Presidential election exposes America’s ‘perilous’ divides


Presidential elections can be revealing moments that convey the wishes of the American people to the next wave of elected officials. So far, the big reveal in the contest between President Donald Trump and former Vice President Joe Biden is the extent of the cavernous divide between Republican and Democratic America, one that defines the nation, no matter which candidate ultimately wins.

Voters from both parties turned out in droves to pick the next president, but as they did so, they found little agreement about what that president should do. Democrats and Republicans prioritized different issues, lived in different communities, and even voted on different kinds of ballots.

Whoever emerges as the winner, that division ensures that the next president will face significant gridlock in Congress, skepticism about the integrity of the vote, and an agitated electorate increasingly divided by race, education, and geography. Even the vote count itself threatens to further split Americans.

Two days after polls closed, neither Trump nor Biden has earned the 270 electoral votes needed to win the presidency. The Republican incumbent is encouraging his supporters to protest outside counting locations still sorting through mail ballots — the method of voting preferred by many Democrats — while pursuing an aggressive legal strategy that could lead to further delays.

“Except for the Civil War, I don’t think we’ve lived through any time as perilous as this in terms of the divisions,” said historian Barbara Perry, the director of presidential studies at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center.

Even after the 2000 election, when the Supreme Court ultimately intervened on Republican George W. Bush’s behalf, Democrat Al Gore quickly conceded and congressional leaders found areas of agreement on Capitol Hill.

“To come out of something like this, you need to have a leader who can lead and willing followers,” Perry said. “I just don’t see willing followers on either side.”

The yawning divides will threaten the next president’s ability to manage multiple crises: Daily coronavirus infections set a record this week, the economy is struggling to recover from the pandemic and many Americans are pressing for a reckoning on racial injustices.

Trump and Biden voters, however, express strikingly different views on those challenges, according to AP VoteCast, a broad survey of the electorate. Biden voters overwhelming say they want the federal government to prioritize limiting the spread of the virus, even if that means further damage to the economy. But most Trump voters preferred an approach that focused on the economy.

About half of Trump voters also called the economy and jobs the top issue facing the nation, while only 1 in 10 Biden voters named it most important.

On race and justice issues, Biden voters almost universally said racism is a serious problem in U.S. society and in policing. But only a slim majority of Trump voters, who are overwhelming white, called racism a serious problem.

Biden has tried to bridge this gap, often appealing to a sense of national unity and the “soul” of America. Trump often casts himself as a defender of his voters. He has threatened to withhold pandemic-related aid from states run by Democratic governors and disparaged cities run by Democrats.

Many Democrats desperately hoped that Trump would suffer an embarrassing and broad defeat that would serve as a clear repudiation of Trump and his brand of politics. At the very least, they wanted an unambiguous mandate that would allow Biden to pursue ambitious policies on health care, education, and the economy.

Trump may lose, but strong GOP turnout in battlegrounds and unexpectedly solid victories for Republican candidates in Senate and House races made Tuesday far from a thumping.

“There’s certainly not a clarion call to go in one direction or another. There’s a lot of confusion and chaos,” said civil rights leader Martin Luther King III, who supported Biden.

The election solidified the parties’ competing coalitions. Biden relied on urban and suburban voters, particularly women, college-educated voters, and people of color. Trump exceeded his turnout numbers from 2016 by relying on thousands of new supporters from rural, GOP pockets of white voters across the country.

Results in high-turnout counties underscore that trend: Republican-leaning places became more Republican and Democratic areas more Democratic.

The Democratic margin increased in 70% of the counties that went for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and the Republican margin widened in 56% of counties that Trump won that year, according to an Associated Press analysis of all counties that by Thursday evening had tallied more votes than in the last presidential election.

That dynamic toppled some Democrats who had won seats in politically mixed areas by running as moderates. In Iowa, for example, Democrat Rep. Abby Finkenauer lost her reelection bid in the eastern part of the state as Trump bolstered his margins in rural areas such as Buchanan County just west of Dubuque. Trump won the rural county, which is 96% white, by 15 percentage points in 2016. That jumped to 21 percentage points this year.

That geographic polarization is part of what worries those who see the culture of cooperation in Washington rapidly eroding.

Former New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg, a leading Republican voice in the days after the Supreme Court decided the 2000 election, said it’s unclear whether congressional leaders will have an incentive to work with the other party.

