As the world continued to watch election results Wednesday, Duke University experts in politics, election integrity and constitutional law gathered to discuss one of the strangest and most hotly contested elections in U.S. history.
In a virtual press event Wednesday Mac McCorkle, a veteran Democratic political consultant and professor at Duke’s Sanford School of Public Policy, said this year’s results showed the continued failure of polling to accurately capture the mood of the electorate or predict election-day results. Democrats saw comfortable leads in polls on national and state races that didn’t materialize on election day — in some cases leading to what appeared to be major upsets.
“Polling is in crisis,” McCorkle said.
Born in an era when there were three television networks and most people could be reached through their land-line telephone, McCorkle said pollsters have been trying to adjust with things like online polls — but getting an accurate sample has become harder. That’s particularly true when a historically disruptive candidate like President Donald Trump is in the mix, McCorkle said.
“I think there’s a false precision assumption about polling that we’ve simply have to get rid of, especially on the Democratic or the liberal side,” McCorkle said.
Exit polling is even less reliable, McCorkle said.
A series of assumptions about turnout and demographics didn’t pan out, McCorkle said — leading to some surprises and disappointments for Democrats.
The idea that high turnout is always good for Democrats in North Carolina — particularly in federal elections — continues not to have much strong evidence, McCorkle said.
In this year’s historically high turnout election, McCorkle said, Democrats did much more poorly than they had hoped — losing ground in some areas and pulling out slim victories in others.
Some of those erroneous assumptions are around race, said Guy-Uriel Charles, a professor of law at Duke Law School and director of the Duke Law Center on Law, Race and Politics.
“There’s a coalition, what people used to call the ‘rainbow coalition,’ that people thought meant there was going to be some hegemonic dominance of the Democratic party,” Charles said.
Some of that has happened, Charles said, with places like Georgia and Texas that were not considered competitive four years ago being competitive this year. But what this election shows is that racial and ethnic groups are not monolithic, Charles said. Latinx votes in Florida, for instance, broke for Trump in sufficient numbers to deliver him some important parts of Florida.
In the Southwest states of Arizona and Nevada, where Biden held slim leads Wednesday, different Latinx populations appear to have given him the edge.
“To talk about ‘Latino Voters’ I think begins to betray a type of now cultural, political and identity ignorance,'” Charles said.
Trump also made headway among Black voters, Charles said — men and women. While those gains weren’t large, Charles said, it tells against he idea that voters of color will join with liberal whites to create a demographic wave that will predict America’s political future.
Many people feel Trump comes across as a racist and would therefore have a limited appeal to any non-white voters, Charles said. But this year’s election wasn’t the full repudiation of Trump as a racist that many hoped to see, Charles said.
“It wasn’t a full repudiation by whites, but also not a full repudiation by people of color,” Charles said. “That complicates our racial narrative.”
The experts agreed that despite the election’s close results, baseless charges of fraud from the president and threats to get the Supreme Court to stop the counting of or throw out certain ballots, this year’s election has been more normal than abnormal.
Absentee and early voting ballots being counted the day after the polls close — or even over the next week — is not only not fraud or the legal basis for changing results, the experts said. In fact, it’s not even unusual. The president might not like the results, they said — but he has to have a legal basis for contesting them, even if the Supreme Court has a new conservative majority.
“You can’t just walk into the federal court and say ‘I lost,'” Charles said. “You have to have a legal basis for saying there’s a law that has been violated that undermines our constitutional rights, therefore you have to provide a legal remedy.”
Judith Kelley, dean of the Sanford School of Public Policy at Duke, said some of the baseless claims and authoritarian rhetoric from the White House should be of concern for any mature democracy. The president claiming victory prematurely, that the only way he could lose is if there is massive fraud, claiming the process is rigged before it has even begun and suggesting he might stay in office beyond what is constitutional are all red flag, she said.
“We’ve had a number of things that are unusual for mature democracies,” Kelley said.
Democracies often rest on political norms, Kelley said. When politicians flout norms — like not declaring victory before the votes are fully counted — it endangers democracy.
The United States is one of the oldest established democracies in the world, Kelley said — but other democracies have surpassed the U.S. in terms of swiftly holding elections through completely non-partisan processes that give their people a great deal of confidence in the system.
“It may be time, at some point, for a renovation of the American democracy,” Kelley said.
Despite all of that, Kelley said, Americans can feel good about how election day played out — little to no civil unrest or violence and large and complicated systems seeming to work as they should despite historic turnout during an international pandemic.
But the process will continue to work, this week, slower than many would like.