While figuring out exactly what happened, for better and for worse, in the 2020 election will take more time, Joshua Holland touches on something really important–turnout was incredibly high (boldface mine):
There are three likely reasons for this that should be fairly obvious. First, since the earliest days of the Covid-19 pandemic, Trump set the tone for his party by insisting that the media and Democrats were exaggerating the severity of the crisis in order to hurt him politically, and urged Americans to reopen businesses and schools and act as if these are normal times. The impact of that strategic choice has been catastrophic, but it most likely benefited Republicans in one specific way: They had a robust ground game, knocking on tens of millions of doors while Democrats relied on virtual canvassing and limited personal contacts. That disparity didn’t matter much for the top of the ticket in an election that was always going to be a referendum on Trump, but many voters don’t know much about their local races and those conversations with canvassers can be key to getting them engaged further down the ballot.
Second, this was a very high-turnout election for both sides, and it followed a massive Democratic wave in 2018. Democrats netted 40 house seats and 309 state legislative seats during the midterms, which left them defending a significant number of purple or reddish seats with freshmen lawmakers. That provided a lot of pickup opportunities for Republicans. As of this writing, most of the half-dozen House seats they have so far flipped were in exactly these kinds of districts. If Biden had won the national popular vote by 8 points, as the polling averages suggested, Dems probably would have expanded their margin in the House and done well in those state legislative races. In the end, he’ll probably end up winning it by 4 or 5 points so some of those low-hanging fruit were bound to fall.
Finally, while Never-Trump Republicans didn’t materialize in the kinds of numbers that would have given Dems a landslide, there were major campaigns to get them to support Biden. It doesn’t take a huge number of disaffected Republicans voting for Biden–or for a third party or write-in–while voting for Republicans for Congress and in state legislative races to create the kind of split between Biden’s performance and that of candidates further down the ballot that’s emerging now.
And as Eric Levitz argued, Biden probably was denied that 8-point win at least in part because the CARES Act pumped tons of money into the economy–with $600 per week enhanced unemployment benefits and $1,200 stimulus checks going to millions of households–and as a result, a majority of Americans thought they were better off financially than they were four years ago.
I would add one thing. U.S. elections, especially off-year elections, are disproportionately affairs of those who are in the top ~30% of income and who are college-educated (i.e., those who check both of these boxes). In a high turnout election, which by definition means low propensity voters will show, there will be a lot more voters who are not in the top ~30% of income and who are college-educated. In Democratic-leaning districts those voters will trend towards likely Democratic voters, while in heavily white areas, those voters will likely be Republican voters. That’s why Democrats won close state-wide elections in Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, but were blown out in Montana and other Republican-leaning states.
But the Democratic leadership still thinks it’s the 1990s, when likely Democratic voters often didn’t show up (a historical note: in the 1990s Black turnout was low, but that’s what happens when a significant fraction of Democrats decide to make Black people Public Enemy No. 1). But in 2018 and 2020 (and in fairness, 2008 and 2012), Democrats have done very well getting their voters out, while Republicans have had a harder time, unless Trump is on the ballot. The historical irony is that high-turnout might favor Republicans overall, meaning off-year elections will be more favorable for Democrats, which would be a historic reversal. It’s not clear Democrats understand this: high turnout among less likely voters can hurt Democrats in a lot of places–and that’s arguably the biggest story in the election.
…it is deeply problematic in the sense that it means that those down-ballot results weren’t the fault of wild-eyed leftists, the neoliberal Democratic establishment or anyone in between. That poses a problem for a certain contingent of very online people who have set their factional differences aside for the past six months to beat Trump and are now itching for a fight. And it’s a big problem for outlets like The Hill, Axios and Politico that leverage intra-coalition tensions on both the left and the right for scoops and web-traffic.
It’s unclear what Trump’s absence could mean. Will low propensity, likely Republicans be less likely to show up? Will his absence also mean that low propensity, likely Democrats won’t feel the urgency to vote? Of course, what Democrats do and how they do it will play a role here, but they need to understand exactly how they succeeded and failed if they want to perform better..