Penn Calendar Penn A-Z School of Arts and Sciences University of Pennsylvania

What Happened in the US Elections?

John Lapinski & Tariq Thachil
Tuesday, December 1, 2020 - 09:00







John Lapinski
Director, Penn Program on Opinion Research
& Election Studies (PORES)
Robert A. Fox Professor of Political Science
Director of the Elections Unit, NBC News

Tariq Thachil
Director, Center for the Advanced Study of India (CASI)
Associate Professor of Political Science
Madan Lal Sobti Associate Professor for the Study of
Contemporary India

FULL TRANSCRIPT:

Tariq Thachil:

Hi, everyone. And welcome to our special webinar on what happened in the US elections, hosted by CASI, The Center for the Advanced Study of India, PORES, The Penn Program on Opinion Research and Election Studies and Penn Global, all of which are housed at the University of Pennsylvania.

I am Tariq Thachil, and I'm the director of CASI. And we're excited to be able to bring this event to you today. As many of you know, there's a tendency in both the US and India to claim every major national election as historic. But yet the 2020 US presidential election was certainly unusual in a number of respects, a vote held in the shadow of a pandemic, that has claimed over a quarter million American lives, higher turnout than any elections, since I believe 1900, when a far smaller share of the population was even eligible to vote. And an incumbent president who has repeatedly raised false claims of electoral fraud and refuses to concede. And finally, two pivotal Senate elections whose final results await a special runoff election on January 5th.

So, there's a lot here to unpack. And I can think of no one better with whom to digest the aftermath of this unique election than our speaker, Professor John Lapinski, who is the director of PORES and my colleague in Penn's Political Science Department, where he serves as Robert A. Fox leadership professor of political science. He also serves as faculty director for the Fels Executive Master of Public Administration Program within the Fels Institute of Government.

And perhaps most importantly for today's discussion, John serves as the director of the Elections Unit at NBC News, a role that he's been in since 2013. And in this role, he is responsible for projecting races for the network. He is literally the person who decides when the channel says that they are calling a given result for a given candidate. And he also produces election related stories through exit polls for NBC News, MSNBC, CNBC, and others.

Professor Lipinski earned his PhD at Columbia in 2000. And was previously an associate professor at Yale. He's been at Penn since 2006. And in addition to working on elections, he's also studied lawmaking in Congress and a number of other topics.

We are incredibly grateful to John for joining us, given that I think he's slept a total of 12 hours across the month of November. And so, what we're going to do is have a format in which he's going to give a short presentation with some of what he sees as the key takeaways from the election, after which I'll ask him a few initial questions, and then we'll open it up to the audience Q&A. Please enter any questions that you have into the Q&A box. And I will field those questions to John, and I'll try to get to as many as I can. Thanks very much. And John, the floor is yours. Thanks for joining us.

John Lapinski:

Tariq, thank you. Thank you so much for having me. And I just really appreciate the opportunity to speak to CASI. It's always a pleasure for me.

And as you had said, this is really an unprecedented election. It was, I mean, you joke where it was 12 hours of sleep, but it was actually, there were the first four days of the election until we actually ended up calling the presidency on Saturday, I slept eight hours over four days. And the thing that I think that I enjoyed the most out of that, other than that, I felt like I was a super old man after it was over, was that my father-in-law who's an Indian orthopedic surgeon actually reluctantly admitted that I could keep up with him, at least from an endurance perspective. So, that was something that was at least for me, something that I notched up, in my own personal collection of merits for 2020.

What I was hoping to do today, because I really want to make sure that we have enough time for Q&A, is I wanted to go through a few highlights. And basically what I wanted to do was I wanted to talk about three different things associated with the election that made 2020 a little different. Two of them, one has to do with how we project elections and how voting actually changed in the United States in 2020. And I want to show you a little graph to talk about that. And it made my job a lot more difficult than projecting elections for the network at NBC.

Then I want to talk a little bit about some highlights from the exit poll. I told Tariq that the slides on some of the takeaways, I wanted to look at demographics, I wanted to look at some key measures of where Trump over-performed potentially, and maybe underperformed a little bit, and why the Republicans did as well as they did. I'm only going to talk a little bit about that. And in the slides that I have, if anybody is interested, I will make sure that CASI has a copy of them, and you can go over them, yourself. Basically what they are, is five slides of curated exit poll results, that I think are the most important takeaway things out of the exit poll in this election cycle.

And then I wanted to conclude just briefly with talking about polling and some of the challenges that we face, because I think that everybody that has followed the US elections even casually, I think that people were a little bit surprised with what actually happened on election night, that the Republicans definitely over-performed, but they really over-performed only in the sense that they over-performed what we were seeing or observing in our pre-election polls, our public polls. And there's definitely some structural issues and challenges is that pollsters face in this country. And we're going to have to remake how we do polling, I think after 2020, if it's going to stay vital. And I think polling is vital.

So, let me actually share a deck with everyone. And then I'll quickly go over these points that I had mentioned. Let's see if I can do this quickly. We'll share the screen here. Excuse me. Okay.

So, this right here is just talking a little bit about... Sorry. In my role as Decision Desk at NBC news, these are the different, or basically groups that I supported NBC news, as Tariq had said. The team that I run at NBC, it's usually about 50 or 60 people. This cycle, it was about 25 people, just because we were living in such a socially distance world, and we have to do this work in person. And we collect the vote for essentially, or we tabulate the vote and analyze the vote, and make projections for the network and for the country. And then we also conduct the exit poll where we talked to over a hundred thousand people to ask them who they voted for. But more importantly, we asked them a number of different questions about the election, about policy positions they may hold.

