On Tuesday afternoon, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden articulated the optimism of many in his party before the polls closed on Election Day.
“You can’t think of an election in the recent past where so many states are up for grabs,” he told reporters. “There’s so much in play right now.”
By Wednesday evening, that picture — and the Democratic mood — looked very different.
Biden inched closer to a narrow Electoral College victory over President Trump, which would be a long-awaited triumph for Democrats against a president they intensely dislike. But that triumph would be robbed of some of its sweetness — and potential for enacting change.
Liberals hoped for a resounding repudiation of Trump that, they hoped, would have echoed from Florida to Ohio to Texas, sweeping in a crop of new Democratic senators and House members as well. Expectations were buoyed by now-questionable pre-election polling that showed Biden leading even in some red states.
Instead, if Biden squeaks into the White House, it likely will be with Republicans still in control of the Senate, and with House Democrats clinging onto a significantly slimmed down majority. That means the programs Democrats dreamed of implementing when they recaptured the White House, from shoring up the Affordable Care Act to bold action on climate change, are likely out of reach in a divided Washington.
“It just changes the ceiling of what’s possible,” said Adam Green, the cofounder of the liberal Progressive Change Campaign Committee. Progressives have little hope that Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell will develop enthusiasm for their top issues. Democrats' best case for the Senate is a 50-50 tie, analysts said, which would require them to win two runoff elections in Georgia in January. Only one of those Georgia races is sure to head to a runoff so far.
Speaking from Delaware on Wednesday, Biden promised to unify the country if he becomes president. “I know how deep and hard the opposing views are in our country,” he said. “But I also know this as well — to make progress, we have to stop treating our opponents as enemies. We are not enemies.”
Meanwhile, Democrats are attempting to figure out why they were not able to run stronger against an unpopular incumbent in the midst of a deadly pandemic that has taken more than 230,000 lives. Public and private polling of both parties, which consistently showed Biden leading the race by a large margin, misread the contest just as polling had done in 2016. Exit polling is less reliable than usual due to pandemic-related changes in how it’s conducted.
That makes it hard for Democrats to piece together exactly what happened.
Democratic Representative Donna Shalala, who likely lost her Miami-area seat on Tuesday thanks in part to a surge of conservative Cuban American voters showing up for Trump, declined a request to discuss what she believes went wrong. “I’m not sure what happened,” she said in a text message.
It’s not only her. Many Democrats running for House and Senate seats underperformed Biden, even in Democratic districts they were expected to win. They included Gina Ortiz Jones, who lost her bid for an open seat in a Texas district on the border with Mexico.
There’s no easy explanation for why.
Ian Russell, the former political director of the Democrats' House campaign arm, noted that both conservatives and moderates lost on Tuesday.
“You can’t walk away from this saying we need to move farther to the left or we need to move farther to the center,” he said.
“Each Democratic disappointment is its own story,” said Ross Baker, political scientist at Rutgers University who worked for former Senate majority leader Harry Reid.
In Iowa, it appeared that Trump was able to pull not only Senator Joni Ernst across the finish line but also Republican Ashley Hinson, who narrowly defeated Democratic incumbent Representative Abby Finkenauer. But in North Carolina, by contrast, Democratic Senate challenger Cal Cunningham became embroiled in a sexting scandal involving a married woman who was not his wife, a story that emerged in the final weeks of the race.
Signs of Democratic enthusiasm, like the stunning amount of money Democratic challengers raised in races across the country, didn’t translate into wins in high-profile Senate races in Maine, South Carolina, and North Carolina.
As they contemplate a patchwork of disappointing down-ballot results, Democrats are homing in on a few key questions about their 2020 strategy. They are questioning the decision by the Biden campaign not to do door-to-door canvassing until September due to the pandemic, and the party’s apparent underperformance among voters of color, which raises concerns about both their message and outreach.
“Even when we win, and I believe we will, we need to have a conversation about the fact that Joe Biden underperformed [Hillary] Clinton among people of color,” Russell said. “I’ve never believed that demographics is destiny and it’s more important than ever to not take anything for granted.”
One of the night’s most contested slices of the electorate was Latino voters, a diverse population on track this year to be the largest group of voters of color.
Biden underperformed Clinton in majority-Latino areas on the Mexican border in Texas, as well as in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, which has a large percentage of Cuban American voters. But he appeared to prevail with Latinos overall in Florida, as well as in Texas and Arizona, where organizers have been working over the past decade. Biden also more than doubled the early ballots cast by Latino voters in Wisconsin, according to the voter database Catalist.
“What Democrats need to learn from last night is that victories don’t happen overnight,” said Stephanie Valencia, the president of Equis Research, which focuses on Latino voters. “Arizona was the result of 10 years of work.”
Mike Madrid, a Republican consultant working for the anti-Trump Lincoln Project PAC, had a harsher assessment, saying there was a lack of Democratic understanding of Latino voters.
“If they keep burying their head in the sand, they’re going to keep getting bad results,” Madrid said of Democrats. “If they can’t win Latino votes against Donald Trump, God bless them.”
The Biden campaign defended its performance with Latino voters, saying that Trump overperformed with Cuban Americans in Florida, but that Biden held his own with other Latino voters in Florida, as well as in Arizona, Nevada, and other states. They also defended the choice not to knock on doors over the summer.
“We canvassed in person, we engaged in person since September, but we did it in a safe way,” said Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon. “We made sure we were not putting our volunteers or any voters at risk.”
Exit polls also suggested Trump significantly improved his performance with Black voters against Biden.
“Trump put a lot of money into his Black outreach program and Latino outreach and we raised the alarm about the tactics he was using in cities like Milwaukee and Philadelphia,” said Jennifer Epps Addison, the president of the progressive grass-roots group the Center for Popular Democracy.
Epps Addison said Biden’s past support for a landmark crime bill in the 1990s and his running mate Kamala Harris’s past record on criminal justice issues gave Trump an opening to court Black voters.
Still, voters of color overwhelmingly voted for Biden — and likely delivered him the win
“What won Wisconsin will be record turnout from the Black and brown community in Milwaukee,” she said.
Globe reporter Vicki McGrane contributed to this report.