Marred by a global pandemic and its devastating economic consequences, 2020 is a year we all want to forget. But the consequences of the 58th presidential election in American history will not soon slip into the forgotten pages of a dusty library; for once, that tired cliché of the most important election in our lifetimes felt apt.
It is fitting, poetic even, that the seemingly endless 2020 campaign season will not actually draw to a close until 2021, when Georgia voters decide whether Democrats or Republicans control the United States Senate.
But even before those last votes are cast, the winners and losers of the most costly, most divisive and most fraught elections in more than a century have become clear. In no official order, this year’s biggest winners:
Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.
Joe BidenJoe BidenMichigan mayor draws criticism with Facebook posts suggesting rebellion: report Trump names Roisman acting SEC chairman Biden Interior nominee discusses environmental injustice with tribal leaders MORE’s path to the presidency looks obvious in hindsight, but at its outset he appeared to be the weakest front-runner in recent history. No Democrat has ever won the White House on his second try, let alone his third. He was outraised during the primary campaign by plenty of his rivals, and he began the general election campaign almost broke.
But Biden picked a lane early on — he would present himself as a relative moderate set on lowering the temperature of our heated politics, healing the nation and running a competent government.
That may not sound as appealing as hope and change, or even “Make America Great Again.” But in this moment, in this year, Biden’s hypothesis was exactly right. A candidate who never raised a lot of money and never received more than 260,000 votes as a United States senator became the first billion-dollar presidential contender — and the recipient of more votes than any single candidate in American history.
Susan CollinsSusan Margaret CollinsSouthwest Airlines says it won’t furlough workers after Trump signed relief bill Bipartisan lawmakers urge Trump to either sign or immediately veto coronavirus relief bill GOP senator on Trump pardons: ‘This is rotten to the core’ MORE
It is tempting, and usually far too simplistic, to say the polls were wrong — except in Maine, where Sen. Susan Collins (R) won reelection in a race in which she trailed every single public survey.
Even most Republican strategists counted Collins among the certain losers this year, in the face of a hugely well-funded challenge from state House Speaker Sara Gideon (D). But her vote against Supreme Court Justice Amy Coney BarrettAmy Coney BarrettMassachusetts House overrides governor’s veto of abortion bill Death is different Georgia megachurch pastor tests positive for COVID-19 MORE may have given her one last chance to convince voters of her own independence, an opportunity she used to stage what may be one of the most significant comebacks in recent political history.
Collins never scored above 44 percent in a public opinion poll. On Nov. 3, she won 51 percent of the vote. And, depending on the results of next month’s elections in Georgia, she may have saved the Senate for the GOP.
State legislators will draw new political district boundaries next year in the decennial redistricting process. They will come under more scrutiny this time around than ever before, after activists and attorneys raised alarm about gerrymandered lines that came out of last decade’s process.
Both Democrats and Republicans spent unprecedented sums on ordinarily sleepy state legislative races this year, and Democrats expected to win back control of legislative chambers in states like Minnesota and Arizona — some even hoped to win control in states like Texas, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
Voters had other plans. Only two state legislative chambers, the New Hampshire House and Senate, flipped control, and both toward Republicans.
As a result, Democrats head into their second straight redistricting cycle distinctly behind the eight ball. The consequences could reverberate for a decade, if Republicans manage to draw lines that once again give them an advantage in winning control of the House of Representatives.
The ballot initiative process came to prominence in the early part of the 20th century, when voters in Western states used direct democracy to break the stranglehold that timber and railroad barons wielded over state legislatures.
There is an irony in that history: Today, corporations frequently use ballot initiatives to write their own favorable statutes into law.
That happened this year in California, where three powerful industries — disruptive technology firms like Uber, Lyft and DoorDash; kidney dialysis companies; and the bail bond business — all spent millions of dollars on ballot measures they won.
Corporations in recent years have used ballot measures to weaken environmental regulations, block access to public broadband and even create the marijuana industry. Why invest in a fickle politician when you can spend just a bit more to get the public to write laws for you?
Television station owners
If there is a surge in the luxury car or mega-yacht industry next year, it may come from the owners of local television stations in competitive swing states. The presidential contest alone drew more than $1.5 billion in television advertising, and several top Senate races drew more than $100 million each.
All told, Americans spent more than $14 billion on politics this year, and the race for the White House accounted for about half that — about double the total spent on the 2016 campaign.
In normal times, handling millions of ballots is challenging. In the midst of a pandemic, the threat of foreign interference and a presidential candidate actively seeking to undermine confidence in the count, it can be almost impossible.
But the vast majority of election administrators across the country pulled it off, juggling unprecedented voter turnout and widespread use of mail-in and absentee ballots to run one of the smoothest elections in modern history.
There were exceptions — more on one of those later — but credit the public servants who make democracy work. There are few examples of grace and performance under pressure than those they showed in the most challenging of times.
Speaking of which…
Almost 160 million of us cast a ballot this year, the highest level of participation in more than a century. Turnout exceeded 70 percent of the voting eligible population in 20 states, according to Michael McDonald, a political scientist at the University of Florida who tracks participation — and in Minnesota, a whopping 80 percent of the eligible population cast a ballot.
Well done, American voters. Now do it again in two years.
On The Trail is a reported column by Reid Wilson, primarily focused on the 2020 elections.