Nail biting Democrats

04 Nov 2020

OPINION - What can we conclude about the American elections at this point? Most importantly last night it has become clear how polarised the United States are, writes Peter van der Heiden, political scientist and teacher of American politics at Radboud University. He also explains why the Democrats for the second time in a row chose the wrong candidate.

One of the best decisions I made lately, was going to bed on time on the third of November. One of the less clever ones was setting my alarm really early on November fourth. As a completely objective observer (uhm), I really wasn’t prepared to nearly suffer a heart attack after turning on the television. Not again?


Dutch television, in a pretty bad mood (but that could also come from staying up all night) mainly showed the position of Donald Trump, who seemed to be on track for another four years in office. But luckily, there’s also the American channels, who seem to have a bit more insight. At least, I hope, as an – again – objective observer.

Peter van der Heiden

Maybe I’m selling our Dutch USA experts short – I’ve only watched them for a little bit – but they seemed to be focusing on the voting percentages between the candidates, which resulted in a dark vision. For example in Pennsylvania, mother of all swing states, Trump seemed far ahead when I woke up, looking at the percentages. So I had to switch channels – to CNN in this case, which really achieved to put together an impressive election night/morning. With some real interpretation.

And that’s when it became clear that Trump’s big lead could be explained two ways: the complete lack of early voting mail ballots and the fact that mainly the countryside had counted the votes and sent in the results. Almost everyone in the countryside is a republican, while in the big cities, of which the results were still missing, the Democrats tend to get most votes. All this substantiated with numbers, real time. A ‘nail-biter election’, but with real chances for Joe Biden.

Bizarre claim

My near-heart-attack is not the only reason why getting up so early was a bad decision. The fact that it can take a while until we find out what the true results are, counts just as much. That tends to happen with presidential elections – I still have a vivid memory of the November 2000 election night, which would extend to December – but it is a bit unsatisfying to spend hours watching an analysis that is nothing more than speculation. Because the optimism of CNN (that channel isn’t always as objective as well) is nice and all, but it’s not much more than that: speculation. Based on firm assumptions though (we know that many voted upfront, that there’s a high voter turnout and that most of the votes that haven’t been counted are probably for the Democrats) – but they still have to actually be counted. This morning, Trump announced he would try to block those votes through the Supreme Court, because according to him if all votes are counted the votes of his electorate are stolen. A bizarre claim, but it puts things, not unexpectedly, on edge.

You can conclude that America is truly half-Republican and half-Democrat, or maybe even better, half pro-Trump half anti-Trump

The chance that there will be a clear winner before the end of the deadline of this article is really small – so what can we conclude about the elections at this moment? Most important is that last night made clear again how polarised the USA is. The candidates are electorally so close to each other, that you can conclude that America is truly half-Republican and half-Democrat, or maybe even better, half pro-Trump half anti-Trump. That division seems even bigger than four years ago, which isn’t strange after four years of polarising presidency.


A second conclusion could be that the Democrats, for the second time in a row, chose the wrong candidate. If you go to battle against a president who has an ‘approval rating’ of around 40%, you should win by a landslide – you shouldn’t be nail biting for 24 hours waiting to see if you won. Just like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden was a candidate that no one was excited about – and you do need a candidate like that to get into the White House.

Of course, it’s still possible that Joe Biden – when all votes are counted – happens to become the 46th president of the United States. That he finds his way through the loopholes of Trump’s web and gets the key to the White House. That would, in the words of political commenter Van Jones, be a political win, but not the moral win the Democrats hoped for and went for. What they wanted was a mass conviction of Trump and Trumpism as the face of American society – and they haven’t achieved that by a long shot.

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