Analysis: while a Democrat may be back in the White House, this was not an electoral triumph for the party in the Senate or House

Even as Joe Biden slowly closes in on the presidency, an uncomfortable fact remains. While this election may return a Democrat to the White House, the party has not seen a blue wave sweep across the country. In the House, several Democratic seats have been lost, while Republican control of the Senate seems set to continue, reducing the prospective surge to a ripple, with a net Democratic gain of one Senate seat thus far.

Runoffs in Georgia in early January might change the situation, but the immediate implication of an unchanged picture in the US Senate is that Biden will have to contend with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell's obstructionism, honed to perfection when Republicans seized control of the Senate with two years to run of Barack Obama's final presidential term. Biden’s famous proclivity for cultivating friendships and prospective compromises across the aisle during his tenure in the upper chamber will count for little under those conditions. 

What contributed to this lack of electoral triumph for the party in the Senate and House? The ingredients for success appeared to be in hand. We had Donald Trump’s atrocious track record in dealing with the pandemic, resulting in deaths from coronavirus on a record scale and rocketing levels of infection. There was an economy in meltdown, the threat to healthcare if Obama's programme is dissolved (as Trump has long vowed) and the hypocritical move to confirm a Supreme Court nominee eight days before the election. More than 500 children were separated (perhaps permanently) from their parents at the Mexican border due to Trump’s anti-immigration measures. Trump led a presidential campaign characterised by rampant lying and the incumbent articulating essentially no plans for a second term. The list goes on.

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Drivetime, a panel discussion on the US election outcome

In evaluating the Senate, several factors must be kept in mind. It was only as election day neared that pollsters suggested Democrats could take control of it. Earlier in the year, that possibility was considered farfetched because Democrats needed to flip four Republican seats, a steep hill to climb.

Yes, Republicans were defending more seats than Democrats this year, but it’s important to reflect on where the seats considered most susceptible to flipping were being contested. Most of them were in red states including Iowa, North Carolina, Montana and Texas. It can't be considered a big surprise that Thom Tillis apparently won re-election in North Carolina given that it’s an historically red state and Trump appears headed to a win there, although by a very close margin. Furthermore, the Democratic candidate in North Carolina, Cal Cunningham, shot himself in the foot (or perhaps one should say a different body part) by acknowledging an inappropriate romantic relationship with a woman not his wife, just weeks before the election.

Texas was always a pipe dream for Democrats, both in terms of the race for president and Senate, where Republican John Cornyn won re-election and Trump coasted to victory. The Democrats won where expected – in Colorado (now a solidly blue state) and in Arizona (formerly a red state and, perhaps, this year, flipping blue).

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, the Business Post's Marion McKeone reviews the election results to date

The failure to unseat Republican incumbents Susan Collins in Maine and Joni Ernst in Iowa is a bitter pill for Democrats. The fact that Ernst tied herself to Trump, while Collins tried to achieve some distance from the president testifies to the difficulty of generalising on this topic. The influx of external money to defeat them may in its own way have been counter-productive, building resistance to what some perceived as meddling. This was definitely true in South Carolina where Lindsey Graham easily won re-election with the help of ads drawing attention to hefty sums coming in support of his opponent, Jaime Harrison, from outside the state.

The Iowa case is instructive since Trump's trade war with China had such deleterious effects on farmers in a major agricultural state. He mitigated the effects to some extent with lavish bailouts, funded by taxpayers ($46bn across the sector this year), but the economic pressure and ongoing uncertainty might have played out differently. He and his party have succeeded in a raft of ways in getting people to vote their identity and not their interest. Not all of that identification is nativist and racist, but no secret has been made of white nationalism as a plank of the party's appeal, with few willing to disavow it on the Republican side. And Iowa is overwhelmingly white.

In their campaign messaging, Democrats face a more difficult proposition. Their 'base' constitutes a more diverse coalition than it does for Republicans. In terms of race, Republicans can rely on making their pitch to white voters. Democrats need to assemble liberal whites with African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Religion is a further case in point. Republicans direct their appeal to Christian voters, while Democrats need to pull together a whole host of different faiths as well as atheists, agnostics and secularists. 

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From RTÉ Radio 1's Morning Ireland, Cian McCormack speaks to Republican voters in Texas, Rhode Island and Pennsylvania

Regional variation poses a much greater challenge for Democrats. An example in the current election is the significant loss of support for Biden among Hispanics in Miami-Dade County in FloridaTrump's accusations about Biden’s supposed radicalism and socialism seem to have resonated there, bearing reminders of countries that Cuban and Venezuelan immigrants had left behind. Ironically, Trump’s balcony-bestriding antics after his return from hospital were an echo of authoritarian leaders in Latin America. 

There is a particular problem in some Senate races. States with low populations enjoy two representatives regardless of the relative paucity of people who live there. This becomes an issue as such states tend to be overwhelmingly white, more rural, less educated than average and more conservative. Quite apart from a systemic "racism by proxy", caused by effectively privileging the views of white voters in the composition of the Senate, this complicates the effectiveness of national messaging by Democrats in a way that is not the case for Republicans. 

These are general patterns, but a major electoral variable was the coronavirus crisis, unique to this moment. Perhaps paradoxically, the president's (mis)handling of it was not entirely bankable for Democrats. Biden treated it as a focal point, but as Brad Heath of Reuters points out, Trump did better this year than in 2016 in counties with high coronavirus death tolls. Some of this comes down to his success in politicising the virus. But the message to ignore the disease in favour of re-opening the economy clearly gained purchase with some voters. 

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From RTÉ News' States Of Mind podcast, why is it so hard to vote in America?

Finally, the decision by the Biden campaign to conduct its efforts largely through media advertising rather than large in-person rallies and knocking on doors may have been significant. Undeterred by coronavirus considerations of this kind, Republicans ran an effective ground campaign. The notable success of Democratic organisation in Arizona and Georgia seems to have relied on a similar approach of very skilful community activity.

The electoral tea leaves are never easy to read even after a campaign has concluded. For the moment, it seems that Democrats will have to content themselves with the biggest prize of the White House and ending Trump's presidency. Meanwhile, Republicans will not have concluded that they need to abandon strategies of packing the courts, tax cuts favouring the rich, anti-immigrant policies and a white-voter focus.


The views expressed here are those of the author and do not represent or reflect the views of RTÉ