SUSAN DAVIS, HOST:
Hey there. Before we start the show, we have some news. We're hosting a virtual live show next Thursday, December 3, at 8 p.m. Eastern. We're calling it Politics After Dark. That means we'll talk about the news, of course, but we'll also give you a behind-the-scenes look at what it's been like to cover this election during the pandemic. And we'll quiz you on your political knowledge, too. We really miss doing live shows, so we hope you'll join us. Head to nprpresents.org to RSVP.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIGTOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
DAVIS: Hey, there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
DOMENICO MONTANARO, BYLINE: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
RON ELVING, BYLINE: And I'm Ron Elving, editor-correspondent.
DAVIS: And I'm so glad to have both of you here on the pod today to talk about the moment we're in right now because we're coming off this election where Joe Biden won by a historic margin. He's defeated a sitting president by a greater margin than anyone since Hoover. We've had historic turnout. And yet President Trump continues to refuse to concede the election. Ron, what do you make of this moment?
ELVING: This moment has no real precedent in American history. We've had a couple of presidents who didn't go to the inauguration of their successor. But generally speaking, we have not had a president resist the results of the election. This president, of course, has broken many other precedents, broken through many guardrails. And he is defining his own path to leaving office.
What his endgame is is not clear at this point. But he continues to insist there's a path for him back to a second term. Fewer and fewer people are willing to even discuss that. And while other Republicans of note have said the president is within his rights, they're clearly growing impatient.
And it's really contributing to this highly, let us call it, sobering sense of this election that I think a lot of us have. Neither party really got to celebrate, particularly on election night or in election week. There was too much holding them back with respect to how well the Democrats hoped to do in Congress and in state legislatures and did not do, as it turned out, and, of course, hard for the Republicans to celebrate when they are losing their president.
So it has been a rather sobering week, two weeks, month, election season, all the way back to the primaries and the conventions. The pandemic and everything else that's troubling our body politic has just made it too difficult to celebrate.
MONTANARO: Yeah. This is just not normal. I mean...
MONTANARO: You know, you wouldn't expect that if we were talking before the election that we would say on Thanksgiving, we'd still have a president who hasn't conceded yet.
DAVIS: Why do you think it's so difficult for Republicans to say what is the most obvious, clear, evidence-based thing - that the president lost this election and should concede?
MONTANARO: Well, Sue, you know as well as I do, I mean, right now, there are two Georgia Senate races that are happening that could determine control of the Senate. Imagine a Washington with Joe Biden as president, a Democratic-majority House and a Democratic-controlled Senate. That's a whole lot different than split control with Mitch McConnell still in charge of the Senate on the Republican side.
So a lot of Republicans - you know, they feel like President Trump has this stronghold on his base. And they don't want to cross him. They want to give him enough leash to stay on his good side so that, you know, if and when he leaves, that he'll - he wouldn't have something bad to say about these other Republicans, won't torch them and make them have any problems that, you know, could be unforced or unnecessary for them. And, you know, it's amazing that so much of what they feel is their political future is been wrapped up now in how President Trump has taken over the Republican base.
ELVING: In addition to all that, even if the president should leave, he won't go away. And he is going to be a force and a power in Republican politics and in conservative America, a traditionalist America for some time to come. What form that's going to take, we don't know. One form it could take - and he's already let this mention be dropped in his conversations - he could run for president again in 2024. No inhibition on that - Grover Cleveland did it, came back and won after he had left office for four years. That was back in the 1800s. But Donald Trump could introduce it to the 21st century.
DAVIS: How much of Trump's legacy do you think is going to include how he lost? It seems like at least right now - we don't know if it'll last - but at least right now, a large chunk of this country believes the president's allegations about voter fraud or a rigged election. And that doesn't seem like that is the kind of stuff that happens in good, healthy, strong democracies.
MONTANARO: Well, look. How he came into office is how he's going out if he continues this, writing basically baseless and false conspiracy theories and this idea of a permanent victimhood and grievance for himself and for his supporters. And, you know, I don't know how a country, you know, kind of comes back together when one side feels like it is permanently put upon and that the way that the other side wants to go is just almost evil.
