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Take The Oath with General Flynn.
Freedom isn’t free. It’s always only one generation away from being lost. Evil can only prevail when good men do nothing. The world is going through historic changes.
Most political obsessives trying to guess who President-elect Joe Biden might pick to be in his Cabinet are focused on the flashy positions: secretary of state, secretary of defense, attorney general. Then there are us nerds, who are keen to find out who will be the new chair of the Federal Communications Commission.
President Trump loves to talk and tweet about his feelings on tech, though his agenda wasn’t exactly clear and consistent. But tech policy is increasingly important in our everyday lives, especially as the pandemic has made us rely more heavily on our devices and internet connections.
Biden will have to navigate Trump’s legacy while charting his own course. Here’s how Trump has influenced five key tech policy areas and what Biden might do about them.
One of Trump’s first acts as president was to appoint Ajit Pai chair of the FCC, and less than a year later, Pai completed a goal he had long pursued: repealing the commission’s net neutrality protections. These rules were enacted by the FCC during Barack Obama’s presidency and dictated that internet service providers treat all types of communications equally, prohibiting them from blocking or throttling some services while prioritizing others. But now telecom companies can do what they like.
Since the net neutrality rules were repealed, providers have taken a number of steps that would have violated the old rules. AT&T, for example, doesn’t count streaming HBO Max toward its customers’ data limits — AT&T owns the streaming platform after its merger with Time Warner — but it does count other, competing streaming services that eat up data.
[Related: What We’ve Learned About The Biden Administration From His Staffing Choices So Far]
“That’s clear self-preferencing,” said Chris Lewis, the president of the consumer advocacy group Public Knowledge and a net neutrality proponent. “This is problematic, and it’s one of the reasons we wanted to have net neutrality rules.”
Pai has announced he’s stepping down in January, just in time for Biden to appoint a new chair. Depending who he picks and what kind of guidance comes out of the White House, it’s possible for a new Democrat-majority FCC to resurrect net neutrality. Biden has tapped Mignon Clyburn, a former FCC commissioner and a net neutrality advocate, for his transition team, and her name has been tossed around as a potential FCC chair as well.
But Biden might be better off trying a new approach, rather than simply resurrecting the old, rejected rules, according to Jesse Blumenthal, who leads tech and innovation policy for Stand Together, a group funded by the libertarian Koch family.
“If you appoint a really activist FCC chair, they will immediately start the regulatory rulemaking process, and then the second the rule is passed, they’ll get sued,” Blumenthal said, which could lead to the rules getting thrown out again. “If you actually care about the underlying policy here, you would be going to Congress and updating the Telecom Act instead of this pingpong.”
Trump’s interest in tech antitrust rules — legislation that could keep big tech from becoming too big — has been scattershot, but Democrats and Republicans have both expressed concern about the concentration of power in a few tech companies. In October, after a 16-month investigation, the House released a Democrat-led report on monopolies in tech that said digital powerhouses like Google, Facebook and Amazon wielded too much power and needed to be restructured. A few weeks later, the Department of Justice and 11 Republican state attorneys general filed an antitrust lawsuit against Google, claiming the search engine company used anticompetitive practices. And the Federal Trade Commission is currently preparing a possible antitrust suit against Facebook.
Biden has expressed an interest in dealing with big tech, but hasn’t specified exactly what that will look like. Instead, he and his campaign have made broad statements about how big tech companies have “abused their power” and “evaded any form of responsibility,” as campaign spokesperson Matt Hill told The New York Times. “That ends with a President Biden,” he said.
[Related: How Trump Changed America]
But exactly how the crackdown will occur and what form it will take depends on the resolution of a philosophical divide among Democrats, according to Derek Bambauer, an internet law professor at the University of Arizona.
“The conventional wing is one where antitrust is a blunt instrument to be used only as a matter of last resort, and where you really need a strong, empirical showing of consumer harm,” Bambauer said. “The other wing is what I call ‘hipster antitrust.’” To that group, he said, big is bad, regardless of what big does.
If Biden leans toward the former camp, action against big tech would likely take the form of investigations and more scrutiny of certain acquisitions, Bambauer said, while if he holds the more progressive view, he’d probably push for much more aggressive government intervention and the introduction of new regulations to limit big tech’s power.
Trump has cast suspicion on Chinese technology companies, in particular the threat they might pose to American users’ privacy.
Trump’s recent attacks on the popular video app TikTok, which is owned by a Chinese company, were most notable. They included a threat to ban the app in the U.S. if the company didn’t sell off its American assets to another company, citing concerns about the app leaking private data to the Chinese government. Yet strangely, when the deadline for the TikTok sale came around, Trump was no longer pursuing it.
But this was only the latest example of Trump’s ongoing tech war with China. Throughout his tenure, he has tried to limit U.S. spending on Chinese technology, including by banning domestic telecom companies from using equipment from Huawei and ZTE, two massive Chinese telecommunications firms, and by signing a law providing $1 billion for companies to replace their existing Chinese-manufactured equipment. He has also banned U.S. investment in companies that are owned or controlled by Chinese military, and he moved to block the connection of a high-capacity U.S.-China undersea internet cable.
“I think this was a proxy for larger international political issues the Trump administration has with China and an opportunity for the Trump administration to flex,” said Christopher Ali, a media studies professor at the University of Virginia. “But these are serious and important questions regarding the ownership of apps and communication platforms. Is this a conversation we need to have? Perhaps. But this can’t be a conversation only about TikTok.”
Threatening to ban an app whose main function is to document teens performing choreographed dance routines may seem frivolous, but many people, including Biden, share the overarching concerns about China and tech users’ privacy. But Biden’s approach will likely be different than Trump’s, focusing on strengthening domestic tech industries while building a diplomatic consensus with allies in Europe to help limit China’s influence.
I am not the only one who’s been pulling my hair out over the attention Section 230 has attracted from politicians in recent years, since they so often seem to have no idea what it is. It’s best to read the law yourself, but in short, Section 230 is a few lines in the Communications Decency Act that prevent website owners from being held responsible for what other people post on their sites. As Bambauer put it, it’s the reason that if someone says something defamatory about him on Twitter, “I can sue that person, but I can’t sue Twitter.”
Section 230 is a funky little rule that encourages sites to both moderate what is posted and avoid being overly censorious. Before the law was passed, courts had found sites that did some moderation liable for the third-party content they chose to leave up. Since Section 230 protects sites from this liability, they’re free to moderate without worrying about what they let stand. But it also protects users from overmoderation for the same reason: If a website were liable for the posts of its users, it stands to reason that the site might be a lot more strict about what content it allows.
Trump has claimed the law enables tech companies to censor conservative voices online and has sought to repeal Section 230 in various ways. In the spring, for example, he signed an executive order that weakened the law, while Republicans have introduced legislation to repeal or rework it. On Thanksgiving, Trump tweeted that Section 230 should be “immediately terminated,” and a defense spending bill reportedly might be used as a vehicle for passing language to repeal Section 230.
[Related: There Wasn’t That Much Split-Ticket Voting In 2020]
Biden too has called for a repeal of Section 230. His complaint is not that companies do too much moderation, though, but that they don’t do enough, citing social media’s limited response to disinformation as the main problem. But according to Lewis, “A full repeal of Section 230 would be a huge blow to free expression online. If President-elect Biden’s goal is to increase moderation, then repealing Section 230 will not accomplish that or, at worst, it will increase moderation to the point that it is oppressive.”
Lewis said Section 230 could be reformed without harming free expression, such as by more clearly defining some of the law’s vague or ambiguous language, but without any actual details or plans from the Biden transition team, it’s hard to say if that’s what is being pursued.
“It is the foundational law enabling the development of the internet and it’s facilitated decades of economic growth, innovation, freedom of expression and global leadership,” said Tiffany Moore, the senior vice president of political and industry affairs for the Consumer Technology Association. “Both sides have their concerns about Section 230, but we need a thoughtful, substantive conversation about Section 230, and ultimately that resides in Congress.”
This year’s pandemic threw the country’s digital divide into sharp relief. With so many people staying home and relying on the internet to work, attend school, visit with their doctor, order food and stay in contact with loved ones, it became obvious how vital internet access is.
Yet millions of Americans lack access to the internet, or at least lack access to high-speed internet. The FCC estimates 21 million Americans can’t get broadband internet where they live, but these figures are based on self-reported numbers from ISPs, and the agency itself has deemed them inaccurate enough to hold off on doling out funding until the figures can be verified.
Trump’s FCC has made efforts to close the digital divide — such as through the Connect America Fund, which was started during the Obama era and provides subsidies to companies willing to build internet infrastructure in underserved areas. But advocates working to reduce the digital divide say the FCC hasn’t made much progress under Trump.
“The requirements placed upon big telco to do these connections were so subpar that really it allowed them to do what they were going to do anyway and pocket all these billions of dollars,” Ali said.
Trump’s administration has also been quiet on the other barrier in the digital divide: cost. Many Americans who live in areas with access to high speed internet can’t afford it.
A goal to “expand broadband access to every American” was included in Biden’s campaign platform, though exactly what the plan is has yet to be revealed. But continuing to stay the course is unlikely to solve the problem, according to Lewis, and the pandemic has made it harder to ignore.
“Urban, rural people are being left out from connectivity to broadband, and it is essential for their lives,” Lewis said. “We can’t just throw money at the problem. There needs to be oversight, authority and an agency to deal with the causes of digital divide that don’t have to do with money.”
