The Surge

John Ellis
4 min readNov 16, 2020

Here’s the headline you and I didn’t read in the aftermath of the election: “Republicans (almost) run the table, winning (almost) everything, everywhere.”

That’s what happened on Election Night. The GOP held serve in the US Senate races (and seem likely to retain control after the two run-off elections are held in Georgia in early January of next year). The GOP gained seats in the House, which had been predicted by no one (except President Trump). And here’s how Politico described the action “down ballot”:

An abysmal showing by Democrats in state legislative races on Tuesday not only denied them victories in Sun Belt and Rust Belt states that would have positioned them to advance their policy agenda — it also put the party at a disadvantage ahead of the redistricting that will determine the balance of power for the next decade.

The results could domino through politics in America, helping the GOP draw favorable congressional and state legislative maps by ensuring Democrats remain the minority party in key state legislatures. Ultimately, it could mean more Republicans in Washington — and in state capitals.

By Wednesday night, Democrats had not flipped a single statehouse chamber in its favor. And it remained completely blocked from the map-making process in several key states — including Texas, North Carolina and Florida, which could have a combined 82 congressional seats by 2022 — where the GOP retained control of the state legislatures.

After months of record-breaking fundraising by their candidates and a constellation of outside groups, Democrats fell far short of their goals and failed to build upon their 2018 successes to capture state chambers they had been targeting for years. And they may have President Donald Trump to blame.

“It’s clear that Trump isn’t an anchor for the Republican legislative candidates. He’s a buoy,” said Christina Polizzi, a spokesperson for the Democratic Legislative Campaign Committee, on Wednesday. “He over-performed media expectations, Democratic and Republican expectations, and lifted legislative candidates with him.”

Rarely has a pre-election press narrative (Democrats likely to win presidency, recapture control of the Senate, gain seats in the House and make inroads down ballot) been so comprehensively misleading (or as ludicrously precise).

The short story of the 2020 election is that Democrats, with unlimited resources and the most favorable political environment imaginable, managed to fall short or cede ground at every level of electoral politics, save one. And they almost managed to lose at that level as well.

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Were the polls terribly, horribly wrong?

Not really! In the main, they had Biden’s “number” right. In the final national surveys, and throughout the fall, he hovered at 50%, plus or minus. When all the votes are counted, he’ll end up with a bit more than 51% of the vote (California takes forever to count). In the battleground states, the polling overstated Biden’s “number” a bit, here and there, but not by much.

What was “understated” was Trump’s strength.

What accounts for that? Three things, in my view:

(1) The Trump voter turnout operation was the one thing the Trump campaign did extraordinarily well. They got their people to the polls. In the rural areas, they turned out every last Trump voter that could be found. A former George W. Bush administration official — a Texan — said on the Friday before the election that he was certain that Trump would win the state by a comfortable margin. When asked why, he said: “because the rural vote is going to be an avalanche.” He was right about that and not just in Texas. The rural vote was a Trump avalanche almost everywhere. If you get out 90% of your supporters and the other side gets out 60% of its supporters, you cover lost ground.

(2) The “bashful Trump voter” was (and is) a real thing. (Various commentators on the “mainstream media” side of things have declared that “shy Trump voters” don’t exist. In deference to them, I’ve changed the moniker to “bashful Trump voters”). Evidence of the “bashful Trump voter” was all-but-perfectly captured in this L.A. Times story about the final USC/Dornside Daybreak Poll (which showed Biden leading Trump by 10%).

The poll’s main measure of support for the candidates asks voters to use a 0–100 scale to give the probability that they’ll vote for either candidate as well as the probability that they’ll vote at all. A separate experimental question asks voters how they think their friends, neighbors and other members of their social circles will vote. That question yields a smaller Biden lead, 51% to 46%.

Bingo! The final numbers (nationally) will be 51%-to-47%.

(3) Trump closed and Biden coasted. The visual contrast between Trump’s frantic final push on the campaign trail and Biden’s elderly shuffle could not have been more stark. Trump was energetic, funny, desperate and, at times, crazy. But he was campaigning like Earl Long on methamphetamine. If he was going down, he was going down fighting. You didn’t have to like him to be impressed by his energy and grit.

Biden, on the other hand, seemed diminished in the final days, not least by the presence of former President Obama at his side. Obama looked fit, vigorous, sharp, up for the big game. Biden looked old and tired and, at times, confused. He looked like someone who was about to concede defeat, not someone who would soon be sworn in as the 46th president of the United States of America.

The contrast was a factor in Trump’s late surge. The undecideds and wavering (Libertarian Party nominee) Jo Jorgensen voters all went Trump’s way at the end.



John Ellis

Founder and Editor, News Items. Political analyst. Founder of and contributing editor to Bird News Items. Former columnist for The Boston Globe.