DAVIS: Is it fair to see at least some glimmer of optimism in the 2020 election? - because I do look at these turnout numbers. And while there are, yes, a lot - millions of Americans who still choose not to vote, it's the highest turnout since 1900. Trump has had sort of a radicalizing effect on our politics, both for and against him. He's brought more people into the political fold. He's made more Americans aware of how their government works, how their president works.
And maybe that's healthy. You know, democracy isn't always supposed to feel good. And it seems like we're at least in a moment where more Americans are mindful and thinking about their government and how they want it to run.
ELVING: One thing we can say about this electorate is that it is not complacent. And we have often looked upon the nonparticipation of so many Americans as evidence that the country as a whole takes its democracy for granted and assumes that it will always have the easiest transfers of power and, if you will, the friendliest sorts of institutions. And most people have in the past felt good about that. But they've also found it a little bit boring. And they've also felt as though one vote didn't really matter. And those kinds of attitudes, I think, are going to recede in the face of the kind of politics we have now.
MONTANARO: And I do think, when it comes to voting, that we've permanently changed how Americans are going to vote. People have had to experiment with mail-in voting. Now there's some muscle memory for doing it. And while in other states they may have been reluctant to do so in coming elections, you know, I wouldn't be surprised if a lot of states move to a hybrid mix more permanently that does affect, in a positive way, overall American turnout.
DAVIS: All right. Let's take a quick break. And when we get back, Domenico will walk us through exactly how Biden did win the race.
And we're back. And Domenico, you've done a post-election analysis that examines just how Joe Biden won this race. And you concluded essentially that he didn't win by persuasion. He won by good, old-fashioned turnout.
MONTANARO: For the most part, that is true. I mean, this was, for the most part, a base election. And, you know, with the turnout that we've seen here, it's - usually, in most elections, you see a marginal shift in one direction, almost all in one direction toward one candidate. That's not what happened here. President Trump seemed to turn everyone out to vote for and against him. And when you look at, you know, all 3,000 counties or so in the country, what you found is that in urban areas and in suburban areas, Joe Biden ran up the score. And in rural areas, President Trump ran up the score.
And given how strongly Joe Biden performed in what were Democratic-leaning suburbs, he certainly persuaded a bunch of people in those suburbs who may have voted Republican last time to vote more Democratic this time, given that he was able to outpace President Trump's gains in rural areas. But it's really stunning when you look at our map at the blue areas getting bluer, the redder areas getting redder, which means we've had a hardening of our electorate and polarization in this country.
DAVIS: Yeah. And as part of that analysis, you notice that not a lot of the counties in the country actually flipped from 2016 to 2020.
MONTANARO: Yeah, this was pretty stunning. In 2016, 237 counties changed allegiances - 216 of them went from President Obama to President Trump. This happens in most elections where you see, you know, a big shift one way or the other. In 2020, just 77 counties total flipped. Fifty-nine of them were won by Biden - 59 compared to the 216 that President Trump was able to win. That's really stunning and shows you where we're at in this country.
ELVING: You know, the Trump phenomenon in terms of flipping counties - the state that had more than any other in 2016 - counties that flipped from voting for Obama to voting for Trump - there were 31 in Iowa. This time around, those 31 counties all went for Trump again, all 31 - 31-0. And the percentage for Trump actually improved a tiny bit.
MONTANARO: Well, and I think that this really does show you how, you know, if you look at the forest from the trees here, we've undergone a political realignment that's now appearing to be pretty permanent when you look at the division with whites with college degrees and whites without college degrees. Minnesota, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, Iowa, Ohio are all places where the population of eligible voters are majority white without college degrees.
Now, Minnesota Biden was able to do better in because he really drove up the score in the Minneapolis area but not outside of that. And in places like Iowa and Ohio with big populations of Republicans and with white voters without college degrees, the polls underestimated President Trump's support with those voters. And President Trump once again blew out the margins in those places. And they're probably, you know, in the short term, not going back to Democrats.
