Making Sense of the 2020 Elections

Veteran political observer Carl Hulse recaps the 2020 election season and its implications for the road ahead.

The 2020 US elections have concluded, with former Vice President Joe Biden elected as the 46th US president. California Senator Kamala Harris will become the first female vice president and the highest-ranking female elected official in US history. In Congress, the Democratic Party lost seats in the House but will maintain its majority. Meanwhile, the Republican Party is expected to maintain its slim Senate majority, but the final allocation of seats will remain unknown until after Georgia conducts two Senate runoff elections in January.

The norm-breaking leadership style of President Trump was expected to help make the 2020 election season unlike any that’s come before. However, no one could have anticipated in the early days of the Trump administration how his reelection bid – and the campaigns of candidates up and down the ballot in the 2020 race – would be challenged by the public health consequences and the economic ramifications of the Covid-19 pandemic. Despite this, a record number of mail-in ballots were cast nationwide and a record number of Americans participated in the vote.

During a recent Natixis Access Series event, Carl Hulse, Chief Washington Correspondent for The New York Times, shared his insights and observations about the 2020 elections and what we might be able to expect from a Biden administration over the near term.

You’ve been a political journalist for over 30 years – what struck you most about this election cycle?

Hulse: A few things. In terms of the actual campaigns, it was so bizarre to not go to any events, and having people doing this all virtually. Obviously, the votes show that there was a decision to move on from President Trump among voters, many of whom then went and voted for Republicans elsewhere on the ballot. That was an unusual outcome – as I wrote in the Times last week – a split decision. I think one of the takeaways from this election is that Americans remain kind of leery of big change. Some candidates seemed to benefit from not having to go out and campaign. I think Democrats are already in the midst of a soul searching between their progressives and their moderates, and Republicans – even though they lost the presidency – they’re feeling good. It looks like they held the Senate majority and they grabbed seats in the House, so there’s some feeling among Republicans that they can build on this.

What are your thoughts on the legal challenges President Trump has mounted to dispute the election results?

Hulse: There’s a lot going on, because Republicans also have the two big Georgia Senate races coming up in January. They don’t want to look like they’re abandoning President Trump. The Times called election officials in all 50 states and said, “Do you have problems? Is there fraud? Is there abuse?” To a state, they said no. Most people who are involved with elections thought this election went great – way better than people anticipated. They thought it was going to be a big mess. Trump has broken a lot of norms, but he still wants to be a political force. If he has to be dragged kicking and screaming out of the executive mansion, I think that limits his ability to be a force. I think most people who know him and are talking to him say he’s going to concede.

Can you speak about the two Senate runoff elections in Georgia?

Hulse: It’s January 5, two elections. If the Democrats could win those seats from the Republicans, they would then have a 50/50 Senate and Vice President Kamala Harris becomes the tiebreaker – so they would get control of the floor. Georgia is going to be an all-out big fight. It’s Kelly Loeffler, who was appointed to the seat that Johnny Isakson left, running against Raphael Warnock, a minister at the church that Martin Luther King Jr. used to preside at. The other race is David Perdue against Jon Ossoff, a Democrat who’s lost a House race before.

The history of Georgia runoffs is that African American voters don’t turn out as much in the runoff as they did in the general, and Republicans go on to win. A lot of folks I’ve been talking to say 2020 is a totally different dynamic than in the past. Democrats have a real chance at winning these races. It kind of makes sense that if you were to win one, you’d win both. But it’s going to be super close, and that’s going to be the center of the political universe now until January 5, and it has huge consequences either way.

What are the prospects for another Covid-19 stimulus bill in the near term?

Hulse: Some of that is dependent on Georgia, obviously. There’s going to be a stimulus bill. Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell said he would like to do one in the lame duck, when Trump is still president and they have a little more leverage. I’m not sure the Democrats are going to go for a McConnell stimulus bill in the lame duck, because they think even if the Republicans have the Senate, it’s better to have their guy in the White House. I think it’s more likely than not it’s something that happens next year. Maybe they’ll do some smaller stuff in the lame duck. Is it going to be $2-plus trillion? Probably not.

Big Tech has been under fire in Washington as of late. Any thoughts on whether or not that continues under a Biden administration?

Hulse: I think the Republicans are tougher on Big Tech than Democrats. Again, this is something where the makeup of the Senate is a factor. Also, I have to say, there’s a lot of Democrats who – when the Obama administration ended – went to Silicon Valley and are working out there. There’s a lot of contacts and connections between Democrats who will be part of the Biden administration and people in Silicon Valley. But House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, as someone who represents San Francisco, has also been pretty rough on Big Tech. I think both sides want to rein it in to some degree, and get a better handle on how Big Tech handles political discussion. There’s going to generally be a churn of conversation around there, there’s bills circulating, but I’m not seeing any big resolution there in the near term.

Can we expect significant changes in US foreign policy under Biden?

Hulse: Biden will be a return to much more traditional foreign policy, on every level – Europe, Britain, Asia. If you look back at Obama’s foreign policy, I think you’re going to see a lot of what Biden’s foreign policy is going to be and it’s going to be some of the same people conducting it. I have thought that the rush of European Union leaders to congratulate and reach out to President-Elect Biden has been very telling. They’re dying for a more normal relationship, and my impression from talking to our folks who are big on foreign policy is that people just want a return to predictability.

What’s your view on Vice President Kamala Harris’s governing philosophy?

Hulse: I think that is a fascinating question because in the primary she was very liberal and in the general election she was back to her moderate roots in the prosecutorial side. I think she’s probably not as liberal as people think she is, but neither is she as conservative as some liberals thought she was. She’s a California elected official, it’s a very liberal state. She’s a woman of color, and I think Biden will be a great influence on her. Biden knows a lot about the government, and the people around him know a lot about the government. I think that she’s going to be a big emissary for this administration. In some ways, her biggest power is her symbolism. People haven’t thought much about her, but she’s going to become a huge story – our first woman vice president, a woman of color, somebody who could be the next president? Women are inspired by her – even conservative women.

Is the politicization around the appointment of judges – including the appointment of judges to the Supreme Court – something that concerns you?

Hulse: Well, think about this – if McConnell is the Senate majority leader, and a vacancy occurs on the Supreme Court, can Biden even get a nominee on the court? It’s a weird setup. I do think the Supreme Court is at risk. They have become the arbiter of our political disputes and they’ve become unwillingly drawn into these big political fights. The Supreme Court has always been a political body, but they like to have this idea that they’re above it all. I think Chief Justice John Roberts is really trying to depoliticize the court in its decision making, making sure that they don’t do anything too big at any time. I do think there’s a part of the Democratic Party who’s saying they need to focus more on pushing our goals in legislation, get some laws enacted, and prevent the court from having to make these big decisions, which has put them in a bad spotlight.

Any thoughts about the 2022 midterm election season?

Hulse: We’re barely through this one! Do we really have to start this already? Yeah, I get it. It will be all about the Senate – and actually the House now as well. The divide in the House is going to be very narrow. Conventional wisdom says if Biden’s the president, in two years, he loses seats in midterms. So you’re going to have this giant fight. It just seems like we never catch our breath anymore – we’re immediately moving on to 2022. It’s good for me, I’m a political reporter, so the ongoing campaign war is interesting.
This material is provided for informational purposes only and should not be construed as investment advice.

Unless otherwise noted, the opinions of the authors provided are not necessarily those of Natixis Investment Managers. The experts are not employed by Natixis Investment Managers but may receive compensation for their services. The views and opinions are as of November 11, 2020 and may change based on market and other conditions.