"There's going to be a lot to unpack for weeks, months, and even years ahead."
In the first days after the 2020 presidential election, when results were still trickling in, that was the synopsis offered by David Wasserman, one of the nation's top election experts.
In an informative hour-long talk at AED's post-election virtual event on November 6, underwritten by Hireology, Wasserman weighed in on topics such as the problems with polling, the depths of America's seemingly intractable partisan divide and the likely outcomes of President-elect Biden's policies in the face of a Senate that remains controlled by Republicans.
Wasserman is editor and senior election analyst for The Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan newsletter, and his insights have been featured on Fox News, NBC and CNN, as well as in the Wall Street Journal, The Economist and the Washington Post.
His first order of business was to address a seemingly top-of-mind question for many in the audience: How could the polls have been so far off? He prefaced his comments by saying, "My answer all year had been that polls are like a GPS that can get you into the right neighborhood, but not necessarily to the exact address."
The explanation he finds most plausible revolves around a particular type of voter who's both less likely to answer surveys and more likely to support President Trump. While some have speculated that this was a conscious effort to mislead on the part of poll-takers, Wasserman felt that the explanation lay more in their mistrust and skepticism toward institutions and experts in general. That skepticism extends to polling as an institution, and so they tend to be uncooperative when contacted by pollsters. But it also makes them more favorable toward Trump, who "is better at communicating with voters who feel marginalized than any other politician I've ever covered."
Small differences can and do have a significant impact in any election. Wasserman pointed out that Trump's 2016 victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin were attributable to wins in just three counties: McComb County, Michigan; Westmoreland County, Pennsylvania; and Waukesha County, Wisconsin. While these states flipped to Biden in 2020, this doesn't mean things changed much between the two elections. A lot of pre-election speculation had held that Joe Biden could pick up support among working-class voters because of his ties to blue-collar Scranton, but "if you look around the country, the needle didn't move very much in terms of working class voters."
Wasserman sees what he called "damaging consequences" for the government's ability to function in the ongoing partisan divide. To illustrate that divide, he offered some "night-and-day differences" in survey findings comparing the attitudes of Democrats and Republicans:
- On whether or not the COVID-19 situation is out of control: 95% of Democrats agree, compared to only 23% of Republicans.
- On whom they trust more for information on COVID-19, the CDC, or President Trump: 97% of Democrats choose the CDC, while only 36% of Republicans agree.
- On how they rate the economy: 74% of Republicans choose "excellent" or "good," while a mere 13% of Democrats make the same choice.
- On whether or not they're at least somewhat supportive of the Black Lives Matter movement: 89% of Democrats say they are, compared to 12% of Republicans.
Wasserman responded to multiple questions about government action's likely direction in various policy areas under a Biden presidency. His responses included:
Infrastructure: Wasserman suggested that the House Democrats' infrastructure agenda would be strongly influenced by House Transportation & Infrastructure Committee Peter DeFazio (D-Ore.), a passionate advocate for substantial funding of road, bridge and other public works projects. Yet if Biden, who has expressed a strong interest in infrastructure investment, can get anything accomplished on that front it will depend on the cooperation of Republicans, including Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), to work with Democrats on legislation.
More COVID relief: If nothing happens until after the New Year (i.e., Trump and Congress don’t act), Wasserman said the likely bill would be worth around $2 trillion, with Republicans ensuring that it would be more of a pure small-business relief package.
Tax cuts and the JOBS Act: "There's no clear path right now to one party getting its way on taxation," according to Wasserman. And so the tax reform package signed into law under Trump will almost certainly be the last major action to be seen on tax law for the foreseeable future. In other words, repeal of the Trump tax cuts is improbable in the next congressional session.
Foreign policy: Wasserman pointed out that Biden would be starting with an advantage because he has "met and spent time with more world leaders than just about anyone who's ever entered the presidency." The two initial emphasis areas would be restoring trust with NATO allies and rolling back Trump's tariffs. Also, "I don't anticipate that he'll continue Trump's more open level of communication with North Korea.”
Wasserman's case that there'll be a lot to unpack about this election for years to come was well-supported, and his insights offered great value.
Mike Kallenberger is a frequent contributor to business publications as well as a strategic marketing consultant, doing business as Tropos Brand Consulting. Though he takes a wide range of approaches, his writing specializes in research-driven articles that breathe life into numbers. In 2018 Mike’s article “Craft Brewing and the Evolution of American Culture” won the North American Guild of Beer Writers' award for Best Historical Writing. He lives in Wisconsin between Milwaukee and Madison, where he teaches a course on consumer behavior at the University of Wisconsin.