Here are 8 takeaways from the 2020 presidential election from the nation’s top political journalists

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From left to right, starting at the top: Sabrina Siddiqui, National Politics Reporter, Wall Street Journal; Tyler Pager, National Political Reporter, Bloomberg News, Lynn Sweet, Washington bureau chief and columnist, Chicago Sun-Times, Elena Schneider, POLITICO and Nikole Killion, Correspondent, CBS News

I attended a virtual presentation on the 2020 presidential election results last Tuesday night, which was organized by my alma mater Northwestern. I took some notes and thought I’d (belatedly) share.

Donald Trump will maintain an iron grip on Republicans, and perhaps by extension, Washington

Almost 10 million more* people voted for Donald Trump in 2020 than in 2016.

“What that has done is, it’s put the Republican party in a position where if there were any illusions that maybe this was just going to be an aberration, and they could move on if he lost the election, that he’s now out the door. He’s very much here to stay,” said Sabrina Siddiqui, national politics reporter for The Wall Street Journal. “I really think what it reinforced was the Trumpification of the Republican Party.”

She continued later on in the conversation:

“I mean, I was struck by Florida Senator Marco Rubio, who is an embodiment of the Trumpification of Republicans — someone who was one of his vocal critics and is now one of his closest allies — told reporters today that there’s no question, little doubt in his mind that if President Trump wanted to run again in 2024, the field would be his for the taking. … And they believe that he is uniquely positioned to boost turnout in a way they’ve been unable to do, or anyone else in the party has been able to do.”

My take is that if that’s true, then he’ll probably still exert an influence on politicians and policy making on Capitol Hill even when he’s not in the White House. It’s already happening.

Tyler Pager, Bloomberg News’ national political reporter, said on Tuesday:

“I think his refusal to concede and refusal to accept the results of the election, and Republicans giving him cover to do so is undoubtedly the biggest story in Washington right now. …That is the focus of so much attention because [the Biden administration] can’t officially begin until an obscure federal agency declares the election over and turns over that the keys to Joe Biden and his team … they can’t have official lines of communication with with federal agencies, they can’t get government money to begin to set up a new government. They can’t use secure spaces to facilitate calls with foreign leaders.”

NPR has also since covered what this means for the next administration’s ability to fight the pandemic.

The 2020 Election was defined by a shallow Democratic coalition versus a deep turnout of Trump’s base.

There’s more about that elsewhere. It’s complex.

We need to tackle the great online misinformation factory.

Sabrina Siddiqui: “I think we’re not going to compete with misinformation because it’s already spiraled out of control … so I just think we have to cover it as urgently as we would cover any other issue.”

Journalists have to cover why that trend continues and what the impact is. What is the totality of the impact of people being fed constant misinformation?

Journalists should cover the phenomenon like any other issue, as a policy issue. What are the possible ways to to regulate? What are the proposals both parties proposing?

She doesn’t think it’s been treated as urgent of an issue as it is. A lot of campaigns she’s spoken to, whether Democrat or Republican think it is the single most urgent issue facing elections moving forward.

Elena Schneider, POLITICO’s national political reporter, was also passionate on this issue:

“I think the biggest challenge facing journalism in the next couple of years is the the growth of these propaganda outlets that we’ve seen on both Republican and on the Democratic side,” she said. She referred to some recent stories in the New York Times and POLITICO that covered some of these fake news sites.

“They look like regular newspapers, they look like they have a byline, they have an article. And if you’re not clued in on what the what it is, you might think that it is indeed real or that it is it is a clear picture of what’s actually going on.” she noted.

Obviously, it’s concerning for journalists who care about accurate information, but the fact that propaganda is replacing solid local journalism just points at the rot eating away at the pillars of American democracy.

“There are some incredible examples, places like the Texas Tribune, that has sort of led the way on nonprofit journalism, trying to cover states, local politics, state politics at a granular level that is so necessary, and so essential to even our reporting as national political reporters. [We] rely on those reporters for that kind of work.

I think that that is that is continuing to be a challenge for us. How do we figure out revenue streams and models that work for local journalism, even as they’re competing with these propaganda outlets. [That’s] going to be a long term challenge.”

This is an issue that’s close to my heart. I’ve been watching the impact on the other end of the spectrum from these reporters. i.e. I’ve been watching communities online regurgitate this information. Lynn Sweet at one point asked them what they thought the solution should be. No answer, and I’m not sure they are the ones to ask.

I’ve really seen for myself the impact of the misinformation machine that former talk show radio host Charlie Sykes describes here on people in my community, and it’s truly frightening. I believe that it’s been a strong factor in propelling us to this surreal final Orwellian moment where Trump supporters are calling for the overturning the results of the election, and elected officials are going along with it. It has dark implications for policy making going forward. It already has in terms of public health.

For more on misinformation efforts online, see McKay Coppins’ excellent Atlantic story The Billion-Dollar Disinformation Campaign to Reelect the Presidentand the NYTimes article: “Americans Trust Local News. That Trust Is Being Exploited.Not online, but related: Talk Radio Is Turning Millions of Americans into Conservatives.

Journalists face a dilemma in the kind of language they use in covering Trump

Siddiqui noted that the domestic Washington press corp is still struggling with how to cover an administration behaving the way it is, and wonders how these reporters would cover the same actions if they were taking place in another country.

There happens to be more about that in The Washington Post. Media columnist Margaret Sullivan has this recommendation:

A group of political scientists and media scholars that calls itself the Election Coverage and Democracy Network has come up with recommendations for journalists navigating this moment.

This point of theirs deserves particular emphasis: “Use a democracy-worthy frame, not a partisan one. This means denying a platform to partisan pundits who advance false claims.”

