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Q&A: What We’re Learning as the Presidential Votes Are Tallied

Executive Director of the Kean University School of Social Sciences, Vicky Cannon, Ph.D.

Vicky Cannon, Ph.D., the executive director of the Kean University School of Social Sciences, is a political scientist with expertise in American politics, the U.S. Constitution, democratic theory and public policy. Kean News spoke with her the morning after Election Day about the 2020 presidential race.

Q. It’s a tossup right now. Both President Trump and former Vice President Biden have a path to victory. What do you make of the election results so far?

We didn’t expect to have results on election night, so it is a watch and wait game. It is a closer election than I expected, but I did expect it to be close. It was an extremely difficult election to predict because of the impact of the pandemic on early voting and mail-in voting. It was hard for pollsters to build that uncertainty into their models. It appears that turnout for this election is at historically high levels, even with a pandemic.  

There are a few surprises — how well Trump did in Florida. I thought it would be closer. He did a really good job turning out the Latino vote in Miami-Dade. That Latino vote historically has been a Republican vote because of our history with Cuba. My understanding is that he messaged very hard there to try to turn out those voters. There are some other counties that were more competitive in Florida that looked good for Joe Biden. For example, Pinellas County typically is more divided. Biden did very well there, but it wasn’t enough to overcome how well Donald Trump did in Miami-Dade. 

A lot of people hoped Texas would turn blue this year. I do think eventually it will. 2020 was a little early, but it was possible. It was difficult to predict because of all the early voting. I think by 2024, Texas will go blue. It’s in the demographics that it is going that way. 

Q. Do you have a prediction on who will win the presidency?

I hesitate to make a prediction because there is so much uncertainty this year with mail-in ballots coming in and being counted. We don’t have enough data from the past for this kind of scenario to make really good predictions. If I was forced to make a prediction, I would say it is leaning toward Joe Biden, but it is going to be razor-thin. If any of the midwest states are close, we will end up in litigation. We have seen an aggressive approach to litigation from Republicans, and I expect that to continue. 

Q. President Trump spoke in the early-morning hours and suggested the Democrats are trying to steal the election. What kind of an impact does that have?

Political scientists measure trust in government, trust in our institutions, trust in Congress, trust in the presidency, and even trust in our fellow citizens to make good decisions. Those measures have been going down for over 30 years, and they are at an all-time low. When we have leadership that reinforces the idea that we can’t trust our political opponents, it is destabilizing. It is a key measure of the health of a democracy — the amount of trust that we have in our institutions and in our fellow citizens. 

There are definite long-term ramifications. Those of us who study this are very concerned about the health of our democracy, and we were watching this election with hopeful eyes about what this election could tell us about the state of our democracy. The fact that we don’t have a result right now is not concerning to me, but that candidates play by the rules and accept the democratic norms without trying to play to the idea of unfairness or that the results are rigged — that’s what’s important. We want those stabilizing influences that we can all believe and trust in our institutions and each other.

Q. What role could the Supreme Court play in the election?

The Constitution gives the power to regulate and conduct elections to the states. U.S. states have wide leeway in deciding how electors get slated, how they count the votes, and the manner in which the elections are conducted. All of that can be taken to court at the state and federal levels. We have already seen both.

The Supreme Court can decide what case it takes. In 2000, Bush v. Gore, the Supreme Court did not have to intervene. They could have left it at the state level. A lot of people believe that by just deciding to take the case, the Supreme Court set a precedent. Who knows where that will lead, when the highest court in the land gets involved? The concern is that when courts make decisions, it is an anti-democratic intervention. Typically, conservative courts like to leave matters to the states. Bush v. Gore was a little counterintuitive to conservative ideology. If the margins ultimately are wide enough in the states still counting results, it is less likely to end in court. If it’s close, we will end up in the courts.

Q. What concerns do you have, if any, about the future of presidential elections?

My concern is that, going forward, we're going to continue to have elections like this — with the popular vote and electoral college vote being out of sync, so either a candidate who loses the popular vote and wins the electoral college or an outcome coming very close to that scenario. This new landscape, which is the result of our ideologies now dividing out along rural versus urban and suburban lines, amplifies the smaller, more rural states in the Electoral College and may mean greater chances for contested elections in the future. I expect to see continued efforts by many groups at the state level toward reform of how Electoral College ballots are awarded because the current situation is destabilizing for a democratic republic. You can only have minority rule for so long before it is fundamentally disruptive to the system.

So, I think the chance of 2024 being similar to this election is very high. This election has been characterized by Donald Trump’s style of politics. But to me, that's not the more important aspect of this election. The more important aspect is how the differences in our ideology now are being amplified in our constitutional structure and whether we have the political leadership to have some sort of reform of that. I think it's going to be really critical going forward.

Q. What role has the media played in the changing political climate? 

The media landscape in the last 30 years has vastly changed and does play some role in changing public discourse toward silos that are more divisive and not producing a truly public discourse. Even more concerning is the ability of foreign actors to use this information environment to influence, divide and weaken us. As the public comes to understand this better, I expect to see some reform and regulation in social media, which has been relatively absent in the U.S.  We need reform to address this problem because the stakes are very high.

Q: Do you have any advice for the electorate going forward?

Be patient, be hopeful, know the power of your voice and collective action. And to the youth, like our students at Kean — your voice is the future.