With presidential race too close to call, Stanford experts talk state of election

Nov. 5, 2020, 10:50 p.m.

At the “Historic Election 2020” webinar on Thursday afternoon, Stanford experts affirmed the success of election administrators but raised concerns about the continuation of “Trumpism” post-election. The event was part of a weekly webinar series hosted by the Center for Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law at the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies.

Stanford Law professor Nathaniel Persily, co-founder of the Stanford-MIT Healthy Elections Project, praised election administrators for their response to “unprecedented shifts in the election infrastructure in an incredibly short period of time.” 

He added that though there will be contested state elections, the election was a success compared to the Democratic and Republican primaries earlier this year. In comparison to the 2016 election, “a much smaller share of ballots will be discounted this time,” Persily believes.

According to Persily, there have been no legitimate claims of fraud. While Trump’s campaign has argued that there may have been illegal votes cast through the mail-in process, “there’s no actual evidence of those sort of mysterious votes being cast,” Persily said. 

Panelists fielded questions about the large discrepancy between the relatively tight election results and polls before the election, which favored Democrats by a margin of 10 points or more.

“There was too much of an emphasis on polls as a predictive tool,” said Bruce Cain, a professor of political science and director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West. He said that these polls were more dependent on modeling, which can bring additional assumptions, and recommended that polls be treated as “noisy data, not as tablets from heaven.”

Aside from the presidential election, the panelists also discussed key electoral and demographic shifts and the future of the Democratic and Republican parties.

Former Vice President Joe Biden will almost certainly win the popular vote, according to assistant professor of political science Hakeem Jefferson. He will also have gained the largest number of votes in the history of American presidential politics. Regardless of the outcome of the presidential election, control of Congress remains uncertain.

“Democrats have to pay attention to the lack of success achieved below the level of the presidency,” Cain said. “Right now it looks like very few state legislative houses will flip and unless Democrats really lucked out, the Republicans are going to retain the Senate.” 

Despite Democratic electoral gains, the panelists predict the continued permeation of “Trumpism,” an ideology centered around the statements and political stances of President Donald Trump, in American politics.

“Donald Trump is not an aberration in American politics, and his election in 2016 was no fluke,” Jefferson said. “The president’s message — one steeped in the politics of grievance and resentment — clearly has an audience in this country. Such a message long has.”

Jefferson criticized what he considers a false dichotomy presented in intellectual circles between racism or economic anxiety as the primary appealing factor of Trumpism. According to Jefferson, feelings of economic disaffection among white Americans are, and will continue to be, steeped in race and white supremacy.

“White people who come to think of themselves as left behind,” Jefferson said, “perceive that they have been left behind as others, especially undeserving racial minorities have made significant gains that they believe have come at their expense.” 

“This deep investment in whiteness and the desire to maintain the power of a shrinking white majority will likely animate our politics for decades to come,” he added. 

The future of a post-Trump Republican party remains uncertain, according to panelists. Trump’s relative success in 2020, especially compared to his popular vote numbers in 2016, indicate a level of satisfaction among the core Republican base that Cain believes will be difficult to overlook. 

“I think it’s going to be very hard for the Republicans to undo the Trump formula,” Cain said.

Jefferson agreed with Cain’s statement, predicting a “scary future” for American politics.

“I doubt very, very much that the Republican Party will abandon Trumpism, and I think that’s a scary, scary feature of contemporary American politics,” Jefferson said.

A previous version of this article misquotes Hakeem Jefferson and incorrectly attributed the host of the event to The Stanford Institute for Human-Centered Artificial Intelligence. The Daily regrets these errors.

Contact Victoria Hsieh at vhsieh02 ‘at’ stanford.edu and Nina Iskandarsjach at ninaisk ‘at’ stanford.edu.

Victoria Hsieh '24 is a Desk Editor for the Business and Technology Desk looking to major in Computer Science and minor in Political Science. She is from Seattle and thereby a caffeine and hiking fanatic. Contact The Daily’s News section at news ‘at’ stanforddaily.com.

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