Home Current Column The Constellation of the US Elections: Background, Context and Implications (Part I)

The Constellation of the US Elections: Background, Context and Implications (Part I)

by Mark Becker

Editor’s note: This is part one of a two piece about the US election 2020. Also, the author stresses that it must be noted that, while the vast majority of states’ votes have been tabulated and a winner publicly acknowledged, the election is not officially over quite yet. States have until Dec. 8 to certify their final vote tallies, which includes outstanding mail-in ballots and potential recounts, as well as their Electors, who will meet to cast their votes on behalf of each state on Dec. 14. Those votes are what officially determine the result of the election, which Congress will count and certify on Jan. 6 once back in session. The new President then will not assume office until Jan. 20 at noon Eastern Standard Time.

The 2020 United States election always shaped up to be a crucial one on multiple fronts, and certainly delivered on the simultaneous promises to produce significant uncertainty and anxiety. A staggeringly inordinate amount hung on this election cycle, which probably explains the modern record turnout percentage not seen since the 19th century. Anticipated drastic changes in the Presidential agenda, shifts in the composition of Congress and impending decisions on various cases by the Supreme Court have captivated the attention of Americans and worldwide leaders alike for month. With the conclusion of the 2020 election, we finally can look ahead with some degree of measured prognostication.

U.S. Government Primer

The three-branch system of government and accompanying term limits in the U.S. necessitates biannual candidate elections, typically resulting in the prospect of power shifting between the two majority and only viable parties, the Democratic and Republican (or Grand Old Party). Presidential elections held every four years always lend more weight to the occasion, usually even more so when a President’s second term has expired and he is not eligible to run again, but also in the case of a largely unpopular incumbent coupled with a big-name challenger. This clearly was the case between Donald Trump (Republican) and former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. (Democrat). In 2020, the public voted on all House of Representative positions, 35 of 100 senators and 11 governors.

In Presidential elections, the winner of the popular vote in each individual state determines which candidate receives the entirety of that state’s votes in the Electoral College. A candidate then must receive a majority (270) of electoral votes to win the office. In the event that no candidate receives a majority (either 269-269 tie or if a third-party candidate received enough votes to keep another from earning at least 270), the House of Representatives would then vote to determine the next President, while the Senate would determine the Vice President. In ‘down-ticket’ voting (Congressional and state elections), only a plurality is needed in most cases, though individual states have differing policies and voting procedures.

Recent History

Trump’s victory over Hillary Clinton in 2016 came as a surprise to many, if not a majority, though the shift in national sentiment from eight years of Democratic influence under Barack Obama was largely predicted. In fact, the American people have not elected a President nominated by the same party as an outgoing President since George H. W. Bush succeeded Ronald Reagan in 1989.

The President, who oversees the executive branch of the federal government, is powerful, but also checked by the other two branches of government, the legislative (House of Representatives and Senate) and judicial (Supreme Court). His influence only extends so far as he is able to work with, or overpower through allied control, the other branches. The likely Republican-controlled Senate (two run-off elections will be held in the state of Georgia in January to determine Senate control, with incumbent Republicans favored in both) has already ensured the GOP influence would endure well beyond 2020 in confirming three Trump nominees to the Supreme Court, which also had not happened since 1986. Thus, the highest court in America’s current makeup consists of six Republican appointees and just three Democratic. This makeup portends a likely conservative set of rulings over the next decade or more, which combined with the Senate’s ability to block any heavily partisan legislative attempts by the House, could limit the breadth of the Democrats’ legislative scope.

The starkness of these ideological shifts between 2016 and 2020 is of particular note, as Trump is now the first single-term President since Jimmy Carter lost re-election to Reagan in 1981. Meanwhile, Democrats simultaneously will hold a majority in the House of Representatives following their 2018 blue wave seemingly in direct response to Trump’s election two years prior. Republicans enjoyed the same typical flip in 2010 following Obama’s election, but here is where the Presidential election and Congressional races conflate uniquely this year – through the 2020 Census.

Census and Redistricting

The U.S. conducts a decennial census to determine, among other things, how many representatives to which each state is entitled based on population. This in turn effects that state’s electoral votes in the next two Presidential elections, as each is awarded two for its senators and one for every seat it holds in the House. The real complexity here lies in how parties compete for those seats once apportioned following the census, known as redistricting.

The redistricting process is controlled in a variety of ways depending on each state’s laws and legislature. Where the real stakes were in this election lies in the opportunity for trifectas – circumstances in which both of a state’s houses and its governor represent the same party. Trifectas enable the prospect of gerrymandering, which simply put is intentional manipulation of constituent boundaries to benefit a specific party. Goals are often twofold, with the most effective being to ensure retention of currently held seats and, on rarer occasions, force competition in historically uncontested areas. Unsurprisingly a highly partisan issue, it played a significant role in both 2000 and 2010 as Republicans used their newfound edge to solidify favorable voting patterns in several states. Indiana, for example, supported Trump’s re-election 58-41 percent by popular vote. Yet since Republicans redistricted following the 2010 election both gained a seat in the House of Representatives and now hold seven of the state’s nine, all of which routinely hold by more than 20 percentage points.

Things looked grim for Democrats in 2016 with a meager five trifectas, but the aforementioned 2018 blue wave nearly tripled their state control while cutting into a number of formerly Republican-controlled legislatures. Democrats now will have the chance not only to reverse some degree of what Republicans altered in 2010, but perhaps make further inroads in states which have recently turned ‘purple.’ That would consist of moving more (not necessarily a majority of) congressional districts from ‘red’ Republican influence to ‘blue’ Democratic thanks in large part to population growth in strategically important states, which could further consolidate that power through strategically beneficial apportionments based on the census results next month.

For reference, the 2010 census led to Texas gaining four seats, Florida two and both New York and Ohio losing two, along with a dozen single-seat changes. Republicans maintained trifectas in four states with the fastest-growing cities over the last decade, and in fact won back two additional trifectas, so may be able to mitigate some potential losses elsewhere, though there would figure to be little improvement available on their work a decade ago. Democrats, on the other hand, retained other key states that have been trending more purple in Colorado and Nevada, the latter which currently boasts several of the most overpopulated districts in the nation. Additionally, whereas Republicans held complete control over split states such as Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Maine in 2010, Democrats have managed to break up the first three’s trifectas while flipping Maine.

The complexity extends further when examining individual state redistricting policy, which can range from full legislative control to bipartisan commissions to judicial decree. The overarching takeaway from 2020 capping the last decade of ideological shift is that Democrats are in the best position they possibly have ever held. Redistricting will, in no small part, influence the next decade of American politics and foreign policy.

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