DAVIS: One thing I think is so interesting about 2020 is it seems like it challenged this Democratic idea that high turnout means that they win big. And we saw historic turnout, and, yes, Joe Biden won. But it's a very different story down the ballot. Democrats did not perform at all the way the party expected. And in fact, Biden had no coattails.
ELVING: This might be one of the most enduring myths that the Democrats have believed in over the years - that higher turnout meant more Democrats won. Here, again, this was not the case because Biden won. But down-ballot, you didn't see a congressional wave for the Democrats. They actually lost ground in the House - substantial ground in the House and in state legislatures, which are going to draw these all-important district maps for the next decade. The Democrats lost ground there, too. And in the Senate races, they were terribly disappointed not to get Susan Collins, terribly disappointed not to do better in some of these other states, like North Carolina and Iowa. And some of that had to do with Trump's appeal, for certain. But it also shows that just higher turnout isn't enough for the Democrats.
MONTANARO: Well, and we don't know if this is just a Trump phenomenon or not because, you know, President Trump promised that he could turn out, you know, an even higher percentage of white voters without college degrees and rural voters. And I think a lot of people were skeptical of that because he won such a huge margin of them in 2016. But only 58% of them turned out in 2016. So there was always the opportunity for him to turn them out more.
And I think his suburban message, the quote-unquote "law and order" message, really wound up resonating more with voters in those places, in rural areas and exurbs, maybe people who've left suburban areas or who don't want their rural parts of the country to turn into what the suburbs are, which is diversifying and changing. That message seemed to resonate with them even more than voters in the suburbs, obviously.
You know, the reason why Democrats think that high turnout normally would help them is because so many of the underrepresented groups at the polls - young voters, Latinos - are some of the groups that vote at the lowest rates. And this time around, I wonder how much the pandemic really hampered Democrats' efforts to turn out Latinos in particular. We're seeing numbers where Latinos were a significant portion of the non-voting population, which, you know, really would help explain Democrats not able to register them in the numbers that they normally are or turn them out - why Joe Biden underperformed in south Texas and in South Florida.
DAVIS: Do you see 2020 as such a unique asterisk election because of the politics of Donald Trump, because of the pandemic, that we can't sort of draw too many conclusions about it, or is there lessons in this election that you think are worth taking as we look to future elections?
ELVING: This is an election that showed us, I think, more and more the divide between the metropolitan areas, the most populous states and the areas between the metropolitan centers and the more sparsely populated states. And that's going to be perhaps the most important division in American politics in the generation or two to come. We have most of our senators elected by states that have less than one-fifth of the population, and we have less than a fifth of our senators elected by the states that have most of our population. That's a fundamental inequity. It plays out in the Electoral College as well. And that's going to be with us, and that was very evident in this election.
MONTANARO: You know, Joe Biden's going to get more than 80 million votes in this election and win by more than 6 million votes overall. And yet that was just enough to eke out an Electoral College victory across several battleground states. And it really does make you wonder. I understand the politics of it. I know that Republicans, you know, are never going to go along with changing the vote system. But you wonder how much of the - sort of, does this look so strange to the outside world? If you were an alien from Mars, you know, and you saw how we did our elections - not by one person, one vote, but by a handful of Electoral College states that have that kind of strength - it just seems like such an outdated system.
DAVIS: All right. We'll leave it there for today, but we'll be back in your feeds tomorrow with a special episode. And remember to head over to nprpresents.org to RSVP for our virtual live show, coming up on December 3. Have a great and safe Thanksgiving.
I'm Susan Davis. I cover Congress.
MONTANARO: I'm Domenico Montanaro, senior political editor and correspondent.
ELVING: And I'm Ron Elving, editor-correspondent.
DAVIS: And thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.
(SOUNDBITE OF THE BIG TOP ORCHESTRA'S "TEETER BOARD: FOLIES BERGERE (MARCH AND TWO-STEP)")
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