“There were people in the Senate like Ted Kennedy and Ted Stevens who held strong views but were there first and foremost to get things done and govern, so they did not fear their base and were willing to compromise,” said Gregg, who has emerged as a Trump critic. “I am not sure that type of leadership is there today because of the strident voices that dominate both parties. But Biden, if president, has seen how it can be done, so we can hope.”

U.S. voters went to the polls starkly divided on how they see President Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic. But in places where the virus is most rampant now, Trump enjoyed enormous support.

An Associated Press analysis reveals that in 376 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita, the overwhelming majority — 93% of those counties — went for Trump, a rate above other less severely hit areas.

Most were rural counties in Montana, the Dakotas, Nebraska, Kansas, Iowa, and Wisconsin — the kinds of areas that often have lower rates of adherence to social distancing, mask-wearing, and other public health measures, and have been a focal point for much of the latest surge in cases.

Taking note of the contrast, state health officials are pausing for a moment of introspection. Even as they worry about rising numbers of hospitalizations and deaths, they hope to reframe their messages and aim for a reset on public sentiment now that the election is over.

“Public health officials need to step back, listen to and understand the people who aren’t taking the same stance” on mask-wearing and other control measures, said Dr. Marcus Plescia of the Association of State and Territorial Health Officials.

“I think there’s the potential for things to get less charged and divisive,” he said, adding that there’s a chance a retooled public health message might unify Americans around lowering case counts so hospitals won’t get swamped during the winter months.

The electoral divide comes amid an explosion in cases and hospitalizations in the U.S. and globally.

The U.S. broke another record in the 7-day rolling average for daily new cases, hitting nearly 90,000. The tally for new cases Thursday was on track for another day above 100,000, with massive numbers reported all around the country, including a combined nearly 25,000 in Texas, Illinois, and Florida. Iowa and Indiana each reported more than 4,000 cases as well.

The AP’s analysis was limited to counties in which at least 95% of precincts had reported results and grouped counties into six categories based on the rates of COVID-19 cases they’d experienced per 100,000 residents.

Polling, too, shows voters who split on Republican Trump vs. Democrat Joe Biden differed on whether the pandemic is under control.

Thirty-six percent of Trump voters described the pandemic as completely or mostly under control, and another 47% said it was somewhat under control, according to AP VoteCast, a nationwide survey of more than 110,000 voters conducted for the AP by NORC at the University of Chicago. Meanwhile, 82% of Biden voters said the pandemic is not at all under control.

The pandemic was considered at least somewhat under control by slim majorities of voters in many red states, including Alabama (60%), Missouri (54%), Mississippi (58%), Kentucky (55%), Texas (55%), Tennessee (56%) and South Carolina (56%).

In Wisconsin, where the virus surged just before the election, 57% said the pandemic was not under control. In Washington state, where the virus is more in control now compared to earlier in the year, 55% said the same. Voters in New York and New Hampshire, where the virus is more controlled now after early surges, were roughly divided in their assessments, similar to voters nationwide.

Trump voters interviewed by AP reporters said they value individual freedom and believed the president was doing as well as anyone could in response to the coronavirus.

Michaela Lane, a 25-year-old Republican, dropped her ballot off last week at a polling site at an outdoor mall in Phoenix. She cast her vote for Trump.

“I feel like the most important issue facing the country as a whole is liberty at large,” Lane said. “Infringing on people’s freedom, government overrule, government overreach, chaos in a lot of issues currently going on and just giving people back their rights.”

About half of Trump voters called the economy and jobs the top issue facing the nation, roughly twice the percentage who named the pandemic, according to VoteCast. By contrast, a majority of Biden voters — about 6 in 10 — said the pandemic was the most important issue.

In Madison, Wisconsin, Eric Engstrom, a 31-year-old investment analyst, and his wife, Gwen, voted absentee by mail in early October.

Trump’s failure to control the pandemic sealed his vote for Biden, Engstrom said, calling the coronavirus the most immediate threat the nation faces. He and his wife are expecting their first child, a girl, in January and fear “the potential of one of us or both of us being sick when the baby is born,” he said.

Engstrom called Trump’s response to the virus abysmal. “If there was any chance that I was going to vote for Trump, it was eliminated because of the pandemic,” he said.

The political temperature has added to the stress of public health officials, Plescia said. “Our biggest concern is how long can they sustain this pace?” he said.

