In a year of uncertainty, presidential outcome fits the pattern

By  and , Daily Memphian Updated: November 04, 2020 10:16 AM CT | Published: November 03, 2020 6:46 PM CT

The narrative in the presidential race was fluid Tuesday evening and played with the hopes of President Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden.

The president decisively won Tennessee and decisively lost Shelby County, but the nation as a whole was much less clear as the staggered counting of votes across the nation amid the COVID-19 pandemic left much unsettled late into the evening. 

Biden held a lead late Tuesday evening in the electoral race to the 270 needed for victory, but final tallies in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania — key battleground states — were still very much up in the air.

Trump appeared to be closing in on winning key battleground states in Florida and Ohio, while Biden was trending toward flipping Arizona — a state that went for Trump in his 2016 win over Hillary Clinton. 

But with votes still being counted in several swing states, projections were ever-variable. A large number of early votes were cast — some absentee and some in person — and the order and pace in which the states counted them had the potential to tilt the metrics one way or another and then back again.

Locally, the story line of a blue county in a red state held. The early vote showed Trump improved his totals in Shelby County over 2016. But Biden’s numbers were a greater improvement over those of 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton in Shelby County.

By the early vote in 2016, Trump got 84,193 votes compared to 102,806 in Tuesday’s early vote. However, Biden posted 192,733 early votes in Shelby County compared to 144,427 for Clinton four years ago.

The difference in the Biden-Clinton total supports the premise that while Clinton won the popular vote four years ago nationally only to lose the electoral college, she didn’t do as well as she could have with some parts of the Democratic base who weren’t about to vote for Trump but didn’t vote for her either.

The local face of the presidential race featured no appearances by even a surrogate for Trump or Biden. All of the national campaign resources went to the battleground states where the race was close between the two presidential contenders.

Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters on a conference call Tuesday that internal data showed a spike in Republican voter turnout and a drop in Democratic voters nationally. Stepien also said: “With a lack of ground game on the Biden side, they left a ton of votes on the table …”

Biden’s last campaign stop on the eve of the election was in Pennsylvania, the state that just might determine who wins the White House.

“You represent the backbone of this country,” Biden told his audience. “Hardworking families who are asking for nothing but a fair shot, an even chance.”

Michigan is another critical state, and that’s where Trump made his last push in his bid for a second term, speaking at a rally in Grand Rapids.

“While foreign nations are in a free fall, we’re creating an economic powerhouse unrivaled anywhere in the world,” he said, citing a recent Gallup poll that found 56% of Americans surveyed said they were better off than they were four years ago.

Early Tuesday night, Trump and Biden easily won the states they were supposed to win. Trump took Tennessee, Mississippi, Oklahoma and Alabama, flexing his muscle in so-called flyover country.

Biden had a lock on the northeast, winning New York, New Jersey, Vermont and his home state of Delaware, among others.

Given the divisive nature of this election, there were concerns in Memphis and across the country that in-person voting might be disrupted. But early indications were that Americans were able to exercise their constitutional right to vote without any major problems.

Daryl Johnson, a former senior analyst with the Department of Homeland Security, told The New York Times it was “a relief so far” that the voting process had been absent any significant aggressive incidents.

He cautioned, however, “the period after the election is going to be volatile and higher risk because you’re going to be dealing with the aftermath of the election results.” 

Shelby County residents voted early and in record numbers. Before the polls opened Tuesday morning, County Mayor Lee Harris said more votes had been cast in Shelby County than any other county in the state: “In fact, one in seven votes cast in our state were cast right here in Shelby County.”

But as Tuesday night was giving way to the wee hours of Wednesday morning, nothing had been decided in this election where the mantra from both sides of the divide was that “the stakes have never been higher.”

A tough, tough year

All of this, of course, comes against the backdrop of a challenging, tense and, in some cases, somber year for Americans. By the middle of Election Day, the United States death toll from COVID-19 was at 231,754 and counting.

And still there is not universal agreement on the benefits of wearing a mask and social distancing.

Civil unrest sparked by several deaths of Black people during interactions with police dominated America’s spring and summer, and there were renewed demands for police reform. Americans in general and politicians in particular have been playing tug-of-culture-wars ever since.

At ground level, Mike LaBonte, executive director at the Memphis Crisis Center, has been seeing the daily impact.

“At this point, it’s not just the pandemic,” he recently told The Daily Memphian. “It’s social unrest, political uncertainty, just watching the news.”

Natural disasters have taken another toll, further stretching federal, state and local resources and resolve. The Atlantic hurricane season has been so prolific that for just the second time the official alphabetical list of hurricane names has been used up, forcing forecasters to employ the supplementary list of Greek letter names. Hence, Hurricanes Alpha, Gamma and Zeta.

Western wildfires raged — an apt metaphor for passions on both ends of the political spectrum — and have been historic in their devastation.

And underneath all of this, there has been a steady building of anxiety leading up to Election Day. In a recent survey of 2,000 adults conducted by OnePoll on behalf of Feelmore Labs and Cove, 55% of respondents said they expected this to be the most stressful day of their lives.

That’s the power of political polarization.

In another study, conducted by Zachary Neal, an associate professor of psychology and global urban studies at Michigan State University, the divide between Republicans and Democrats was found to be greater than ever. Perhaps most distressing: The study is two years old; it seems impossible that a similar study undertaken in 2020 would not show an even greater chasm.

The researcher, by the way, took no sides when assigning blame. Instead, he says the gap has been growing since the early 1970s no matter which party held the White House or owned the majority of Congressional seats. And that doesn’t bode well, no matter the results from this election.

“Today, we’ve hit the ceiling on polarization,” Neal said just after the study was released. “At these levels, it will be difficult to make any progress on social or economic policies.”

And again, that was two years ago — before COVID, before all the social unrest, before an Election Day that some Americans were expecting to be the most stressful day of their lives.  

What will tomorrow bring?

And so, America went to sleep not knowing who its next Commander in Chief will be.

“A record share of voters said in a summer survey that it really matters who wins the 2020 election, and with that high level of engagement comes an understandable desire for certainty,” Michael Dimock, president of the Pew Research Center, wrote predictively several days before the election. “But on the night of Nov. 3, Americans will be searching for hard data that may not exist.

“Millions of mail-in votes will need to be counted, even as exit polls — which traditionally provide important insights about where an election may be headed — will face unprecedented challenges.

“As Americans, we need to summon patience, accept the uncertainty of the moment and wait for election results and rigorous polling data to tell us what the voters decided and why.”

In the mega-tough year that is 2020, the “uncertainty of the moment” might be the one thing that Americans can count on.


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Don Wade

Don Wade

Don Wade has been a Memphis journalist since 1998 and he has won awards for both his sports and news/feature writing. He is originally from Kansas City and is married with three sons.

Bill Dries

Bill Dries

Bill Dries covers city and county government and politics. He is a native Memphian and has been a reporter for more than 40 years.


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