healthily ahead and Trump behind in swing states over months (and in the middle of a pandemic!) and then turn out to be wrong. Even Fox News polls showed the large majority of American voters favoring progressive policies, including a path to citizenship, spending more on green energy, and even government-run health care. A better world seemed both possible and wanted, even if it would be a heavy lift. It looked like Donald Trump was going to finally, definitively, be shown the door. There was something enlivening about that. There would be a chance to grow meaningful change after four years trying to keep things from dying needlessly—institutions, principles, the thousand-plus people who died just today of COVID-19.
I no longer think that’s the message of this election. Joe Biden still may win the presidency, sure. But a bigger proportion of the country than we thought is fine with things as they are. And they want more of it.