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Pandora 2020

Coming to terms with the US Presidential Election

Here at DECISION, we do not necessarily shy away from politics, but our focus is business development. So, while politics do have a role to play in our analyses, we have made a concerted effort to stick to more purely business topics. That said, we have decided to make an exception for the recent American election, especially now that the dust seems to have settled and we have had time to collect our thoughts. Our decision to publish about the election came as a surprise to many of our American colleagues, but then again, many of them were relieved. Americans ex-pats or those that work at international companies have a unique burden; with the way US politics circulates the globe, it is a challenge for Americans to remain apolitical.

The Trickle

When most Americans went to bed on Election Night 2020, the results of the election were far from clear. But things were different for our Europe-based contributors: at that point, Trump was substantially ahead in Wisconsin, Michigan, and Georgia. Therefore, they went to bed believing that Donald Trump was the favourite going to win a second term. They reacted that way despite having read detailed descriptions about how mail-in voting would result in the exact type of late vote shifts we witnessed this year, it still felt like a shock to many of us.

Part of this shock had to do with Election Night 2016. Very few people, even President Trump himself, truly expected him to win. Fivethirtyeight.com, a statistics-based website that gained notoriety after its model correctly predicted every state in the 2012 election, gave Hilary Clinton a 71.4% chance of winning. This figure was considerably less than the model gave her just a few weeks earlier and substantially less than other outlets, which had her chances at 85% or higher. For many Americans, it just seemed so preposterous that someone like Donald Trump could win, especially given the Access Hollywood “grab ‘em by the pussy” tapes that had stunned the world a few weeks earlier. So, whether it was a positive or negative surprise, Election Night 2016 was seared into the memory of most Americans.

The Shift

Election Night 2020 felt like déjà vu. Trump was drastically outperforming most polls, and even though Fivethirtyeight had given Biden a 90% chance of victory, they made it very clear that Trump still had a very real shot at a second term. Thus, as an American ex-pat myself, I went to bed thinking that I would wake up in a world with Trump heading toward a second term. I came to terms with that fact, even if I was not thrilled about it. People had different reactions to that reality based on their political leanings and personal ideologies, but as we slept and went about our next day of work, the electoral map updated in surprising ways that should not have been surprising at all.

The first major news was that Michigan flipped based on mail-in voting. Because there are 50 states, that means 50 independent elections are happening simultaneously during each national election because each state makes its own laws regarding elections. This patchwork is tough to follow under normal conditions, but the complications of COVID and the mail-in ballot situation made it drastically harder. Some states sent each resident a ballot, whether they requested it or not, whereas other states like Texas restricted vote-by-mail as much as possible. Because of early voting data, we knew well before the election that mail-in ballots were going to favour Democrats heavily. Many websites said this explicitly when discussing when we would know the final results from each state. Still, when these “blue shifts” occurred, it was a shock to both ends of the political spectrum, and it has been the basis for Republican indignation and dismay over election results.

Now What?

Even though the Trump campaign has filed numerous unsuccessful lawsuits, most of his most ardent supporters have accepted the fact that Joe Biden will become the next president. A sizable portion of Republicans do not believe the result is fair, but it seems that they also believe that there is not much they can do now to change the result. Every incoming president usually accepts victory by advocating for healing, by joining together after a drawn-out battle to become a greater, stronger America. President-elect Biden did just that. “Let us be the nation that we know we can be”, he said, “A nation united, a nation strengthened, a nation healed”. These words sound awfully nice, and they are not far off from President Trump’s speech in 2016: “Now it’s time for America to bind the wounds of division; have to get together. To all Republicans and Democrats and independents across this nation, I say it is time for us to come together as one united people”.

We know quite well that this grand unification did not happen after 2016; in fact, many feel the nation is more divided than ever. Biden will have to contend with these deep divisions as well as pandemic that is ravaging the entire country. I am not quite sure of the reasons why this can occur so easily in America compared with other countries, but in general, Americans are able to build up and live within their own realities. Take the Netflix hit Tiger King that was popular in the early days of lockdown. That show highlighted several people who built their own theme parks filled with all sorts of exotic animals. I had never visited any place like this, but my European colleagues asked how it was possible for a place like this to exist. For me, it was a bit extreme but perfectly natural: Americans are freer to construct their own realities, be them physical or political. There is a reason I grew up in a city that did not serve alcohol; it is the same reason 15 states have legalised marijuana. People shape their own realities in the United States, and often they react quite negatively when others challenge those realities.

Cautious Optimism

As a businessman, I am excited about the prospect of a Joe Biden presidency. Little of my excitement has to do with President-elect Biden himself; most of it has to do with the changing of the guard from someone who was openly hostile to many of our long-term allies. Under President Trump, America pulled out of the Iran Nuclear Deal, the Paris Climate Accords, and the World Health Organisation. In an attempt to put “America First”, Trump’s administration worsened the nation’s relationship with just about every long-term ally. Biden has promised to put an end to this alienation, and he will reverse many of Trump’s isolationist decisions, much to the delight of many of America’s allies. America’s reality over the last four years has been one marked by a subversion of the rules that were in play for the previous century. We will see whether Trump’s presidency was a transitory break from reality or whether Trump opened Pandora’s box.