2020’s Knife Edge Election: An Analysis

Covid and BLM protests were key to Biden’s victory

The 2020 election is very much like the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: Virtually everyone can hear “fate knocking at the door.” But agreement on what that means is elusive.

Many foreign observers and Democrats, who never warmed to Trump anyway, keep wondering how he could possibly have rolled up more than seventy-four million votes in 2020 – as he said, more than any sitting president in history. Conversely, supporters of the former President and members of the Republican establishment advance all kinds of theories, some quite outlandish, to explain how the Democrats managed to win.

Meanwhile, everyone is pondering the long-term implications of the Trump movement’s transformation into an openly anti-system political formation uncomfortably reminiscent of the Weimar Republic as well as the breathtaking way big tech companies selectively shut off access to their systems following the storming of the Capitol. As the changes sweeping through the international system become more obvious, new worries are also rising: in particular, whether the shocking American exit from Afghanistan is a warning that the establishments of both political parties are living in a fool’s paradise.

All this persuades us that a careful look at what happened in the 2020 election is not idle curiosity. Elections, especially in money-driven political systems, are complicated affairs that repay analysis at many different levels.

Our new INET Working Paper analyzes the 2020 presidential election, focusing on voters, not political money, and emphasizing the importance of economic geography. Drawing extensively on county election returns, it analyzes how spatial factors combined with industrial structures to shape the outcome. It treats Covid 19’s role at length. The paper reviews studies suggesting that Covid 19 did not matter much, but then sets out a new approach indicating it mattered a great deal. The paper analyzes the impact on the vote not only of unemployment but differences in income and industry structures, along with demographic factors, including religion, ethnicity, and race. It also studies how the waves of wildcat strikes and social protests that punctuated 2020 affected the vote in specific areas. Trump’s very controversial trade policies and his little-discussed farm policies receive detailed attention.

The paper concludes with a look at how political money helped make the results of the Congressional election different from the Presidential race. It also highlights the continuing importance of private equity and energy sectors opposed to government action to reverse climate change as conservative forces in (especially) the Republican Party, together with agricultural interests.

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