She also notes that digging up the motivation for the current push to invalidate results is important, pointing to this eye-opening Daily Beast story:

All the Ways Trumpworld Wants to Cash In On MAGA Anger Over The Election

Political polling is broken. That has serious consequences on how elections are run.

There was a lot of soul searching on this one but not many answers. POLITICO’s Schneider pointed out that broken polling is a serious problem because it distorts political and policy decision making.

The NY Times’ David Leonhardt has a very detailed story on what we know so far about what happened. But here are a few key grafs:

“This year’s misleading polls had real-world effects, for both political parties. The Trump campaign pulled back from campaigning in Michigan and Wisconsin, reducing visits and advertising, and lost both only narrowly.

In Arizona, a Republican strategist who worked on Senator Martha McSally’s re-election campaign said that public polling showing her far behind “probably cost us $4 or $5 million” in donations. Ms. McSally lost to Mark Kelly by less than three percentage points.

Mr. Biden spent valuable time visiting Iowa and Ohio in the campaign’s final days, only to lose both soundly.

Democrats also poured money into races that may never have been winnable, like the South Carolina Senate race, while paying less attention to some of their House incumbents who party leaders wrongly thought were safe. The party ended up losing seats.

“District-level polling has rarely led us — or the parties and groups investing in House races — so astray,” David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, a nonpartisan publication that analyzes races, wrote last week.”

The Democrats must define themselves, finesse their messaging and pay more attention to what the members of their supportive coalitions really want.

Are they progressives? Are they moderates? Do they really want to defund the police? Where does economic populism fit within the party? How can they prevent Republicans from hijacking their messaging?

How much power will Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) wield, and what direction will she push the party as the influence of her caucus grows?

Siddiqui: The Biden/Harris ticket had extraordinary support from black voters. But obviously the Democrats had problems with Latino voters.

Latino voters propelled Democrats to victory in Arizona and Nevada.

But Trump won their votes in Florida and Texas.

Obviously Latino voters are not single issue voters.

President Joe Biden will have a tough time governing a deeply divided nation and Democratic party.

Bloomberg News’ Pager:

“I agree with Sabrina that Trump is going to be a major part of the Republican Party. If not him, then his son. Their influence is not going away. And so how does Joe Biden work with the Republican Party he’s promised he can work with, when they’re still, you know, going after his son, and questioning whether he actually won the election.

He’s promised that they’re gonna have an epiphany and they can get stuff done. Joe Biden has good relationships with many of them.

But are they going to back away from Trump? Who’s going to be a major player in the Republican Party to work with him to get to get things across the finish line?”

CBS’ Correspondent Nikole Killion: Not only does he have to unify his own fractious party, he has to unify the nation. Plus …

“I think it’s just important to watch the trajectory of his tenure, you know, given his age, that is something that has been talked about on the trail … quite frankly, you know, we don’t know how that will play out.

Should there be any issues, whether or not he would go for a second term?

So if he doesn’t, that certainly means a lot of people will be positioning themselves … how will that play out?”

WSJ’s Siddiqui: (I’m paraphrasing here.) What does progress look like for the new administration?

How can the administration make any progress on climate change or any of the other issues that progressives are clamoring for given that they don’t control the senate (at this moment?)

What about the hopes, dreams and frustrations of all those Black Lives Matter marchers? How will criminal justice issues be addressed in this country? Those voters aren’t going away either.

What’s going to happen to all the 545 children who have been separated from their parents at the border, and whose parents can’t be tracked down?

Biden will have to distinguish his own administration from President Obama’s and show how he will address some of the most pressing civil rights and human rights issues of our time.

Kamala Harris will play an unusually high profile and important role as vice president, as will her husband Doug Emhoff as “2nd Gentleman.”

POLITICO’s Schneider: “I think Kamala Harris has a particularly unique role, especially in this administration, given the heightened sort of scrutiny that she’ll inevitably get because she’s seen as a potential standard bearer for the Democratic Party moving forward.”

She also noted that her husband Doug Emhoff will make history as “Second Gentleman.”

“I think that that’s going to be [a]really fascinating relationship to watch, but also incredibly important behavior to just model for this country. As we see women continue to try and break into these executive positions, even though only three percent of governors in all of American history have been women. And and so I think that it’s really essential, what kind of role Doug Emhoff really plays in this.”

Siddiqui: “President Elect Joe Biden upon inauguration will be the oldest first term president to take office.

So there’s just been a lot more focus also on his running mate because, I mean, the person is always a heartbeat away from the presidency.

There’s been some focus on his age, and questions about whether or not you’d seek a second term … So was he choosing the future leader of the Democratic Party? Or was he just choosing a running mate?

And of course, [Harris] has broken a lot of barriers. She will be the highest ranking woman in the history of this country. And that says a lot about the United States in terms of how long it’s taken to get here. So I think there’s going to be a lot more coverage of her.

One thing that’s important to remember about President Elect Joe Biden is that he has served in this role himself for two terms.

It’s been a very long time since this country elected a former Vice President. Many have run, but it’s been a long time since one of them is succeeded. And so he’s got very clear views about how much of a role he wants this person to play. He talked it up a great deal. He was very close to President Obama. They had a notoriously close relationship that was unlike a lot of administration’s that came before them.

And Biden himself had a really big, both foreign and domestic portfolio. I mean, people forget that he was the liaison for policy in Afghanistan, he was emissary to Iraq. He was also someone who spearheaded the gun violence Task Force after Sandy Hook. He was the in charge of going to Capitol Hill to cut a deal because of his experience there.

So I think you’re gonna get to see, similarly, Vice President Elect Harris take on a pretty significant role for someone who has always made it clear that he sees that as almost as important as his job.” ###

*This is based on NY Times data.

I'm a journo

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