WASHINGTON – Democrats went into Election Day hoping to reclaim the White House and majorities in both chambers of Congress in a victory that would demonstrate an unmistakable repudiation of President Donald Trump and a Republican Party remade in his image.
It didn't work out that way.
More than 12 hours after polls closed, Biden held a narrow lead in some key states with hundreds of thousands of votes yet to be counted, and he has a comfortable advantage in the national popular vote. But as of midday Wednesday, there was no clear Democratic wave.
Republicans held key Senate seats that Democrats hoped to flip, and the GOP may ultimately shrink the Democrats' House majority. And even if Trump were to ultimately lose, the closeness of the presidential contest raised the prospect that a Biden presidency would have difficulty enacting progressive priorities or quickly move past the cultural and partisan fissures of the Trump era.
“The Trump coalition is more stubborn and resilient and capable than maybe we anticipated,” said Rep. Gerald Connolly, a six-term Democratic lawmaker from Virginia. “The country is even more polarized and divided.”
While Trump's critics were deeply disappointed that the hoped-for blue wave never materialized, Biden's allies encouraged the political world to step back and see the big picture. Dan Pfeiffer, a former aide to President Barack Obama, posted a message to Democrats on Medium entitled, “Biden is winning, act like it.”
“The Republicans are already trying to neuter his ability to govern by casting aspersions about how he won," Pfeiffer wrote. "We cannot let them do that. The stakes are too damn high.”
Indeed, should Trump lose, no matter the margin, he would be the first incumbent president to fail to win reelection since 1992. Biden has already flipped two states Trump carried four years ago, Arizona and Wisconsin, and held a modest lead in at least one other, Michigan, as he moved toward rebuilding the Democrats' so-called “Blue Wall.”
“Today, the vice president will garner more votes than any presidential candidates in history," Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon told reporters Wednesday. She added: “I feel like we had been abundantly clear that we thought this could be a close race.”
Still, polls heading into Election Day suggested a much better election for Democrats up and down the ballot but clearly missed a surge of support for Trump and Republicans with turnout high across the political spectrum.
Several once-promising Democratic Senate challengers far fell short, despite a deluge of national fundraising support for headliners like Jaime Harrison in South Carolina, Amy McGrath in Kentucky and MJ Hegar in Texas.
Some House freshmen who helped give Democrats a majority in 2018 also lost, victims of stronger-than-expected performances for many Republican challengers. Democrats’ gains in metro and suburban areas were matched or offset in many battleground states by a Republican deluge in small towns and rural areas.
And in a warning sign for Democrats, Trump demonstrated an uptick of support in some Black and Latino communities.
“You certainly had a lot of Latinos voting for him in south Texas and following him down the ballot,” said Texas Democratic Chairman Gilberto Hinojosa, who started Election Day with hopes of flipping several congressional districts and gaining control of the Texas state House. Neither happened.
“It’s very difficult to understand how there was such a big difference between what the polling was showing and what ultimately came out,” he said. “To say it was a surprise is an understatement.”
The evolving landscape represents a conundrum for a party that has a clearer claim to national majority support than the GOP. If trends hold, Democrats will have won the popular vote in seven out of the last eight presidential elections -- with President George W. Bush in 2004 being the lone Republican popular vote winner since his father’s landslide victory in 1988.
One of Biden’s principal arguments in a crowded Democratic presidential primary campaign was that he could expand Democrats' coalition to include more older voters, independents, and even moderate Republicans. He appeared to underperform among other key demographics, however, or at least not expand the alliance enough to quash Trump's base and remake Capitol Hill.
To be sure, Biden performed better than Hillary Clinton four years earlier in states like Iowa, Ohio, and Texas. But he also failed to win any of them. Democrats clung to the hope that Biden might eke out narrow victories in North Carolina and Georgia.
Veteran Democratic strategist Jesse Ferguson said it would be short-sighted to call Democrats’ performance a failure when they were on track to resurrect the "Blue Wall” — Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — while flipping Arizona with a chance to claim Georgia, two states that haven't gone Democratic in presidential elections since the 1990s.
Ferguson noted that Biden was on track to do so while offering “the most progressive agenda of any Democratic nominee” in the modern era.
“The last time an incumbent president was defeated was 28 years ago,” Ferguson said. “Incumbent presidents don’t often lose, and this one is going to lose and lose resoundingly."
He added: “Elections are about where the votes end up, not how you felt while the counting was happening.”
Ferguson and Hinojosa agreed that the mixed results suggest Democrats don't have to entertain a fundamental overhaul.
In Texas, Hinojosa said Trump could hold appeal with Latinos that doesn't translate into long-term party loyalty. And he said Democrats hamstrung themselves by going months not canvassing in-person because of the coronavirus pandemic, while the GOP's field operation reached voters directly.
“I’m not saying it was the wrong decision given the situation, but it affected us,” he said. “We were taking a knife into a gunfight.”
Barrow reported from Atlanta. Associated Press reporter Alan Fram contributed.