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Brown Watson watch party ends on uncertain note

University community members and political experts reflected on incoming results, left the night wondering who had won

It’s not uncommon for Election Day watch parties hosted by the Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs to end with a degree of uncertainty.

But this year, due to an increase in mail-in ballots because of coronavirus safety concerns, what started off as a hopeful night for Democrats ended with expert panelists wondering which way the race would go and when the results would come in. 

As of early Wednesday morning, the results of the 2020 presidential election are still under review, as several million ballots must still be counted to definitively determine the outcome of an election like no other. 

While former Vice President Joe Biden maintained a slight Electoral College lead over President Donald Trump, the race remained tight in several key battleground states — Pennsylvania, Georgia and Wisconsin — in which the final votes have yet to be tallied. 

Nonetheless, President Trump tried to claim victory in a White House address around 2:30 a.m. "As far as I’m concerned we already have won this," he said, as multiple states continue to count votes. He claimed that the election would go to the Supreme Court and that all voting should "stop."

The Watson Institute’s virtual event, which was moderated by Professor of the Practice of Political Science and Interim Director of the Taubman Center for American Politics and Policy Richard Arenberg, took place from 7 to 11 p.m. It featured a series of panelists from across the political arena, including University professors, former Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND), Brown alums and current students. The panelists provided live commentary of the presidential, Senate and U.S. House of Representatives races as results slowly trickled in throughout the night. 

Arenberg, who had previously predicted a landslide victory for Biden, expressed his shock at Trump’s ability to maintain a strong footing in the most important states, defying pollsters, pundits and the Brown community yet again. 

This year’s pre-election polls showed Biden ahead in many key states Trump had won in 2016, giving some Democrats confidence that Biden would win. FiveThirtyEight predicted that Biden had an 89 percent chance of winning in 2020, compared to Hillary Clinton’s 71.4 percent in 2016. 

Professor of Political Science and Urban Studies James Morone, at the start of the Watson Institute’s event, explained that he believed the 2020 polls to be much more “stable” than those in 2016. 

“Where they got it wrong, shockingly, were key states — Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan,” Morone said. “It didn’t occur to anybody that there’d be this huge gap between low-education white voters and high-education white voters. So that was the biggest mistake they made.”

But, Democratic hopes of a landslide victory for Biden were crushed early Tuesday night as several key battleground states swung toward President Trump. Projections looked to Florida as an early indicator, with many polling experts predicting Biden to take the state. 

Trump’s early grasp on Florida, however, quickly changed the tone of what many tuned into the Zoom watch party believed to be a near-assured win for Biden.

Pam Thiessen, chief of staff for Sen. Rob Portman (R-OH), acknowledged the dwindling odds of a decisive Biden victory after initial tallies in Florida pointed to Trump. To Thiessen, Florida was the “canary in a coal mine.” 

Biden also had an early lead in Texas, a historically red state that has been shifting blue with the emergence of a stronger suburban and urban vote, according to Rick Barton, a lecturer at Princeton’s School of Public and International Affairs and former diplomat. But Texas soon shifted to Trump, handing the current president 38 Electoral College votes.

With Trump securing important states like Texas and Florida, Arenberg noted that the “slow-counting states” like Pennsylvania and Michigan could create problems for the Biden camp. In Pennsylvania, “only some” of the vote was expected to be counted on election night, according to FiveThirtyEight.

Pennsylvania was unable to begin counting votes until early Tuesday morning, leading election night votes to be primarily composed of votes cast in person. The state could be decisive for Biden to secure a win, as Pennsylvania mail-in ballots are expected to lean blue, but whether or not the current president will contest the validity of such votes is to be determined. 

“I hoped all along that somehow we’d get to 270 (electoral votes for Biden) without Pennsylvania,” said Dennis Kanin, a panelist at the Watson Institute event and a campaign manager for former Sen. Paul Tsongas’ (D-MA) 1992 presidential campaign.

Kanin added that the dispute over Pennsylvania could become a “nightmare” for both sides and possibly end up in the Supreme Court. 

While some panelists showed surprise at the contrast between pre-election polls and incoming election night results, Louise Schiavone, journalist and senior lecturer at the Johns Hopkins Carey Business School, was less shocked. “A lot of the reporting is like the story of the kid who wants a pony for Christmas,” she said. “There is still a tremendous amount of hopefulness in the way people present their projections.”

Schiavone also added that she believes people often lie to pollsters about their voting intentions. “People get a big kick out of lying to pollsters,” she said.

Still, Arenberg remained in disbelief. “The polling about Trump has been so consistent for the last two years and really throughout his entire presidency, if you look at approval numbers. And I heard what you said about people lying to pollsters, but it’s hard to see how those numbers could be so consistent.”

“We may wake up to find that the popular vote nationwide — that there’s an even more substantial gap than there was with Hillary Clinton,” Arenberg said. “There’s a big difference between being elected president by the Electoral College and being given a mandate by the voters.”

Amidst analysis of emerging election results, participants in the Watson Institute watch party reflected on the contentious nature of the 2020 election and the issues most pressing to Americans. 

The inconclusive results come amidst criticism of President Trump’s policies on and rhetoric surrounding COVID-19 — a matter that many believed would cost him the election. 

Kanin believes that Trump would have achieved a relatively secure victory if not for COVID-19. “Without the pandemic, there’s no doubt in my mind that (Trump) would have won this election,” he said. The president has been criticized for downplaying the virus and continuing to hold in-person rallies, despite social distancing protocols. 

The panelists also discussed structural issues within the American electoral system.

Kimberly Collins ’22, a co-founder of Brown Votes, emphasized the pervasiveness of voter suppression in the U.S. system, particularly among communities of color. She added that discussions of increasing voter turnout among communities of color must happen in conjunction with efforts to address voter suppression. 

“Racial relations and the strain on the concept of justice is something we have to address and we have to correct,” Schiavone said. 

Jenny Backus ’90, a political consultant and former communications director for the Democratic National Committee, also emphasized the need for greater support of voting rights. 

“There has been an overt attack” on voting rights this election, Backus said, referencing the recent Supreme Court ruling to refuse lower-court orders in Wisconsin to extend ballot deadlines and efforts to undermine the U.S. Postal Service’s ability to deliver mail-in ballots. “There are some major changes that need to happen,” Backus said. 

“Across the country, people are hurting,” Greer Brigham ’20 said during the watch party. He explained that in states like West Virginia, Trump is a “lifeline” for many — even if they personally don’t align with the president. Brigham explained that in many towns, the opening or closing of coal mines can have disastrous consequences for the livelihood of many. 

“If Joe Biden wins, there’s going to be pressure on him to show that his vision includes everybody,” Brigham said. 

From both liberal and conservative camps at the watch party, panelists commented on the dire need for consensus-building in Washington in the aftermath of the 2020 election. 

“We have to get a handle on how we relate to each other in this society,” Schiavone said.



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