The Antietam Election

For students of American history the Battle of Antietam during the American Civil War is analogous to the 2020 election. During the battle – credited as the turning point of the war in favor of the Union – more than 23,000 men died in 12 hours. It was the single bloodiest day of combat in American history. And though it was the turning point of the war by stalling the Confederate invasion of Maryland – the casualties were so brutal for the Union it would be months before they even resumed an advance.

In the same way the 2020 election exposed the flawed tactics, candidacies and efforts of both parties. Yes, it sure looks like Democrats took the White House (we will leave the fraud allegations aside) but the party and its nominee, Joe Biden, were so uninspiring they were not able to keep many voters from splitting their tickets down – ballot for Republican legislators and house members.

For Democrats, the implications of 2020 are clear. Trump is gone, but the GOP grip on power is far from loosened. Indeed, at the state level, it appears to have tightened. The GOP is set to gain legislatures at the end of the year vs. lose any. Democrats hopes of wresting the Texas House, North Carolina’s legislature, Arizona’s legislature, or Minnesota’s Senate are all but gone.

The Senate, far from providing Democrats a majority, is set to at best lead to a 50 – 50 tie (assuming Georgia’s run-offs go their way), leading to a body controlled by the likes of Republican Susan Collins (who surprisingly cruised this go – round) and West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin.

That Senate, due to Democrat’s geographic concentration in urban areas, and erosion of support in smaller, whiter states, has allowed the GOP to install a host of Justices at every level of the judiciary and given conservatives a 6 – 3 majority on the court (a majority not seen since the pre – Depression era). It has also made Democrats dependent on the few remaining conservative Democrats in their Caucus like Joe Manchin and moderates like Kyrsten Sinema in now purple Arizona.

When it came to winning back some of these blue – collar whites, Biden barely succeeded according to leftist analyst Ronald Brownstein. Biden did marginally better in swing state communities such as “Erie and Scranton, in Pennsylvania; the Green Bay area, in Wisconsin; and Macomb County, outside Detroit, helped him recapture the big three “blue wall” states that Trump dislodged in 2016..” Where it seems Biden did significantly improve beyond the major urban centers (which was expected) was the cores of smaller cities themselves.

Yet, due to where the Democratic coalition is concentrated – in urban centers and dense suburban areas ringing major cities – and despite winning the popular vote by close to four points, Biden is on track to barely carry the Blue Wall and cede Iowa and Ohio.

Democrats can comfort themselves with the knowledge they made significant gains in Georgia and Arizona, and likely have taken Colorado off the table, but they barely made a dent in Nevada, North Carolina and lost ground in Florida.

Messaging strategy aside for Biden – some strategists think he let Republicans off easy by focusing solely on Trump – Biden’s lack of any sort of coat-tails suggests just how much many swing states retain their down – ballot conservative roots. For example, Biden partially won Pennsylvania by wracking up a 250K vote lead in the suburbs. Yet, Republican Brian FitzPatrick won in those same suburban counties easily. In Georgia, Democrats Senate nominees ran significantly behind Joe Biden.

Yet, if not for Joe Biden, Trump might still be President by winning the Blue Wall again by ever so narrow margins. Which leads Democrats to look to the Sun – Belt for salvation. Yet, this election showed 2018 might be the ceiling for party support in places like Florida and even Texas. Democrats hopes of winning the state were dashed and they did not win a single competitive Congressional District.

For Democrats, the worry exists by 2024 Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and even Minnesota might be off the table for the party – making wins in the Sun – Belt a necessity – not a luxury. But even so, the obstacles they face are massive for such a task.

Trump’s coalition might have bled support from 2016, but it also picked up support from unlikely places. “The joke is that the GOP is really assembling the multiracial working-class coalition that the left has always dreamed of,” says David Shor, a Democratic polling and data expert who developed the Obama 2012 campaign’s internal election-forecasting system. Trump picked up support from Hispanics in South Florida and along the Rio Grande and he actually performed better in urban Philly than 2016.

None of that guarantees a GOP victory in 2024 or permanence in their majority in the Senate ( let alone retaking the House). For starters, the 2020 election could be called the “Educational Divide Election.” More so than even 2016, this election proved that educational attainment truly drove vote choice. Per Pew, Biden won 91 of 100 of the country’s largest counties and these counties had some of the highest educational attainment in the nation. Considering the suburbs are growing and rural areas are shrinking, and more and more Americans are attaining college degrees, this is a worrisome development for the GOP.

Further, while the GOP has increased its rural share of the vote under Trump, it remains unclear whether these voters are actually loyal to the GOP or to Trump himself. Further, even though the GOP obviously retained the loyalty of split – ticket voters down – ballot, it is unclear if the GOP can ever get these voters loyalty back after Trump. Especially if his brand of politics and populism define the party going forward. This is why many popular politicians in the party have echoed Trump’s rhetoric but lacked his candor.

It is possible the GOP could find increase support among the college educated who do not have access to the levers of power (ie. jobs and elite institutions) but those same voters are likely to be located outside major metro areas and lean more Republican to begin with.

The counter to the above for Democrats is as the few remaining Millennials who have not firmed up their political allegiances do so and Gen Z becomes more politically active they will transform the nation politically. Except, exit polls from both 2016 and 2020 showed younger voters behaved much as one would expect considering their environment (ie. urban vote Biden, rural vote Trump). This suggests the same partisan and environmental factors driving votes are likely to continue and not evolve. In other words, both parties electoral positions remain as precarious as ever.


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