So, I want to start as I had said with talking a little bit about projecting races and talking about this new electoral ecosystem that we're living in. And I'll explain these graphs in a second, because they're a little dense. But what happened basically in 2020 is that one of the trends that we've observed in voting in the United States over the last two decades, it's really accelerated over the last decade, is there's been big changes in how people vote.

And so, voting is decentralized in the United States. And so, it's different, essentially the states, and even in some instances, counties get to decide how voting is going to work. And what I mean by that is that we have, there's a lot of people that vote on election day in this country or used to vote on election day, but we have now early voting in the United States, where people can vote before election day. And they can do that in two different ways. They can either do that, and it's all, again, set by the states. They can either do that by mailing in their ballots or voting in person early.

And what was so important about this cycle, is that this is not new. I mean, there has been states like Oregon and Washington, and California, a lot of the Western states in the US, had very high levels of essentially what we call absentee voting, which is important because people can vote well before the election, in some instances, well, a month before the election. But it really accelerated during the pandemic. And there were a number of different states that really had not used early voting, whether it be mail or in person voting, and really relied heavily on election day voting. And that had huge, I mean, again a huge impact on how the vote was counted and how we could actually project races.

Because as all of you probably know, usually we're able to determine who has won the presidency on election night. Now, there's exceptions, 2000 and 2004 were exceptions, but the norm had been that the networks, all of them usually would be able to project winners. We'd be able to tell you who's won the presidency, who's going to control the Senate, and who's won the House of representatives usually on election night. And by election night, I don't necessarily mean the actual night, but it could be until the next day, but that is the norm.

That was not the case in this cycle, because states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, these key Rust Belt States. So, they had almost done all of their voting in person before, and they had to do an abrupt phase, basically a 360 degree turn to institute mail voting and in-person early voting, so to accommodate people for the pandemic. The reason why that was important was for a number of reasons, obviously it was for safety reasons.

But another reason why it was important and made my job a lot more difficult in projecting races, is that absentee voting became essentially a partisan issue in the United States in 2020. I mean, Democrats have always used it more frequently, even in previous elections, but it really became an issue where there became a real partisan split on who would want to vote in a particular way, with Democrats definitely favoring the mail in balloting versus going to the polls on election day.

And that was going to wreak a little bit of havoc on the networks on us, because the issues are so partisan and that the vote was reported out in such uneven ways. A lot of the traditional models and the way that we analyzed and projected these races just changed on us.

And the little slide that I have here just shows this. And just to give you guys context, there were over a hundred million people out of the... It will be a little under 160 million people who have voted in this country that actually voted early. And roughly it was a third by mail, a third by in-person early voting and a third on election day. And this right here is just a little slide that looks at the Pennsylvania, which was the critical state, was the state that we actually put Vice President Biden over the top when we projected it on late Saturday morning after the election.

And what you see here, I have two little slides on just looking at the raw vote totals. And basically looking at their raw vote totals about how they changed. And what you see here is if you looked on the slide on the left, is that what we saw in Pennsylvania is that the early mail-in balloting was reported first. And so, if you were to see, like right here, Vice President Biden had a huge lead to start the night off, because that's the vote that was reported out. It immediately disappeared. And this is the election night slide.

And then President Trump went up by about 600,000 votes. And a lot of people feared that he was going to claim victory because he had such a large lead. And you see that here, that was because right around here is this is where we saw all of the in-person voting come in. And then what we see if we go to these slides out here, these are the after election day slides, as the mail ballots were counted, which again, because they were partisan. And there was a partisan bent to them, and most of them were Democrat. We saw that lead that President Trump had disappear, until he eventually, Joe Biden won the state by a little bit over a percentage point, about 80,000 votes.

Well, this was kind of a crazy situation and it led to a lot of issues in projecting the race. It led to us having to take a long time in doing so, because it took the State of Pennsylvania and particularly Philadelphia long time to count that vote. And it also led to a lot of concerns amongst citizens that maybe something was wrong, something was fraudulent. And of course, there was nothing fraudulent. But again, this was what we saw in 2020, and potentially could become the new normal for American elections.

Let me actually turn here now. So, that's what the one thing I just wanted to say that voting has changed fundamentally, how we vote and when we'll know winners. And so, that was like the first component of the slide.

In here, I want to announce quickly just turn to our national exit poll of where we, basically the National Election Poll, which is the NBC News is a part of. We do a huge survey of voters. Just for those to understand what the survey is comprised of. We actually go to people when they leave the voting booth. We do it, that's why it's called an exit poll. And we interview people as they leave the voting booth, and ask them and basically hand them a paper survey. We use personal protective equipment and all of that. And the response rates are actually pretty good. And so, we interviewed people as they left the voting booth. We did that on election day. We did that in early voting locations before election. And then we did a large telephone survey where we got, interviewed people who voted by mail. And put them all together into this, what became this, The National Exit Poll.

And I just want to talk to you a little bit about some highlights that came out of this. And just briefly because again, I want to leave most of our time for Q&A. But what we saw here, is we saw some big differences between 2016 and 2020. And some of these differences is what this is basically what led Vice President Biden to winning. If you look through these slides, which again, I'll share with you, Biden did better with certain groups compared to Senator Clinton. The gender gap remained about the same. But Biden did a lot better with some groups, particularly he did better with independence. He did also better with whites, essentially when we actually look at race as a demographic. And so, that was pretty important for him.

I'm not going to go through all of these. But a couple of highlights also is, is that obviously one of the driving issues was whether people would favor the economy over the Corona virus. And the exit poll definitely showed that the Corona virus was more important to people in this country in containing it than the economy. And so, that was something that came out and everybody, that's not everybody, but a majority definitely thought that Vice President Biden would do a better job in handling the pandemic than President Trump. So, that was going to be a pretty critical issue.