Donald Trump is officially a one-term president, the first to fail a reelection bid in nearly 30 years. But history shows his loss isn’t surprising, given the circumstances.
One-term presidents used to be a lot more common. Take the period between 1837 (when Andrew Jackson’s second term ended) and 1860, for example — no president served more than one term. And between 1900 and 1932, we had seven presidents, only one of whom served two full terms. (Some died in office, some lost reelection, and some chose not to run for another term.) But in the modern era, presidents have increasingly left office because term limits prevent them from staying, not because the voters have turned them out.
One of the major questions about one-term presidents is whether their fates are shaped mainly by their actions and political failings, or primarily by conditions beyond their control. This is, of course, a tricky question to answer, as there are some traits one-term presidents seem to share — a bad economy, poor leadership — but it’s hard to know how much any of those factors are actually within their control.
[The Birther Myth Stuck Around For Years. The Election Fraud Myth Might Too.]
Let’s start with the biggest factor that ties one-term presidents together: a major economic downturn. Herbert Hoover, who was president at the start of the Great Depression, is perhaps the most extreme example. It’s estimated that unemployment during the Great Depression was around 20 percent or more, and thousands of banks failed. And although Hoover did take measures to address the crisis, his view that voluntary programs were preferable to direct government involvement in stabilizing the economy ultimately cost him. More recent presidents like Jimmy Carter, who was in office during a less severe but still serious economic recession, also paid for it at the ballot box. Similarly, the same inflation problems that plagued Carter had previously dragged down Gerald Ford, who had lost to Carter four years earlier. And the rising unemployment in 1992 quickly eroded support for George H.W. Bush in that year’s election, even after he had been quite popular throughout his presidency.
The importance of the economy to a president’s reelection bid also hinges on timing. When a crisis or a recession hits in a reelection year, that tends to spell trouble. In contrast, Ronald Reagan and Dwight Eisenhower both weathered recessions during their time in office, but those downturns hit a few years before they faced reelection.
So while the coronavirus pandemic was (and is) an extraordinary event, the economic crisis it produced actually falls somewhat in line with the situations faced by other one-term presidents. It’s true that many voters still had a positive opinion of Trump’s handling of the economy even amid this year’s massive layoffs, but public opinion data also suggested that voters were particularly worried about the pandemic. Furthemore, they generally thought Trump had done a poor job of handling it, making it difficult to untangle the public health crisis from the economic downturn it caused.
There’s also the question of how a president leads in a moment of crisis, which has been the downfall of many a one-term president. For example, to cite Hoover again, popular memory is especially unforgiving of his handling of the Great Depression. At the time, his name was attached to camps built by unemployed Americans as shelter when they lost their homes, and a “Hoover flag” referred to an empty pocket turned inside out. Of course, Hoover is an extreme example, but other one-term presidents have experienced a similar fate, earning reputations for being hapless and bumbling in the face of serious challenges. This has certainly been the case with Trump, who is thought to have mismanaged the pandemic and, by downplaying the severity of the disease, worsened the partisan divides on how to best combat it.
What’s hard, though, in analyzing one-term presidents is knowing just how much any of this is actually within their control. We know that presidents are not infinitely powerful, especially when it comes to engineering major legislation to address complicated economic problems. Take Carter. Economists at the time thought government spending needed to be curtailed to stop inflation, which meant making major cuts to government programs, but this was politically impossible for Carter, as Congress would have resisted and he would have lost support among New Deal Democrats, which were still an important part of the party’s coalition.
Political scientist Stephen Skowronek refers to this quandary, which presidents periodically find themselves in, as the “politics of disjunction” — circumstances in which a party coalition (in Carter’s case, New Deal Democrats) has dominated politics for decades, and politicians elected by that coalition feel beholden to the ideas and policies that got them into office, but those ideas are no longer a good match for addressing the problems facing the country.
Presidents in these situations often try to fix the crises that arise on their watch, but they face serious political limitations in doing so. Hoover falls into this category as well. He did engage in some policy experimentation, including the creation of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation, which sought to provide some public support to banks and railroads. But like Carter, Hoover was caught between pushing the boundaries of what was politically feasible at the time, especially within his own party, and the reality that much greater change was needed to address the economic crisis.
How does this apply to Trump? In one way, we can sort of see how the problems of political feasibility have shaped the stimulus negotiations. It would have been almost impossible to get congressional Republicans to agree to a big relief bill regardless of who was president. But it’s also hard to say that the White House took the pandemic seriously and was then thwarted by politics in Congress or anywhere else. Instead, Trump publicly battled with Democratic governors over whether to reopen some types of businesses, urged the public not to let the virus control their lives (after being diagnosed with it himself), and denied the seriousness of the situation at almost every stage.
[Could Social Alienation Among Some Trump Supporters Help Explain Why Polls Underestimated Trump Again?]
This isn’t a typical story, even for presidents who mishandled the crises they faced and subsequently lost reelection, which makes it especially hard to answer the question of how much of Trump’s failure to be reelected was Trump’s own fault and how much was due to factors beyond his control.
What is interesting here, though, is that in spite of these conditions, Trump was a competitive incumbent. Both parties benefited from record turnout, and, in the end, he will probably have won about 47 percent of the popular vote, compared to more like 40 percent for Hoover, Carter, and Bush. Despite Trump’s low approval ratings, he didn’t face a serious primary challenger either — which also makes his experience different from that of Ford, Carter and Bush.
This last point might give us a clue as to why it’s been so long since a president lost reelection. We’ve become more polarized as a county, and as a result, the parties have become more ideologically uniform, making the factional politics that drive primary challengers less likely. Negative partisanship has also raised the stakes, crowding out the possibilities for a centrist independent candidacy to divide a party. In fact, the consolidation of party support around presidential candidates has arguably even helped incumbents like George W. Bush and Barack Obama win reelection.
Ultimately, Trump’s presidency faced some of the same problems that have brought down other administrations: economic woes and political dissatisfaction with poor leadership. But he also brought his own political baggage. And while it might be difficult to disentangle the two, even in today’s highly polarized environment, that combination didn’t bode well for his reelection chances.
Last week, President-elect Joe Biden selected many of his top White House aides. This week, he’s announced some top Cabinet and national security posts. There are many, many jobs left to fill — most notably defense secretary and attorney general — but here’s what we’re learning so far about Biden, the Biden administration and how he’ll govern …
As expected, Biden is appointing very traditional people, in the mode of most other presidents — except for Biden’s immediate predecessor, of course. President Trump initially picked a chief of staff (Reince Priebus) and secretary of state (Rex Tillerson) with no prior experience in the federal government and two top White House advisers (Steve Bannon, Stephen Miller) whose views were fairly outside of the elite GOP mainstream. It is unlikely that a President Jeb Bush or Marco Rubio would have named any of those four to those posts.
[Related: The Cabinet Appointments That Really Matter In The Incoming Biden Administration]
In contrast, Biden’s staff is heavy on people who have held similar jobs in the past and were in line for senior posts if Hillary Clinton had won in 2016. Biden’s pick for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, for example, was deputy secretary of state under President Barack Obama. Avril Haines, who will be Biden’s director of national intelligence, was the deputy director of the CIA and then deputy national security adviser under Obama. Nearly every person Biden has named to a very senior role was in a top post in the Obama administration. That doesn’t necessarily mean that Biden will wind up carrying out what amounts to Obama’s third term (although that might end up being true). Rather, Biden is naming the most traditionally qualified people for these jobs, as previous presidents have done. President George W. Bush’s first defense secretary (Donald Rumsfeld) and secretary of state (Colin Powell) had held top jobs in previous GOP administrations. Obama’s first chief of staff (Rahm Emanuel) had been a top aide to President Bill Clinton, and Obama’s first attorney general (Eric Holder) had been deputy attorney general in the Clinton administration.
The Atlantic’s Graeme Wood captured the ethos of Biden’s selections nicely, referring to Blinken and Jake Sullivan, who has been designated to be national security adviser, as “boring picks who, if you shook them awake and appointed them in the middle of the night at any time in the last decade, could have reported to their new jobs and started work competently by dawn.”
Biden ran to the right of more liberal figures, such as Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, during the Democratic primary. But he has generally tried to court his party’s left wing — more so than House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other senior Democrats, at least. So Biden’s picks, particularly Ron Klain (chief of staff) and Janet Yellen (treasury secretary) are people who are well-liked by the party’s more liberal wing.
[What We Know About How White and Latino Americans Voted In 2020]
Don’t get me wrong: Biden is putting together a center-left administration, picking establishment figures who would be unlikely to get the same roles in a Sanders or Warren administration. And Biden might still choose people for top jobs who more liberal Democrats really hate, most notably Emanuel and former Bill Clinton domestic policy adviser Bruce Reed. But Biden seems to be trying to find people who are in the midpoint of the Democratic Party, a smart instinct in a party that is fairly fractured at its elite levels (the Squad vs. the moderates in the House, for example).
Biden might need some GOP votes to get his Cabinet picks confirmed in the U.S. Senate, so he’s trying not to antagonize Republicans too much either. Susan Rice, who served as the national security adviser for Obama, was rumored to be under consideration to run the State Department. But some Senate Republicans were already signaling opposition to her, so Blinken was a safer choice. Democrats would control the Senate if they win both of the Georgia runoffs on Jan 5, but there is a decent chance Democrats won’t win both (or either) of those races. So Biden seems to be keeping that possibility in mind — none of his selections are anyone Senate Republicans are known to strongly oppose. (So Republicans’ potential role in the confirmation process may be pushing Biden’s choices right, even as his Democratic Party’s progressive wing pushes him left.)
