What Happened?

This is another Civic Way commentary on the 2020 election. The author, Bob Melville, is the founder of Civic Way, a nonprofit dedicated to good government, and a management consultant with over 45 years of experience improving governmental agencies across the US. Our last 2020 election commentary urged political leaders to respect election results and citizens to reach across the divides.


  • Good governance comes from compassion, cooperation and compromise, the very virtues that are so often crushed by the vicious campaigns that dominate our political landscape today
  • When our political campaigns focus exclusively on things that divide us (like in 2020), they make it nearly impossible to see and invoke the commonalities that are essential to building broad governing coalitions
  • If we care about democracy and our communities, we will repurpose our political campaigns, including our policy proposals and messaging, not only to win, but to govern effectively and win back public trust


Since the 2020 election ended six weeks ago, we have been inundated with the typical election post-mortems. How did Biden win? How did Trump do so well? Why was turnout so high? Why did Democrats do so poorly (and Republicans so well) in down-ballot races? What voter groups defied the polls, and why?

Such post-election assessments often miss the mark, not because they’re wrong, but because they’re superficial. Many political sages share an irresistible impulse to use simple stereotypes and schisms to explain voting behavior—geographic, racial, gender, political, religious and ideological, among others. By observing voting patterns through such lenses, however, experts miss a much bigger story.

When we focus exclusively on factors that divide us, we tend to miss the ties that bind us. The differences are hard to miss. Where we live. How we look. How we talk. Our values and faith. What we watch and read. And it can be provocative to draw lines between those characteristics and voting behavior. But the lines are only partly illuminating. More importantly, they won’t point the way to a better nation.

What will make us a better nation—or at least contribute to our progress—is good governance. And effective governance comes from collaboration, compromise and the ceaseless search for common ground. As our political campaigns become increasingly negative (if not lethal), they make it much harder for the winning candidates to govern. As such, they pose one of the most serious threats to good governance.

The November 2020 Elections

On Monday, when the Electoral College cast its votes, the presidential election results became official. Coupled with Senator McConnell’s recent public acknowledgement of President-Elect Biden’s victory, the one-term Trump administration has finally come to its inevitable, ignominious end. Regardless of the outcome of the US Senate run-offs in Georgia, we will likely have a closely-divided federal government.

What do we know about the elections so far? We had the highest voter turnout in over 100 years. Due in large part to this turnout, President-Elect Biden garnered the most votes in history and President Trump won 10 million more votes than he did in 2016. Biden did well among female, urban, suburban, affluent, educated and minority voters. Trump prevailed among rural, blue-collar, less educated and white male voters. Biden won metro areas with the most people and economic output and Trump carried counties with the least economic growth. Biden improved upon Clinton’s performance in many suburbs while Trump exceeded expectations among some Latino voters.

The Trump turnout helped many Republican down-ballot candidates. While just enough potential Trump voters peeled off to ensure Biden’s victory, they generally returned to form down ballot. Republican candidates received strong support from rural, white and working-class voters. In the US Senate, the Republicans only lost one net seat and, if the Georgia contest goes their way, will retain Senator McConnell as Senate Majority Leader. In the US House, Republicans defied the polls and actually picked up 17 net seats, dramatically cutting the prior Democratic margin.

At the state level, Republicans again exceeded expectations. They added about 100 state legislative seats, bolstering their majorities in Iowa, South Dakota and West Virginia and adding rural seats in Oregon and Pennsylvania. While the election produced the least amount of partisan turnover since 1928, the Republicans did manage to flip three legislative chambers, including both New Hampshire chambers. In 2021, the Republicans will enjoy total partisan control of 23 states (compared to 15 for the Democrats).

The Political Lessons

As many analysts have concluded, the 2020 election was more transactional than transformational. The voters fired Mr. Trump, but they rewarded him with over 74 million votes and supported down-ballot Republican candidates. Even after a disastrous year, Mr. Trump’s populistic appeal was much broader and deeper than expected. Trump’s populist appeal may have been more stylistic than philosophical, but he shrewdly re-purposed populism to his benefit. He exploited a working-class resentment of Democratic elites and convinced many alienated voters that he heard, respected and championed them.

