When a presidential candidate is elected to the highest office in the land, one of the first questions that naturally follows is designed to assess his candidacy’s relative strength: did he have coattails? In other words, did he drag or propel down-ticket hopefuls – from Congress to local races – with him across the finish line? Did the force of his presence on the ticket turn defeat to victory for a significant number of candidates who may otherwise have lost?
There are many things that don’t add up about the 2020 election – from record-shattering turnout only in the states now in dispute to the swift shift to Joe Biden in every swing state in the dark of night to the hundreds of sworn affidavits detailing transparently fraudulent activity, potentially on an organized scale. But while presidential elections may have been stolen before – see 1960 – we have never in our lifetime witnessed the reported outcome we are asked to accept as legitimate for 2020: a party losing the presidency while strengthening its position in Congress and all the way down to the local level.
Call it coattails with no coat.
This alone must give pause to the many millions who don’t need affidavits or metrics to know something just doesn’t feel right. A remarkable chain of events led to an apparent result that defies both history and immutable human behavior. Are we expected to believe that people will vote for the free market in every race on the ballot except the presidency, where they prefer a liberal/socialist? The reverse is equally true – who do you know, or even know about, who would vote for Trump and then turn around and opt for Democrats at congressional and state levels?
Defying the Historical Trend
In transformational elections over the last century – those that altered the nation’s direction substantially – the winning candidate’s coattails significantly increased his party’s standing in Congress. In that ultimate change election in the midst of the Great Depression in 1932, Franklin D. Roosevelt not only scored a landslide victory over incumbent Herbert Hoover, but his Democratic party gained a whopping 97 seats in the House and 12 in the Senate. Harry Truman’s upset win in 1948 flipped 75 House seats for the Democrats. In 1980, when Ronald Reagan steamrolled President Jimmy Carter, the GOP gained 34 seats in the lower chamber and a dozen in the upper chamber. In 2008, when Barack Obama made history as the first black president, the Democrats gained 21 House seats along with eight in the Senate.
Even when a winning candidate atop the ticket is comparatively weak, his party has generally been able to “hold serve” in Congress. During the 20 years between the departure of Reagan and the arrival of Barack Obama, the party which won the White House gained or lost just a handful of seats on Capitol Hill.
Strange Voter Choices
One thing we have never witnessed in modern presidential history is a prospective losing presidential candidate with winning coattails. It is only logical to ask how it can be that, while Trump is reported to have lost, Republicans will flip as many as 12 seats in the House – severely slashing Nancy Pelosi’s majority – and may well maintain their narrow control of the Senate even though they defended twice as many seats as the Democrats. And just as importantly, at the state level, the GOP picked up more than 200 seats and gained control of two state legislatures while losing none, unquestionably strengthening their position for the crucial 2021 congressional redistricting.
Is it mere coincidence that the only time in the last century that a losing candidate atop the ticket saw his party make gains this large in the House was also the last election to be clouded by accusations of fraud? Indeed, in 1960, when Richard Nixon came up just short amid credible charges that at least two states had been won in suspicious fashion by John F. Kennedy, Nixon’s GOP gained 22 seats in the lower chamber. But unlike this year, it was not a game-changer because the country was not as deeply divided, and Democrats already held a massive 130 seat advantage entering that election.
What sense does it make that a party dominated if not owned by Trump and his unique, break-the-mold brand of populism would fail at the top of the ticket but succeed everywhere else? There are several theories other than outright election theft that might be considered.
First, there is the notion of triangulation, a party writ large trying to separate itself from its presidential nominee or vice-versa. This can be dismissed out of hand because almost all of the GOP congressional winners were Trumpists in varying forms.
Were the voters scared by both the person of Trump and the growing socialism of Democrats? It is possible, and yet Trump is the same person they elected in 2016, from his behavior to his agenda to the actual fulfillment of most every bold promise he made in that campaign. And in a political atmosphere more balkanized than any time in recent memory, it would under almost any circumstance defy credulity for a mass of voters to pull the lever for capitalism down-ballot and liberalism/socialism at the presidential level.
Did the electorate embrace Trumpism but not Trump? This would be the mirror-image of the Christian expression: “hate the sin, love the sinner.” Did the voters appreciate the record of the last four years but reject the bombastic once-in-a-lifetime figure who made it happen? Like so many other things about this election and the entire year of 2020, that would be unprecedented and seemingly at odds with not just the full sweep of American history but human nature itself.
Might the voters be thirsting so desperately for the balance of divided government that they would vote for a liberal for president and conservatives everywhere else on the ballot? Let’s just say that the great mass of voters, informed or otherwise, are hardly that calculating.
Did voters decide they just can’t take the Trumpian atmosphere of perpetual crisis anymore? This is probably the most viable, if inadequate, theory to explain away the coattail issue. Tens of millions of Americans are, understandably, both in a state of anxiety over a pandemic and turned off by what the entire political enterprise has become. And, the theory goes, what these voters may be yearning for is a sense of calm and decorum – at almost any cost.
The Doubt That Will Never Die
That would translate into a willingness to elect a somnambulistic candidate clearly in decline who campaigned from his basement while rejecting the sitting president who compiled an impressive record of systemic reform and was likely on a glide path to a second term. Even after COVID-19 detoured that path, President Trump famously attracted rabid support for re-election from countless hundreds of thousands in campaign rallies and spontaneous events across the land.
The reality is that we will never receive a full or even adequate accounting of this election like no other. In a recent Reuters interview of 50 Trump voters, not a single one believed the result reported by the media. This leads to the increasingly evident conclusion that no matter the outcome of the ongoing legal battles and the final decision of the Electoral College, the vast majority of the 73 million people who voted for Trump will likely never be convinced this election was on the up-and-up. And when historians look back upon this pivot point, they will just as likely never be able to explain how, for the first time, a president without a coat could possibly have coattails.
Read more from Tim Donner.