The former vice president said he would pick a diverse Cabinet during the campaign and is following through: Alejandro Mayorkas, a Cuban American, would be the first Latino person to serve as Homeland Security secretary; Yellen would be the first woman to serve as treasury secretary. Indeed, there are a lot of women in key posts — from White House counsel (Dana Remus) to intelligence director (Haines). Also remember that Vice President-elect Kamala Harris will be the first woman, first Black American and first person of South Asian descent to hold that job.
In certain top-level jobs, you are basically guaranteed to speak to the president regularly (chief of staff, counselor to the president) or have a lot of decision-making power yourself, whether or not the president speaks to you regularly (national security adviser, secretary of state). The Biden administration, at least based on the picks so far, will look diverse but may not have much ideological or racial diversity in its top-level decision-making.
Women, as I noted earlier, will almost certainly be in top decision-making roles. But the women chosen so far generally share Biden’s more centrist politics. There isn’t an obvious Squad/Warren/Sanders liberal in any top job so far. And while Biden’s picks overall are racially diverse, it’s easy to imagine that many key decisions will be made by a mostly white group.
Again, that could change and is based only on his hires so far. Biden is far from filling out his team. So Biden might choose more liberal figures for domestic and economic policy posts, and he could name people of color to powerful posts like attorney general or defense secretary.
Overall, Biden looks like he’s trying to fulfill his unstated-but-obvious goal of making the U.S. government boring again. And his picks so far are indeed boringly normal.
In terms of respecting democratic norms and values, that will likely be a very good thing. But the nature of the issues Biden will face as president might not allow him to have a boring presidency.
Biden is a centrist, establishment figure. He’s long been a presence in Washington. And he’s surrounding himself with similar people, many of whom have long histories with Biden himself. The advantage of such people is that they understand how the government works. The disadvantage is that Biden’s team may not be especially well-equipped to deal with new problems the nation faces, in particular the coronavirus outbreak, the increasingly anti-democratic tendencies of the Republican Party, a country growing more aware of its enduring racial divides and other issues that were not as pressing as in 2009 or 1993.
So Biden is creating a normal team — but the big question is whether normal will work in these very abnormal times.
Donald Trump was once again underestimated by the polls.
On the one hand, this polling error is fairly normal. We’re not talking about huge polling misses, and the polls still “called” the election correctly: Joe Biden won. But that said, it does seem as if polls are still failing to capture some of Trump’s support.
There are a number of possible explanations for this, and no definitive answers, but one thing I’ve come across in my public opinion research is that the share of Americans who are more socially disconnected from society is on the rise. And these voters disproportionately support Trump.
The idea that some of Trump’s supporters are more likely to be disconnected from civic life is hardly a new one. During the 2016 Republican primary, Yoni Appelbaum at The Atlantic noted that Trump was drawing support disproportionately from those who said they were civically disengaged. An analysis by Emily Ekins of the conservative-leaning Cato Institute found that despite Trump’s continued strong support among white evangelical Protestants, he was actually viewed more positively by supporters who weren’t involved in regular religious practice. Finally, research on the 2016 election by David Shor, a Democratic pollster, echoed what we found in our own pre-election 2020 survey: There was a large swing to Trump among white voters who had low levels of social trust — a group that researchers have found is also less likely to participate in telephone surveys.
In our pre-election survey on the strength of Americans’ social networks, we found that nearly one in five Americans (17 percent) reported having no one they were close with, marking a 9 percentage point increase from 2013.1 What’s more, we found that these socially disconnected voters were far more likely to view Trump positively and support his reelection than those with more robust personal networks. Biden was heavily favored by registered voters with larger social networks (53 percent to 37 percent), but it was Trump who had the edge among voters without any close social contacts (45 percent to 39 percent).
And this was especially true among white voters even after accounting for differences in income, education level, and racial attitudes. Sixty percent of white voters without anyone in their immediate social network favored Trump, compared to less than half (46 percent) of white voters with more robust social ties.
Of course, the fact that Trump had considerable appeal among those who report feeling socially disconnected is not conclusive proof that these folks were missed in the polls. In fact, it is really hard to capture these people in the first place: Many who fall into this group, for instance, wouldn’t answer a survey.
However, there is good reason to believe that the polls might be missing some of these people who don’t have strong social ties. Social isolation, or the lack of social integration, has long been thought to reduce willingness to participate in surveys. Americans who feel alienated or isolated from society do not feel compelled to participate in surveys out of a sense of civic obligation.
Researchers at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and Hiroshima University have shown that Americans with weaker social connections are less inclined to cooperate with survey requests and that some survey estimates may be “systematically biased due to nonparticipation from socially isolated people.” Our survey was not suited to uncover the reasons for why people didn’t participate, but we did find that those with smaller social networks are far less politically engaged. For example, Americans with at least four social ties are three times more likely than those with none to have contacted an elected official in the last 12 months.
However, there may not be an easy solution to this problem. Providing financial incentives to bolster cooperation might help, as would increasing the duration of the survey field period. These are standard practices in survey research to increase representation among difficult to reach groups. But it’s not clear at this point whether incentivizing respondents or lengthening the interviewing period would increase participation rates among Americans who are socially isolated. A 2000 study found that increasing an interview period from five days to eight weeks made little difference in the final results — although perceptions of the Republican Party were more positive in the survey that included the longer interviewing schedule.
The consequences of this, of course, extend much further than our elections. When Americans are more distanced from society, they become untethered to local and national institutions andare less invested in their continuing function. What’s more, they are more inclined to distrust political processes and believe they are serving illegitimate ends. And they may lose faith in the messy and plodding process of democratic change.
A lot of time will be spent over the next few years trying to explain the country’s growing social, economic and political problems, but we should not forget that political reforms and economic fixes are not going to address more fundamental problems of loneliness and social isolation in this country. And that may mean we increasingly have less insight into how a growing portion of the country feels.
A significant number of Americans currently believe the 2020 election was stolen, even though it wasn’t. A Reuters/Ipsos poll last week showed 52 percent of Republicans believe President Donald Trump “rightfully won” the election. But the only “evidence” of election fraud has been widely debunked.
An optimist might think the public will gradually drop this election fraud myth as the Trump campaign’s lawsuits are thrown out, recounts and audits are conducted, and, eventually, Joe Biden is sworn in as president. But we’ve seen President Trump try to falsely claim a president is illegitimate before, when he spent years claiming without evidence that President Obama wasn’t born in the United States, and thus ineligible to be president. If this recent saga is anything like the birtherism movement, it’s not going anywhere.
“If you’re asking if this is going to go away, I would bet a lot of money that it won’t,” said Adam Berinsky, a political scientist at MIT who is working on a book about political conspiracy theories.
Birtherism first emerged in 2008 during Obama’s primary campaign through the now very quaint medium of chain emails. After securing the nomination, Obama’s campaign published a copy of his certification of live birth in Hawaii. Many assumed this would put an end to the myth that he wasn’t born in America. President Trump was one of the main people who ensured it did not.
[Related: How Trump Changed America]
In 2011, Trump began aggressively beating the birtherism drum, including some comments he made at the Conservative Political Action Conference in February. Over the next five years, in media appearances, speeches, and on Twitter, Trump repeatedly made false claims that Obama was not born in America. This continued even after Obama released his long-form birth certificate in April 2011, a piece of evidence Trump had demanded.
It wasn’t until Trump’s own campaign for president in 2016 — when his birtherism was thought to be one of the reasons he wasn’t polling well among Black Americans — that Trump admitted the obvious truth: Obama was born in the United States. But that admission was brief (the statement lasted less than a minute) and included Trump blaming Hillary Clinton for originating the myth, which isn’t true.1
When the birther myth first emerged, there wasn’t much in the way of public opinion polling about it. It wasn’t until Trump revived the conspiracy theory in 2011 that pollsters started to track how much of the public believed it. And over the years, even as more evidence emerged — such as the long form birth certificate and contemporaneous newspaper announcements — proving Obama was born in the United States, the belief has persisted. As recently as last year, a YouGov poll found that 34 percent of Americans think it’s “probably true” or “definitely true” that Obama was born in Kenya, as the birther myth often claimed. Among Republicans, that number was 56 percent.
“There were these temporary dips in birther beliefs when major events happened and news coverage was reminding people of that evidence,” said Brendan Nyhan, a professor in the Department of Government at Dartmouth College. “But birther misperceptions typically reverted back to their prior levels after that information shock had dissipated.”
