An Assessment of the 2020 US Presidential Election
-American Democracy Now-
(A lecture at the 29th SSDP discussion session on December 10, 2020)

Fumiaki Kubo
Professor, the University of Tokyo

1. Trump's America

Looking at the trends in President Trump's approval/disapproval ratings, the disapproval rating is consistently high (50 or so %), but the disparity with the approval rating is not large (around 10%). Trump's approval ratings by party are as follows: Republicans: about 90% (94% just before the election); independent voters: in the 30% range; and Democrats: almost single-digit (4% just before the election, which may round to zero). A radical polarization is clearly unfolding. 1 Trump's approval rating has remained unusually consistent since he took office, with the smallest gap between his highest and lowest approval ratings (9%) compared to those of his predecessors (16%-65%). Trump's highest approval rating is 47%, which is anything but high, but his approval rating has never dropped below 38%. This fact indicates that he has bedrock support. Generally speaking, during the honeymoon period following inauguration, any of the past presidents' approval ratings usually rose to 60%-80%. In Trump's case, however, his approval rating was 47%, suggesting that many people thought Trump was unfit from the outset and that he failed to cultivate his supporters. There are many reasons for this, including his public and private confusion, ethical problems, and inaccuracies in his statements.

2. Reviewing the Trump Administration

According to (a website that verifies the credibility of politicians' claims), almost 70% of President Trump's statements are "mostly lies," "lies," or "outright lies." The Washington Post reports that in his first 100 days in office, Trump lied an average of five times a day; over 1,267 days in office, he lied an average of 15 times a day. Besides, Trump broke or ignored precedents and practices of the US presidency:

  • Refusal to release his tax returns (released since President Ford)
  • Ignoring conflict of interest rules (followed since President Nixon)
  • Running a for-profit business (avoided since President Johnson)
  • Appointing his family members to senior positions in the administration (avoided since President Johnson)
  • Benefiting his family by pork-barreling (avoided since President Grant)

The 2020 presidential election focused on whether or not to re-elect the incumbent. Voters judged what President Trump had done or failed to do during the four years of his administration. In defiance of Democrats' discontent, Trump "conservatized" the Supreme Court and the federal courts and implemented large-scale tax cuts. These were, from the Republican point of view, groundbreaking. Republicans also endorsed the US withdrawal from the Paris Agreement.


  • Withdrawal from the TPP
  • Conservatization of the judiciary (appointing Gorsuch, Kavanaugh, and Barrett as Supreme Court judges)
  • Airstrikes in Syria
  • Withdrawal from the Paris Agreement
  • Recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel (The Jerusalem Embassy Act of 1995 on the relocation of the US Embassy in Israel from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem)
  • Trump tax cuts (mainly corporate tax cuts)
  • Hard-line trade policy (tariffs on steel and aluminum imports, tariffs on Chinese imports, the commencement of negotiations on Japan-US Trade in Goods Agreement, etc.)
  • Ban on entry from five Muslim countries --- The administration won the case in June 2018 after losing twice in lower courts. The Supreme Court upheld the ban by a vote of 5 to 4. It also endorsed a ban on the entry of officials from North Korea and Venezuela.
  • Withdrawal from the Iran nuclear agreement
  • Withdrawal from the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty
  • Promotion of the normalization of diplomatic relations between Israel and the UAE, Bahrain, and Sudan


  • Repeal and reform of Obamacare
  • Construction of a wall on the US-Mexican border
  • COVID-19 countermeasures (more than 280,000 deaths)
  • An unemployment rate of over 10% and the worst negative economic growth in postwar American history

3. The 2020 US Presidential Election

The US economy had been strong until February 2020; the unemployment rate of 3.5% in February 2020 meant full employment, the best figure since 1969. Before the COVID-19 pandemic, President Trump planned to go into the election depending on that strong economy. The most popular interpretation is that Trump would have won re-election if the COVID-19 pandemic had not happened. However, it is noteworthy that Trump's approval rating has not changed much from before the spread of COVID-19 through after its outbreak. It is conceivable that he could not have won re-election with ease even if COVID-19 had not hit America.

