5 November 2020

The Democrats have won this battle, but Biden may be a lame duck from day one

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As the electoral fog clears and the result comes into view, Joe Biden seems all but assured a White House win. While he’s still behind in Georgia at the point of writing, the former Vice President seems likely to just overhaul Donald Trump’s as more votes from Atlanta are tabulated. His electoral college win may end up looking pretty respectable: perhaps as much as 306 to 232, exactly President Trump’s margin in 2016, and larger than George W Bush’s victories in 2000 and 2004.

So why aren’t Democrats cock-a-hoop? This would be the first time since 1892 that the Republicans have left the White House after just four years (as Reagan preceded Bush Senior, the party had been in office for 12). Biden, the scrappy kid from Scranton nominated on the premise of rebuilding the Blue Wall, has succeeded in that crucial task. At the same time, the Sun Belt has finally come online for the Democrats – with both Arizona and Georgia teetering on the edge of the Biden column.

But Democrats didn’t want to just win this election, they wanted to replace the Trump administration with a bold new progressive agenda: a public option in healthcare, measures to tackle climate change, court reform and a new voting rights act. While in previous decades, presidents could work with the other party to steer legislation through a chamber they didn’t control, such ideas are an anathema to this hyper-partisan age.

In recent months, Democrats had been giddy about their chances of picking up the Senate – with eye-watering sums raised for candidates in red states like Kentucky and South Carolina. In the end, however, these hopes were dashed – with every state going for the same party in the Senate as it did the presidency, save for Maine, where Biden won and Republican Susan Collins held on. It is still theoretically possible that Democrats pick up two seats in Georgia, which may both go to runoff in January, and drag the chamber to a 50-50 tie (which would be broken by Kamala Harris). Democrats tend to perform poorly in runoffs, however, as their voter turnout is less reliable – and we can view this as a Hail Mary. The truth remains, as I wrote here after the 2018 midterms, is that as each state receives two Senators irrespective of size, and there are more Republican-leaning states than Democratic, the party will find it increasingly tough to ever have a Senate majority.

It is far more likely that Joe Biden will be the first President since Richard Nixon in 1968 to arrive in the White House without a Senate majority – and the first Democrat since Grover Cleveland in 1884 not to have full control of Congress. He risks being a lame duck on day one.

In the House of Representatives, while Nancy Pelosi has retained her majority, it has been dented – with many swing districts choosing to vote for Joe Biden while sending a Republican to Congress. Democrats also failed to pick up key state legislatures in states like Texas, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia – meaning that Republicans will control next year’s redistricting process, which happens once a decade, in up to five times more seats than Democrats. Gerrymandering will likely cost the Democrats dearly; Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Donald Trump each lost the House two years after entering office, as the pendulum swung back towards the opposing party.

It seems unlikely also that Biden – who will be 82 at the next election – will run for a second term, and Republicans will be looking at the Democrats’ fragile margins in swing states with glee. With several would-be presidential candidates, such as Josh Hawley and Tom Cotton, among the GOP Senate caucus, the idea of compromise deals with the Biden administration on big pieces of legislation seems far-fetched. With party primaries to consider, they will do everything they can to please their base – especially if it means blocking anything that comes out of the White House.

The Republicans have won the popular vote once in the past 30 years – indeed, by the next election, there will be voters who have never seen it happen. However, they have a Supreme Court that is more conservative than at any time since the 1930s. They have control of more state governments too – likely to only increase after 2022 – giving them power over voting rules. They are likely to hold the Senate, and have a good shot at the House in two years (though the 2022 Senate map should be more favourable to Democrats). They have also made inroads with key parts of the Democrats’ voter coalition: first much of the white working class, and now with many Latinos – securing Florida and impeding Democratic growth in the party’s juiciest long-term target, Texas.

In short, the GOP’s ducks are nicely in a row to wield a huge degree of power over American life for what is a clearly minority party. Biden has almost certainly won this battle, but in an era when many expected an “emerging Democratic majority”, Republicans have reasons to smile. Donald Trump may have been defeated, but many will sense a wider victory.

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Mark Gettleson is a campaigns and election strategist.

Columns are the author's own opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of CapX.