Share of respondents who say they believe Obama was born in the United States, or believe he was not born in the United States, 2009-2017
Many Americans were wrongly skeptical after Obama was sworn in.datepollsterBorn in U.S.Not Born in U.S.8/17/09PPP62%25%9/21/09PPP59234/12/10CBS/NYT58204/25/10ABC77206/3/10CBS News63137/21/10CNN/ORC712711/15/10Knowledge Networks55153/13/11CNN/ORC72254/5/11Fox News67244/10/11Pew55234/20/11CBS/NYT57254/23/11Gallup57244/26/11YouGov5515Releasing Obama’s longform birth certificate on April 27, 2011 didn’t have a lasting effect.datepollsterBorn in U.S.Not Born in U.S.5/1/11CNN/ORC80%17%5/1/11The Washington Post86105/3/11YouGov67135/8/11Gallup65131/31/12YouGov59177/2/12YouGov55209/11/12AP/GfK49399/17/12YouGov59219/8/15CNN/ORC75131/17/16Morning Consult48345/9/16PPP5730Nor did Trump admitting Obama was born in the U.S. on Sep. 16, 2016.datepollsterBorn in U.S.Not Born in U.S.9/19/16YouGov61%22%9/24/16Selzer75113/5/17Morning Consult5726Numbers do not add up to one hundred percent because respondents indicated they were undecided on the matter.
In April 2011, for example, a YouGov poll found that 55 percent of Americans believed Obama was born in the U.S. That was before Obama released his birth certificate. After he released it, the same pollster found that number had climbed to 67 percent. But a year and a half later, the number had dipped again, down to 59 percent.
“If you look at the percentage of people who reject the rumor, it doesn’t really move at all. All of the movement is in and out of this ‘not sure’ category,” said Berinsky.
There are a number of reasons why the birther myth remains so tenacious, even in the face of hard evidence, according to Tali Sharot, a cognitive neuroscientist at University College London who studies how emotions influence people’s beliefs. Sharot said myths are shored up by how much a person is motivated to believe them, and how well that belief sits with their current worldview.
[Related: What Trump’s Refusal To Concede Says About American Democracy]
“Most beliefs we have are in fact true. We believe the sun rises in the morning. We believe that winter is cold and that if we walk forward we move forward,” Sharot said. “If I come and tell you the sun won’t rise in the morning, you don’t believe me and you would be right. It doesn’t make sense to change your belief every time there’s a piece of evidence that counters it. How can you operate in a world where your beliefs are changing every second?”
With birtherism, many Americans didn’t want Obama to be president, so the belief that he was ineligible was a convenient narrative and they were motivated to accept it. It was also bolstered by racism surrounding the first Black president. But Sharot said the election fraud myth is likely going to be even more persistent because it’s more personal, and based on many pieces of disinformation that are harder to discredit. There’s no single document — a la the long form birth certificate — that can definitively say the election was free and fair.
Trump supporters are highly motivated to believe there was election fraud, because they want their candidate to have won. Add in that Trump and the GOP establishment continue to spread their fraudulent narrative of fraud, and it’s understandable that so many Americans think something is wrong. But even as more information is revealed and it becomes apparent that no widespread election fraud has occurred, it’s likely those beliefs will linger for years to come.
“I think the current situation is going to be much, much worse than birtherism in terms of people believing it, and believing it for the long run,” Sharot said.
Additional reporting by Mary Radcliffe
As results rolled in from Florida on election night, one thing became clear almost immediately: Joe Biden was underperforming in Miami-Dade County, home to most of Florida’s Cuban community. Later in the evening, a similar story emerged from a handful of heavily Mexican American counties along Texas’s southern border.
Biden ultimately won most of these counties in both Florida and Texas, but by much slimmer margins than Hillary Clinton had four years earlier. However, he did end up bringing Arizona — another state with many Latino voters — into the Democratic column for the first time in a presidential election since 1996.
At the same time — although the eventual results were not at all apparent on election night — Biden won three traditionally blue states that Clinton had lost in 2016, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, in part by improving on her performance among white voters with a four-year college degree.
Of course, the story of why Biden won back the “blue wall” but didn’t win Florida or Texas is much more complex than his gains among white voters with a college degree and his misses with some Latino voters. As we’ve written before, no one group “swings” an election. Nevertheless, it’s worth unpacking how these two demographic groups voted in 2020, as they underscore larger geographical and educational divides in our country.
For one thing, the political gap between rural and urban America appears to have been even more pronounced this year than it was in 2016, which may explain some of Trump’s success among Latino voters. Education was once again a clear dividing line, especially among white voters, with white voters with a college degree moving toward Biden while white voters without a college degree remained largely in Trump’s column.
This is just the beginning of our analysis of how Americans voted in 2020 — over the coming weeks and months, we’ll have more deep dives into various corners of the American electorate as more data becomes available. In this story, we’re zooming in on county-level results in a handful of key swing states to help us understand how demographic divisions in pivotal parts of the country helped — and hurt — the two major candidates.1 So let’s start with what we know about the voting patterns in heavily Latino counties in Arizona, Florida and Texas, and what that tells us about the country’s urban, suburban and rural divide.
Callaghan O’Hare / REUTERS
In the lead-up to the election, there were plenty of signs that Biden’s support among Latino voters in key swing states might be weaker than Clinton’s in 2016, but some of the shifts wound up being very large. In Florida’s Miami-Dade County, for instance, which is 68 percent Hispanic, Trump narrowed his deficit by 22 percentage points between 2016 and 2020; in Texas’s Starr County, which is 99 percent Hispanic, Trump improved by a stunning 55 percentage points.
However, as the chart below shows, Trump’s gains among Latino voters were hardly universal. In fact, the places where Trump appears to have gained the most support were largely in rural areas or among more conservative Latino voters like Cuban Americans. In suburban and urban areas, the story was much more mixed. (And, to be clear, Biden still won the overwhelming majority of Latino votes.)
One important factor to keep in mind here — which is partially why some of these shifts toward Trump seem so pronounced — is that Trump did really poorly with Latino voters in 2016. According to pre-election surveys, he won just 18 percent of Latino voters in 2016 but 27 percent this year, putting him back in the territory of other recent Republican presidential nominees.
Additionally, part of what we’re seeing here isn’t necessarily something unique to Latino voters at all, but an extension of America’s growing urban-rural divide. As Bernard Fraga, a political science professor at Emory University who studies racial and ethnic politics, told us, “Biden was never expected to make gains in rural populations and he didn’t really try. … So if Trump is the candidate that people in rural America identify with more, that’s going to work with Latinos just like it works with other groups.”
Donald Trump won Florida in 2020, making significant inroads with some of the state’s Hispanic voters, in particular Cuban Americans in Miami-Dade County.
Marco Bello / REUTERS
One notable exception to this is Miami-Dade, which is a largely urban area. But Sergio Garcia-Rios, a professor of political science at Cornell University who studies Latino identity, pointed out that Trump may have helped improve his standing among Latinos there by recognizing their diversity and focusing on a few groups where he had the potential to make inroads — like Cubans in South Florida. The Trump campaign made outreach to Cuban voters a priority early on, emphasizing Trump’s tough record on Cuba while also drumming up the (inaccurate) idea that Biden was a “Trojan horse” bringing socialism to the U.S. It’s a message designed especially for voters who trace their roots to Cuba and other countries with histories of socialist dictatorships. And that tack seemed to pay off, especially in Miami-Dade County, where more than half of the Hispanic population is of Cuban origin. Trump still lost the county, but this time just by 7 points after losing it by 29 points in 2016. He made substantial gains across the whole county, but especially in areas heavily populated by Cuban Americans.
Notably, though, Trump didn’t make quite as dramatic inroads in Osceola County, Florida — part of the Orlando metro area — which is heavily Puerto Rican, though he still gained there, losing it by 14 points compared to 25 points in 2016. Dario Moreno, a politics professor at Florida International University, told us that Trump’s improved margin there may have been due to economic anxiety and fear that another wave of COVID-19 restrictions on businesses would hurt an area heavily dependent on tourism.
In fact, in an election where the focus was more on COVID-19 and the economy, it’s not that surprising that Trump returned to a similar level of support among Latinos as other recent Republican presidential candidates, according to Garcia-Rios, as concern about jobs and business lockdowns in particular may have nudged some conservative voters toward Trump.
“We might … disagree about whether Trump’s economy has really helped minorities, but some of them do believe that for their jobs, for their families, Trump is the answer,” Garcia-Rios said, pointing to survey after survey that showed Latinos’ top election issues were COVID-19, health care, the economy and jobs. Other issues like immigration and discrimination, where Trump has a long history of race-baiting and trying to clamp down on migration, were a lower priority this year. “We do a disservice when we paint the Latino vote with a broad brush,” Garcia-Rios added.
Joe Biden won the majority of Latino votes, but his campaign was criticized for its lack of outreach.
Go Nakamura / Getty Images
There is also the question of whether Biden and the Democrats’ Latino outreach was sufficient. In the lead-up to the election, the campaign’s lack of a cohesive strategy for reaching Latino voters was heavily criticized, and it may have even contributed to some smaller losses among urban and suburban Latinos. For instance, whereas Biden improved over Clinton in the whiter areas on the periphery of Harris County, Texas (the home of Houston), Trump notably decreased his deficits in heavily Hispanic precincts toward the more central areas of the county, which has a large Mexican-American population. Similarly, Trump did somewhat worse this time around in Maricopa County, which is home to the city of Phoenix and about 60 percent of Arizona’s votes, but he did perform slightly better in many Latino-heavy precincts, including the 7th Congressional District that is almost 60 percent Mexican American.
It’s worth reiterating that Biden still won far more votes in Latino sections of Houston and Phoenix than the president did. But that success may have little to do with Biden’s campaign and more to do with local organizers. This, experts told us, underscores that Democrats really can’t take Latino voters for granted — and a lack of investment in Latino outreach and organizing could hurt them in the long term.