We should also recognize the difference between the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections. Some corrections were made to the polling methodology used to predict the election result, which was problematic in 2016 --- e.g., correcting for underestimates of white, undereducated voters. In conclusion, however, those corrections were still insufficient; a miscalculation of as much as 10% was reported this time for the results in Wisconsin. In 2016, Trump was a rookie candidate; he was able to over-advertise and talk about his dreams. Since, this time, he had to be re-elected as the incumbent, different factors came into play, such as his track record over the past four years, whether he is fit to be president, and whether he can be trusted to govern for another four years. Trump indeed received more than 70 million votes, the largest number so far that a Republican presidential candidate ever received. But it should also, significantly, be noted that Biden won more than 80 million votes.

In 2016, the Democratic Party attempted to win three presidential elections in a row. But it is difficult indeed for the same party to win three consecutive presidential terms, the most recent case was in 1988, and before that it was back in 1948. Therefore, the Democrats had, in a sense, to fight handicapped. It was also the case that Hillary Clinton was more disliked than Joe Biden. If a presidential election depends on a small margin, these factors cannot be ignored. Looking at the approval ratings of the 2016 presidential candidates, Clinton's was generally higher than Trump's, but Trump's surpassed Clinton's from time to time --- which means that Trump had a chance to win if the timing was right. In 2020, however, Biden consistently maintained a higher approval rating than Trump. 2

A graph ("Support in 2020 and shift from 2016") in the Washington Post's article "Why Trump is Losing" (October 9, 2020) shows that Hispanic Catholics on the whole support the Democratic Party, but have shifted significantly toward the Republican Party compared to 2016. The same is true for black Protestants, black women, and Hispanics (in order of increasing shift). Atheists, on the other hand, are predominantly Democratic; they have shifted significantly from Republican to Democratic support compared to 2016. White Catholics, married men, and white men with no degree, who support the Republican Party as a whole, significantly shifted their support to the Democratic Party in 2020 (in order of increasing shift). An overall shift to the Democratic Party took place in 2020.

According to a preliminary estimate of the 2020 presidential election, 40% of voters absolutely support Trump, while at the same time, 45% absolutely disapprove of Trump and 15% are undecided. 3 In terms of unlikeability, Hillary Clinton was more disliked than Biden among Democrats, Republicans, and independent voters. Especially her unlikeability among independent voters was about 20% higher than among other groups of voters. It is interesting to look at the reasons for support. In the case of Trump, the top reasons for support were leadership/performance and policy positions, while as for Biden, the overwhelmingly top reason for support was "He is not Trump." 4 The recent presidential election was an election in which people expressed their dislike for Trump. In the meantime, the positive support for Biden is not robust. In 2008, young voters admired Obama's vision and rhetoric. The situation is quite different this time. How many voters can properly answer when they are asked about Biden's vision?

When asked about the most vital issue in deciding whom to vote for president in the 2020 presidential election, Democratic supporters answered the COVID-19 outbreak, followed by race relations. Republican supporters overwhelmingly prioritized the economy --- only 4% of them chose the COVID-19 outbreak. 5 This difference in priorities and values shows the division of American society. And this has been accelerated by the media: CNN and NSNBC repeatedly report that the COVID-19 crisis is a grave problem, whereas FOX emphasizes illegal immigrants and rampant black protests. Voters see only the coverage that suits them, a phenomenon that is increasingly widening the gap between their values. This explains that when the Trump campaign held massive face-to-face rallies, his supporters cared nothing for mask-wearing.

When it comes to the size of the election campaign fund that is closely related to the campaign method, the Biden campaign overwhelmed the Trump campaign in the last six months. Yet, we Japanese TV viewers were often impressed with the Trump campaign's enthusiastic large rallies, while seeing Biden give speeches from a car in parking lots, with a small audience and little appeal. Many Republican supporters went door-to-door for support. The fact is that although Democrats did not hold large rallies and only went door-to-door on a modest scale, they, backed by their large campaign fund, concentrated on TV and SNS advertising. As a result, Japanese TV viewers watched mostly Trump's election campaigns.

