Despite years of verbal fireworks, charges of foreign election interference, and political warfare culminating in an impeachment trial, it's quite likely that the inconclusive outcome of the 2020 election comes down to the events of the last eight months. Pundits and political junkies may fret over Russia, immigration policy, personal temperament, and the like, but average voters say they care most about racial inequality, the economy, and the pandemic. But—after rivers of vitriol and billions of dollars spent to sway votes—it seems Americans are most concerned about what they've experienced since March of this year.
First, a caveat: pollsters across the country are currently curled in the fetal position, nuzzling booze bottles as they contemplate the failings of their industry in predicting election outcomes. But exit polls ask people about what they've done rather than what they plan to do. And if we take the precise numbers with a grain of salt, we can at least get a read for what is on American minds.
When asked by Edison Research exit pollsters which one policy was the most important in deciding their vote for president, the three top picks were the economy (picked by 35 percent), racial inequality (picked by 20 percent), and the coronavirus pandemic (picked by 17 percent).
Of those naming the economy as their top concern, 82 percent say they voted for Donald Trump and 17 percent say they voted for Joe Biden. Of those naming racial inequality, 91 percent voted for Biden and 8 percent for Trump. Pandemic voters broke 82 percent for Biden and 14 percent for Trump. That is, Americans are as divided as everybody thinks, just not in exactly the way political junkies are.
These three issues featured prominently in people's lives and in headlines since early this year and are thoroughly intertwined. The U.S. entered 2020 with a strong economy that had seen continuous growth for over 10 years. That trend came to a grinding halt with the spread of COVID-19 around the world, people isolating themselves, and governments imposing business closures and lockdowns that brought much of normal life to a halt.
"A peak in monthly economic activity occurred in the U.S. economy in February 2020," the National Bureau of Economic Research announced in June. "The peak marks the end of the expansion that began in June 2009 and the beginning of a recession. The expansion lasted 128 months, the longest in the history of U.S. business cycles dating back to 1854."
The shifting economy "was affected by special circumstances associated with the pandemic of early 2020," the NBER acknowledged.
The stresses of the pandemic and of unemployment and economic uncertainty added to preexisting tensions—many of them having to do with conflict between minority communities and the police.
"The pandemic has put the U.S. into a recession, and it's likely to worsen," wrote Brian Michael Jenkins of the RAND Corporation in August. "Millions are unemployed; soon, many of them could be destitute. COVID-19 and the economic distress it's causing could change how people behave in a (seemingly) more hostile world, how they view the legitimacy of government authority and how they value life itself."
"Adding to the radicalizing ferment of this pandemic are the widespread anguish and anger over systemic racism and police brutality unleashed by the killing of George Floyd," Jenkins added.
In response to Floyd's shooting and similar incidents, Americans across the country took to the streets against police brutality in protests that sometimes turned into riots. It was an issue of deep importance to many people.
This is the world in which those who voted on November 3 lived in the months before Election Day. For many, it's been a fraught experience of health risks, economic collapse and recovery, and uncorked outrage over historic wrongs. It makes sense that these issues would be prominent in people's minds as they decided how to cast their votes—generally along much-discussed tribal lines, but not motivated by the ongoing concerns emphasized by the chattering class.
That puts into interesting perspective the essentially never-ending campaign that the major political parties and their leaders waged from 2016 until the present day, with the rehashing of the first presidential contest blending into preparations for the second without relief. The degree to which the events of 2020 matter to voters also casts doubt on all the time, energy, and money put into allegations of corruption, sexual hijinks, and foreign meddling.
Speaking of money, an estimated $8 billion went into political advertising this election cycle, with Democrats outspending Republicans by $2 billion, according to Advertising Analytics. That's a lot of cash and TV and radio time purchased by politicians who often seem to be focused on issues that matter to them and aren't necessarily of the greatest importance to the people they're trying to reach.
Media types—yeah, I'm part of that—haven't done much better in getting a handle on what drives people to vote. They hammer at the idea that Trump voters must be motivated by racism and then goggle as his support increases among blacks and Latinos.
"When Donald Trump pulled off a stunning upset and won the presidency in 2016, few people were more shocked than the professional take-havers in the mainstream media," Reason's Robby Soave pointed out the day after the election. "Four years later—in the midst of a nail-bitingly close election—the predictions of the pundit class have proven to be no more accurate than they were in 2016."
As it turns out, it appears that most people largely ignored years of huffing, puffing, and internecine political warfare that entertain those of use with an unhealthy obsession with politics. They saved their attention for the approach of the election itself and the state of the world in which they live. Americans didn't all come to the same conclusions by any means; it's still a deeply divided country, after all. But, by all appearances, it's the world of the present, not the controversies of the past, that motivated voters.