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Composite image of faculty headshots
Composite image of faculty headshots
Dr. Andrew Engelhardt and Dr. Lisa Levenstein

With the country facing a pandemic, economic crisis, and civil unrest in response to racism and instances of racist violence, the 2020 election couldn’t be more important, or contentious. 

And, as of Thursday morning, when this Q&A was published, it’s still not over. 

As ballots continue to be counted in several battleground states, including North Carolina, UNC Greensboro professors Dr. Andrew Engelhardt (Political Science) and Dr. Lisa Levenstein (History and Women’s, Gender, and Sexuality Studies) share their election reactions and analysis. 

What impact did the COVID-19 pandemic have on the election?

Engelhardt: The pandemic likely had an effect, though the size and scope of its contribution is harder to define. It materially changed how campaigns ran, limiting in-person events and effectively removing door-to-door canvassing as mobilization tools. This likely affected who turned out to vote and what method they used to vote. It also likely had a meaningful effect on who people voted for. A recently published study found that increases in COVID-19 deaths in one’s state and county reduced President Trump’s approval and decreased support for him and Republican politicians across levels of office. But these were modest influences, and any such reaction to the pandemic would run into the strong tendency in today’s political context for Democrats to support Democratic candidates and Republicans to support Republican candidates regardless of anything else that is happening.

Levenstein: Democrats did not go door to door due to the pandemic, and that probably hurt them since canvassing face to face is by far the most effective way to get out the vote. Still, while many feared the pandemic would reduce turnout because people would not want to risk going to the polls, it probably ended up having the opposite effect. The skyrocketing numbers of cases of COVID-19 and the Republicans’ success at turning the pandemic into a political issue rather than a public health concern helped motivate millions of people to cast a ballot. While COVID-19 was a concern, it was not the only issue at play. My guess is that racism played an even bigger role in shaping the election outcome than the pandemic.

What are your reactions to Election Day? Did anything surprise you?

Engelhardt: That Election Day itself seems to have largely run smoothly during a pandemic is impressive, and local election officials and volunteers deserve our thanks. While it’s still early, and states are correctly being deliberate in tallying votes, I’m keeping an eye on these final counts to see what we can learn about the state of public opinion polling. It seems like there are some important errors from pre-election results to final outcomes, so the nature of those misses will be informative about some of what contributed to the election outcome. The most surprising event, and something suggested that might happen before the election, was President Trump’s claim he has won and his desire to stop counting ballots. Data from Bright Line Watch, a survey of political science experts in democracy, places such statements as the most important and abnormal events of the over 150 rated from Trump’s presidency so far. Counting all eligible votes can take time, so such a statement is unprecedented.

Levenstein: I haven’t trusted the polls for a long time, but the degree to which they were wrong is shocking. I think pollsters will have some deep soul searching to do as will the mainstream media, which relies on polls for news stories in the year leading up to elections. We need a different kind of analysis and reporting to understand how people from a range of backgrounds interpret the world and make their decisions about political participation. Approaches from the humanities, like oral history, may prove to be much more useful than social scientific polling.

2020 saw a record number of women and people of color run for Congress, and a woman of color as a vice presidential candidate. What does this suggest about future trends?

Engelhardt: I read this as future elections yielding increased representation. That we’ve set marks in each of the last few elections for diverse Congresses suggests voters won’t necessarily shy away from backing women candidates or candidates of color if they run in a general election. This increased representation among candidates and elected officials may also encourage others to run. Evidence in political science suggests that the increased presence of women candidates, for instance, motivates other women and girls to become more politically engaged and participate more, including running for office. It signals that politics is a place for people like them.

Levenstein: The growing number of women and people of color running for Congress is an important trend that will hopefully one day result in our elected officials more closely resembling the country they represent. Yet when it comes to the outcome of an election, a candidate’s identity is less important than their politics. For instance, Republican women will not vote for Nancy Pelosi just because she is a woman. What we have seen in this election is that race plays a hugely important role in shaping people’s outlooks on the world. While votes are still being counted, it seems clear that White people supported President Trump by large margins. Most people of color supported Biden. The so-called gender gap reflects the voting patterns of women of color, as White women seem to have voted overwhelmingly for Trump.

Photography by Martin W. Kane, University Communications

 
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