The data reveals foreign influence and pollsters are 2020’s biggest losers
Joe Biden will be the 46th president and that the Democrats have held onto the House. With the Election Day dust now settled, let’s take a look at the winners and losers, courtesy of the data.
Winners: Republicans in Congress. Republican Senators dodged a bullet. Polling data indicated that they would be in jeopardy of losing their majority, with several thought to be in trouble, including Sens. Lindsay Graham (R-S.C.) and Susan Collins (R-Maine), yet only the two most vulnerable, Sen. Martha McSally (R-Ariz.) and Cory Gardner (R-Colo.), lost their seats. With the pick-up in Alabama, the Republicans went full circle and should retain their majority, likely through 2024. Republicans also gained ground in the House. With 26 of the past 30 midterm elections (dating back to 1902) resulting in the sitting president’s party losing House seats, Republicans are poised to recapture the House in 2022 and control Congress through 2024, a true divided government.
Loser: Foreign influence. In spite of fears of foreign manipulation, any attempts to change the outcome of the election were mitigated. Rogue social media foreign influencers were a nonissue. The American people can feel confident that the results obtained and reported from Election Day were by the people and for the people.
Winner: Early voting and mail-in ballots. Over 100 million people voted before Election Day, easing lines and COVID-19 anxiety at polling stations. Concerns about the post office not delivering mail-in ballots appears to be unfounded. There has been no system-wide evidence of foul play or voter fraud. Mail-in voting worked and permitted many more people to cast their ballots than in previous elections. The one drawback was getting all such ballots counted quickly and accurately, precipitating delays in reporting the results. However, the ease of voting prior to Election Day was a factor that contributed to over 150 million people participating, an all-time record.
Losers: Pollsters. 2016 was a disaster for pollsters, who incorrectly forecasted a rout for Hillary Clinton over Donald Trump. Lessons learned were applied in 2020, with the results better but still less than ideal. Data analytics websites gave Trump little hope for winning in 2016 or 2020. Polls for key senate races were even worse. Fivethirtyeight.com gave Donald Trump a 25 percent chance of winning in 2016 and a 10 percent chance of winning in 2020. These websites rely on polling data to drive their forecasts. As with all models, what is put into models impacts what comes out. Better methods are needed to sample voter preferences in a population, or are standard polling methods unreliable with a candidate like Trump? Forecasting websites need better inputs for 2024.
Winner: Alan Lichtman. The American University professor of history has demonstrated a knack of predicting the outcome of presidential elections for decades. Few have enjoyed such an untarnished record of success, based on his “13 Keys to the White House.” He boldly predicted a victory for Biden, and stood by it to the end. When it appeared that Trump would prevail, it would have been the first blemish on his record. Though challenged, he deserves accolades for standing by his model, which proved to be correct once again.
Within a few weeks, after a series of recounts, court challenges and on-going accusations of voter fraud and other nefarious activities, the final results will be certified, with the Electors casting their votes on Dec. 14. The bottom line is that the election was held relatively peacefully, with little fanfare and disruption, amidst the backdrop of a global pandemic. Which leads to the final winner:
The American People. The nation voted during one of the most challenging public health events in American history. There was no anarchy nor looting (at least not yet) in the streets. The country proved that it could behave in a civil and respectful manner, even when our beliefs are different. It has been said that power doesn’t corrupt people, but rather, it is the fear of losing power. Perhaps this can be a sign for better things ahead, no matter who wins the White House in future elections. Indeed, data informed the election process and demonstrated that every American can be a winner.
Sheldon H. Jacobson, PhD, is a founder professor of Computer Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He applies his expertise in data-driven risk-based assessment to evaluate and inform public policy. He is the founder of Election Analytics at the University of Illinois, a STEM learning laboratory for election forecasting.