Dialogue Minnesota: Election analysis, both nationally and in Minnesota

Jim du Bois is joined by U of M Associate Professor of Political Science Kathryn Pearson.
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The 2020 elections saw historic levels of voter turnout here in Minnesota and nationwide. Major news outlets have declared Joe Biden the president-elect, but President Donald Trump has thus far refused to concede defeat. His campaign has filed numerous lawsuits in several states challenging the vote-counting process. 

While Democrats clinched the presidency and hold a slim majority in the U.S. House, the party did not have the success in down-ballot federal and state races that the polling data were indicating. 

Jim du Bois, host of the podcast Dialogue Minnesota, spoke with University of Minnesota Associate Professor of Political Science Kathryn Pearson who provides analysis of this most unusual election. The recap is below, or you can listen to the full episode here

Presidential race

While President Trump continues to contest the election results, Pearson says the process is already underway to confer Biden the winner.

“It won’t be absolutely official until Congress certifies the votes of the Electoral College, and that will happen on January 6th, but it (a Biden victory) seems quite certain,” says Pearson. “Each state will go through their canvassing process and do their final audits and certify the vote totals, and that should happen in the coming days, but given the wide margins in several of the states, it seems that even if there is a recount in certain states, it would be highly unlikely for President Trump to win at this point, given the numbers that are in.”

According to Pearson, Trump’s unwillingness to concede is unique in American political history.

“We’re in unprecedented territory here, and a concession is not actually necessary,” says Pearson. “Biden will become president when the votes are certified and the Electoral College votes are counted, and on January 20th at noon, Joe Biden will become president.”

Although a concession from Trump is basically a formality and the transfer of presidential power will take place regardless, Pearson says his refusal to acknowledge defeat is consequential and diminishes trust in the electoral process.

“But nonetheless, for the legitimacy of our democracy, it would be very helpful if President Trump would concede,” says Pearson.

Trump’s reluctance to concede is impeding the presidential transition process, says Pearson, who notes that the transition to the Trump administration was a bit rocky as well, and it had nothing to do with the Obama administration.

“That had to do with the fact that the Trump team was slower than previous newly-elected administrations and even when he was still a candidate in getting his transition team going,” says Pearson.

Pearson believes that despite the Trump administration’s unwillingness to begin the transition process, Biden’s past experience in the White House and the Senate gives him access to people who have helped him in the past that he can rely on as part of a transition team.

“But if the Trump team is not cooperative, and we’re already seeing early signs of that, that is troubling and it will impose some barriers,” Pearson says.

Polling issues resurface

During the days leading up to the 2016 election, polls consistently showed Hillary Clinton in the lead. Following Trump’s unexpected victory, pollsters vowed to correct the deficiencies that underreported the numbers of Trump supporters. Pearson notes that the pollsters failed to survey sufficient numbers of white men without college degrees.

“Those with college degrees are more likely to respond to polls, and education was a bigger factor in predicting vote choice (in 2016) than it had been in previous elections,” says Pearson.

Most pollsters expressed confidence that the 2020 polls would be more accurate than they were four years earlier, but according to Pearson, some patterns emerged that were similar to what happened in 2016.

“We still saw in 2020 an underestimate of support for President Trump and Republican candidates more generally,” Pearson says. “There were many House and Senate races where Republicans won or won by bigger numbers than the polls indicated.”

Pearson says that while “the polling was off, and it was off systematically in one direction of under-representing support for President Trump and other Republican candidates,” once all results are tabulated the polls will probably be “sort of less off than we thought they were on election night.”

With Minnesota and other states setting records for voter turnout, Pearson says that caused issues for pollsters who failed to accurately estimate who was likely to vote.

“But the other problem is that experts use these aggregated polls to predict an outcome. And so, if we think about Nate Silver and Nate Cohen from 538 and the New York Times, respectively, a lot of people are going to those sites to say Biden has a 70 percent chance of winning when really people should just look at the polling averages and realize that these polls have a margin of error.”

Pearson says using a percentage chance of victory “is just not helpful in understanding the dynamics of the election.”

Pearson believes that polls are simply not a good way to predict election results.

“I think it would be a better use of polling energy to direct the polls to measure what policies voters favor,” says Pearson. “What do voters want from their elected representatives? There are a lot of good uses for polling, but I think trying to predict election outcomes is not necessarily one of them.”

Both the media and the public place too much credence in polling, says Pearson, and when election results do not correspond to what the polls were indicating, that can further erode trust in both the polls and the news media that reports them.

“We’re at a perilous point right now in terms of the division of Americans (and) in terms of people choosing media that reinforce their particular viewpoints, and then we have a president who calls the media ‘fake news’ and talks about the polls a lot,” says Pearson. “And so, I think in pollsters’ defense, the pollsters aren’t telling us to take their polls as an election outcome, but that’s what people are doing and so it becomes problematic.”

