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The Memo: Trump lost but is not vanquished

The 2020 election was a referendum on President TrumpDonald John TrumpTrump rages against '60 Minutes' for interview with Krebs Cornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Pa. lawmaker was informed of positive coronavirus test while meeting with Trump: report MORE that drove record turnout.

Trump lost that referendum, but the question of what happens to the president and his brand of populist identity politics is a harder question to answer.

Biden is on course to beat Trump by well more than 5 million votes nationwide.

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In the Electoral College, Biden seems likely to win 306 votes to Trump’s 232.

That would be a reversal of 2016, when states won by Trump gave him 306 electoral votes to Democratic nominee Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonCornyn spox: Neera Tanden has 'no chance' of being confirmed as Biden's OMB pick Groups seek to get Black vote out for Democrats in Georgia runoffs Biden's political position is tougher than Trump's MORE’s 232. Clinton beat Trump in the popular vote by a little less than 3 million votes.

While 128 million votes were cast for the two major party candidates in 2016, nearly 146 million had been counted in 2020 as of Sunday morning. Biden and Trump each won more than 70 million votes.

The race was tight in key states such as Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Georgia and Arizona. Biden’s win in 2020 in that way was similar to Trump’s in 2016, when he earned narrow victories in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.

Trump won the largest battleground of all, Florida, by a greater margin than he did four years ago. He coasted to victory in Ohio and Iowa, two states that he has made solidly red since former President Obama carried them in 2008 and 2012.

Just as startling for Trump’s most fervent critics, the president nudged up his share of support from African American and Latino voters. White women favored him by a slightly wider margin than they did in 2016. 

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Biden’s victory did not come with coattails. Republicans will hold their Senate majority unless Democrats can win two runoff elections in Georgia in January. The GOP has gained seats in the House.

“I have to say I was surprised by how well he did,” Republican strategist Dan Judy said of Trump. “He got more votes — not just in raw votes but in percentage terms — than he did four years ago. Given that he has been a historically unpopular president, that is pretty surprising.”

At the same time, Judy cautioned against giving too much credit to Trump’s performance. 

He noted the scale of his popular vote defeat and emphasized, as did other sources, how public perception of the election’s message might have been very different had the exact same results been delivered more quickly.

In Democratic circles, the overwhelming sentiment is relief. Biden has pulled through and hastened the end of the Trump presidency. But some within the party are alarmed at how close the margins were in key states.

“Short of maybe 50,000 or 100,000 votes, this could have been a catastrophe on all fronts,” said one Democratic strategist who requested anonymity.

Democrats are set to embark on their own internal debate. Tensions between progressives, who argue the party did not invigorate voters as much as it should have, and centrists, who see the left as electoral poison, exploded in a conference call of Democratic House members Thursday. The schism won’t disappear anytime soon.

But rifts within the Republican Party over Trump and Trumpism are also moving to the surface — especially after the president’s repeated and false insistences that the election is being stolen from him.

Prominent elected officials such as Sens. Ted CruzRafael (Ted) Edward CruzTrump banking proposal on fossil fuels sparks backlash from libertarians Former CIA head, Cruz trade jabs over killing of Iranian nuclear scientist: 'You are unworthy to represent the good people of Texas' O'Brien on 2024 talk: 'There's all kinds of speculation out there' MORE (R-Texas) and Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamIs Trump headed to another campaign or to a courtroom? Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls Republicans ready to become deficit hawks again under a President Biden MORE (R-S.C.) and House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthyKevin Owen McCarthyDemocrats were united on top issues this Congress — but will it hold? Top Republicans praise Trump's Flynn pardon Richmond says GOP 'reluctant to stand up and tell the emperor he wears no clothes' MORE (R-Calif.) had leant support to Trump’s protests before the race was called for Biden.

Others including Sen. Mitt RomneyWillard (Mitt) Mitt RomneyVoters elected a record number of Black women to Congress this year — none were Republican Congress set for chaotic year-end sprint Biden's Cabinet a battleground for future GOP White House hopefuls MORE (R-Utah) and Rep. Adam KinzingerAdam Daniel KinzingerFirst release from Fox News Books reaches No. 2 on Amazon top-seller list GOP lawmaker says colleagues 'waiting' for Trump to come to terms with loss GOP lawmaker: Trump implementing a 'loyalty purge' amid firing of top cybersecurity official MORE (R-Ill.) had been far more critical. After Trump made inflammatory remarks from the White House on Thursday evening, Kinzinger tweeted “this is getting insane” and asserted that Trump should “STOP spreading debunked misinformation.”

In terms of grassroots support, the millions of members of Trump’s MAGA base will not simply vanish. They will likely stick with him through election-related legal battles in the days to come.

Conservatives critical of Trump such as strategist and author Rick Tyler hearkened back to the famous “autopsy” that the GOP conducted after its 2012 defeat. The document, prepared at the behest of the Republican National Committee, urged the party to embrace diversity and be more appealing to young Americans.

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“We recognized the problem, and then we took three steps back, rejecting the diagnosis,” Tyler said. “Now the U.S. has rejected Trump. So the party needs to revisit the autopsy and say, ‘How do you go from recommending these specific changes to nominating Trump? How did that happen?’”

But, Tyler added, “I don’t know this party is capable of doing it.”

At a minimum, a MAGA constituency that subscribes to the view of Biden and Obama as “criminals” and the media as “enemies of the people” is always going to push the GOP to the right and act as a powerful disincentive to compromise or centrism. That dynamic will hinder any effort to find common ground between Capitol Hill Republicans and President-elect Biden.

More broadly, there are worries for the future of a nation driven toward its extremes not just by Trump but by the amplifying forces of social media and cable news. 

A deeply entrenched system of incentives for loud and shrill voices is very much in place and growing stronger all the time.

Come January, Biden will be the 46th president. But Trump country hasn’t gone away.

The Memo is a reported column by Niall Stanage, primarily focused on Donald Trump’s presidency.