Last Saturday, Nov. 7, media outlets declared former Vice President Joe Biden the winner of the 2020 presidential election, all but ending the race. Yet, even before the presidential race was called, another, equally significant one had begun: the race to write the history of the election. In many ways, public memory of an election is just as important as the outcome of the election itself, because the legacy of the election will determine the behavior of politicians and voters for years to come.
At first, my relief at Biden’s victory was tempered by disappointment. The polls had predicted a crushing victory, a landslide. But then I realized that expectations are ultimately irrelevant. It doesn’t matter how much Biden could have won by, only the results themselves. Too often, pundits and the public allow expectations, rather than results, to dictate the history of an election.
The weight of those expectations can turn a narrow defeat into a paralyzing calamity. Take the 2016 election. By any margin, President Donald Trump’s victory over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton was razor-thin. A collective total of 78,000 votes in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin put Trump over 270 electoral votes. In comparison, in the 2012 election (not a landslide by any means) President Obama won via a total of 523,000 votes in Florida, Ohio, Virginia and Colorado. And that’s not even mentioning the national popular vote, which Trump lost by nearly three million votes.
And how did the media and the American public remember the 2016 election? As a crushing defeat for the Democrats. And while the unprecedented nature of Trump’s campaign contributed to the shock felt by many Americans, much of the narrative also stems from the expectation that Trump would lose. Trump predictably threw his weight behind the crushing victory’ narrative, describing the race as a “landslide” on multiple occasions. But even the shell-shocked Democrats had trouble contesting this version of events, remembering the election as a catastrophe. The most high-profile book to be written about the race told from the Democrat perspective is Amie Parnes’ and Jonathan Allen’s, “Shattered: Inside Hillary Clinton’s Doomed Campaign.” There was little room for level-headed circumspection about how Clinton would probably have won if not for one or two instances of bad luck.
Evidently, what mattered was not the wafer-thin margin by which Trump actually won, but the widespread (and misinformed) expectation that Trump would lose. That expectation ultimately created the shock that would amplify Trump’s victory from a slim win to an enormous triumph, more proportional to the landslide Trump described than the reality.
The memory of the defeat had a huge impact on the public mood. The shadow of 2016 hung like a specter over the Democratic primaries, and continually punished candidates who could at all be compared to Clinton. Rather than policy, the electorate’s overwhelming concern became electability, a vague term which, correctly or not, tended to hurt female candidates and candidates of color in the eyes of voters. In the end, Biden won in no small part because he promised to undo the trauma of 2016 by winning back the Rust Belt and implicitly appealed to voters because his candidacy was not as norm-defying as Clinton’s.
That brings us to the present day, where in the wake of Biden’s victory, the ghosts of 2016 are, in part, exorcized. Yet now the nation is in the process of frantically building a new narrative for the 2020 race, one which will color our politics for many years to come.
The fight for that narrative is raging in plain view, though not always explicitly. Take Trump’s continued declaration that “I WON THIS ELECTION, BY A LOT!” and his lawsuits against the vote-counting in various states. These proclamations and legal cases have about as much chance of changing the outcome of the election as my co-columnist has of writing a column about the problems with political protesting. But that isn’t the point. Trump is no longer trying to win, but rather, he is trying to write the history in his own font, and make it seem as though Biden’s victory was indecisive and illegitimate. Many left-leaning outlets are presenting a narrative only slightly less pessimistic, saying that the election was a vindication of Trumpism, because the race was unexpectedly close. Perhaps that is true, and perhaps not, but it gives Trump the exact ammunition he needs in his attempt to rewrite the history of his loss.
Americans should resist the temptation to let their expectations rule the way they remember elections. The fact is that Biden won, and he did so decisively. His popular vote margin of victory currently exceeds four million votes, and will likely continue to grow. With over 74 million votes, it is the most votes ever cast for a candidate in U.S. history. If the Democrats repeat their mistake of 2016, the memory of an unexpectedly close election will continue to haunt them, weaken their confidence and make them overcorrect for the states they lost in 2020.
The election is over. The battle for the collective memory is just beginning. The way people decide to remember the race will determine the course of our nation, and may even impact the resiliency of Trumpism. The good news is that the way we remember our history is a choice, and we all have the power to make it. All we have to do is admit to ourselves that, while there is still much more work to do, we’ve won.