This also deals with key voters here, but again, I'm not going to go over it. But there is one thing that I want to talk a little bit about that was important and somewhat of a surprise. And this is also one of the reasons why Republicans did well. That with some groups, there were a couple of things that were surprising that came out of the exit poll. One of the things that was surprising is, is that we obviously had about 160 million people who voted.

And one of the big assumptions that a lot of people made going into this election was that President Trump really had secured his base, but he wasn't able to get new voters. That turned out not to be true. President Trump actually ended up winning quite a few new voters. And that obviously had big implications for down-ballot races for Republicans. And so, this is one of the reasons why the Republicans did so well.

One group that was just absolutely critical for Republicans was Latino voters. And this is where the Democrats really underperformed compared to 2016. And they particularly underperformed in states like Florida and Texas, and to some extent also in Nevada. And there's lots of different reasons potentially for this. I mean, in Florida, again, I think one of the surprises was, I think most people thought President Trump was probably going to win the state, but not by as large of a margin as he did. And he just did a particularly good job in courting the Hispanic or Latino voters, basically tying Vice President Biden into this idea that he was a socialist.

One of the things, it is very important to understanding all voters, but Latino voters in particular is they're a very heterogeneous group. And so, the idea that they vote as a block is completely not true. It really depends upon where the Latino voters are coming from, whether they're from South America, whether they're from Mexico, Puerto Rico, whether they were born in the US, not born in the US. And so, there was lots of different things here that mattered, and that turned out to be a big group of voters that split in a way that was a little bit surprising to pollsters, and potentially even surprising to the parties, because I had been talking to both the Republican Party and the Democratic Party prior to the election. And I think Republicans actually did better than they expected. So, it was a little bit of a surprise.

I want to now turn to that's all I'm going to actually go through on the slide deck. I want to talk a little bit about polling. Because one of the things that everybody was surprised about, I think was, is that going into election night, I think everybody had a feeling that Vice President Biden would win. That's what all the public polls are showing, that the Democrats would easily win the House of Representatives, and most likely that they would take the Senate, though that could be close.

But I think that when you looked at the Nate Silvers of the world, they've put the probability of the Republicans losing the Senate at a pretty high level. I mean, it usually ranged in the 80% to 90% level that the Democrats were going to actually win that. And the question is, is why was the polling so off? And because the polling was off. And basically what we saw here was is that, I mean, there was an under count essentially of Republicans in all of the polls.

We saw things, extreme examples of this, like ABC News and the Washington Post put out a poll that said that Biden was going to win Wisconsin by 17 points. Obviously that's absurd. I mean, even when we saw that, we thought that was absurd. But we still saw Biden, supposedly having solid wins in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania. And those were definitely not solid wins. And again, when you looked in North Carolina, when we looked at Maine, everybody thought that Senator Collins was going to lose. She did not.

And so, then the question is, is what was wrong with the polling? And there were two issues, and then I'll stop and turn it over to Tariq, that we've observed. One is that there's a huge non-response problem going on, where Republicans just do not... Public polling is built on co-operation. A lot of the methods that we use to do public opinion polling, which includes the methods that we use for the exit poll were designed in the 1960s and 1970s.

Warren Matofsky invented our exit polling techniques in 1967, and they've largely stood intact. And they're based on the idea that you're going to get cooperation. I mean, even with response rates dropping and all of that, you can't have certain group, in this case Republicans, a certain type of Republicans just completely refusing to take polls. Because you can not statistically weight your way out of that problem. And so, there was a big issue in non-response that was really hard to correct with statistical techniques in the polls.

The other issue that the polls, especially the election. So, that's an issue by the way that faces all public polling. It doesn't matter. It's not just an election polling issue. This is a problem for all of us. The other issue that we faced was that turnout was very, there was differential turnout in 2020.

And so, if you were to go through like looking at three critical states, Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin, what you basically saw in those three states was turnout was up everywhere, but it was not up in the big cities. So, turnout was up across all of Pennsylvania except Philadelphia. So, it was up about 14% across the state. And it was only up about 4% in Philadelphia. The same would be true in Michigan and Wayne County, where Detroit is. The same would be true in Wisconsin, in Milwaukee County, where Milwaukee is located. Turnout was flat in Milwaukee City. Turnout out was flat in Detroit. Turnout was flat in Pennsylvania. We did not account for that in our polls, because you cannot know turnout prior to the election day. Or at least you can come up with guesses, but it's very hard to do so.

So, when we made our adjustments to the polls, we basically, had turnout higher in Philadelphia, in Detroit, in Milwaukee, because we did not make that adjustment. That's worth a couple of points just off the margin in these polls. And so, had we actually known what turnout was going to be, the polls would have been a lot closer. We would have been able to down-weight, Philadelphia, down-weight Milwaukee, down-weight Detroit. And that three to four to five point victory in Pennsylvania, that we are observing in the public polls, maybe four to five more likely, probably would have been more acute point, maybe three point when in Pennsylvania, just by itself, just by that adjustment. And Biden won it by 1.2. So that would be definitely within margin of error. But that did not happen. And it's something that we're going to have to grapple with. So, I will stop there Tariq, and hand it off to you for questions.

Tariq Thachil:

Okay. Thanks, John. So, I'm going to just ask you three or four questions that go chronologically, building off some of the really interesting material you presented there.

So, the first is let's just stick on polling for a second, and then let's go to the questions regarding the result. But so, I think the point you were making and some people have already raised that in the Q&A box is this issue of low response rates. And we see 1% of all of respondents, actually 1% response rates on some of these phone surveys, et cetera. And I guess my question is, so it's not just that there are a few people responding, but as you said, that there's disproportionately kind of a partisan split, even in who responds, with particularly some kinds of Republicans being, especially unlikely to pick up the phone.