Voting trends

Pearson says the election largely followed historical trends in terms of how certain demographic groups voted.

“We see voters of color overwhelmingly prefer Democratic candidates including Joe Biden, and a lot has been made of the fact that a sizable percentage, depending upon the state you’re looking at, somewhere in the neighborhood of 30-40 percent of Latinx men supported Trump, but those numbers actually aren’t too inconsistent with what we often see. Hispanic and Latinx voters are not a monolithic group just as any other group is not a monolithic group,” Pearson says.

While women were more likely to support Biden than Trump, Pearson notes that a majority of white women voted for Trump in 2020 echoing the trend from the 2016 presidential election.

“Women of color are overwhelmingly supportive of Democratic candidates and Joe Biden,” says Pearson. “We see educational differences where those with college degrees are more likely to favor Biden than Trump and then sort of more of a split among those without college degrees. We see this increasing trend that was very pronounced four years ago and pronounced again this year where voters in urban areas prefer Democratic candidates and voters in rural, more sparsely populated areas prefer Republican candidates.”

Republican women candidates win Congressional seats

In 2018, a historic number of women were elected to Congress, but those gains were primarily driven by Democrats. This year, the momentum shifted to the GOP.

“Republican women had a great night when it came to House candidates,” says Pearson. “Their numbers, I think, just about doubled whereas the same was not true for Democratic women. That said, still, Democratic women massively outnumber Republican women in the House of Representatives.”

Presidential race in Minnesota

Pearson says that despite Biden’s more decisive victory over Trump compared to Hillary Clinton’s performance in the 2016 presidential race in Minnesota, the President did not loose voters. Biden gained significant numbers of voters, primarily in Hennepin and Ramsey counties.

“The increase, especially in Hennepin County, in voters for Biden over Clinton was just enormous,” says Pearson. “Of course, Hennepin County went for Clinton four years ago but many more voters came to the polls from Hennepin County in this election than they did four years ago, and because Hennepin County is so densely populated, that made all the difference in the statewide races.”

Minnesota Senate race

Incumbent DFL Senator Tina Smith defeated her GOP challenger, former 2nd District Congressman and radio talk show host Jason Lewis. Control of the Senate hinges on the outcome of the Georgia runoff election in early January. 

If both Democrats win in that race, the Senate will be split 50-50 between Republicans and Democrats. Under that scenario, Vice President-elect Kamala Harris would cast the tie-breaking vote. 

Pearson says even if the Senate is split equally, many votes would require a supermajority of 60, a prospect that seems unlikely given the current partisanship in Congress, and that reality would block Democrats from pushing through some of their more ambitious legislation, such as a Green New Deal. Pearson notes that the budget reconciliation process only requires a simple majority, and that could work in the Democrat’s favor if their candidates prevail in Georgia.

Democrats lose in the Seventh Congressional District

Longtime Congressman Collin Peterson was defeated by his GOP challenger, former Minnesota state Senator and Lieutenant Governor Michele Fischbach, in Minnesota’s Seventh Congressional District. Peterson was the chair of the House Agriculture Committee and was popular among his constituents. Pearson says she was not overly surprised by Peterson’s loss.

“In general, in House and presidential races, there is less ticket-splitting than there used to be. And that (CD-7) is a district that went for Trump by 30 points in both 2016 and 2020, so it takes a lot of ticket-splitting as did occur in 2016 to vote Republican at the presidential level and Democratic at the congressional level,” Pearson says.

GOP Rep. Jim Hagedorn retains his First District House seat

Jim Hagedorn repeated his success in 2018 by again defeating his Democratic challenger Dan Feehan. While many political operatives expected that the district could flip to the Democrats, Pearson says Hagedorn benefited from his one-term incumbency and the coattail effect of President Trump.

“The partisan advantage outweighed everything,” says Pearson.

Minnesota Legislative races follow national trend

All 201 seats in the Minnesota state Legislature were on the ballot. DFLer’s were optimistic that they could ride on an anticipated “blue wave” and potentially gain additional House seats and recapture control of the Senate. Neither happened.

Pearson notes that “both in Minnesota and at the national level, Biden really did not have coattails. We usually think of presidential elections that whichever party wins, that party picks up some House seats and some legislative chambers across the country. And that did not happen, which was interesting. One of the reasons it didn’t happen in Minnesota is because of the nature of where the votes for Biden and Smith came from. And that is of course Hennepin County, Ramsey County and the suburbs.”

Pearson says the outcome of the legislative races in Minnesota and in many states across the country illustrates a growing urban-rural political divide.

“Republican voters throughout the state are spread out more efficiently than Democratic voters. In other words, Democratic voters are more highly concentrated and their representatives win by big margins in the urban areas, and with Republicans more spread out across the rest of the state, oftentimes Republican legislators may win by smaller margins but they do have more voters in these districts. And some of those districts are just extremely competitive, and so an individual campaign can make a difference,” says Pearson.

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