Since the start of the pandemic, 74 state and local public health officials in 31 states have resigned, retired or been fired, according to an ongoing analysis by AP and Kaiser Health News.

As the election mood dissipates, rising hospitalizations amid colder weather create “a really pivotal moment” in the pandemic, said Sema Sgaier, executive director of the Surgo Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that worked with Harvard University-affiliated Ariadne Labs to develop a tool for estimating vaccine needs in states.

“We really need to get our act together. When I say ‘we’ I mean collectively,” Sgaier said. Finding common ground may become easier if one or more of the vaccine candidates proves safe and effective and gains government approval, she said.

“The vaccine provides the reset button,” Sgaier said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci may be another unifying force. According to VoteCast, 73% of voters nationwide approve of the way Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has been handling the pandemic.

Even among Trump voters, 53% approve of Fauci’s performance. About 9 in 10 Biden voters approve.

Wall Street seemed to love the prospect of a "blue wave" just a few days ago. Now that Democrats appear less likely to get the landslide they hoped for, investors are happy about that as well.

Stock prices began climbing early in the week, when polls showed that Democrats could capture both the Senate and the White House, giving them complete control of Washington.

The Dow Jones Industrial Average finished 1.6% higher on Monday and then rose more than 2% before polls closed on Election Day. The election outcome still remains uncertain. But former Vice President Joe Biden is leading President Trump, while hopes for a Democratic-led Senate have faded. Though Wall Street is usually wary of Democratic control of the government, investors saw it as the best chance to pass the kind of economic relief bill that markets have been clamoring for during the coronavirus pandemic.Yet stocks continued to climb. The Dow finished up by another 542 points Thursday, an increase of nearly 2%. The S&P 500 also ended up nearly 2%. A Biden win and a Republican-led upper chamber would mean a divided government for at least the next two years.

"I am calling it the 'Tails I win, Heads I Win' market," tweeted David Rosenberg, chief economist at Rosenberg Research.

Reading the market tea leaves at a volatile time can be challenging. But it's axiomatic on Wall Street that periods of divided government often herald a boom for stocks.

"If you look back over previous eras, when you have had a Democratic president and a split Congress, markets have risen around 13%. There's no reason to think this will be any different," said Scott Glasser, co-chief investment officer at ClearBridge Investments.

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., said on Wednesday that he wants to see some kind of relief bill before the end of the year after previously saying such a package would have to wait until early 2021.

"The economy is sending distressing signals to policymakers, but it's uncertain whether significant fiscal support will arrive before year-end, particularly with post-election policy gridlock likely in Washington, D.C.," Daco said. Any bill will likely be considerably smaller than it would have been under Democratic control, which worries Gregory Daco, chief U.S. economist at Oxford Economics.

Economists have urged Congress to pass a new relief bill as coronavirus cases again spike across the United States.

But investors are taking comfort in the prospect that a Republican-led Senate would put the brakes on many Democratic initiatives that Wall Street looks askance at, such as an increase in corporate taxes, which is a key part of Biden's agenda.

"You've almost certainly now taken that off the table because of the Senate vote and lack of a blue wave," Glasser says.

Prospects of a diluted Democratic economic agenda because of split control of Congress, along with a new relief bill this year, would be a welcome development in markets, according to Seema Shah, the chief strategist at Principal Global Investors.

"Lower chances of tax hikes, regulatory action, and a fiscal stimulus bill create a positive backdrop for the market," said Shah.

She also points out that much of the surge in stock prices over the past decade has been driven by the Federal Reserve and other central banks making money cheaper, something that's likely to continue whatever the makeup of Congress.

The U.S. became the first country to top 100,000 cases in one day, according to data compiled by Johns Hopkins University and Bloomberg. Illinois, Ohio, Michigan, and Indiana were among states reporting record Covid-19 infections on Thursday.

A Height Capital Markets analyst estimated that U.S. hospitals could reach capacity and trigger lockdowns before the Thanksgiving holiday if infections continue at the current pace. In Europe, France warned of a “violent” second wave and Greece imposed a three-week lockdown.

In Asia, Japan recorded over 1,000 coronavirus infections on Thursday, the highest level the country has seen since August. South Korea reported 145 new coronavirus cases in 24 hours, the biggest gain in two weeks. China will temporarily halt entry by non-Chinese nationals who are in Russia and India, after doing so for those in the U.K. and Belgium.

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