In scenes reminiscent of Turnbull’s brush with defeat in the Australian 2016 federal election, the narrative of the United States presidential election has swung back and forwards over recent days.
At a minimum, it’s a far cry from the blue wave predicted by pollsters in the lead up to the election, where Democrats expected to sweep the House, the Senate, and the presidency.
It currently appears that, on a tide of mail-in votes Biden may just eke out a narrow victory. The Democrats will also hold the House of Representatives, though appear to have lost seats, where they expected to gain them. The Senate has a good chance of remaining with the Republicans.
Much could still change, either through further vote counting or through subsequent court challenges. However, some key points have emerged from the results thus far that are worth examining.
First, the election clearly demonstrates that the Trump popular / nationalist agenda has lasting appeal, and not just among white men. In point of fact, it looks like Trump’s vote increased in every demographic category other than white men. In particular, he saw a surge in Latino voters in Florida.
The only real question left is whether a controversial Trump-style figure is necessary to advance this agenda.
Second, of the two races yet to be finalised (the presidency and the Senate), if the Republicans can’t win both, it may be better for them in the long run to win the Senate rather than the presidency.
Winning all three races would have emboldened the far left of the Democratic party, who are fervent believers in controversial ideas like critical race theory, and strong proponents of cancel culture.
This wing would have pushed hard for unpopular, radical, reforms like packing the courts, a multi-trillion dollar Green New Deal, defunding the police, softening border protection policies and expanding the number of states to realign the Electoral College.
From a broader Republican perspective, finding a way to prevent the implementation of this agenda was high on the list of goals.
Indeed, a hostile Senate will either force Biden towards a more centrist agenda and away from his base, or even greater reliance on executive orders – the use of executive power independent of the legislature – which would risk conflict with the right-leaning Supreme Court.
It will also be far harder for the media to run cover for an ineffective Democratic president, than it was to excuse Biden’s bumbling on the campaign trail.
For non-Trump aligned Republicans, this may be the best result of all. They have the opportunity to sideline Trump, regain some of their lost control over the party and seat the popular pieces of the Trump agenda within a traditional Republican framework.
They can lose the personal baggage of Trump himself, yet still maintain the policy and electoral gains from the Trump presidency.
The prospects for the Republicans would be sufficiently bright that they would be wise to distance themselves from any extreme moves Trump may make in a last ditch attempt to overturn the election result.
As a minimum, they should definitely not fall into the trap of endorsing as-yet-unsubstantiated claims of widespread voter fraud, or spending the next four years relitigating the previous election – as the Democrats have.
Ironically, despite looking like winning the presidency, there are many traps facing the Democrats too.
Given the high expectations leading into the election, no doubt many Democrats will be disappointed by how it’s turned out thus far. They were hoping for a clear repudiation of Trump, and endorsement for their plans to reshape America. They didn’t get it.
In fact – given the concerns over Trump’s management of the pandemic – should Biden hold on, they might consider themselves lucky to have won at all.
A Biden presidency would also face some very serious challenges, which the federal government is poorly placed to solve.
Coronavirus cases are trending up, with more than 100,000 new cases recorded in a single day this week. Biden has made a specific point of criticising Trump’s response, yet much of the on-the-ground COVID-19 management falls to the states.
There is also significant resistance to widespread lockdowns, especially given the associated job losses.
Getting the pandemic under control will take months of hard, unpopular decisions – that’s partly why Trump has responded as he has – and significant co-ordination between Washington and hostile state legislatures.
The economic recovery will likely take far longer still, and will be hindered by demands from Biden’s left for additional regulation, tax increases and substantial minimum wage increases.
This is to say nothing of the challenges of China, taming race riots, managing illegal immigration, and everything else on the wishlist of “the Squad”.
The Democrats will also have to face the fact that their leadership group is old. Nancy Pelosi – the Speaker of the House – is 80. Biden himself will be 78 when he takes office, and is clearly slowing down. Democrats Senate Leader, Chuck Schumer, is the youngest but will turn 70 within weeks.
Typically, a party would like to take office behind a young and energetic team, with a suite of new ideas, and a strong electoral mandate. The current Democratic leadership are actively resisting transition to the next generation of progressives such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (though perhaps with good reason).
And it is harder still to undertake any sort of political renewal in office.
Of course Biden and Harris may be up to these challenges. Indeed, given the continuing uncertainty over the results, they may not even get their chance.
Yet, in many respects, the 2020 election appears to be a continuation of the deep divisions and widespread economic and social dislocation embodied by the 2016 election, not to mention Brexit in the UK. The left clearly has not learnt any lessons from those votes.
One of the more interesting unresolved questions from the 2020 election is whether the right will make the same mistake.