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Sensemaker: What happened last night?

Wednesday 4 November 2020

What just happened

Long stories short

  • The nightmare scenario of an election contested by both sides came true in the US (more below).
  • America formally withdrew from the Paris climate accords, which Biden has pledged to rejoin if he wins the White House.
  • Boris Johnson told the annual CBI conference he’d do “whatever it takes” to support British businesses through the next phase of the Covid crisis.

Trumpism lives

Whoever wins, Trump’s paranoid worldview endures. When he claimed victory in his re-election race this morning it wasn’t clear who’d won but it was clear that his base remains solid despite the ravages of Covid; that his talk of socialism under Biden had delivered Florida to his column; and that the most consequential election so far this century could be decided by a Supreme Court in which he’s installed a conservative majority.

He will ask the court to suspend the counting of ballots sent in before election day by voters seeking to protect themselves from a virus that Trump used to say would miraculously disappear. As of today, it has killed 238,641 Americans.

The court may oblige. Last month it upheld a Pennsylvania Supreme Court decision to reject a Republican demand for a stay on vote-counting after election day – but only by a 4-4 vote. Since then Amy Coney Barrett has joined the panel.

State of the race. Wide open. Counting could go on until Friday or beyond in Pennsylvania and Michigan, where Trump is ahead with roughly three quarters of votes counted, but Team Biden believes it leads among the millions of postal votes as yet untallied. (There are 1.4 million in Pennsylvania alone, where Biden has won 78 per cent of those counted so far. Trump led by 700,000 votes by the end of the night.) Biden has flipped Arizona but not Texas. Georgia is tilting from red to pale blue as Black votes add up in Atlanta. The fallout from the police killing of George Floyd in May could prove decisive after all.

What happened last night?

  • There was no blue wave, much less a Biden landslide. He needed Black and Hispanic votes en masse for that but exit polls suggest he won a smaller share of the Latino vote in Florida, Georgia and Ohio than Hillary Clinton did in 2016. Would a “pale” wave of white suburban voters compensate, tired of Trump and scared of Covid? In Ohio it turned out to be a ripple.
  • Trump crushed Biden’s hopes of tying it all up early in Florida: in Miami-Dade county he squeezed Biden’s winning margin to roughly half Clinton’s four years ago. In the I-40 corridor between Orlando and St Petersburg he lost votes to worried retirees – but not many. In the rural panhandle he swept all before him.
  • Florida was America in microcosm: Democrats broke records for early voting, the Republican ground war – waged continuously since 2016 – delivered a surge on the day, and the electorate went to bed more stressed and polarised than ever.
  • To judge by exit polls in Georgia, Virginia and elsewhere, Covid’s impact on the economy was as powerful an influence on voters’ thinking as its impact on their health.

What happens next?

  • Biden could win by grinding it out in two of the three rust belt states of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, but to do so his lawyers will have to beat back Trump’s as they seek to halt the count in the first two on the basis of claims of fraudulent postal voting for which there is no evidence.
  • Trump could win if votes as yet uncounted in those three states fall mainly into his column rather than Biden’s.
  • The US will agonise over the politicisation of its Supreme Court, already centre stage in a constitutional crisis triggered by a 2am speech in which Trump denounced a “fraud on the American people” and said wearily: “As far as I’m concerned, we’ve already won.”
  • The Republican Party will have to accept the new reality: Trumpism was no passing fad. It’s here to stay, and the never-Trumpers who hoped to claim the party back may have to find a new political home elsewhere.

Counties that tell the stories of the night


Miami-Dade, Florida: Trump’s campaign to get out the Cuban vote paid off in Miami-Dade, where three-quarters of voters are Hispanic. Biden did worse with Hispanic votes than Clinton did in 2016.

Lake, Ohio: No Republican has ever won the presidency without winning Ohio. Trump took the state after Democrats failed to back him in sufficient numbers in places like suburban Lake county, next to Cleveland.

Vigo, Indiana: Vigo county voters – now 85 per cent non-Hispanic White – have picked the president in every election since 1956. Trump is ahead but most votes have not yet been counted and unofficial results may take a day or two to emerge.