Now, I wanted to ask you, because another kind of popular, at least folk theory that many have read, is this idea of the shy Trump voter. That it's not that they're not picking up the phone, but when they pick up the phone, they're perhaps less likely to truthfully say that they're voting for President Trump. So, in your mind that second issue is less of a problem. Is that correct? Or is that your reading of it too? That it's really just that there's a partisan split with certain kinds of Republicans unlikely to pick up the phone, not a lack of truthfulness when they pick up and who they say they would be voting for.

John Lapinski:

Yeah, we've done quite a bit of experimental research on that. And the idea of the shy Trump voter, I just think there's no support for it. What the issue is, is that when we call people, they're shy, not in the sense that they're untruthful, they're shy in that they... They're actually not shy, actually shy is the wrong word. They just they don't trust us and they don't want to take polls. And so, and we've done experimental work just to see.

So, for example, when we do our NBC polls, we no longer tell people it's NBC calling. It used to be the case that when you tell... I remember when my grandma actually one time got called by NBC to do a survey, she was so excited. She said, "NBC called me." She actually thought that Tom Brokaw, personally called her. And so, it used to be, when you'd say, NBC's calling, you'd actually get, it would be positive. It would increase our response rates. Now, it actually decreases the willingness of Republicans to take our surveys. So, we're not deceitful. If somebody asks, "Who's calling?" We'd tell them, but we wouldn't offer it up. We used to actually offer enough as the first thing that we said.

And what it is, is what we're seeing is, is that we're getting, when we are doing our telephone surveys, we're getting people, we're filling, we're okay in getting certain types of people, but we're getting the wrong people. So, we can get enough, non-educated white men. It's just that, they're more likely when we call, we get more of them are Democrats. And so, we fulfill like some of our Democrat demographic. We don't do quotas, but we get these people, but we get the wrong ones. And so, when you actually have the wrong ones in your survey and you statistically weight them up or weight them down, you screw up your results.

And so, and we really have found that Republicans just do not, a certain type of Republicans also, it's not all Republicans, it's basically the most ardent Trump supporters that do vote. And they just think that that, why should they talk to a pollster?

Tariq Thachil:

So, just one more question on this before we move forward, which is, you talked a little bit about we have to remake polling. And so, one might argue that some of what you're talking about is specific to candidate Trump, but it sounds like what you're saying is not, like some of these things that we're saying, some of the lower levels of trust among certain groups might be a more systematic issue and might need more dramatic fixes.

And so, one question that I had from the Indian context, as many of the more reliable surveys that happen in India are less frequent, but more face to face. Do you think that's the direction that polling needs to go in, in the US, or do you think there are other fixes that you would recommend? Is there anything that's kind of top of mind to you for what would need to be done in 2024?

John Lapinski:

Yeah. So, I mean, I think first of all, just to the first part of your question, I mean, there's no going back, right? I mean, a lot of this, obviously it wasn't fully tied to President Trump, but President Trump has created a level of distrust amongst his followers. That's not going away, irregardless of whether he really runs in 2024 or what he does. I mean, we can all speculate about what Trump's plans are. And when people at NBC asked me that, I say no one knows what Trump's plans are because he doesn't, right? So, I mean, he doesn't know what he's exactly going to do right now.

But what we do know is, is that President Trump has really eroded trust amongst many institutions, certainly amongst the media, and certainly amongst people who are polling. And so, I think that that's going to stay with us at some level. It could get a little bit better potentially, but it's going to be difficult.

To your point about whether it's going to be in-person, what are we going to do? I mean, a lot of the work that I do is we do telephone surveys off of registration based sampling list. So, we work with voter files. So, in the United States, they have these very exhaustive lists of basically every person who's registered to vote. We have a lot of information on people. I mean, we don't look up people, but I could look up people. I could find out if we were to look up ourselves, we'd find everything out from our credit score to magazine subscriptions that we've made, to all of our past voting history, demographics on us, and all these sorts of things.

So, what we need to do with polling, whether it be calling people, texting people, doing it online, or going to them in person, is we need to really know who we're reaching and who we're not reaching. And we need to know a lot of information on these people. So, you wouldn't be able to do it just by going in person because you still may get non-cooperation, right? I mean, and so, but what you need to know is if the more we understand who's not participating, and also put in additional efforts to make sure to get some of those people, that's going to be what's going to improve polling.

The problem of course, is that there's been a big proliferation of polling, but it's really low quality polling. Right? I mean, it's just like when you talk about the polls that are being conducted, I'm assuming primarily by the Indian government, they're super expensive. Right? And in the United States, we really only had a couple of surveys that relied on in-person interviewing techniques. The National Elections Studies Survey did it for a while ago, but they've stopped doing that.

And the problem was is, is that when the NES was doing their surveys, it was costing about a thousand dollars in interview on average. That's insane. Right? I mean, media organizations and academic institutions just don't have that kind of money. And so, if it was a thousand dollars, if we really incurred a cost of a thousand dollars in interview and needed to do a sample of a thousand people, the math, the numbers are prohibitive.

Tariq Thachil:

Yeah. That's really interesting. In India, I think it's also the relatively low cost of conducting surveys enabled some of this. So, even some private institutions can do one-off. And there's lots of low quality pooling in India that doesn't do that. But that's a really interesting point about just the relative expense.

