2020 Election Preview: What We’re Watching Besides the Presidential Race

Blog Post
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Oct. 30, 2020

High-stakes U.S. presidential campaigns are not new. Yet the combination of pandemic, economic crisis, a national reckoning on race, and epic levels of political polarization makes it feel like just about everything, including the future of democracy itself, hinges on the results of the 2020 election.

But there’s more to the election than who wins the top of the ticket. Elections take the temperature of our civic culture. State and local ballot initiatives, state legislative elections, and the language and practice of politics are a window to the country’s future. For New America’s Political Reform program, then, the question is: What are the broader implications of the 2020 election cycle for policy, process, power, and peace? Below, our team discusses some of the developments we’re watching for, besides the outcome of the presidential race — including trends in campaign financing, electoral reform, state and local power dynamics, issue salience, and civil unrest.

The Shifting Landscape of Money in Politics — Mark Schmitt

The 2020 election is likely to upend a lot of our assumptions about how money and influence works in politics, in ways that will become clear months after Election Day. The total cost of all federal elections in 2020 will approach $14 billion, the Center for Responsive Politics estimates, almost double total spending in 2016. That number is likely to bring sticker-shock gasps about “too much money in politics.” But behind that number, there’s a promising basis for future reform.

The corrupting influence of political money stems not from its abundance, but from its exclusivity. Too many candidates, desperate for funds to enable communication with voters, spend their days pleading with wealthy donors or at fundraisers with lobbyists, forging the kinds of relationships that distort their vision of the common good. Other candidates who lack personal wealth or connections don’t even have a chance to run and be heard. However, when many campaigns are supported by a very broad base of smaller donors both those problems are diminished. More than 22 percent of donors in 2020 have given less than $200 to a candidate. The Democratic fundraising portal ActBlue reports that they’ve processed donations from a staggering 13 million individual donors.

The challenge in the years ahead will be whether this level of broad, small-donor engagement, can be sustained, across parties and at all levels of elections. There were similar hopes after 2008, when more than 3 million people donated to Barack Obama’s campaign, but that enthusiasm didn’t extend below the presidential level and it faded quickly, even before the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision opened up new channels for large spending. Meanwhile, today’s donors are giving to state legislative races across the country. Reforms such as the matching system for small donations that have been successful in several states and cities might help make the unprecedented level of civic engagement last beyond 2020.

Our team will also be looking at how money is spent in campaigns. Usually campaign finance research focuses on donors, because that’s where the source of corruption is. But what happened to the $1.57 billion President Trump raised, almost all of which was gone by October? And how are other candidates using their money? For example, if a well-funded candidate such as Senate challenger Amy McGrath (D) in Kentucky spends most of the $88 million she had raised by mid-October on traditional broadcast ads, it will have no broader effect. But if, as our colleague Perry Bacon Jr. reported in August, her long-shot campaign spends it on a robust field organization, that might have a lasting effect in building civic infrastructure for the future. The spending side of post-election campaign finance reports may help us better understand why campaigns seem to cost so much and identify further reforms.

Momentum for Ranked-Choice Voting — Lee Drutman

On November 3, something critical is on the ballot in Alaska and Massachusetts besides whether Joe Biden or Donald Trump should be president and who should control Congress. Voters will be deciding whether they want to conduct their future elections under new ranked-choice voting rules. Though this might seem like a wonky change in process, it is actually a profound step toward a more positive, problem-solving style of politics.

Ranked-choice voting — which already exists for state primary, congressional, and presidential elections in Maine, as well as in a number of large cities in local elections — is a small tweak to existing voting rules. Under current plurality voting, your ballot offers a list of candidates, but you can only choose one. Most people choose a Democrat or a Republican, because these are the only two parties most people believe have a shot of winning, and so anything else is just a wasted vote, or worse, a spoiler vote that winds up helping the candidate you absolutely don't want. Any vote cast as a message of protest — such as one for a third party candidate — comes at a very high cost. And yet, more and more Americans are dissatisfied with and feel unrepresented by the two major parties. Two-thirds of Americans say they'd like to see a third party. According to Gallup, the share of Americans identifying as independents has consistently been in the low 40 percent range since the mid-2000s.

The measure could pass in both Massachusetts and Alaska. If both adopt ranked-choice voting, expect more states to give a closer look to upgrading their voting systems, too.

And they should. Ranked-choice voting is simply a better way to vote. It gives everyone more choice and more voice. It encourages candidates to build coalitions and broaden their appeal, instead of pushing division and hatred. If we are going to come together as a nation after this election, we need a voting system that encourages more compromise.

Mind the Long Tail of Statehouse Elections — Maresa Strano

This is a hugely consequential year for state legislative elections, as they will determine who gets a seat at the table for the upcoming reapportionment — the process whereby state legislatures convene following the latest Census to redraw state legislative and congressional district boundaries, and, more problematically, “choose their voters” for the next decade. State lawmakers have long used their redistricting powers to advantage themselves and their party, but gerrymandering became a household name after 2010, when Republicans leveraged their newfound state-level dominance and sophisticated software to lock in minority power in several states. This spurred a steady string of legal challenges and anti-gerrymandering ballot measures, including six measures in 2018 and one this year, in Virginia. Still, beginning in 2021, most state legislatures will set to work redrawing their maps, only with less restraint than before. This is thanks to the Supreme Court’s 2019 decision not to intervene in partisan gerrymandering cases, as well as its 2013 Shelby County v. Holder decision, which eliminated the need for Southern states with histories of racial discrimination to get federal “pre-clearance” for new maps.