In 2017, as part of its re-election strategy, the Trump campaign spent an enormous sum of money in promoting voter registration drives in the areas where white high school graduates, who form a primary support base for Trump, live. This sound campaign strategy seems to have been quite fruitful. Republicans rather than Democrats acquired a larger number of newly registered voters during the recent election campaigns. This may be a reason why Trump received more than 70 million votes this time. On the other hand, Democrats gained a lot of votes thanks to mail voting.

To summarize Trump's re-election strategy, the first thing he did was to call for the reopening of the economy and schools. It was aimed at business owners, the unemployed, libertarians, and religious conservatives. The second thing he did was to criticize riots and looting by blacks, to subdue them Trump mobilized federal troops and federal law enforcement officers. The third was to beat up on China, with frequent reference to the origin of the coronavirus and the Hong Kong issue; four senior government officials made a series of speeches criticizing China. The fourth was to appoint conservative judges to the US Supreme Court.

4. Analysis of the 2020 Presidential Election Results

According to a joint exit poll conducted by US media, a 2016-2020 comparison of votes cast for Trump is as follows: those of men decreased 10%, those of white non-college graduates decreased 8%, and those of both the young and the elderly also substantially decreased, indicating a shift away from Trump. 6 On closer inspection, the ratio of male to female voters was 48% and 52%. More men voted Republican, and more women voted Democratic. This is no different than in the past. What is unique with the 2020 election compared to the 2016 election is that 41% of the white vote (accounting for 67% of the overall voters) was for Biden. This 41% is higher than the 37% in 2016 and 39% in 2012 of the white vote for Democratic candidates, although voting for Trump in 2016 is higher at 58%. As for high school graduate whites (a large group of voters accounting for 35% of the overall voters), 67% of them voted for Trump while 32% for Biden this time; this 32% is, however, up considerably from 28% in 2016 --- then Trump also scored the same percentage. These facts indicate that Trump has maintained his base of support, but failed to enlarge it, which means that Biden has prevented him from doing so.

As a whole, Biden's victory was due primarily to the overwhelming criticism of Trump, and also to a higher degree of unity within the Democratic Party, for criticism of Biden from the left was much weaker than that of Hillary Clinton in 2016. Among the other reasons may be the large funds the Democratic Party possesses, effective TV ads, and the fact that the party has regained the white vote, especially the white, less educated vote.

5. Changes under the Biden Administration

An important factor in predicting policy changes under the Biden administration is the outcome of the runoff election for the two Senate seats for Georgia, which will take place on January 5, 2021. Whether Democrats win both seats and take control of the Senate or lose even one and lose the Senate majority to Republicans will make a vital difference in the future policy changes under the forthcoming Democratic administration. In the House of Representatives, Democrats maintained their majority but lost about ten seats in the recent House elections. Any party, Republican or Democratic, that won the presidential election increased in most cases the number of seats in the House at the first elections that followed the presidential election. Assuming that Democrats lose 11 seats this time, their share of House seats will reduce by 4.7%, the second-worst figure in the history of the House elections since 1920. 7 A new president will depend heavily on victory in the House elections for his leadership, especially within his party. In this sense, Biden has not established his leadership in the period prior to his presidency. Even if Democrats could win their majority in the Senate, the Biden administration would have a hard time implementing its policies when a member or two does not follow party lines because there is no party discipline in the United States. It would be difficult for the Biden administration to pass such policies as universal health care and the Green New Deal advocated by the left-wing of the Democratic Party. On the other, the right-wing of the Republican Party is talking about large-scale tax cuts and deregulation, which will never pass the Democratic-dominated House. The ruling and opposition parties will likely be at odds with each other over the national budget. The government may face such difficulties as the closure of government offices. Ultimately, a compromise may be reached over moderate economic stimulus measures.

