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Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump after a thrilling electoral battle
Research

Joe Biden defeats Donald Trump after a thrilling electoral battle

The battle for the White House is over. Narrow differences in the swing states decided the winner. Joe Biden is America's new president.

5 minutes
05 November 2020

Joe Biden and Donald Trump were in a neck-and-neck race for the White House. After several days, the 3 November elections still hadn’t yielded a clear winner. But on 7 November, the outcome resolved itself in Biden's favour. Professor of International Relations and American Politics Bart Kerremans followed the situation closely.

Elections don’t get more exciting than this. During the early part of election night, it looked as if Trump would triumph. His chances of a second term looked especially favourable after his victory in the important battleground state of Florida. Professor Bart Kerremans, who was commenting on the election from the VRT studios, saw the same patterns as in previous elections. ‘You saw the same thing happen in 2016. Trump was ahead in states like North Carolina, Georgia, Michigan, and Wisconsin and was victorious in Ohio. In the early morning after the elections, I was assuming Trump would win the election this time too, because the scenario was exactly the same as that from four years ago.’

Polarisation

But then the tide began to turn. Not that it turned spectacularly for Biden, far from it. But you could see how Biden was gradually closing the gap with Trump. Biden first recaptured ground in Arizona and then in other states as well. A neck-and-neck race then played out in various battleground states where Trump and Biden appeared particularly well matched. Of note is Biden’s success in the battleground states that Hilary Clinton lost four years ago.

Today's situation is much like that of 2016. Donald Trump secured victory at that time after a few close victories. According to Professor Kerremans, this election seemed to be heading in the same direction. ‘It looks like a number of hotly contested victories in a limited number of states will once again decide who wins and who loses. That reflects the general polarisation in the US, which was already present in 2016.’

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A nervous Donald Trump

Although there were still millions of votes to be counted, the current president, Donald Trump, claimed victory at a press conference in the White House. He even threatened legal action. Professor Kerremans mainly saw a nervous Donald Trump. ‘He is well aware that small shifts can have major consequences. That makes Trump anxious. The statement is vintage Donald Trump: he is constantly mobilising his supporters. Of course there’s risk involved. If Biden wins, Trump supporters will see it as cheating. So he’s questioning the legitimacy of a democratic election victory. It’s not really surprising that Trump would do such a thing. What is surprising is the speed and the way in which he did it. Actually, Trump is saying, “I won the election, but they want to take away our victory.” That is very extreme.’

African-Americans

Never before have so many Americans cast their votes. African-Americans and older Americans in particular went to the polls. The share of younger Americans fell slightly, whilst that of Latinos and Asian Americans remained virtually unchanged. That African-Americans in particular voted en masse does not surprise Professor Kerremans, given that Biden has invested in lasting relationships with the leaders of the African American community. They also go to the polls because they feel that Trump has made enormously provocative statements, which have had a huge mobilising effect during the campaign. Just look at the Black Lives Matters movement.’

In the run-up to the election, a great deal of ink was spilled about Trump's lax approach to corona. Professor Kerremans thinks that he is now paying the price with many of the elderly. ‘We see that more people over 65 are voting and that they’re doing so more often in favour of Biden. It’s likely that the ambiguous way Trump speaks about corona is costing him now. Some older Americans felt as if Trump wanted to sacrifice elderly people to keep the economy going, the reasoning being that a strong economy whould help Trump win re-election. Even though only a small subsection of voters switched from Trump to Biden for that reason, it was inevitable.’

It is striking that Trump has held onto his voters, while Biden mainly has to rely on higher turnout. According to Professor Kerremans, this indicates that the target groups for the political parties are strongly shifting. ‘The Democrats are increasingly becoming the party of the highly educated and minorities. The Republicans of an entrepreneurial upper class and of relatively low to medium-educated white voters. You could have said that in 2016, but today it’s been reconfirmed. The fact that Biden will owe his eventual victory to wins in North Carolina and Georgia speaks volumes. These are two states where until recently it was unthinkable that they could fall into the hands of the Democrats.’ (ed. Although not yet determined, it is likely that Trump will once again claim victory in North Carolina)

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Fraud

How things will proceed now is unclear for the time being. It is certain that Trump will not simply accept Biden’s victory. On the legal side, this delay isn’t really a problem, according to Professor Kerremans, as states have until 8 December to report their results. Politically, it’s a different story. ‘The longer it takes, the more credible Trump's claim that postal voting leads to fraud. No matter what happens, the validity of postal votes will be debated.’

If the result is disputed, it will trigger a legal battle that is likely to end in the Supreme Court. Such a scenario has played out in the recent past: in 2000, the Supreme Court ruled that the official victory in Florida would go to Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush. He therefore narrowly attained the required majority in the Electoral College and became president. This at the expense of his Democratic rival Al Gore.’

The hectic nature of the presidential election is overshadowing the elections for the House of Representatives and the Senate. In the House of Representatives, the Democrats will maintain their majority as expected. The elections for the Senate, on the other hand, are heading for a tie. Much depends on an undecided seat in Georgia, which is still in the hands of the Republicans. The two strongest candidates do not have an absolute majority as of today. On 3 January 3 2021, they will compete against each other in a run-off, essentially a second round. If the seat falls into Democratic hands, Republicans and Democrats will have exactly the same number of seats. In that case, the party membership of the vice president will be decisive. And we will only know that when the president is definitively known ...