Just one quick point on actually calling the race itself. So, you mentioned that one of the challenges for 2020, and specifically how to call the race and how to be confident, I think you said somewhere that you had to be 99.5% confident before you make a call. And one of those was this partisan split and absentee voting. Now, do you think that is specific to this, to a pandemic where there was a partisan response to the pandemic and therefore to using mail-in voting versus coming in person. You had an incumbent president, who was particularly opposed to the process of mail-in voting. Do you think that now that said that's going to be sticky and endure even beyond this pandemic election? Or do you think that some of that might go away and it might become easier once again, to call these elections, even if you had a much more absentee voting than you've ever had before?

John Lapinski:

Yeah. So, let me actually say something, two things about that. First off you, calling these elections was really tricky. Fox News and the Associated Press made a terrible call when they called Arizona. That was a horrible, horrible call. Now, I'm on a panel with Fox News tonight and they're like, "Well, we were right." It doesn't matter. That was, I mean, had they got that call wrong, America would have spiraled like right into... Can you imagine that Fox News and the Associated Press had called Arizona wrong and that flipped? That easily could have flipped. Right?

When we were calculating out, supposedly Fox just misinterpreted the data. Their decision desk is not as good as ours. And I'm happy that this is going to be publicly... I mean, I've said this publicly to them. We were about 75% to 80% confident that Biden was going to win Arizona when Fox projected the race. And it was the reason why we were only 75% to 80%, is this because we knew how easily it would be for those that later vote to come in, in a way that was more favorable to Trump. And it could get a lot closer. In fact, on election night, we thought the race could go to 10,000, to maybe 20,000 votes. And so, we thought that's how close it was going to be. And there's no way that you would ever call a race on that. And so, and it was completely related to the idea that of these partisan differences, right?

The big issue that we had in Arizona was, and across a number of these different states with all of this mail balloting, is we didn't know how many ballots were left out. When we'd call up counties and ask them, "How many more ballots do you have to count?" They didn't know. I mean, they hadn't collected all of them. And so, we were making estimates and guesses, but they were estimates and guesses. So, that's what makes it so tricky.

The question is, is this trickiness going to stay with us? Are we going to be, am I going to slowly break down and become a really old man, because I have to do these week long elections, every time we have an election and I have to stay up, for God, awful hours and all of that.

I think it's going to be really hard to fully unlearn some of the stuff that's been picked up in 2020. I think it could get better. I think that not having a sitting president basically saying that all this mail balloting is fraudulent, I don't think that that will continue. And so, I mean, so some people will find it to be easier, better.

States aren't going to take away mail balloting. Once you've made it easy for people to vote this way, it's really hard to say, "Okay, we're not doing that anymore." And so, I don't think it will be as much of a problem as 2020. But I think it still remains to be seen about how much stickiness there is, how much bitterness and other sorts of things are going to be associated with this election that will continue forward, and how much of the skepticism that exists is going to linger into 2022 and 2024.

Tariq Thachil:

Let's turn to the result of the vote itself. So, one of the things that struck me in your overview, was the fact that there were these key groups with which maybe Trump outperformed prior to expectations, and then also some groups in which so for example, the new voters for the GOP, such as Latinos in Florida, or to some degree in Nevada. At the same time, there was some evidence of certain groups coming and voting more for Biden than they had for Senator Clinton. So, moderates, I think some categories of white voters.

So, I wonder if you see that interpretation is pushing back against what I saw as another interpretation, which was that actually, much of this was just about turning out your core supporters. I think there was one analysis I read that said that, I think it was actually NBC News and your colleagues that said only about 3% of counties in battleground states, about a thousand of them actually flipped.

And at the individual level, there was some survey data suggesting, most Republicans vote, the overwhelming majority of Republicans voted for Trump, Democrats voted for Biden. So, the results really rested largely on parties turning out votes within counties they had already won before and driving up their margins. Is that consistent with what you were saying about these new categories of voters or are you pushing back against that narrative, that there actually was some important switching going on, and that they were important groups of Americans who changed their mind from 2016?

John Lapinski:

Yeah. I don't think that it was, I mean, I think that, like my account can be consistent with the account that came out with NBC. First of all, there's no question that partisanship drives things. That partisanship is absolutely dominant. There are not that many Lincoln Project voters. So, the Lincoln Project where these former Republicans that came out basically, and they're the never Trumpers. I mean, they seem bigger than they are because they get a lot of time on TV, because they're trained analysts. But I don't think that, so that was really super influential.

I think that there were a couple of things that were going on here. Differential turnout absolutely mattered. And so, but what we saw was is that there were a couple of things that we saw and it really was turnout. So, what we saw was is that Biden did better with some groups. And so, and he did win over some new voters. There are some persuadable voters. This idea that there's no one persuadable, that's not true. But he didn't over-perform, but he performed well with those groups. But then what we saw was is that some groups that are sort of these traditional groups that we thought that he was going to do well with, he just didn't do that well. I mean, turnout was terrible in Philadelphia, I mean, it really was.

And there were also some things where the Democrats, when we actually look at like, if you were to actually really push me and say, "What is it, why did Trump lose?" I could point you to a resolve in the exit poll that I think actually tells you the whole story, why Trump lost and why the Republicans did well elsewhere. Right? Because no one thought that the Republicans, I mean, I think it's going to probably be, the Democrats are probably going to sit at 223 seats in the House of Representatives. No one thought it was going to be that close.

So, when you look at the Trump approval rating versus his favorability rating, so we asked two different questions in the exit poll. One is what's his approval, a presidential approval. So, it's not Trump, particularly. It's just about how is Trump doing. That approval rating was about 50%. I haven't looked at it. We re-weight the data, so it could be a little under or a little over, but it was about that. His approval rating was running about three points less than that. And what that basically was is that people didn't like Trump, right? Compared to, they actually thought he was doing a better job as a person and all that. They didn't like him. And he performed to his favorability rating, not his approval rating. And usually those are dead on with each other.