One of the most frequent findings found in the election post-mortems is that the rural-urban political gap was more pronounced in 2020 than in 2016. To make this case, the analysts typically begin with the obvious demographic differences. Rural Americans are older, whiter, less educated and less affluent than urban and suburban Americans. More rural Americans are married than other Americans. They proceed to enlighten us that, while Trump did worse in many suburbs (e.g., Waukesha, Oakland and Chester counties), he improved his performance in many rural counties.

One can find lessons for both parties in the 2020 elections and the post-election analyses. The Republican fear-tinged brand of populism works. However, messaging around false us versus them choices (e.g., suburbs against cities, whites against blacks and capitalism versus socialism) could have diminishing returns. Focusing on cultural wedge issues like guns and abortion may get less traction if rural and working-class voters start demanding economic, educational and health care policies that truly address their plight. At some point, voters who resent or fear Democrats may wake up and realize that Republicans aren’t doing a whole for them either.

The Democrats received a real wake-up call. They underestimated the GOP’s ability to weaponize liberal slogans (e.g., defund police). They took key constituencies for granted (e.g., seeing Latinos as monolithic and reliably blue). They invested too little in outreach, especially between election cycles. They allowed Republicans to use cultural themes to capture traditional Democratic constituencies (e.g., rural and blue-collar voters). And some Democrats seemed so enamored with their think tanks and wokeness that they struck many voters as condescending and elitist—a sure recipe for electoral futility.

The Bigger Story

The political lessons summarized above are not wrong, but they are incomplete. They overlook the very reason we spend so much time and money on political campaigns—to govern. The political strategists are obsessed by the divides among voters, but the most glaring chasm is between politics and governance. Regardless of their assurances to the contrary, Republicans and Democrats seem to have become more concerned about winning elections than governing.

Most candidates—regardless of party—are told that the campaigns have one goal—to win the election. Political strategists, operatives and donors urge their candidates to do what it takes to beat their opponent—without regard for their ability to govern. As political campaigns have gotten better at demonizing their opponents, the winner invariably takes office with fragile public support. The problem is that governing—be it launching new programs, enacting legislation or navigating a crisis—often requires far more public support than a winning campaign.

In addition, our political campaigns, with their nonstop focus on our disparities, obscure our commonalities and interdependencies. While partisan polarization can boost a campaign, it often paralyzes governance with gridlock. During a typical campaign, we contrast and divide, but, when governing, we must learn to listen, compromise and collaborate. When governing, we have to look beyond the differences—political, ideological, religious and cultural—to find common ground.

The good news is that, while we are increasingly polarized in terms of our political candidates, parties and ideologies, we want many of the same things for ourselves and families. According to a 2020 survey conducted by the University of Chicago Harris School of Public Policy and Associated Press, most Americans share many aspirations. Affordable housing, good schools, decent health care, reasonable amenities and proximity to family. Why don’t our political campaigns honor these aspirations?

Campaigning to Win and Govern

To win and govern with purpose, we must challenge the premise that, to win an election, we must go low.

In turn, we must honor the principle that, to govern effectively, we must go high and earn the public trust. We should hold candidates accountable, especially for conduct that would compromise their ability to govern, but our primary mission should be to win campaigns without eroding public faith in government.

How do we do this? First, we should offer a pragmatic policy agenda for improving the lives of ordinary Americans across geographic, racial and class lines. This means replacing unrealistic promises like universal free college with realistic ideas like improved educational access. Second, we should adopt more positive messaging, rejecting false choices, inflammatory slogans and patronizing tones. Our messages may vary slightly to connect with different voter groups, but our campaigns must be used to help us build broader coalitions for governing.

Finally, when our candidates win, they must repeatedly convey the benefits of good governance. That means listening, follow-through, service and measurable results. It may mean new programs like public day care or affordable health care, but it must mean reforms that restore public trust in government. Once lost, trust can’t be regained solely with better campaigns, but with positive campaigns and good governance together.