Q&A: Claremont McKenna politics professor John Pitney breaks down Biden victory

A man sitting in front of a desk with a computer and books on top of it
Claremont McKenna College government professor John Pitney speaks with TSL about the results of the 2020 presidential election. (Amy Best • The Student Life)

On Saturday morning, 5C students across the country and the world got the news that former Vice President Joseph Biden had won the 2020 presidential election, ending days of ballot counting and close races. TSL spoke with Claremont McKenna College politics professor John Pitney to get his take on the results.

The interview has been lightly condensed and edited for clarity. 

Did you expect this result after the early returns showing Republican leads in many battleground states? 

It was a little nerve-racking for a while on Tuesday night. By Wednesday morning it was pretty clear that Biden was on track to win. 

What does this election mean for the future of American politics? What would you consider the main takeaway? 

The main takeaway is that the constitution held. America just missed a brush with autocracy.

What impact could requests for recounts or losses from President Trump have over the next couple months?

They will be an annoyance. But unless something new comes to light, [Trump] won’t have any success. Nearly everyone who has observed the vote counts has confirmed that they’re proceeding in a legal and ethical way. There just isn’t the kind of widespread fraud and abuse that he’s claiming, and Republican and Democratic observers alike acknowledged that this election is being conducted [fairly].

Given the rhetoric that Trump and his supporters have been using about fraudulent election results and a rigged election, are you concerned about what will happen in the wake of this result? 

Yeah, it is concerning that Trump’s supporters are trying to undermine the presidential election’s legitimacy. And what they are doing is equally unpatriotic. 

What do you think this election has shown us about the polling industry? 

It showed that pollsters need to reexamine how they sample public opinion. It’s likely that the big problem was the low response rate. That’s been a challenge for survey research for a long time. 

But my guess is getting good samples during the pandemic is even harder than before. People who declined to answer when pollster calls are different from the people who do answer. I don’t know what the solution is to that, but that’s the problem that pollsters need to grapple with.

What role do you foresee that the “never Trump” Republicans will play during the Biden administration? 

I’m a Never Trump Republican, or former [one]. I doubt that many of us will be serving in the administration. And it will be buried. Some of us will go back to positions we held before. I suspect a lot of “never Trump” Republicans will disagree with the things the new president tries to do and we’ve been saying that all along. 

But all those concerns are secondary to the choice between a good man and a bad one.

What implications do you think this result will carry?

The implication is at least we’ll have a president who doesn’t make things worse. The United States has tremendous problems, the country will continue to be deeply divided, but at least the president won’t be dividing it anymore than it already is and that’s something. 

Given that the Democrats underperformed in House and Senate elections, what do you foresee for midterms and President-Elect Joe Biden’s ability to implement policy platforms during his term?

Well, he’s got a problem with Congress. There’s zero prospect for anything like the Green New Deal, not going to happen. Court packing is not going to happen. He’s got to work with Republicans in Congress and in the short run, the economic stimulus and in the longer run, controlling the national debt. Those are the kind of policy issues that Trump didn’t like dealing with. But, that’s why we elected a real president. 

Anything you’d like to add? 

Well, when you consider the alternative, the election of Trump would have been a disaster for the country and the world. He was already talking about imprisoning his political opponents and that would have been a giant step toward something other than the constitutional democracy we’ve had since the 18th century.

And how do you think the rest of the world is reacting, from what you know right now?

Well, in different languages, and different religions, they are all pretty much saying the same thing: “Thank god.”

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