And so, but that's why the Republicans did better because that presidential approval rating was a proxy for how the Republicans, so that when you look at the down-ballot, that Republicans performed on Trump's approval. And that was on matters of on the economy. I mean, even with the pandemic and all the short term issues, a lot of people like the tax cuts, a lot of people like some of the other things that were going on in the economy, that they gave credit to President Trump and the Republicans on that matter.

But then there were some other issues like the whole defund the police and all of that. People did not like that. And so, that's where Trump did a little bit better and the Republicans. And so, it was a mix and match there. Biden picking up some good differential turnout in some groups in the suburbs. He did particularly well. And then we could dig into those demographics and show them.

And then in the larger cities where everybody thought Biden was going to clean up, turn out was flat. And then, the Democratic Party is going to have to ask themselves some questions about that. The idea, I mean, we hear it all the time. African-American voters saying that, "We're not a group that's just has a full allegiance to the Democratic Party." This is even more true with Hispanics. Right? I mean, they just think, the Democrats, some Democrats at least think, well, how could President Trump do well with Hispanic voters? Well, he did. Right? If you go to the border counties of Texas, this is an established community, that's pretty conservative, rule and votes on their pocketbook. Trump cleaned up. I mean, Trump destroyed and the Republicans destroyed the Democrats in Texas. There was a lot of chatter about the Democrats would be competitive in Texas. They weren't even close to competitive. So, that's my take on that.

Tariq Thachil:

Okay. Thanks a lot. Let's turn to some of the questions that we've got from the audience members. And obviously everything you say, I have like five more follow-ups that I could ask myself. But I do want us to be able to ask some of these questions. One question that we've got is, from [Ashish Himka 00:39:34] where he wants to ask, why is the US system not electronic? And he says we conduct many other sensitive transactions such as tax filing through the internet after a rigorous identity verification process. Maybe we could even have a system for casting votes over the internet. What are your thoughts on that?

John Lapinski:

Yeah. Well, I mean, first off, I mean, before we just jump into the electronic question, you have to understand that elections are just conducted very differently in the United States than they are in a lot of places. Elections are completely decentralized. The federal government provides some funds and resources. And obviously, I mean, I deal personally with Homeland Security, right? As a director of elections at NBC News. I mean, they're very worried about cyber attacks and other sorts of things. So, there's a federal role, but it's a pretty minimal role. And so, states get to determine these sorts of things.

And so, and there's a lot of stickiness here to how they've done it in the past. And there've been also, by the way, a lot of concerns. I mean, if I think that there was a little bit more of a move, not to online voting, but to more... And they have, there's been a lot of modernization in the infrastructure and how elections are conducted at the county level. Counties or townships, or boroughs, or parishes in Louisiana is where elections are actually administered at, it's at that level. And there were a lot of changes that were being put in place. But 2016 stymied that. I mean, there were a lot of concerns that there was like just security issues with making all of this electronic.

And if anything, what we saw was, I mean, where we saw a reversion back to more old school methods like in Georgia, right? They made sure that there could actually be a paper trail for every vote, just because of this idea that there's bad actors out there that actually want to interfere with our elections. And so, that's really pushed off this idea towards electronic voting.

But also even if there were some advances, and a few states have looked at this, it would really be at the state by state level. It would definitely, because that's just how elections work. And some states that have looked at that more seriously have been states out West. They're more innovative. They're the ones that started early voting first. They're the ones that have looked into these systems.

But like right now, I mean, thank goodness that we didn't go to all electronic voting because have you seen all the craziness about the concerns about how things have gone wrong? NBC was just in a suit that the Trump campaign filed in Michigan, where they swore that we had our servers in Tehran. I mean, I'm surprised that they didn't actually say I'm not John Lapinski, but I'm Jason Bourne. And that I'm going to have to go back and retrieve those servers, like on a mission. I mean, it's funny because it was just so untrue and crazy that when they asked me about it, I didn't even know what to say, right? But those types of this idea that the there's lack of integrity in our systems, has really been a pushback against modernizing things and making it more electronic because people think somehow there's vulnerabilities there.

Tariq Thachil:

It's interesting that you say that in caution against maybe the panacea of electronic voting. I wonder if I could get your opinion on another kind of comment that I saw, actually, a lot of Indian observers making, which is, why does America not have an independent centralized election commission? Why is it left to states? And let's take aside the side that has to do with historical trajectories and they're sticky. So, I don't want to ask the question, do you think it can change, but as someone who studies elections, would you even want that? Do you think they're actually dangerous to having a centralized commission that standardizes election protocols? Do you think there are actually some advantages to having this extremely decentralized and local system? Because I know that that's something that a lot of Indians have wondered about.

John Lapinski:

Yeah. The one thing is that our system, because of the decentralized nature of it, it's pretty impenetrable to large-scale attack. You just couldn't do it. And so, is there a larger role for the federal government? I think they're probably, I mean, this is my opinion, I think there probably is.

I mean, just think about it like this also, one of the things that people don't fully realize is, is that obviously the networks, the major networks we do not count the vote. We do not tabulate the vote. We don't have anything to do with how elections are conducted. But if we didn't go collect all of this data and work with all of these states, I mean, I sent out 3,600 reporters stringers to actually go get that vote for me. And we feed it into our systems, into our database and make projections and all of that. The national government doesn't even tabulate that stuff, right? I mean, not tabulate it, aggregate it.

And so, if people actually want to know what's going on on election night, the media is the only, those are the only organizations that are really playing that role at a large scale. And that's very surprising. I mean, it's not just obviously to people here on this panel.

