2020’s Knife Edge Election: An Analysis

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Yves here. This is Tom Ferguson and his co-conspirators’ much awaited analysis of the 2020 election. The reason was so long in coming is that Ferguson has long kept the most sizable and carefully developed election database, and it takes time to scrub it, mine it, and test results.

By Thomas Ferguson, Professor Emeritus, University of Massachusetts, Boston; Paul Jorgensen, Associate Professor and Director of Environmental Studies, University of Texas Rio Grande Valley, and Jie Chen, University Statistician, University of Massachusetts. Originally published at the Institute of New Economic Thinking website

The 2020 election is very much like the famous opening notes of Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony: Virtually everyone can hear “fate knocking at the door.” But agreement on what that means is elusive.

Many foreign observers and Democrats, who never warmed to Trump anyway, keep wondering how he could possibly have rolled up more than seventy-four million votes in 2020 – as he said, more than any sitting president in history. Conversely, supporters of the former President and members of the Republican establishment advance all kinds of theories, some quite outlandish, to explain how the Democrats managed to win.

Meanwhile, everyone is pondering the long-term implications of the Trump movement’s transformation into an openly anti-system political formation uncomfortably reminiscent of the Weimar Republic as well as the breathtaking way big tech companies selectively shut off access to their systems following the storming of the Capitol. As the changes sweeping through the international system become more obvious, new worries are also rising: in particular, whether the shocking American exit from Afghanistan is a warning that the establishments of both political parties are living in a fool’s paradise.

All this persuades us that a careful look at what happened in the 2020 election is not idle curiosity. Elections, especially in money-driven political systems, are complicated affairs that repay analysis at many different levels.

Our new INET Working Paper analyzes the 2020 presidential election, focusing on voters, not political money, and emphasizing the importance of economic geography. Drawing extensively on county election returns, it analyzes how spatial factors combined with industrial structures to shape the outcome. It treats Covid 19’s role at length. The paper reviews studies suggesting that Covid 19 did not matter much, but then sets out a new approach indicating it mattered a great deal. The paper analyzes the impact on the vote not only of unemployment but differences in income and industry structures, along with demographic factors, including religion, ethnicity, and race. It also studies how the waves of wildcat strikes and social protests that punctuated 2020 affected the vote in specific areas. Trump’s very controversial trade policies and his little-discussed farm policies receive detailed attention.

The paper concludes with a look at how political money helped make the results of the Congressional election different from the Presidential race. It also highlights the continuing importance of private equity and energy sectors opposed to government action to reverse climate change as conservative forces in (especially) the Republican Party, together with agricultural interests.

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  1. Arizona Slim

    IMHO this is the money paragraph. From page 63 in the PDF:

    Most ominously of all, every passing day suggests that the administration is failing to keep up
    with COVID’s mutations. Though it is spending a lot of money, when it assumed power, it failed
    to prioritize cheap, accessible tests open to anyone who needs them, left too much basic data
    gathering to scholars or the media, and made at best half-hearted pushes in favor of improved
    ventilation, air filters, and other obvious steps that would minimize indoor COVID problems,
    especially in schools.164 It also did essentially nothing to put reliable face masks in the hands of
    the population and failed even to set standards for advertising and sales of facemasks, leaving a
    vast market to charlatans. It still has no program in place for large scale random testing that can
    swiftly identify new variants and it has failed to create an effective national set of statistics with
    public dashboards anyone can access. Essentially it has staked everything on vaccines that will
    need regular, costly updates in a country with no national healthcare system. It is obvious that the
    administration’s hopes for an end to the COVID nightmare are premature.

  2. JBird4049

    It is obvious that the administration’s hopes for an end to the COVID nightmare are premature.

    Premature? More like whistling in the dark while strolling past the graveyard.

    Everything in this paragraph would have been easy for the federal government to do, while being profitable contracts for many companies. That, and it would have prevented much of the rolling economically, socially, and politically.

    It is like many in the leadership class want to play Russian roulette while soaked in gasoline in a warehouse full of open barrels of gunpowder with everyone else just standing there among the barrels watching.

  3. Eclair

    This is a slow (as in ‘slow food’) read. I have reached p.22 and am savoring the tastiness of it all. So far, a delicious reprise of the Trump administration’s tussle with the problems thrown up by a pandemic; The Economy vs. The People. It’s a stroll down memory lane, replete with, ‘oh, wow, I had forgotten about that!’ I’ll still be reading this with the Thanksgiving dinner leftovers!

    Thanks to the authors!

    1. Amfortas the hippie

      slow food read, indeed.
      i wish i could run that dern printer(and had paper …and ink…), because this is stuff for the hammock out on the trail next to the front pasture.

      so far, it being a pain day(and medicated accordingly), this has stood out:
      “8 Neither task is advanced simply by paying more attention to customary demographic variables about cities or town, or tacking those on to data about voters’ occupations or even what industries they work in. The problem is more complicated: to recognize that in the dual economy that has developed in the United States, relatively affluent people in declining regions or poor
      people in areas dominated by specific industries such as the oil industry are likely to react rather differently – in some cases very differently – from similar individuals in other circumstances. In
      2016, for example, researchers who took the trouble to look found telling evidence of how place mattered in election outcomes. An especially striking example was how voters in Congressional
      districts with high percentages of defective bridges from years of austerity warmed to Trump – a phenomenon that shows up in elections in other countries contested by right wing populists.15
      2016 also offered striking lessons about how, in a society where the power of organized labor has shrunk so much, industrial structures themselves help structure mass political choices. Where the oil and gas industry was strong, for example, the Trump vote ran higher. The same was true for agriculture, mining, coal, and manufacturing in general. A large high tech information sector
      had a strong negative influence on votes for Trump.16 Evidence that imports negatively affected Hillary Clinton’s chances in certain districts in 2016 is also compelling, and, again, shows many
      parallels with other countries.17”
      that kind of political geography is rarely mentioned, let alone included in analysis….but it sure gels with my observations out here.
      with the ag part, leading to affinity with gop…that’s really sad…because all these farmers out here know that the gop ain’t fer sh^t…but the dems ‘want commie babyeating and obviously hate country folks…and never talk about farm policy except to make life harder out here’….(Billary is still hated for his last Farm Bill, which killed the peanut subsidy, here–proving the point,lol)
      dems lost the hinterlands by neglect…likely purposeful(the washington nationals schema)…indeed, since 2004, there hasn’t been a dem headquarters in my county, at all…and all my attempts since 08 to draw them out of their hilltop mansions to gin up voters have been for naught.
      (gave up on all that at O’s second inaug….save for my freelancing evangelism for bernie)

      this looks to be something worthy of a follow up thread in a few days…i certainly don’t have the (metaphysical) bandwidth to do it justice, just now.
      (likely skipping about, and reading through later…like one does with Finnegan)

  4. Robert Hahl

    Tom Ferguson is my favorite analyst but still, in a two-party system where both sides are trying to keep it close, how could any explanation of a result rise to the level of “statistically significant”? What if the results of our elections are simply noise? “Torture the data until it confesses” seems like a real danger in this area.

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