Lisa García Bedolla, a political scientist at the University of California, Berkeley, pointed out that Latino community organizers have been working for more than a decade in Arizona to mobilize Latino voters politically, which almost certainly benefited Biden and Democrats this year. “Demography isn’t destiny when it comes to Latino voters,” she said. “The explanation for why Latinos voted the way they did this year is about history, it’s about geography and it’s about where coalition-building and community organizing has been happening for years — not just what a presidential candidate did or didn’t do this cycle.”
ANGELA WEISS / AFP via Getty Images
In the three “blue wall” states that Biden recaptured in 2020, meanwhile, voters were deeply divided by education. The education split has been especially significant among white voters, and this rift appears to have widened as Trump lost ground in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, especially in areas where many white voters have four-year college degrees.
As the chart below shows, the larger a county’s share of non-Hispanic white voters with a college degree, the worse Trump tended to perform compared to 2016. Conversely, even though pre-election polls suggested that Biden might be poised to make some gains among white voters without a college degree, that didn’t happen. Trump held his ground and even made further inroads in predominantly white counties with lower levels of education — but not enough for him to win.
And across the most highly-educated counties in these states — which include some populous suburban areas — Biden improved substantially on Clinton’s margins. In Wisconsin, for instance, Biden won by 0.6 points statewide after Clinton lost by a similarly slim margin in 2016. And part of that came down to Trump’s deterioration in the traditionally Republican Milwaukee suburbs. Trump still won Waukesha County, by far the largest of the GOP-leaning Milwaukee suburban counties, by 21 points, but that marked a 6-point drop from his 2016 advantage there. And that was in part because of how white voters with a four-year college degree broke (around 40 percent of Waukesha’s population is white and college educated). In other words, areas that were once pretty Republican, like Waukesha, still moved away from Trump because of how white voters with a college education trended.
The same was true in Michigan and Pennsylvania. For instance, in Oakland County, a populous Detroit suburb with a hefty share of educated white voters, Trump’s deficit increased from 8 points in 2016 to 14 points in 2020. Similarly, Trump lost Chester County, a suburb of Philadelphia, where nearly half of the population is made up of white voters with a college degree, by 9 points in 2016 and 17 points this year.
Ashley Jardina, a political science professor at Duke University who studies white identity politics and the education divide, said that white college-educated voters might be especially likely to have been alienated this year by Trump’s handling of the pandemic — potentially leading them to abandon him in even greater numbers than in 2016. “A lot of college-educated whites were not that turned off by Trump’s rhetoric about women or people of color,” she said. “But we’re now in the middle of a pandemic and if you’re a college-educated person who cares about good government, Trump’s handling of the response might really matter to you.”
Joe Biden won Wisconsin, but by a slim margin thanks to suburban areas. Rural parts of the state continued to swing toward President Trump.
KEREM YUCEL / AFP via Getty Images
On the other hand, counties with larger shares of less educated white voters largely stuck with Trump. But most of these counties lie, not coincidentally, in rural areas, where Trump’s electoral strength largely held or improved regardless of its racial or ethnic makeup. Take Clark County in central Wisconsin, where the vast majority of the population is white and doesn’t have a college degree. Trump won the county by 32 points in 2016, but expanded his edge to 37 points in 2020. The same pattern popped up in places similar to Clark, such as Clare County in central Michigan and Mifflin County in central Pennsylvania.
Part of what is happening, according to Arlie Hochschild, a sociologist at the University of California who has written extensively about conservative voters, is that many less educated white voters have come to see Trump as their champion. “They feel that Trump is making them great again — their social class and their identity as whites,” she said. “Many of them feel that as white [people], they’re discriminated against.” She added that even if Biden might have personally appealed to those voters, it might not have been enough to overcome their suspicion that the Democratic Party as a whole was hostile to their worldview.
Importantly, Trump’s gains among white voters without a college degree were less substantial than his losses among educated white voters, and that appears to have cost him in these three states. This was most stark in Wisconsin, where Trump’s margin improved in 39 of the state’s 72 counties, but fell in 31 and didn’t change in two. The counties where he lost ground tended to be bigger and more well-educated, while the ones where he gained were generally smaller and less well-educated. In aggregate, these shifts added up to a narrow loss in Wisconsin for Trump in 2020 instead of the close win he achieved in 2016.
And in general, that pattern illustrates a broader challenge for Republicans: White voters without a college degree are shrinking as a proportion of the broader population, while white voters with a college degree are growing as a share of the electorate.
But Biden’s dramatic gains with white voters with a college degree may not represent a permanent realignment, according to Jardina. “I don’t think [these voters’] opposition to the Republican Party is crystallized, depending on what happens after Trump,” she said. More than anything, she added, the education gulf among white voters this year may illustrate the futility of Democrats’ attempts to bring the white working class back into their coalition. “Democrats have focused on winning back white working-class voters and sort of taken whites with a college degree as a given, which strikes me as a strange, Pollyannaish strategy,” she said. “[White working-class voters] are not their people now.”
As we said at the outset, this is just the beginning of our analysis of how Americans voted in 2020 but it’s worth underscoring what’s surprising about these initial findings.
Even though Trump’s overperformance among specific groups of Latino voters was one of the big stories coming out of election night, what we can see in the data isn’t actually all that unexpected. There were clear signs all along that Biden might be weaker than Clinton among Latinos voters, and the places where Trump appears to have gained support — in rural areas and among more conservative Latino voters like Cuban Americans — just speaks to the diversity of a group that should never have been regarded as politically homogenous to begin with.
On the other hand, the widening of the education gap — and the emergence of geography as another important political divide — might be bigger takeaways, given where the polling stood going into the election. Biden’s gains among white voters without a college degree simply didn’t materialize, while Trump continued to make inroads with less-educated white voters — although it wasn’t enough to win him the election. But importantly, both groups offer a first look into what might be one of the defining trends of the 2020 election: the widening political chasm between urban, suburban and rural America.
President Trump’s refusal to accept the outcome of the election has sown distrust in the election, especially among Republicans.
According to a new Monmouth University poll, about three in four Republicans now doubt the fairness of the 2020 presidential election, even though there is no evidence that the electoral process was compromised in a way that could affect the outcome. And as you can see in the chart below, distrust among Republicans has skyrocketed since Election Day.
Monmouth isn’t the only pollster to find very high levels of distrust among Republicans, either. A YouGov/Economist poll this week found that 73 percent of Republicans had little or no confidence that the election was conducted fairly and a Morning Consult/Politico poll found that 67 percent of Republicans thought that the 2020 election was either “probably” or “definitely” not free and fair.
It’s important to stress that all three pollsters did find that a majority of Americans accepted the results — roughly 6 in 10 — but what is worrisome is that only about 4 in 10 said they were very confident that the election was conducted fairly and accurately.
This is troubling, because as my colleague Perry Bacon, Jr. wrote earlier this week on Trump’s refusal to concede, there are now very real questions about American democracy and whether it will remain intact.
This, of course, isn’t the first time Trump has tried to sow doubt in the democratic process. Before and after the 2016 election, Trump falsely claimed that millions of undocumented immigrants were going to vote in the election, or that “people that have died 10 years ago are still voting,” even though there was never any evidence that these claims were true. And, as was the case ahead of the 2016 election, Republicans once again were more likely than Democrats to believe these fraudulent claims as they went to the polls.
The key difference between now and 2016, though, is that after the election, a majority of Republicans are still unwilling to accept the result. That wasn’t true of Democrats in 2016.
Share of voters who were confident that votes across the country would be or were counted accurately, before and after the 2016 election
Pre-election (10/15/16)Post-Election (1/28/17)Populationconfidentnot confidentconfidentnot confidentDiff.All66%3067%26+1Democrats84146528-19Independents53376128+8Republicans56417322+17Source: Morning Consult
Lest we think that Republicans are the only ones susceptible to having their view of the electoral process colored by the outcome, polling shows that some Democrats did lose confidence in the election after Trump won in 2016. Nevertheless, a majority of Democrats (as well as Republicans and independents) believed that votes were counted accurately after the election was over. So the finding in this latest round of polls, that roughly three in four Republicans don’t have faith in the electoral process, is a big departure from what public opinion polls found after the last election.
It’s hard to know what this means for American democracy — Biden’s claim to the presidency doesn’t seem to be in real jeopardy — but these first few post-election polls lay bare the consequences to sowing disinformation in America’s electoral process.
The presidential election might be over, but polls for Georgia’s two U.S. Senate runoff elections — which are scheduled for Jan. 5 and will decide which party controls the chamber — have already started to trickle in. Since Election Day, we have gotten two polls, one from Remington Research Group and another from InsiderAdvantage, that show the races could be close. The polls, both from right-leaning pollsters, show that the special election between Democrat Raphael Warnock and Republican Kelly Loeffler could be a toss-up, with the candidates virtually tied. A third poll of just the special election runoff, which was sponsored by a Republican PAC, shows Loeffler slightly ahead. In the other race, the Remington poll shows incumbent Republican Sen. David Perdue leading his opponent, Jon Ossoff; the InsiderAdvantage poll shows that race tied. But these are just the first of many more polls to come, so be sure to keep an eye on our database of polls between now and January for a more rounded look at the polling.58 percent of Americans said they would get a COVID-19 vaccine if an FDA-approved vaccine was available right now, according to a Gallup poll conducted in late October. Willingness to get vaccinated had dipped in September due, in part, to a sharp drop in support among Democrats, but now the share of Democrats willing to get vaccinated is bouncing back, while the share of Republicans and independents willing to get vaccinated has stayed constant.