I mean, I had a meeting with basically the French consulate. They wanted to also know, because in France elections are conducted very differently. And they're like, "Well, why is it being done this way?" There are particular reasons, and it has to do with federalism and it has to do with rights that are reserved for the states, and that's embedded in our constitution. So, the federal government just there's constitutional reasons why the federal government hasn't stepped in.

But could the federal government provide more resources and encourage more through carrot than stick to improve systems, especially for states that are poor? Relatively speaking, I mean, they just don't have the resources. They're not going to put their money into elections. They need to put their money into other sorts of things, especially in a pandemic. So, I think that there's going to be some calls to think through that. And the question just will be as can Republicans and Democrats agree? And that's an unknown at this point because they just have such disagreements on how elections are conducted in this country.

Tariq Thachil:

We got some questions that I'm sure you probably guessed, but some questions also with participants saying, we don't fully get the Electoral College. And obviously that's another specific American electoral institution. But I'm not going to again ask you, explain the Electoral College, as much as can you specifically explain how the Electoral College system shifts representation in a way that sometimes creates these divergences between the winner of the popular vote and the actual winning candidate. And do you worry that that's actually going to be a systematic issue that's going to get worse over time? Or do you actually see trends that thinks that this is not going to necessarily cut one way or the other in a partisan manner?

John Lapinski:

Yeah. So, the Electoral College, it's just a crazy system. And there were different moments in history. I mean, we had one of our colleagues before you came Tariq, was obsessed with it. And he was so obsessed with it that I tried to avoid him at all costs. Right? I just did not want to go to lunch with him, or I did not want to talk with him about it.

And so, I think that the issue that we face with the Electoral College, I think what was exposed this time is not the overall system, because there's lots of reasons why it's deeply problematic. Obviously, a lot of people think it's unfair that somebody could win the popular vote by considerable margin as Senator Clinton did, and then still not win the presidency. I mean, that's so tied into partisan issues and partisan advantage.

And we see this across our systems, not just in the Electoral College, but in how we redistrict for congressional seats. And there's lots of things that really aren't about fairness and about how it should be, they're really about winning power and how can one party or the other have structural advantages. And some people say, "Oh, it's the Republicans that are clinging onto this because that it advantages them." But I mean, come on, if it was advantageous to the Democrats, they do the same thing. And so, I mean, it's usually the people on the side that are disadvantaged that have the most complaints and say, "Well, we would never do that." I've seen them do that, right? So, I don't think it's about ethics or other sorts of things.

The problem with the Electoral College this time around was that, is that people just didn't understand so many different things about it, like about whether or not delegates were bound. I mean, not delegates, these Electoral College votes were bound, and the role that the states could play. Every state has different rules that govern this.

And I think it really scared people, when President Trump, all of a sudden in started inviting people like Michigan legislators to come to Washington to see if he could potentially convince them to overturn election results. And we saw this. And that what I think people didn't understand about the Electoral College was that there were possibilities of this happening.

And so, I think that it is going to be looked at but not overall as an institution, but more, I think states might tighten some of their rules and laws. Because this was bad for everybody that the idea that if somebody wins a state and results are certified, that somehow that could be circumvented depending upon the particular statutes on the books in individual states. Some states had roles, some states had wiggle room, some states didn't, right?

And we've seen also issues with, in 2016 we saw some rogue electors. And this again was related to, I mean, because what Clinton and Trump ended up getting from their Electoral College votes was not what they actually won on election night. There were a few votes that changed.

And so, imagine, and a lot of people are imagining this now, is what happens if this result had not been Biden at 306 Electoral College votes? What happens if it had been him at 270? What would have happened? Right? Or even a little bit more than that. Then that Electoral College could have had real, I mean, some of the maneuvering would have heightened. And I'm not sure that things would not have changed. Right? I mean, I think that the dynamics that we saw play out this time through might've been a little different and it could have ripped this country apart, I think. And I think people on both parties probably are realizing that. I think they're too tired to deal with it immediately. I think everybody needs to get through these runoff elections in Georgia. But I think that will be a national conversation in 2021.

Tariq Thachil:

Let's talk just for a second, because we haven't talked about those runoff elections, but obviously a lot is at stake there, control of the Senate and therefore potentially the agenda for the first Biden administration or the incoming Biden administration. Is there anything that's going to be different when you're working in looking at that election that's happening in a month from now based off of what just has happened? Is there anything you're going to take forward, even in terms of your own role and your own job in analyzing those elections?

John Lapinski:

Yeah. Well, one thing is that like Georgia has a lot of early voting. They have it by mail ballots and they have it by in-person early. So, I mean, we do a lot of, my program, my PORES Program, we draw on a lot of the talent at Penn, including our students to help us do some of the pre-election analysis.

So, one of the things that we're going to be doing, is we already have a history of who voted in the 2020 general election. So, I know every individual, I mean, it's not every individual, we have about 95% coverage right now. We have a couple small counties that haven't given us the vote history yet. But what we will be doing is looking specifically at who voted and who will have voted early. And we're going to take a careful look. Like for example, the Democrats did very well in mobilization. And there were a number of people that were involved in that, Stacey Abrams, obviously being at the top of the list, but there were a number of other people too.

And so, we're going to look very carefully. Georgia is one of those states that collects race as a variable. So, and that was because of the Voting Rights Act originally. And so, we're going to be looking at, is African-American turnout, a lot of African-Americans that voted, voted early in the general. And so, we're going to be looking at, are they voting again? We're going to be looking at one of the big question marks. I mean, first of all, we have to recognize, everybody's talking about how Georgia flipped, and it's blue. Georgia did not really flip, I mean, Biden barely won, because but like a lot of those down-ballot races that was up by a few points, right?

