Trump may be denied a second term but he has demonstrated beyond a doubt that he is leading a personality- and grievance-based movement that continues to have startling vitality—much more than suggested by pre-election polls and pundit forecasts.
Biden may yet achieve something that doesn’t happen often—just twice in the past half-century, and the last time 28 years ago—by denying an incumbent president a second term. But he won’t do it by riding some kind of inexorable blue wave. Nothing in the election results looks likely to infuse him suddenly with some new FDR-like aura. If he wins it will be because he was by a narrow margin a satisfactory vessel for the anti-Trump movement. If he loses it will be because he was just a shade shy of satisfactory…
If there wasn’t an unambiguous winner, there was a plain loser: It was the certitude industry, comprised heavily of pollsters, commentators and journalists. “Why Biden’s poll lead is different than Hillary Clinton’s,” read an article on NBC’s site, explaining why a recent NBC/Wall Street Journal poll showing a double-digit national lead was deserving of respect, even though that poll had missed Trump’s victory. (The answer was that Biden’s support had crossed the 50 percent threshold.) No need to pick on NBC, whose analysis was representative. There was also the Washington Post¸ “Yes, Clinton also had a big lead in 2016 — but this isn’t 2016.” Uncharitable observers may even recall an author (umm, the same one you are reading now) who speculated that Trump’s situation last summer looked so dire that he might drop out to save face.
The assumption that 2020—a year rocked by pandemic and racial unrest—is markedly different than 2016 was hard to sustain as Tuesday turned to Wednesday. The differences, to the contrary, are matters of nuance. Yes, Biden improved margins in several key counties even in states he didn’t win—possibly a good sign for states that are still not called. Yes, minor differences will add up to something very large if they ultimately yield even a narrow Biden victory.