There Was Never a Blue Wave Coming

The recriminations and finger-pointing are premature

Photo illustration; source: Drew Angerer/Getty Images

So much for a “blue wave.” While Joe Biden is still favored to become the next president of the United States, the remarkable pre-election polling errors reached a magnitude not seen since the Chicago Tribune’s infamous “Dewey Beats Truman” headline and left Democrats feeling uneasy on Wednesday.

As the country waits for ballots to be counted in the Rust Belt states of Michigan and Pennsylvania, Democrats reckoned with the fact that they lost House seats and appear to have fallen short of a Senate majority. After all that buildup, Tuesday was not a stinging rebuke of Donald Trump.

Democrats will now become the first political party to commence a circular firing squad after winning a popular vote majority.

But such finger-pointing is still premature, because we just don’t yet have a clear enough picture of what happened. Yes, Democrats scaled back their door-to-door efforts in the midst of the pandemic and relied on phone calls and text messages to get out the vote, while Republicans operated a more traditional outreach machine. Yet the election saw historic turnout, and there doesn’t seem to be evidence that Democrats just didn’t show up at the polls.

There is, however, evidence that Joe Biden underperformed with Hispanic voters. While Hillary Clinton won Florida’s Miami-Dade County by 20 points in 2016, Biden could only eke out a seven-point win. His shortcomings there were enough to seal a Trump victory in the Sunshine State and doom two incumbent Democratic congresswomen running for re-election in South Florida. In Texas, Biden drastically underperformed in the Rio Grande Valley, running 20 points behind Hillary Clinton’s 2016 total. While the Lone Star State was always a reach for Biden, his failures in South Texas made a win impossible.

The best way to read the results is to view them simply as a reversion to what pundits thought the 2016 election would be before the Comey letter.

While voters in both the Rio Grande Valley and Miami-Dade County are classified as Hispanic for demographic purposes, they have absolutely nothing in common otherwise. The grindingly poor agricultural communities along the Rio Grande in Texas are overwhelmingly Mexican American while the voters that Trump won over in the metropolitan hub of Miami were of Cuban and Venezuelan descent. It’s hard to tout a uniform reason for the swing in such different parts of the country.

There are no easy answers or explanations at this point, making any sweeping verdict premature. The best way to read the results is to view them simply as a reversion to what pundits thought the 2016 election would be before the Comey letter: Back then it was thought Hillary Clinton would grind out a win in Rust Belt states despite a late surge from Republicans, and would fail to make enough gains in suburban areas to transform the contours of American politics. That’s what is happening now.

This is not to say that the political landscape hasn’t shifted at all, just that the shifts have been less drastic than some had anticipated. Although surprise House race winners from 2018 like Kendra Horn in Oklahoma and Joe Cunningham in South Carolina lost this time around, Democrats consolidated their gains in other suburban districts. Biden became the first Democrat to win Johnson County, Kansas in suburban Kansas City since Woodrow Wilson. He followed in Clinton’s footsteps with a victory in Orange County, California—a traditional GOP stronghold.

But the potential of the 2018 “blue wave” to transform the electoral map was not fulfilled and it’s now clear where a political realignment actually occurred over the past half decade, and where Democratic gains were simply a midterm reaction.

The result leaves the political battle lines close to where they were early Tuesday evening on November 8, 2016. Four of the most chaotic and consequential years in modern American history may have passed, but our political divides have remained shockingly static.

Ben Jacobs is a politics reporter based in Washington. Follow him on Twitter at @bencjacobs.

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store