With so much on the line, both parties have been urging attentiveness to state legislative races across the country. For Democrats, much of the focus has been on a handful of chambers in key Southern states, including Texas, Florida, and Georgia, where there’s a chance (however slim) to break Republican trifectas in time for redistricting, and therefore prevent another decade of progressive voter and policy marginalization at the state and local levels. As we’ve written, the last decade has seen a surge of preemption laws passed in heavily-gerrymandered trifecta states, which bar cities and towns from adopting popular policies on everything from worker benefits to renter protections. Divided state governments are less likely to pass such laws.

Democrat-aligned PACs such as the National Democratic Redistricting Committee and grassroots organizations are trying to make up for the party’s past fixation on national elections at the expense of statehouse contests. As they were reminded in 2010, these state elections reverberate to the national level, affecting federal power dynamics and policymaking for years. In 2020, for example, the outcome of the state legislative elections could help either party gain up to 68 U.S. House seats, according to the head of the Republican State Leadership Committee. States with rapidly growing populations — like Texas and Florida — are on track to expand their congressional delegations, while many deep blue states are expected to lose seats. By 2023, these changes will shape the federal policy agenda. And, of course, they will impact the Electoral College calculus in 2024 and 2028.

The Threat of Political Violence Will Outlast this Election — Alex Stark (with research assistance from Kathryn Clark)

From a plot to kidnap Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer to the murder of two protestors in Kenosha, Wisonsin, recent events have raised concerns about political violence surrounding the 2020 election. The Armed Conflict Location & Data Event Project (ACLED), which collects data on political violence around the world, warns that “militia groups and other armed non-state actors pose a serious threat to the safety and security of American voters.”

In 2019, together with Over Zero, we drew on research in international contexts to identify four risk factors for political violence: elite factionalization, societal polarization, a rise in hate speech and rhetoric, and weakening institutions. Since then, these trends have worsened. The United States has moved up five places (from 154th to 149th) on the Fragile States Index and its elite factionalization score — a measure of the factionalization of state institutions along ethnic, class, racial, and other lines as well as gridlock among political elites — has increased. Americans’ evaluations of how well the United States performs on democratic principles have declined. An ABC News study from May 2020 found 54 cases of criminal threats or violence where the perpetrator invoked President Trump. And while the Voter Study Group found that while most Americans reject partisan threats and violence, 21 percent of respondents said that using violence might be justified if their party were to lose the 2020 elections.

At the same time, there are important caveats. Despite rhetoric suggesting that protests could spark violence, Black Lives Matter protests this summer have been “overwhelmingly peaceful.” In May and June, injuries to protestors, bystanders, or police were reported in about 2 percent of protest events, and much of the violence associated with protests was directed against protestors by the police or bystanders. Additionally, predictions that the U.S. could slide into civil war are over-blown, and we should be wary of speculating about the potential for violence in an inflammatory way. Yet as we wrote this summer in Foreign Affairs, peace means not just the absence of war, “but the absence of conflict that threatens lives, communities, and the stability of institutions and regimes.” International experience — and the U.S. experience over 300 years — show that political violence doesn't have to look like a civil war to warp a democracy profoundly.

No matter the outcome, the threat of political violence won’t simply disappear after the election. We will need to take measures to strengthen community resilience to violence. Strategies to strengthen participation in democratic institutions, support targeted communities, and engage the media to create effective programming, will be critical to restoring American’s trust in these political institutions and preventing political violence around the next election.

Security Voters: Where Have They Gone? — Heather Hurlburt

Whatever happened to “security” elections? The issue barely barely registers in polling of Democrats, and has even fallen out of Republicans’ top priorities. But that isn’t because voters feel secure. Instead, campaign rhetoric, and the backlash to it, offers another chance to see in stark relief what this summer’s Black Lives Matter protests showed: our politics fail to offer a unifying vision of security in which all can share, and to whose ends the machinery of government is dedicated.

Instead, Americans are making it clear that their votes this year are motivated by a profound sense of threat — from each other. They’re not wrong, by measures such as rising rates of violence and hate speech against people of color, religious minorities and women, significant cultural change, and vanishing pathways to middle-class prosperity. They are encouraged in this belief by a president who muses aloud about the assassination of his rival, praises extremist groups who support violence, and deploys military and paramilitary forces against demonstrators. Each step is a blow against an essential foundation of stable democratic government — belief that the state, justly, monopolizes lethal force.

One sign of the declining trust in U.S. democracy is the dearth of security institutions trusted across political and ethnic divides, aside from the U.S. military. Worldwide, such declines are key risk factors for political instability and unrest. From local law enforcement to the Pentagon, how security institutions respond on Election Day and thereafter — and the way subsequent reforms do, or don’t, address historic exclusion and re-shape our notions of security at home and abroad — is a fundamental challenge for the future of our grand experiment in pluralistic, multicultural democracy.

Related Topics
Political Violence Identity and Polarization Money in Politics The Politics of American Policymaking Voting, Electoral, and Local Reform