A HarrisX poll released on Tuesday found that 77 percent of Americans thought that Congress should pass a coronavirus relief package as soon as possible, while 23 percent said one is not needed because the economy is bouncing back on its own. This includes a majority of Republicans (64 percent) and Democrats (89 percent).A SurveyMonkey poll conducted earlier this month found that 37 percent of Americans planned to celebrate Thanksgiving with friends or family from outside their household. And according to a survey from The Ohio State University’s Wexner Medical Center, while a majority of Americans do plan to follow precautions to prevent the spread of COVID-19 as they celebrate the holidays, not everyone seems keen on following the CDC’s guidelines: 38 percent said they will likely attend a gathering with more than 10 people. Another third said they will not ask their guests to wear masks, and 27 percent said they’re unlikely to follow social distancing by staying six feet apart before and after dinner.Romanians go to the polls on Dec. 6 to elect a new parliament. And polls show that the Social Democratic Party, a populist left of center party that swept the country’s 2016 elections with 46 percent of the vote and won more seats than any other party, is slated to lose seats this year. The party, which initially ruled as part of a coalition government but lost control after a no-confidence vote amid corruption scandals and protests, was replaced by a coalition led by the more centrist National Liberal Party. According to Politico’s average of polls, the National Liberal Party, which received only 20 percent of the vote in 2016, leads with 32 percent of the vote, followed by the Social Democratic Party at 27 percent. Several other parties trail in the polls with 15 percent of the vote or less.
According to FiveThirtyEight’s presidential approval tracker,1 44.3 percent of Americans approve of the job Trump is doing as president, while 52.4 percent disapprove (a net approval rating of -8.1 points). At this time last week, 44.6 percent approved and 52.3 percent disapproved (for a net approval rating of -7.7 points). One month ago, Trump had an approval rating of 42.7 percent and a disapproval rating of 54.1 percent, for a net approval rating of -11.3 points.
Presidential transitions result in a lot of very inside-the-Beltway stories — an endless stream of leaks and counterleaks that are mainly about some of the world’s most ambitious people jockeying for jobs. Oy. But the transition itself is still an important story.
Who staffs the government matters, and it matters even more when the nation is in its ninth month of struggling to deal with a pandemic. And sometimes the results of all that jockeying are crucial. Imagine how history might have unfolded if President Barack Obama had not tapped Hillary Clinton as his secretary of state — or if President Trump had chosen Mitt Romney, who he courted but ultimately rejected for the role of top diplomat and who four years later became the only GOP senator to support Trump’s removal from office?
Some slots are already filled, with Biden naming a senior team of White House advisers that includes his longtime aide Ron Klain as chief of staff, his campaign manager, Jennifer O’Malley Dillon, as a deputy chief of staff, and Rep. Cedric Richmond, one of Biden’s prominent Black supporters during the campaign, as a senior adviser.
[What Trump’s Refusal To Concede Says About American Democracy]
But there are a lot of jobs still to be filled (around 4,000). So here’s FiveThirtyEight’s guide to the transition process:
Many of the rumors about who will get what job won’t turn out to be true and sometimes that misdirection is intentional. The transition process is a perfect opportunity for:
Reporters to flatter sources by suggesting those sources should be considered for major jobs.Team Biden to float someone’s name to flatter him or her.A person who wants to be considered for a key job to float his or her own name.Other constituencies in the Democratic Party to push their preferred choices.
Many of the stories about who will get various jobs in the administration are full of unnamed sources. And those stories often say Biden is “considering” someone, but we have no idea how serious that consideration really is.
For example, Sen. Elizabeth Warren is fairly unlikely to be chosen as Biden’s Treasury secretary, even though she wants the job, at least according to “three Democratic officials who have spoken with her inner circle,” per Politico. But Warren probably knows why she’s unlikely to get the appointment: The party’s centrist wing doesn’t want her running the department and Republicans might block her during the confirmation process. Instead, her public candidacy might really be an attempt to make sure Biden picks someone fairly liberal to run the department — or at least someone not too centrist.
Remember, the president will be the ultimate decision-maker in the administration — so don’t focus too much on who gets other senior jobs. There is a certain logic to the idea that if Biden appoints a person whose views are similar to Warren to a key job, that person will implement lots of liberal policies in that job, and a less-liberal person would implement more moderate policies. But that isn’t really how a presidential administration usually works.
On any really big policy matter (like who to nominate for an open seat on the Supreme Court), Biden is likely to make the final decision. Cabinet secretaries or lower-level officials at agencies can make policy, but only if it’s in line with what the president already thinks or if it’s not a big issue he needs to weigh in on. Additionally, top White House aides can stall agencies’ moves if they disagree with them, again meaning the president is the one who makes the final call. And, of course, if a Cabinet secretary, White House aide or other political appointee disagrees with the president too often, he or she will be sent packing.
The Trump administration showed why we shouldn’t put too much stock in what team of advisers a president initially chooses. In his 2016 campaign, Trump took stands that weren’t traditional for a Republican presidential candidate — he seemed wary of keeping U.S. troops in Iraq and Afghanistan, he was skeptical of NATO, and he was eager to ease tensions between the U.S. and Russia. But during his presidential transition, Trump put a bunch of people with more establishment GOP views into key national security roles, most notably James Mattis as the defense secretary. Trump, of course, ended up feuding with this early set of advisers and eventually replaced them with people who would hew to his vision.
But keep a careful eye on the appointees, particularly those in jobs below chief of staff and Cabinet secretaries. Of course, even with the president making the final call, White House staffers and agencies’ political appointees can make a big difference, particularly if they are working on an issue that isn’t going to appear on the homepage or front page of The New York Times every day.
The best example of this might be Trump domestic policy adviser Stephen Miller, who has masterminded a slew of changes that made it harder to immigrate to the United States. Trump, of course, agrees with Miller’s broad goals, but it’s not clear that he would have implemented all of these policies if Miller were not in the administration.
On Team Biden, Richmond could use his role as the director of the White House’s outreach arm to make himself the administration’s de facto point person on Black issues, which might be both a major portfolio but also not so high-profile that Biden would interject and make all the big decisions.
Appointments can signal a president’s inclinations. Take another progressive Democrat whose name has been floated for a Cabinet position: Sen. Bernie Sanders as Biden’s secretary of labor. If Biden were to choose Sanders, that could be a signal that the former vice president will let the Vermont senator freely implement Democratic socialist policies through that department. But I don’t think that’s how we should think of such an appointment. Rather, it would likely be a signal that Biden plans to take fairly liberal stances on labor issues anyway, so he’s comfortable having a left-wing figure like Sanders implement that agenda.
For example, in the 2008 transition process, Obama’s selection of Wall Street-friendly people like Tim Geithner (as Treasury secretary) and Larry Summers (as top White House economic adviser) to key posts foreshadowed that the administration would not be as populist as some liberals wanted.
Appointments can also be more about placating various blocs within the party than policy. An incoming president who has just won an election usually tries to reward the people and groups who helped him get there. These constituency dynamics partly explain who’s being touted by the media as potential Biden appointees: former Ohio. Gov John Kasich and former eBay chief executive Meg Whitman (anti-Trump Republicans); Warren and Sanders (progressives); former undersecretary of defense Michèle Flournoy and former Federal Reserve Chair Janet Yellen (women); Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra (Latinos).
But an appointee who is picked mainly for political reasons may not have much sway in his or her role. Let’s revisit the idea of Sanders becoming Biden’s Labor secretary. It’s possible that Biden doesn’t want to implement liberal policies through the Labor department, but that he would nonetheless pick Sanders to placate progressives during the transition and then basically ignore the senator’s ideas once he is in the job.
A good example of this dynamic in a previous administration was Trump picking South Carolina’s then-governor, Nikki Haley, as the ambassador to the United Nations at the start of his first term. Haley had little foreign policy experience coming into the role — and it wasn’t clear that she exerted much influence on Trump’s agenda in her nearly two years in the administration. But choosing Haley was an important nod to voters of color (she is Indian American), women and establishment Republicans (at that point she was aligned with that wing of the GOP).
Expect Biden to choose people who aren’t considered really liberal or really centrist. Biden has always tried to be in the center of the Democratic Party — so it’s likely his administration will reflect that approach. Take his pick of Klain as his chief of staff. Yes, Klain was a top adviser to more center-left Democrats like Biden, Clinton and Obama, but more left-wing figures like Warren and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez also like him. So expect Biden to make more picks like Klain and not many picks like Warren as treasury secretary. Maybe former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel can get a fairly low-profile job like transportation secretary, but there is probably too much opposition from the party’s left for Biden to put him in a more prominent role.
Additionally, because Biden is likely to staff his administration with people who unify rather than divide the party, I doubt there will be factions of the Biden administration fighting intensely with each other the way high-ranking aides did in the early stages of the Trump administration.
The biggest unknown might be how Biden deals with the Senate. It’s unlikely Biden will wait until the Jan. 5 runoffs in Georgia to name his picks for the Cabinet and other top posts in federal agencies that require Senate confirmation. Waiting that long would mean that those picks probably wouldn’t be ready to start soon after Biden takes office on Jan. 20.
