The country may be divided, but this month’s presidential election saw the highest turnout of any in the past century. The five panelists on a Tuesday roundtable, “Implications of the 2020 Election,” had different takes on the results, but they all found a favorable sign in the newly energized electorate.
Co-sponsored by the Harvard Alumni Association and the Office of the Vice Provost for Advances in Learning, the virtual panel brought together six of Harvard’s faculty political experts, including Professor of Government Jeffrey Frieden, who served as moderator.
“We’ve had the whole electorate in the conversation for the first time. That’s historically monumental,” said Danielle Allen, director of Harvard’s Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics, who cited increased turnout by people of color, Native Americans, Asian Americans, young people, and those without college degrees. “From a civic education point of view, that is a transformative moment.”
She said that certain ballot propositions, including the legalization of marijuana in 11 states, indicate that voters are more unified than they may seem and suggested that ranked-choice voting (which failed in Massachusetts) might yield less divisive candidates. “But the irony there is that ranked-choice voting is something on which the American people are themselves divided,” she said.
Stephen Ansolabehere, Frank G. Thompson Professor of Government and Director of the Center for American Political Studies, similarly suggested the idea that Americans had become more polarized since 2016 had been overstated. He shared a county-by-county graph showing that levels of Democratic and Republican support have been “stunningly stable” since the last election — with one notable outlier in Florida’s Dade County swinging Republican. And he speculated that Trump may well have won re-election if it weren’t for the pandemic. “This election was about COVID, and the effect it had on the economy and society. People started to see the administration differently.”
A more lasting change, he said, will likely be the popularity of advance voting. “Twenty-twenty witnessed the end of Election Day. The people who get into the exit polls are the unusual voters, they aren’t representative anymore.”
Professor of Government Ryan Enos argued that “hand-wringing” over the Democrats’ performance in 2020 is unnecessary, given Biden’s vote margin — the highest against an incumbent since 1932 — and the fact that Democrats have won the popular vote in seven of the last eight contests. “If you look at American history, that’s a streak of electoral strength that’s unrivaled,” he said.
Still, he noted that major changes emerged in two demographic groups: suburbanites and Latinos. The former shifted significantly Democratic this year, the latter Republican. It’s possible, he said, that both were simply responding to Trump’s personality. But it’s also possible that the two parties are now changing their traditional places, with Republicans becoming the party of the working class and Democrats of the professional class. “If this is the future, we can imagine the suburbanites remaining in the Democratic fold, where their wealth and education makes them part of the coalition.”
The 2020 election was partly a reaction to the previous one, said Roger Porter, IBM Professor of Business and Government. “We essentially replaced someone who had no experience in government with someone who had extensive experience. At the same time, we continued the pattern of divided government that we have now moved into.” Biden’s level of experience, Porter suggested, will likely help in the two biggest challenges he faces, negotiating with the Senate and managing the pandemic.