Maricopa, Arizona: Phoenix constitutes most of Maricopa County, which was central to Biden’s successful bid to turn Arizona blue for the first time since 1996.

In states still up for grabs

Macomb, Michigan: Trump flipped Macomb – a suburban county bordering traditionally Democrat Detroit – in 2016. He remains ahead: if Biden is to win he needs to win most of the large number of mail-in ballots in Macomb, where 14 per cent of votes remained uncounted at the end of the night.

Clark, Nevada: Polling hours were extended in the county that hosts Las Vegas, which Trump won in 2016 despite losing the state. Biden is fighting to flip back some of its 2 million votes.

Brown, Wisconsin: Absentee and in-person votes still need to be counted in Brown County. Turnout in the main city, Green Bay, was 84 per cent, which could shore up Biden’s slim Wisconsin lead – or erase it.

Fulton, Georgia: Fulton, which includes Atlanta, is set to flip strongly Democrat after a big turnout in the new battleground state. Absentee ballots still have to be counted after a burst pipe set back the process.

In the app today…. Sign up for our specially extended ThinkIn tonight on the US election – What Now? – and read Claudia Williams’ latest installment of our file on trans rights. You can also sign up for tomorrow’s ThinkIn on how to write, and Friday’s Creative Sensemaker Live with Matt d’Ancona.

Please share this Sensemaker with your friends and colleagues.

Wealth investment, fairness, prosperity

Uncertain bets
Investors who’d been anticipating a big new stimulus to the US economy under a Biden presidency aren’t so sure any more. Stocks expected to do well from the $2 trillion package that was part of Biden’s pitch to a traumatised nation had been on an upswing, but overnight and this morning money managers have been shifting funds back into bonds, battening down the hatches for a period of political uncertainty that could make the 2000 Florida recount look like a walk on the… beach. Yields on ten-year US treasuries fell sharply this morning.

New things technology, science, engineering

Information control
Twitter and Facebook had busy nights last night – the former marginally busier than the latter. When Trump posted an early suggestion that the election was being “stolen”, Twitter labelled it misleading. Facebook didn’t. But when he and Biden started talking about winning before the race was called, both were admonished. This is already a familiar front in the online infowar that constitutes so much of modern politics, and it remains largely unregulated. Tech companies hire whomever they deem qualified to control what voters can and can’t read, and when. At least the politicians are elected.

Our planet environment, natural resources, geopolitics

Shell posted an ill-advised Twitter poll yesterday, asking its followers: “What are you willing to change to help reduce emissions?”. Few people answered but thousands retweeted the poll noting its brazen hypocrisy and condemning Shell for its record on fossil fuel emissions. Remember: Shell knew about the dangers of climate change and the role of fossil fuels in 1986, but carried on polluting the planet regardless for another 30 years.

The 100-year life health, education, living, public policy

Laws on drugs
One change you may have missed in the election mayhem is the softening of drugs policies in several states. South Dakota, Montana, New Jersey and Arizona voted to legalise recreational cannabis while Oregon has taken an even bigger step: it voted to decriminalise possession of small amounts of cocaine, heroin and methamphetamines, and has legalised the medical use of psilocybin – psychedelic mushrooms – becoming the first state in the US to do so. Oregon’s new possession law is designed to treat drug use as a problem for public health officials rather than police. Those arrested with drugs will be fined a maximum of $100 and made to attend a treatment program. By preventing incarcerations for drug possession, it should begin to counteract the effects of the “war on drugs” on prison populations.

Belonging identity, society, beliefs, countries

Yoweri Museveni has been in power for more than three decades in Uganda. A fresh crop of politicians is calling for change and will challenge his leadership in an election in February 2021. But opposition candidates and their supporters are already facing violence and intimidation. Bobi Wine, a musician turned politician, was flanked by supporters as he travelled to hand in his nomination yesterday, but police fired tear gas on the crowds and arrested around 50 of his supporters. Wine was later arrested too. Security services shattered his car windows, pepper sprayed him and dragged him into a police van. Democracy’s a challenge, and not just in the States.

Thanks for reading, and do share this around.

Giles Whittell

Photographs Getty Images