So the incoming president has three choices: First, he can choose whomever he thinks is appropriate for a given job and dare Republicans to block that person, if the GOP has a majority after the Georgia races. Second, he can try to choose nominees who he thinks Sen. Mitch McConnell will allow to come up for votes (assuming McConnell remains majority leader) and who can get the support of at least two Republican senators. (The GOP will have at most 52 votes, so a 50-50 split would allow Vice President Kamala Harris to cast a tie-breaking vote.) But there is a third option, too: Biden can use federal laws and procedures to make the people he wants “acting” secretaries without Senate confirmation, as Trump has done.
[Related: How Georgia Turned Blue]
How much Republicans would try to block Biden’s picks is a wild card; in the Obama and Trump transitions, the president’s party controlled the Senate, so we haven’t seen an opposition-controlled Senate voting on a new president’s appointees recently. It will be interesting to see if Biden avoids nominating people to jobs that require Senate confirmation if those nominees are viewed as too liberal (like perhaps Sanders and Warren) or have frosty relationships with the GOP (say, former National Security Adviser Susan Rice, who some Republicans dislike from her days in the Obama administration). Also, with such tight margins in the Senate, Biden may be wary of nominating Senate members from states where a Republican governor could appoint their replacement (Warren) or where Democrats might have a hard time holding onto a seat in a special election (Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar).
Of course, it’s also possible that this presidential transition may not follow these general parameters. With COVID-19, a president who won’t concede or participate in the transition, a GOP that’s increasingly willing to break with democratic norms and values and control of the Senate still hanging in the balance because of the runoffs in Georgia, there are also a lot of unknowns.
But ultimately, I suspect Biden will run his transition in a fairly traditional manner. After all, Biden is deeply familiar with how things have been done in Washington and, as we saw during the campaign, part of the reason he ran in the first place is that he wants to restore some of that normalcy.
At nearly 2:30 a.m. Wednesday, the morning after Election Day 2016, the Associated Press declared Donald Trump the winner of the presidential election. Around the same time, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton phoned Trump to concede, a call she made at the urging of then-President Barack Obama. That Thursday, less than 48 hours after the election results, Obama met with his successor to help him prepare for the transition to the presidency.
Four years later, nothing like that has happened. More than a week has passed since major news outlets declared Joe Biden the winner, but Trump has refused to concede. Instead, his legal team is pushing efforts to invalidate the results, and his administration won’t work with Biden officials on the transition of power. Top Republicans in Congress and around the country aren’t openly acknowledging Biden’s victory either.
[Related: Americans Were Primed To Believe The Current Onslaught Of Disinformation]
That some Republicans won’t go along with the traditional niceties following a presidential election (like congratulating the victor from the opposing party) isn’t that important. But the sitting president’s refusal to acknowledge electoral defeat is worrisome, as it raises the prospect that he will not uphold a core tenet of democracy: Elections determine who is in power, and those who lose surrender power peacefully. The behavior of top Republican Party officials — subtly acknowledging that Trump must leave office on Jan. 20 but not openly rebuking his conduct — in some ways also violates that core value. And the combination of Trump’s and his party’s behavior raises a serious question: Is America’s democracy in trouble?
Maybe. People who study democratic norms and values both in the United States and abroad say that the behavior of Trump and the Republican Party over the past week deeply concerns them. Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan says it’s important not to think of democracy in binary terms — that either a nation is or is not a democracy. Instead, Nyhan argues, democracy falls more on a spectrum, and based on how Trump broke with democratic values as president and how he is handling the end of his presidency, America does remain a democracy, but it is somewhat less democratic than it was pre-Trump.
This tweet from The New York Times’s Max Fisher, who has written extensively about the erosion of democracies abroad, is particularly apt:
“Whatever happens now, we may spend the rest of our lives dealing with the party-wide normalization of:
Refusal to concede lossesRefusal to transfer powerEfforts to overturn election resultsDelegitimation of outparty governance
Very hard to unring this bell.”
Not respecting the election results is problematic on its own. But considering the crisis the nation is facing now — a new surge in coronavirus cases — Trump’s actions are particularly dangerous. Now more than ever, an effective transition of power is of the utmost importance.
Not only is Trump blocking his advisers from helping the incoming Biden administration get ready to deal with the pandemic, but the defeated president has largely disengaged from the COVID-19 crisis himself. In terms of managing the virus, America will be functionally without a president for two months.
We can’t totally rule out the most alarming possibility either — that Trump is going to try to stay in office past Jan. 20. After all, he has mobilized some key parts of the federal government and the Republican Party behind his efforts to question and undermine the election results.
[Related: Biden Won — But The Deep Partisan Divide In America Remains]
Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said at a State Department press conference last week that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.” Attorney General William Barr announced that U.S. attorneys could start investigating potential voter fraud (even though there is no evidence of such fraud) before the election results are certified — rather than after certification, which is the Justice Department’s normal policy. That move resulted in the department’s leading official on election crimes resigning from his post in protest. And, most alarmingly, Trump fired Defense Secretary Mark Esper, while the rest of the department’s senior leaders either resigned or were replaced with people considered more loyal to the president. A leader of a nation losing an election and then consolidating control of the military is far from ideal. As Nyhan notes regularly on his Twitter feed when discussing Trump’s moves, “What would you say if you saw it in another country?”
But whatever Trump’s intentions, it seems far-fetched for him to stay in power. Courts are rejecting his legal team’s claims, and even Republican officials in key swing states are unwilling to support outlandish proposals to hand Trump electoral votes in states that he lost. Republican senators are saying that Biden should start receiving classified intelligence briefings, a de facto acknowledgement that the former vice president needs to be prepared to take over on Jan 20.
So, it seems that America’s democracy has survived mostly intact for now. An election was held, the opposition party defeated the ruling party, and the opposition party will take control of the government. That said, the last week has been far from reassuring. If the election had come down to just one state, would Trump be even more recalcitrant? If it were a closer election, would the broader GOP more openly support Trump’s efforts to stay in power? Would the Supreme Court, which includes six justices appointed by Republican presidents and some justices who seem strongly aligned with the party’s goals, have interjected in a way that boosted Trump?
It’s hard to know the answers to these questions. Democratic values are almost certain to be upheld this time — that is, the election determined who will be in charge, and the transfer of power will ultimately be peaceful. But it’s not totally clear that these values will be upheld the next time a Trump-like figure emerges. American democracy is likely to survive Trump, but his tenure has raised important questions about the state of America’s democracy and whether it will endure in perpetuity.
In 2008, Barack Obama won about 47 percent of the vote in Georgia, a huge improvement for the Democrats from four years earlier, when John Kerry received just 41 percent in the state. And with the Atlanta metro area booming in population, it seemed like a state that hadn’t voted for a Democratic presidential candidate since 1992 was about to turn blue — or at least purple. But it didn’t. Instead, Georgia was stuck in swing-state-in-waiting status. Obama dipped to 45 percent in 2012 — and Democrats seemed capped at exactly that number. The party’s candidates for U.S. Senate and governor in 2014 won 45 percent of the Georgia vote, as did Hillary Clinton in 2016.
That is, until 2018, when Stacey Abrams broke through the 46 percent ceiling and hit 48.8 percent in her gubernatorial campaign. And this year, of course, Joe Biden won the state with 49.5 percent of the vote. Meanwhile, U.S. Senate candidate Jon Ossoff got 48.0 percent, and is now headed to a runoff election. Georgia’s special election for its other U.S. Senate seat is also headed to a runoff, with the combined total for the Democratic candidates at 48.4 percent.
So how did Georgia go from light red to blue — or at the very least, purple?
The answer is pretty simple: The Atlanta area turned really blue in the Trump era. Definitions differ about the exact parameters of the Atlanta metropolitan area, but 10 counties1 are part of a governing collaborative called the Atlanta Regional Commission. Almost 4.7 million people live in those 10 counties, or around 45 percent of the state’s population.
Until very recently, the Atlanta area wasn’t a liberal bastion. There was a Democratic bloc that long controlled the government within the city limits of Atlanta and a Republican bloc that once dominated the suburbs and whose rise was chronicled in historian Kevin Kruse’s 2005 book “White Flight: Atlanta and the Making of Modern Conservatism.”
In 2012, Obama and Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney each won five of the 10 counties in the Atlanta Regional Commission. But in 2016, Clinton won eight of the 10 counties. In 2018, Abrams won those eight counties by larger margins than Clinton, and Biden then improved on Abrams’s margins in most of them.2 For example, Romney carried Gwinnett — an Atlanta-area suburban county that is the second-largest county in the state — by 9 percentage points in 2012. But then Clinton won there by 6 points in 2016, Abrams won by 14 points in 2018, and this year, Ossoff won by 16 and Biden won by 18. Likewise, in Cobb County, another large Atlanta-area suburban county, Romney won by 12 points in 2012, but then Clinton carried it by 2, Abrams by 10, Ossoff by 11 and Biden by 14. (We’ll come back to Biden doing slightly better than Ossoff and what that might mean for the runoffs.)
Those are big gains in big counties. And there are other indications that suburban Atlanta is trending blue. Parts of Cobb County are in the district of Rep. Lucy McBath, who in 2018 flipped a U.S. House seat that the GOP had held for decades. (She won reelection this year, too.) Meanwhile, Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux flipped a U.S. House seat that includes parts of Gwinnett County, one of only a handful of seats that Democrats won control of this year. Republican sheriff candidates in Cobb and Gwinnett counties were both defeated in this November’s election. And Gwinnett’s five-person county commission is now made up of five Democrats, as its sole Republican member declined to run for reelection and a Democrat won her seat.
