No matter who wins the 2020 election, governing will be difficult, say Stanford political scientists

Whoever wins the U.S. 2020 election will need to find ways to govern over a persisting political divide and get back to the art of politics, say Stanford scholars Bruce Cain and Hakeem Jefferson.

While much remains unclear about the outcome of the 2020 U.S election, one thing is certain: about half the voting population is going to be unhappy with its outcome. No matter which candidate wins, governing effectively will be difficult, said Stanford political scientist Bruce Cain.

Bruce Cain and Hakeem Jefferson. (Image credit: Courtesy Bruce Cain and Hakeem Jefferson)

Here, Cain and Hakeem Jefferson, an assistant professor of political science, discuss the challenges of governing amidst deep partisanship and why the political parties failed to secure a clear majority. According to Cain, the Republican and Democratic parties are no longer catch-all groups that represent wide-ranging views but instead represent decentralized, ideological interests. For parties to increase support in the long term, they will need to find ways to govern across party lines when they can.

Cain is the Spence and Cleone Eccles Family Director of the Bill Lane Center for the American West and the Charles Louis Ducommun Professor in the School of Humanities and Sciences. He is an expert in U.S. politics and studies elections, political regulation and the relationships between lobbyists and elected officials. He is the author of Democracy More or Less: America’s Political Reform Quandary.

Jefferson’s research focuses on the role identity plays in structuring political attitudes and behaviors in the U.S. He is especially interested in understanding how stigma shapes the politics of Black Americans as it relates to group members’ support for racialized punitive social policies.

Cain and Jefferson will be speaking at the Nov. 5 virtual event, “the Historic 2020 elections,” with Nathaniel Persily, the James B. McClatchy Professor of Law at the Stanford Law School, and Didi Kuo, the associate director for research and senior research scholar at Stanford’s Center on Democracy, Development and the Rule of Law. The discussion starts at 11:30 a.m. and interested attendees can sign up here.


Half the country is going to be unhappy about 2020’s result. How can the country unite?

Cain: Uniting the country will not happen overnight no matter who is elected, and in the end, some, or perhaps many, of these political disagreements have no immediate, objective solution. But no matter what, we need to have bipartisan support for the values of democracy and the commitment to fair play, which sadly has been eroding over time. Beyond the commitment to our political system, we need better dialogue across party, racial, gender, etc. lines.

Jefferson: I am skeptical that we will see some beautiful coming together of those who sit on opposite sides of American politics today. To be sure, the extent of the divide that persists, and its consequences, will depend in large part on the rhetoric and behavior of the two candidates. Let me be clear, I think it is normatively good when Americans can come together in common purpose, but the divides in this country are not merely the result of small differences in opinion. Americans disagree on fundamental claims of rights and citizenship, what democracy ought to look like and who should be included in the body politic.


What have the parties failed to accomplish in the 2020 election?

Cain: My research actually points to the fact that we no longer have big tent political parties acting as gatekeepers and have ceded control to decentralized constellations of interest groups and ideological factions. A lot of this has to do with the primary and campaign finance laws, which have not operated as reformers had hoped and have made coalition-building and compromise more difficult. For example, the emphasis on small donations has enhanced the voice of party activists who are more ideological than the electorate as a whole. And then of course there is the effect of social media, which has changed politics permanently.

Jefferson: I’m imagining that the Democratic Party will have a lot of discussion about “the Latino vote.” Clearly, the Party needs to think a lot more about the heterogeneity of this diverse constituency. Though I am not an expert on the politics of Latinos, my work focused on Black Americans highlights the importance of taking the diversity of opinion within marginalized groups seriously. I think this is a lesson both political parties and their political candidates can think more carefully about.


Some called the 2020 election a referendum on Donald Trump. What do these results reveal about the appeal of his presidency and his ideology among Americans?

Cain: Democracies have always struggled when substantial segments of their population are downwardly mobile. Donald Trump channels the anger that non-college-educated workers and families feel in the face of automation, offshoring manufacturing, rapid cultural change and shifts in social status. The Republican party after the 2012 election had a retrospective autopsy that recommended that the party should move towards more demographic and ideological diversity. Donald Trump showed them that they could win the Electoral College by going the opposite direction. If the Republicans lose the Electoral College, then they will have to reconsider their options. The Democrats will also have to reconcile the wide ideological spectrum in their ranks as well, and that will be no picnic either.


With the country so evenly split along party lines, in Congress as well as the Presidency, what is the future of governance? How can our leaders govern effectively?

Cain: No matter who wins, governing effectively will be difficult. The COVID-19 crisis will force more bipartisan action as it has already with the multitrillion-dollar relief bills. But this will take compromise on both sides, which will not make the purists among us happy.


What do the parties need to do to secure a bigger majority by 2024?

Cain: The first party that figures out how to reach across party lines in a substantial way might get to dominance, but I would not bet my monthly salary on that. In the meantime, the U.S. has to continue to find ways to govern over a fractured landscape and get back to the art of politics and make deals across the divides when we can.


With election forecasting off again, is the polling industry over? What will it take for people to trust polls again? How can we get an accurate opinion of voters?

Cain: The pollsters are going to have to do more of what [the opinion polling website] FiveThirtyEight and The Economist do, which is to show scenarios of possible outcomes and steer away from taking simple averages. In particular, they need to come clean on how unreliable turnout estimates are. I urge people to treat polls as noisy data, not as truth from the heavens.


Is there anything about this election that makes you hopeful?

Cain: So far, no tanks in the streets. But I am concerned that there are serious racial, gender, education and religious divides in this country that need to be addressed.

Jefferson: The high turnout of this election makes me hopeful. People turned out to vote in record numbers, despite the pandemic and overcoming challenges related to voting. I think that tells us something about the persistence of those who understand better than most the stakes of this election and every election.