Politics, like most interests with competing claims, is a zero-sum game: One side's gains are the other's losses. This year's national elections may defy that theory, with troubling news for both sides.
For Democrats the big one, the presidential contest, overshadowed everything. Unlike a Reagan or Bush, many of their elected officials and many voters considered Donald TrumpDonald TrumpDeputy AG: DOJ investigating fake Trump electors Former Boston Red Sox star David Ortiz elected to Baseball Hall of Fame Overnight Health Care — Senators unveil pandemic prep overhaul MORE an existential evil. Shortly after 11:26 a.m. Saturday, when the Associated Press officially called the contest for Biden, there were cheers and blaring horns all over blue America.
But on most every other level, it was a disappointing election.
Democrats were confident they would win control of the Senate and increase their House majority; plans were afoot for a major virus and economic relief package right off the bat; instead, their House majority was reduced, and the Senate remains — for now — in Republican hands.
Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellHow Cruz Supreme Court case could lead to unlimited anonymous election spending Trump and Biden should stop denigrating US elections The Armageddon elections to come MORE will be a dream-killer for Democrats' ambitious agenda.
Over the longer run, the most costly losses were in the state legislature races. Ever since they took a huge drubbing in 2010, enabling the GOP to control redistricting of congressional and state legislatures the following year, Democrats have been fighting back, with this year the key culmination. They failed. They failed to flip any legislatures, and overall the Republicans will have the upper hand in next year's redistricting following the census.
The Democratic Party, which has a pretty good bench in state houses and in Washington, lost opportunities to build a stronger political farm club.
Around the country, Democrats suffered unexpected setbacks among Hispanic voters, especially in Florida and South Texas. If the party's left wing thinks socialism is the answer, they might check with some of these voters.
The Republicans’ successes in national and state races were offset by longer run problems. Trump lost, but not by the huge margin that some party members hoped would drive Trumpism away. Instead, he's not only the dominant Republican figure, but it's still the Trump party.
The Senate will likely be personified by McConnell, who, whatever his inside skills is a politician who cares only about power and money, is no Howard Baker or Bob Dole. The key Republican figure in the House will be Ohio's Jim JordanJames (Jim) Daniel JordanAre the legal walls closing in on Donald Trump? Biden: A good coach knows when to change up the team House has the power to subpoena its members — but does it have the will? MORE, a right winger who cares more about who he hates than any conservative principles.
Vitriol, racism, xenophobia, misogyny, crazy conspiracies were the Trump staple, though all of his followers didn't share those views. Trump never reached out or tried to build a larger coalition, always reverting to fearmongering. He shrewdly played on grievances and conveyed a populist appeal — we're the “us,” they're the “them” — but it was a faux populism, more rhetoric than reality.
This election strengthened the Republican Party’s loony elements. Georgia's Republicans elected to the House Marjorie Greene, a backer of QAnon, which charges prominent Democrats are running pedophile rings and throws in some anti-semitism for good measure. A new House member from North Carolina will be Madison Cawthorn, who put out pictures of visiting Hitler's chalet and on a campaign website criticized a critic for having worked for “non-white males.”
There are flaky Democrats, but not that flaky.
An establishment Republican politician like South Carolina's Lindsey GrahamLindsey Olin GrahamSenators huddle on Russia sanctions as tensions escalate Juan Williams: It's Trump vs. McConnell for the GOP's future Biden's year two won't be about bipartisanship MORE said Blacks can succeed if they're conservative and women can if they're pro-life and religious. Those tens of millions of non-conservative African Americans and secular, pro-choice women are apparently just out of luck in Lindsey's world.
To be sure, Trump energized voters only he could reach. He got a million more votes in Florida than four years ago. Democrats were optimistic that Biden would do well in white, working-class Pennsylvania's Luzerne County, near where he was born; instead, Trump carried it by almost as much as he did four years before against Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham ClintonThe Armageddon elections to come Poll: Trump leads 2024 Republican field with DeSantis in distant second The politics of 'mind control' MORE.
The Republicans paid a price Tuesday with the fastest growing parts of America: young voters, suburbanites, moderate women. That's why Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina now are purple states. Biden's victory margin in the populous Philadelphia suburbs was more than 100,000 votes greater than Clinton's.
(A personal aside: I grew up in one of those “collar counties” — Chester — and years ago, my Dad said that a neighbor, Bill Churchman, is “a good guy even though he's a Democrat.” There weren't many. Last Tuesday, Biden won every Chester County precinct, carrying it with almost 60 percent, more than 50,000.)
In the post-Trump era, the Republican charge is to keep the president's populist appeal while trying to win back some of these voters. That's a nearly impossible straddle.
Postscript: Several weeks ago, I suggested watching seven bellwether counties that voted for Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaWhat does the Preamble to the Constitution have to do with Build Back Better? White House underscores action amid violent crime streak Biden frustration with Fox News breaks through surface MORE and then for Trump. Penobscot County, Maine, went this time for Trump, enabling him to again win one Maine elector, in a state that divides its electors by congressional district. Pinellas County, Fla., with the largest bloc of elderly citizens, went narrowly for Biden, reflecting his improved standing with seniors. Macomb County, Mich., home of the fabled Reagan Democrats, stayed with Trump, though he lost the state. Trump romped in Clinton County, Iowa, and Stark County, Ohio, as he did in both those states. Erie County, Pa., narrowly switched back to the Democratic column as did the state. Sauk County, Wis., a medium-sized South Western county that mirrors the state's politics, went about 1 percent for Biden-Harris, as did the Badger state.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.