And then when we look in the Congressional seats, the Republicans did just fine in Georgia, right? It was Trump who barely lost. So, I would not call Georgia a blue state right now. I actually think the Republicans have an advantage. The question is, and this is a big unknown for us, so we're going to do all of this, lot of pre-election work on looking at that voter file and seeing what we can learn from it.

The big question right now is, or the question mark is President Trump, right? I mean, he's gone on the attack, he's attacked the governor of Georgia. This is a person who was a very strong Trump supporter prior to now, I think. He has gone after the secretary of state in a way that, secretaries of state are, I mean, they're not low level positions, they're important positions. But secretaries of state don't need security details, usually. I mean, that's just, and this is a man that's been, he and his family had their life threatened multiple times.

And so, the question is there's a lot of mixing going on in the Republican Party right now. And we don't know what's that going to mean. Does it mean that, do people think that President Trump was robbed? They do. I mean, obviously from some of our polling and all of that. But does that mean that they'll think, "Well, it's not even worth voting for in this election because we voted for him. He won." Some people think he clearly won Georgia. And the results are certified and he's not getting those Electoral College votes. So, the question is will those people turn out or not turn out?

And so, this turnout question is really going to depend whether or not the Democrats have a chance here. The Republicans have done historically very well on these runoffs. And so, I'd say that the Democrats are at a disadvantage, but the Republicans have President Trump has grown so much uncertainty into this, that I think anything could happen. Though I will leave you with the final prediction, that no matter what happens, it still will be close. It's going to be a close night. And the idea that there's going to be a blowout, it's just, I think not possible.

Tariq Thachil:

Let me ask you one final question, just to end on broadening this out from a comparative perspective, from a global perspective. The election has raised a number of questions about the health of America's democracy. And several of your comments have touched on that point. But I was thinking in particular about the Harvard political scientists, Steve Levitsky and Dan Ziblatt, who wrote a bestselling book on how democracies die globally.

Just before the election, they said the Trump presidency has brought American democracy to its breaking point. For many of the reasons you outlined, an incumbent attacking the integrity of the process, many of the supporters believing the result of the vote was not free and fair. And yet observers of authoritarian politics across the world who have said, "Well, maybe this is actually pointed to the resilience of American democracy, that most of these challenges have failed." That even Trump has said, he's going to leave the White House. That the executive doesn't actually, he's fairly constrained in terms of how they can challenge the counter in the verdict. So, where do you fall on this spectrum of concern as such a close observer of US elections?

John Lapinski:

Yeah, I'm concerned. I mean, I think that there was resiliency. And I was not as concerned, I had people. I mean, it's funny. I mean, I had so many people texting me. I think I'm going to have to change my telephone number. Everybody wanted my... I mean, I just going to have to do that every cycle and just start over, and make sure not to back anything up on the cloud.

But William Galston who runs the governance studies program at Brookings also came out with a statement saying, it wasn't really close. There's complete resiliency in American democracy. And Trump can do a lot of things that might've been damaging, but we're stronger than that. I think it's somewhere in between. I mean, there was some real damage that was done. And there's going to be now a lot of people that think these were results are illegitimate. And there's a lot of people that are, I mean, Trump won a lot of votes, and way more than he won in 2016, that was a big surprise. And large numbers of people think, again, that he won the election because of what he has said. I think that that is very damaging.

I think also the idea that we can sort of just go back, I mean, it's like people probably know, you'll notice, unfortunately, Tariq, I'm a huge Lord of the Rings fan. And so, you'll regret knowing that, if you go to lunch with me. But in the movie, Saruman died, right? But in the books, he didn't. He actually went back to the Shire and damaged it, and the Shire was spoiled. This is where the place where the Hobbits lived. And so, and they basically said, it's going to take a long time to make the Shire again. And I think but there was hope, right? That it was going to be okay.

And I think there's hope for America because we actually hit an inflection point and we survived. But we were close. Right? And then people don't understand, when you look at these small margins, had it just been a little closer, you just move these results in Arizona a little bit more, you make Pennsylvania closer, you make Wisconsin a tie, or maybe Trump barely wins it. And I think we could have gone to a very dark place. And so, I think we're lucky.

And I do think also that and I think that this is where this is important, Vice President Biden, I mean, obviously he's our former colleague, right? At Penn as a professor of practice. I mean, there's a lot of things I think that people might not like about him. And he's obviously, he's very old. And there's a number of qualities that people might think that he brings to the office that might be undesirable. But one of the things, but there's no better candidate on the Democratic side that wants to bring the country together and wants to make sure to offer a hand to people who didn't vote for him.

And so, I mean, and I would say, I run a bunch of programs at Penn, probably too many, but like one of the programs I run is the Robert A. Fox Leadership Program, in addition to PORES. And I am a firm believer that leadership matters. And what the president does matters. And how President Biden behaves and acts is going to matter. And I'm hopeful there.

I'm not hopeful on some things. I mean, I think there's a lot of different things out there that maybe I would disagree with him on, but I very much agree with him on the idea of the country needs to come together. And the only way you can do that is to stop pointing fingers and try and offer an olive branch, or whatever you want to call it. And so, I think that anybody that said that we're completely resilient and there weren't problems there, and it just shows our strength, I think they're misreading the data.

Tariq Thachil:

Well, thank you for that. And I'm excited for us to start our Lord of the Rings reading group once we can all be back on campus together. So, thank you for that final closing as well. Thank you everyone for joining us today. We're a little over time, so thanks for your patience. And John, thank you so much for sharing so much of your time with us, and so much of your wisdom. It was a pleasure to speak with you. And thanks again, everyone. And thank you again to PORES, and to Penn Global, for their co-sponsorship of this event. Have a good day. Bye, John.

John Lapinski:

Thanks.