On The Trail: The political losers of 2020

Getty/Madeline Monroe

In an election in which more voters cast ballots than ever before in American history, just about everyone had reason to celebrate. Democrats won the White House. Republicans made surprising gains in the House and held Senate seats even they had expected to lose.

But for every winner, there is at least one loser. Here are the most significant losers in this historic presidential year:

The Kraken

President Trump’s claims of election fraud began even before the votes were counted. They continued long after the fairest, best-run election in years, without a scintilla of evidence.

Trump’s supposedly crack legal team — including a former prosecutor who had not seen the inside of a court room in decades, a former prosecutor fired from her old job for performance issues and a conspiracy-spouting attorney who was too much even for the other two — spent the weeks after Election Day filing lawsuits that went exactly nowhere.

The damage wrought by Trump’s false claims will linger long after he retreats to his Florida estate. Millions of Americans have had their faith in our election process undermined by both the candidate who lost a free and fair election and the media outlets who spread his deceit for their own gain.

Trump himself will end his political career having received more votes than any other Republican in American history. He won the presidency by breaking the political mold. The irony is that if he had followed a more traditional political playbook, adding to his coalition and avoiding the needless antagonism that defined his term, he might be making plans for his second inaugural right now.

New York

Among the winners of the 2020 elections were the dedicated public servants who administered those elections in the midst of a global pandemic and all the challenges it brought.

The big, glaring exception was in New York, where absentee ballots were rejected in huge numbers, where vote counts dragged and where results weren’t known for weeks after both the primary and general elections. State Sen. Zellnor Myrie (D), who will lead election reform legislation in his state next year, told this reporter he was embarrassed by the performance.

New York’s long legacy of lousy election administration has its roots in the Dutch settlers who landed in New Amsterdam centuries ago — they made voting hard because they didn’t want people to vote.

More recently, strong Democratic and Republican machines who ran different parts of the state kept tight controls on who voted because it was in their interest to reduce competition and hold on to power. Today, New York City’s Board of Elections is rife with nepotism and political appointees who are incapable of doing their jobs.

But in the 21st century, when several states conduct elections entirely by mail and others are experimenting with online voting, there’s no excuse for lagging so far behind.

Split-ticket voters

When Bill Clinton won election in 1992, the 32 states he carried were represented by 44 Democrats and 20 Republicans in the Senate. When Joe Biden won the White House in 2020, the 25 states he carried were represented by 48 Democrats and just three Republicans — Sens. Ron Johnson (R-Wis.), Pat Toomey (R-Pa.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine) — pending results in Georgia.

Collins is the only senator in the last two election cycles to carry a state the other party’s presidential candidate won in the previous election.

In the U.S. House, only seven Democrats and nine Republicans won districts the other party’s presidential candidate carried.

There was once a time when a substantial slice of voters were willing to consider splitting their tickets between presidential candidates and down-ballot candidates. Those voters are vanishing as our politics begin to look more like a parliamentary system.


A consequence of that evolution toward a more parliamentary system of politics is the declining power of incumbency. Split-ticket voters were long willing to reward powerful incumbents who brought home the bacon.

But that power of the purse ebbed with the elimination of earmarks, and voters are now more willing to give the boot even to members who amass substantial political power — look no further than Rep. Collin Peterson (D-Minn.), chairman of the House Agriculture Committee, whose heavily agricultural district gave him the boot this year. Peterson lost to Rep.-elect Michelle Fischbach (R) by a 13-point margin.

Peterson joins a parade of longtime members who have lost their districts in recent cycles, including Reps. Dana Rohrabacher (R-Calif.) and Pete Sessions (R-Texas) in 2018 (though Sessions won a comeback bid this year); John Mica (R-Fla.) and Scott Garrett (R-N.J.) in 2016; and John Barrow (D-Ga.), Tim Bishop (D-N.Y.) and Nick Rahall (D-W.Va.) in 2014.

It is rare now that an individual member of Congress can build a brand that transcends their party label. There are a dwindling number of Susan Collinses and Joe Manchins (D-W.Va.), and no sign that their ranks will be replenished any time soon.


It may be hard to recall, but Michael Bloomberg spent $1 billion over the course of just a few months this year trying to win the Democratic presidential nomination. He captured just under 2.5 million votes, or about 7 percent of the total votes cast.

Tom Steyer spent more than $340 million of his own money and dropped out before Super Tuesday, without having won a single delegate.

The biggest donors to political causes this year were Sheldon and Miriam Adelson, the casino magnates who poured $170 million into President Trump’s losing campaign.

Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker (D) spent more than $56 million on a ballot measure to implement a graduated income tax, which failed. Perhaps the only billionaire who won something this year was the hedge fund manager Ken Griffin, who spent almost as much as Pritzker opposing the tax proposal.

It must be nice to have all that money to burn, but billionaires who play politics didn’t do it very efficiently in 2020.

Charlotte and Milwaukee

The Queen City and the Cream City were supposed to host the ridiculously antiquated and yet wonderfully fun political conventions that capture our attention for four days every four years. Then the coronavirus hit, and both events retreated into digital shells of what past events had been.

In the process, Charlotte and Milwaukee lost out, through no fault of their own, on what could have been hundreds of millions of dollars in economic activity, and the attending limelight that comes with a four-day focus on the best a city has to offer.

We won’t know for another four years whether the traditional political convention will make a comeback, or if digitally pre-packaged videos are the future. If parties try to hold in-person conventions again, it would only be fair to give Charlotte and Milwaukee another shot.

On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.

Tags 2020 elections 2020 presidential election Bill Clinton Collin Peterson Dana Rohrabacher Donald Trump Joe Biden John Barrow John Mica losers Michael Bloomberg Nick Rahall On The Trail Pat Toomey Pete Sessions Ron Johnson Scott Garrett Susan Collins Tim Bishop Tom Steyer
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