For Democrats nationally, and many voters across liberal-minded Massachusetts, Tuesday’s election was supposed to be the comeuppance, the course correction for 2016, when rural, mostly white Americans, feeling unheard by the establishment, rose up looking to break something and delivered the presidency to the bluntest instrument they could find.
But this year? After one term of President Trump, 230,000 COVID-19 deaths, a shattered economy, Charlottesville, kids in cages, the “perfect” phone call, and about a million other things, the thinking went, America would surely respond as many polls predicted, with a thunderclap of repudiation for the Trump presidency.
Instead, Trump got more votes than he did in 2016. With votes still being counted, Democrat Joe Biden appeared to be nearing an Electoral College victory, but led by only the tiniest of margins in key states, with the prospect of recounts and court challenges to come.
“There’s a whole group of Democratic Party activists out there that are completely shell-shocked and demoralized about this vote, even if Biden prevails,” said Anthony Cignoli, a political consultant who predominantly works for Democrats and independents. "They’re saying, ‘Holy smokes — you’ve got to be kidding. With all that money raised, with all that money spent, with all those good US Senate candidates recruited in key swing states? How is it possible that these are the numbers?’ "
For Democrats who see Trump’s unfitness as blindingly obvious, it is as if a significant portion of the country has been watching a different movie for the last four years. And in a sense, they have.
Whit Ayres, president of North Star Opinion Research, a GOP polling firm, said he is still reviewing the voting numbers, but at a gut level thinks Trump’s supporters still feel that “their concerns have not been reflected in Washington, that the mainstream media is incredibly unfair to Donald Trump, and that he, despite all his flaws, is willing to stand up for them and their beliefs against the establishment and the mainstream media.”
With the devastation brought by COVID-19, some may have seen the election as a straightforward opportunity to weigh in on Trump’s handling of the pandemic. But epidemiologists acknowledge that as the votes are tallied, it has been anything but.
“The COVID situation is a very tangible marker of the failure of federal policy on managing the pandemic,” said Dr. Megan Murray, a professor of global health at Harvard Medical School. “I would have imagined that to some extent the election was a referendum on how people felt about the pandemic management. And it doesn’t seem to have been.”
Of course, epidemiologists know their perspective is very different from the general public’s. “I am extremely aware of the pandemic, but I have to recognize that is a very different experience from somebody whose only awareness of the pandemic is it’s why they got laid off, or it’s why they can’t do something that they want to do, like go to a bar,” said William Hanage, associate professor of epidemiology at Harvard’s T.H. Chan School of Public Health.
“People don’t vote on the basis of science,” Hanage acknowledged. And now the country has become so divided that “your attitude to the pandemic is determined in many cases by how you vote or how you identify, the tribe in which you identify. This is truly depressing.”
But Hanage said, “I’m not prepared to let those states that voted red just kind of become hotbeds for transmission. Those people deserve care as much as anyone else. And we need to find out the best ways in which we can reach out to them. I know that I was naive when I thought that this might be a unifying thing in our incredibly fractured, fractious age. But I’m not going to give up trying to make it more unifying than it is.”
Theda Skocpol, a professor of government and sociology at Harvard University, agreed that “Democrats in general did hope for more of a repudiation, and I think the polls were very misleading." But "instead of a lot of finger pointing,” she urged Democrats to think through what may have happened, especially the impact of the pandemic on party rebuilding and voter outreach.
Between 2016 and 2018, Skocpol said, there were many “mostly women-led resistance groups that formed, and they not only generated a lot of people who ran for office, they generated a lot of the kind of neighbor-to-neighbor contacting activities” that produce greater understanding of what a diverse range of voters across the country are thinking. Democrats enjoyed big gains in the House in the 2018 midterm elections.
In the presidential race, she said, the fact that the pandemic kept people at home helped push voter outreach toward remote means such as Twitter. “I think the outreach was harmed, particularly in the non-metro areas,” she said.
For many, emotions are running high. “My clients are looking left and right, at their neighbors, and questioning which neighbors are condoning and endorsing the president’s actions with their vote,” said Ericka Bohnel, a Boston psychologist. “This translates to their wondering how that neighbor truly feels about them, around protecting them during a pandemic, defending their ethnic identities, valuing their service to the military, and really any American identity that has felt more vulnerable during this presidency. So their vigilance is up and on guard. People are feeling emotionally confused and vulnerable.”
Of course, there’s an argument to be made that if Trump is defeated, then the voters did repudiate Trump. Incumbents are usually pretty hard to beat. It also looks likely that Biden, win or lose in the Electoral College, has earned more votes than any presidential candidate in history. So one could argue that more people voted against Trump than voted against anybody, ever.
Boston Mayor Martin J. Walsh, who backed Biden in the election, went into Tuesday night anticipating “one of two things was going to happen: either Vice President Biden was going to win in a landslide or it was going to be like what we’re in today,” Walsh told reporters Wednesday at a news conference outside City Hall.
“And I was kind of hoping for the first part of that. Unfortunately, we’re here.” It is a testament, perhaps, he said, to the depths of the cleft dividing red and blue America. “After this election, regardless of who wins, we have work to do,” he said. “We really have to get back to civility in America. We are a divided country in so many different ways.”
Danny McDonald and Liz Kowalczyk of the Globe Staff contributed to this report.