The definition of insanity — doing the same thing over and over again but expecting a different result — is an apt description of the post-election punditry. After yet another election in which polling proved wildly misleading in multiple ways (e.g., the popular-vote margin for president, the direction of the House, the fate of the Senate Republicans), pundits return to the most unreliable of polls — exit polls — to pontificate on what had transpired. Pundits might as well use a Magic 8 ball to discern the mysteries of the 2020 election. The media should have a modicum of self-awareness. At the very least, they ought to acknowledge that billions of pixels and months of political chatter did not inform the public; if anything, they misled voters about President Trump’s level of support and wasted the opportunity to inform voters about the variety and seriousness of the challenges we will face in 2021.
In a couple of years, when Pew Research Center (as it did after the 2016 election) goes through verified voter files, we may have a much better handle on questions such as what percentage of Black males voted for President Donald Trump and how the Hispanic and Latino vote split in Florida and Texas. Right now, only the results are definitive (e.g., a major breakthrough for President-elect Joe Biden in two Sunbelt states and recovery in the Upper Midwest; large vote gains in suburban districts and locales outside big metropolitan capitals for Democrats; a paucity of ticket-splitting between Senate and presidential candidates).
We also know that over time, the share of the White vote in America is declining with each election. (How much it declined between 2016 and 2020 is unknown unless you take the exit polls as gospel.) We know a large gender gap exists, although the magnitude is uncertain. We know states shift demographically and politically (e.g., Arizona and Georgia going blue, Texas moving slightly less red), but how permanent and how fast a state goes from red to blue depends on what political players do. Stacey Abrams has taught Democrats that if you expand and shift the electorate, the right candidates can capitalize on new opportunities.
What we know is far less than what we do not fully understand if one exercises appropriate humility about the exit polls:
Did Never Trump Republicans vote for Biden but come to the rescue of Republican House members?
What was the real percentage of the White vote? The evangelical Christian vote?
When we count “Latinos” or “Hispanics,” are we lumping together very discrete groups with little in common?
What was the racial and educational composition of suburban voters for each party?
Instead of using flawed and incomplete information to discover what happened, the political and media class should turn away from Trump and from horserace politics. We face unique and daunting challenges. We can witness as great a shift in presidents as we have seen since Herbert Hoover passed the baton to Franklin Delano Roosevelt.
Biden is shifting away from government by know-nothings and cronies. Instead, he is simultaneously making good on promises to increase diversity in his administration and to govern with the help of experienced, intellectually respected professionals. In many cases, the professionals he selected represent a different generation (e.g., national security adviser choice Jake Sullivan). With Biden, aging White, male billionaires and family members will not fill high positions. We have gone from staffing top jobs with T-ball players to recruiting major league veterans. The former proved to be a disaster; but the big-leaguers have yet to prove themselves.
The shift in the quality of the executive branch raises a host of interesting questions:
Can Biden rebuild an executive branch that Trump demoralized and hollowed out?
Can governance based on the best available facts produce results?
Can Biden prove centrist government is alive and well — and can win over voters?
Can Biden seize an opportunity when more Americans are sensitized to issues of racial justice to make significant reforms and create a new spirit of reconciliation?
The incoming Biden administration brings hope to tens of millions of people for a decent human being in the White House, a normal foreign policy (in which allies are respected and despots checked) and a level of competency that may effectively deliver a life-saving vaccine — to name just a few of the potential benefits of Biden’s win. But the end of the election also offers us an opportunity to recalibrate and remember that what matters in politics is what happens after the election. Campaigns are a means to an end. Returning to a level of seriousness and focus on the substance of governance is long overdue in media coverage. Thanks to Biden’s substantial win, we now have the opportunity — and the obligation to do just that.
Jennifer Rubin writes reported opinion for The Washington Post.