Cobb and Gwinnett are not suburbs in the coded way the political media often invokes them as a synonym for “areas slightly outside of the city limits of major cities where lots of middle-class white people live.” Gwinnett County is 35 percent non-Hispanic white, 30 percent Black, 22 percent Hispanic and 13 percent Asian. Cobb County is 51 percent non-Hispanic white, 29 percent Black, 13 percent Hispanic and 6 percent Asian.
Democrats have also made gains in the more urban DeKalb and Fulton counties, which both include parts of the city of Atlanta and were already pretty Democratic leaning. In Fulton, which is about 45 percent Black and Georgia’s most populous county, Obama won in 2012 by 30 points, Clinton by 41, Abrams by 46, Ossoff by 42 and Biden by 46. In DeKalb, which is 55 percent Black and the state’s fourth-largest county, Obama won by 57 points, Clinton by 63, Abrams by 68, Ossoff by 64 and Biden by 67.
There is a third shift happening, too: Democrats are losing by less in the more conservative-leaning, exurban parts of Atlanta. In Cherokee County, Georgia’s seventh-largest county and one that is nearly 80 percent white, Obama lost by 58 points, Clinton by 49, Abrams by 46 and Biden by 39.
“Exurbs are where a big chunk of the GOP base is. And you can’t win Georgia [as a Republican] without running up the margins there,” Atlanta Journal-Constitution political reporter Greg Bluestein told me.
We should emphasize, though, that there are limits in how precise we can be in describing these shifts. Trump did better than in 2016 in some heavily Black Atlanta precincts (while still losing them overwhelmingly), according to a New York Times analysis. So it could be the case that many of Biden’s gains are among non-Black Atlanta-area voters, although it’s important to emphasize that many Black people in the Atlanta area live in racially mixed areas. County and precinct analyses have some limitations, and more detailed research will help us nail down exact shifts among demographic groups.
But overall, the story is clear: Biden won Georgia because he did really well in the Atlanta area, far better than Obama eight years ago and significantly better than Clinton, too. Biden won about 65 percent of the two-party share of the votes in these 10 Atlanta-area counties, up from Clinton’s 59 percent in 2018. He also gained in the other 149 Georgia counties in Georgia, but it was smaller: Clinton received about 34 percent of the vote outside the Atlanta area, while Biden received about 37 percent.
The more complicated question then is not how Georgia went from light red to blue, but why Democrats gained so much ground in the Atlanta area. Here are four theories, ranked in order of importance in my view:
That the Democrats flipped Cobb and Gwinnett counties with Trump on the ballot, gained ground in 2018 and then improved on their 2018 performance in 2020 suggests that anti-Trump sentiment is a pretty big factor here. Abrams, Biden, Clinton and Ossoff are four very different political figures, but all made gains relative to the Democratic candidates who ran in the cycle before, suggesting these gains aren’t really about the individual Democratic candidates. Additionally, all four did better in the Atlanta area than Obama — and it’s hard to argue any of those four (let alone all four) are better politicians than Obama.
In fact, the anti-Trump theory hinges on two things: 1) Some people in the Atlanta area shifted from voting Republican to voting Democratic; and 2) Some shifted from not voting at all to voting (for Democrats).
But here’s why that might not be the whole story: Democrats didn’t just start making gains in the Atlanta area in 2016 …
From the 2004 presidential election to the 2012 election, Democratic margins grew by double digits in nine of the 10 counties that make up the Atlanta metro area. (Remember that Obama did much better than Kerry.) So Atlanta was already getting more liberal before Trump was a major political figure.
What might help explain that shift? First of all, the share of people in the Atlanta area who are Asian, Black and/or Hispanic has increased dramatically in the last two decades, and those three groups tend to vote for Democratic candidates.
Take Gwinnett County. It was 67 percent non-Hispanic white in 2000; it is now around 35 percent white. Likewise, Cobb County was 72 percent white in 2000, 62 percent in 2010 and is about 50 percent white now. In part because of those changes in the Atlanta metro area, the share of the voting-eligible population in Georgia that is white dropped from 68 percent in 2000 to 58 percent in 2018, according to Pew Research Center. That drop is the biggest decline in the percentage of white voters in all but eight other states.
“Demographic change is likely a big part of the story, combined with higher participation from some of the faster-growing groups,” said Tom Bonier, who runs a Democratic-leaning political data firm called TargetSmart.
Secondly, the Atlanta metro area is one of the fastest growing in the country. It’s got a pretty strong job market that is drawing people from other states. So it’s likely that many of the 2016 and 2020 Atlanta-area Democratic voters either weren’t living in the area in 2012 or weren’t of voting age then (e.g., the children of people who have moved to Atlanta in the past two decades). In other words, these aren’t people shifting to the Democratic Party because of Trump — these are Democrats who just happened to show up in Atlanta’s electorate at the time of Trump’s rise. They probably would not have backed Republican presidential nominee Sen.Ted Cruz either.
“Existing white voters [in Georgia] are being replaced by younger whites and out-of-state transplants who are more progressive,” said Bernard Frega, a political scientist at Atlanta’s Emory University who studies voter turnout.
It’s hard to precisely quantify these voting shifts caused by demographic and population trends and really hard to determine if they would have happened in a world without Trump. But at least one Georgia Democrat has been saying for years that the party could turn the state blue by courting recent transplants and the growing population of people of color …
Abrams won 1.9 million votes in 2018, almost double the 1.1 million votes of Georgia’s 2014 Democratic gubernatorial nominee. Biden won almost 2.5 million votes, compared to Clinton’s 1.9 million. There are probably lots of reasons for the increased number of Democratic voters — particularly anti-Trump sentiment and Georgia’s changing demographics. Plus, Republican voter turnout in Georgia also surged this cycle, so maybe the Trump era has just boosted turnout among all groups. All that said, it’s worth isolating the role of Abrams, because she has executed a specific, turnout-based strategy in Georgia for nearly a decade and has pushed for the Democratic Party to join her in implementing it.
In 2014, Abrams, then a member of the Georgia House of Representatives, co-created a group called the New Georgia Project that focused on getting people of color in the state who haven’t previously participated in the electoral process to vote. In 2017 and 2018, Abrams ran for governor and diverted from the normal Southern Democrat strategy of centering a campaign on winning as many white swing voters as possible. Abrams did try to win white swing voters, but also invested heavily in boosting turnout among voters of all races in the Atlanta area and among Black people in particular in the state’s more rural areas.
After her narrow defeat in the governor’s race, Abrams implored her party to invest in Georgia for the 2020 presidential election. In September 2019, Abrams’s top political adviser, Lauren Groh-Wargo, publicly released a 16-page memo dubbed “The Abrams Playbook” that laid out why Georgia was a prime pickup opportunity if Democrats concentrated on boosting turnout among people of color in the Atlanta area.
And by the end of the 2020 campaign, with polls suggesting Georgia was close, Democrats went all in on the state, as Abrams had been calling for. The Democratic super PAC Priorities USA, which had been focused only on Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, expanded its operations to Georgia. On the day before the election, Biden’s campaign sent one of its most important surrogates to the Atlanta area: Obama.
It is really hard to know how much Abrams’s efforts mattered. Perhaps anti-Trump sentiment and more liberal people moving to the Atlanta were by far the most important factors in boosting Democratic turnout in Georgia. But it’s hard to dismiss Abrams’s role — after all, Democrats won Georgia, and pretty much exactly the way she laid out.
Biden did a bit better than both Ossoff and Abrams in the Atlanta area. So it’s possible that Georgia shifted from very purple (2018) to just barely blue (at least at the presidential level in 2020) because the former vice president is kind an ideal candidate for Georgia — popular with Black voters but also more of a draw for some moderate white voters than the 33-year-old Ossoff or a Black woman like Abrams.
On the other hand, the distinguishing factor between the 2020 presidential race and other recent contests could have been distaste for Trump. Maybe Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Kamala Harris or any other person running against Trump would have also carried the state if he or she were the Democratic nominee.
What does this very blue Atlanta mean for future Georgia elections — not only for the Jan. 5 runoffs for the U.S. Senate seats, but also Abrams’s likely 2022 gubernatorial campaign and subsequent presidential elections?
It’s hard to answer this question, because the Democratic lean in the Atlanta area that made Georgia really competitive for Democrats happened when Trump was the defining figure in American politics. So it’s possible that, without Trump in the White House, Democrats will once again be stuck earning 46 to 48 percent of the vote in Georgia. Take the U.S. Senate runoff elections.
Are there some voters there who didn’t back Trump but were comfortable with a more traditional Republican like Sen. David Perdue. Does that hold true in the runoff? It’s the same question in the state’s Senate special election. The Democrats narrowly lost the popular vote there, so are there some Georgia voters who are willing to support Republicans like Rep. Doug Collins and Sen. Kelly Loeffler (the leading Republicans in that race) but not Trump?
Remember, the Democrats are losing badly in most areas of Georgia outside of Atlanta — and the state is only competitive if the Atlanta area stays as blue as it has been during the Trump era. If some Atlanta-area voters no longer view Trump as the defining figure of the GOP, do they go back to the GOP in the Senate runoffs and in subsequent elections?
We don’t know the answer to this question now and may not for a few election cycles. For now, it’s not clear if Georgia is a swing state, a state that swung once or something in between.