Biden is so far reticent on diplomatic issues. He will adopt policies to stabilize the Japan-US alliance and US relations with NATO. The Biden administration will be less confrontational toward China. Overall, the US image in the world will improve. Since measures to reverse global warming will be an essential policy of the new administration, the United States will return to the Paris Agreement. Biden will also attempt to return to the Iran nuclear agreement, but the hurdle is very high. It will also be difficult for the Biden administration to have the US return to the TPP approved by Congress. Sanders and other leftists may exert influence to drastically curtail defense spending or to restrict presidential war powers.

6. Trump's America --- American Democracy Now

Trump did not come out of nowhere. A background of intense partisan conflict already started in the 1970s. The degradation of political discourse is also related to a pursuit of scandals during the past presidential elections. Arguably, the intensification of partisan conflict in Congress has its origin in Gingrich in the 1990s or the rejection by Democrats of conservative judicial appointments at the end of the 1980s. The Tea Party movement that came on the scene before Trump was responsible for the degradation of political discourse. However, Trump has degraded political discourse on a scale not seen before. He has continued to fabricate statements that are extremist, unrealistic, and false. In particular, Trump has squarely challenged political correctness (the use of politically and socially fair language to prevent discrimination and prejudice based on gender, race, ethnicity, etc.). He gave rise to a situation where some people strongly oppose him while others feel a strong empathy with him and believe that Trump speaks for them saying what they think but cannot say. The pros and cons of Trump's presidency became evident.

Trump has degraded the quality of American politics. As mentioned above, the normative standards required of a US president have significantly been lowered. A great variety of conspiracy theories came to circulate wildly. We cannot tell if Trump is really a white supremacist or a nationalist. But those people --- white supremacists and nationalists --- heard Trump's statements and felt that there is someone in the White House who thinks the same as they do. As a result, they have become more encouraged. Polarization of identity politics has accelerated on such issues as illegal immigration, gender, race, ethnicity, and sexual morality. On the policy front, the Trump administration has done what is similar to the policies of the Democratic Party --- infrastructure investment, protectionist trade, the loosening of fiscal discipline, etc. Consequently, there is policy convergence across parties in many areas.

My account so far may give readers the impression that partisan conflict between Democrats and Republicans is responsible for the current polarization. But what has become apparent is that Trump's core supporters are people who have lost their jobs due to globalization and to the influx of illegal immigrants working for low wages. The Establishment living in California or New York says that such is unavoidable and that those people have to deal with it by improving themselves through, among other things, job training. Some people are vehemently opposed to this idea or cannot accept it. Similar things happened in Japan, where agricultural workers became marginalized. But their complaints did not become apparent because of the generous budget allocated to rural communities. Since compensation measures for workers are not robust in America, they are left to fend for themselves. The so-called elephant curve illustrates that globalization's winners over the past 20 years are the people in the top group of advanced countries and in most of the middle and least developed countries, while globalization's only losers are the low-income, non-educated people in advanced countries.

It is also important to note the following. Economically, the low-income, non-educated people are in the same situation as blacks, but they harbor a kind of "ressentiment." When unemployed, they receive sympathy for their difficulties due to discrimination. There used to be such a support system for their use such as affirmative action. If they are white and especially male with no decent job, the people around may look at them with disapproval, wondering why they are doing nothing when they suffer no particular discrimination. Thus, no one feels sorry for them, and these people will come under the sway of feelings of isolation, cynicism, and "ressentiment." They believe that Trump alone represents their feelings.

To mitigate the Trump phenomenon, we need to address the (partly justified) anger of these Trump supporters. The condescending response of the elites will not work. Given democratic norms, these people should not continue to be losers all the time. Consequently, it had some positive effects, even if accompanied by many negative ones in general, that these people became winners, temporarily as they did, and that their situation was recognized by American society. We cannot predict what Trump will do in the future, but we believe that some of his legacy --- protectionism, anti-globalization, and challenges to political correctness --- will survive. American citizens shared serious concerns about what would happen if the losing president did not leave office. In the end, however, the Trump campaign's objection to the Electoral College election lost with a one-line ruling at the Supreme Court dominated by conservative justices. This testifies to the strength and resilience of America's republicanism and a political system based on the separation of powers.

(This article was edited by the SSDP secretariat as the minutes of Kubo's lecture.)

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