As part of an op-ed series, FIU News shares the expertise and diverse perspectives of members of the university community. In this piece professors Kevin Evans and Sara Moats of the Department of Politics and International Relations share their views on what we can expect to see on Election Day.
By Kevin Evans and Sara Moats
The 2020 election has been turbulent to say the least. Among the American electorate, there is anger, mistrust of the opposition party and a raw partisan divide that is seen on nearly every issue. As the polls close on Election Day, voters will watch the returns with excitement and anxiety.
Here are four things that we think are worth watching for on and after Election Day.
The Blue Shift
On election night, President Trump may take an early lead in key battle ground states. That lead will inevitably narrow and, possibly, flip as votes are counted late into the night and in subsequent days. This phenomenon is referred to as the blue shift.
The blue shift appears to happen because voters casting in-person ballots tend to lean slightly more Republican while voters using mail-in and provisional ballots tend to lean slightly more Democratic. In-person ballots are easier to process so they appear in tallies first (Republican leaning), while mail-in and provisional ballots (Democratic leaning) often take multiple steps in order to count. Some mail-in ballots may even arrive after Election Day and still be included in the final calculations depending upon individual state laws and various court rulings.
While political scientists are still teasing out why mail-in and provisional ballots lean more Democratic, a recent working paper by Li, Hyun and Alvarez (Caltech) reveals that the blue shift appears to be linked to the demographic characteristics of groups that are more likely to cast such ballots (young, nonwhite, voting for the first time, etc.).
Unfortunately, as Foley and Stewart note, all of this “raises the possibility that losing candidates and their supporters may increasingly, even if mistakenly, regard the vote count as ‘rigged’.” In fact, President Trump made this argument during the 2018 midterm elections when he tweeted: “The Florida Election should be called in favor of Rick Scott and Ron DeSantis in that large numbers of new ballots showed up out of nowhere, and many ballots are missing or forged. An honest vote count is no longer possible-ballots massively infected. Must go with Election Night!”
So, if there is no concession on election night, watch the blue shift and the resulting rhetoric coming from both campaigns and their supporters. The shift may provide a pathway for attempting to call the results of the election into question.
Too Close to Call
Not every state will call a winner of the presidential election on election night. State laws vary on when mail-in ballots are counted. Florida begins counting mail-in ballots prior to Election Day. Other states, among them Pennsylvania, begin counting ballots on Election Day. Additionally, state laws vary on when ballots must be postmarked and received to be counted. Expect election results that are too close to call in some states, particularly because of the increased use of main-in ballots due to the pandemic. If things are not decisive on election night, keep an eye on these states, especially if they are important for the Electoral College count. In this scenario, they will become a focal point of rhetorical and legal challenges.
The Balance of Power in Congress
We often focus our attention on the presidential election, but congressional races are important to consider on election night as well. The balance of power in Congress will impact the President’s ability to implement his agenda. A president going into his second term (Trump) or starting a new administration (Biden) will find their agenda stalled without unified control of government.
Election forecasters think that the Democrats are “all but certain to keep their majority” in the House of Representatives. As a result, Senate races will be much more interesting and consequential on election night. Most of the 35 seats up for election are uncompetitive, but there are a few that could alter the balance of power in the chamber. A party must hold 50 seats to control the chamber if the President is from the same party because the Vice President breaks a tie in the Senate. Republicans currently hold 53 seats and Democrats currently hold 47 (two of which are Independents that caucus with the Democrats). Republicans are likely to gain a seat in Alabama with incumbent Sen. Doug Jones (D) likely to lose to his challenger Tommy Tuberville (R). However, there are a number of seats currently held by incumbent Republicans that appear to be on shaky ground when looking at state-level polls and other fundamentals, these include races in Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina, and South Carolina.
Of course, not all of these seats will flip, but unified government is within the realm of possibility for a potential Biden administration, while divided government is likely to continue if President Trump is re-elected.
As Robert Dahl stated in his article “Myth of the Presidential Mandate,” no president nor any other elected leader “is uniquely privileged to say what an election means – nor to claim that the election has conferred on the president a mandate to enact the particular policies the president supports.” Nonetheless, that will not stop them from trying.
Citizens will vote for any number of reasons for Donald Trump or Joe Biden. Regardless, the winner and his supporters will seek to bring meaning to the election by framing the results as a victory for the candidate's policy vision. If most of the votes for Joe Biden are simply cast as a repudiation of President Trump, does that give a hypothetical Biden administration a “mandate” to enact the policies that he has advocated? If President Trump wins, how are we to understand what the voters are saying?
Ultimately, the winners will tell us what it all means, but they will be wrong. The outcome is an aggregation of millions of individual decisions (some about economics, some about race, some about group interests, some about single issues, etc.). In the end, all mandates are politically constructed. Watch closely to see how the winner and his supporters frame the results to try and bring the power of the “popular will” to the support of their agenda.
The 2020 election has produced rhetoric that has inflamed the electorate and caused many to question the electoral process. During these times of anger and uncertainty, it is important to note the strength and resiliency of our democratic institutions. We rely upon our constitutional procedures to guide us through any contention that may arise in the days after the election. In the coming days, we will witness American democracy in action.