Q&A: Pomona politics professor Susan McWilliams talks 2020 election

TSL sat down with Pomona College politics professor Susan McWilliams Barndt to discuss uncertainty surrounding the 2020 election and how the school has been following it. (Ethan Diaz • The Student Life)

With the presidential election results still up in the air as of Wednesday evening, TSL sat down with Pomona College politics professor Susan McWilliams to discuss ubiquitous election uncertainty and how McWilliams’ community at Pomona has been following along in class and online.

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

How has the connection with students and faculty over the Pomona politics department’s Slack channel been different than other years while waiting out the election results? 

In every other election year I’ve been at Pomona, it’s been really important not just for students, but for faculty and staff, to be able to be together in person to take in election results, to process them together, to sometimes celebrate, to sometimes lament, but to do it in a space where we really feel like a community.

And obviously, that couldn’t happen this year. And that was something that we in the politics department worried about a lot, starting in July. 

I really credit our student liaisons, who are Jacinta Chen PO ’21, Hershey Suri PO ’21, Musa Kamara PO ’22, and Aubrey Aust PO ’22 for having the idea for the Slack channel. That came entirely from them and not from my faculty colleagues — we are too old to know about things like Slack.

It was obviously different in the sense that we were not in person together, but we were trying to recreate that feeling that’s been so important in the past of people coming together at Pomona, to be able to experience the election results collectively and not individually. 

What sort of stuff is everyone sending?

We’ve had a real variety of things being contributed to the Slack channel. A lot of students and faculty are sharing news articles and website tally services that they find useful. 

We’ve had a lot of students — and, in fact, faculty — asking questions about various obscure electoral processes, like what happens if there’s an electoral college tie. My colleagues and I in politics are doing our best to answer all those questions. 

One of the really fun things that happened that I hadn’t thought about but, in retrospect, I should have anticipated is that so many of our students know answers to these questions even faster than we do. So students are serving as a resource to each other and also to other faculty.

But also having Pomona students situated in all of these different places around the world and in particular in different places across the United States, we could get certain kinds of on-the-ground reports from people in states where in normal years, we’ll all just be in Southern California. For instance, when things were looking interesting in Ohio last night, we had two students who were in Ohio who could talk to us about what they saw on the map in ways that probably we wouldn’t have invited in a “normal” year so both of those things are pretty cool.

How does the race look now? Where are votes still outstanding?

I know I’m talking to you at about 4 p.m. on Wednesday, California time. And at this moment, most major news outlets have called Wisconsin and Michigan for Joe Biden. That means that Biden, either needs to win Pennsylvania, or two other states. I think the most likely states are Nevada and Arizona…

The way I see it, I think it seems increasingly likely that Joe Biden pulls out an electoral college victory, and it’s also important to note that Biden seems to be on his way to winning the presidential election with the most votes in the history of American politics. That is, even if he wins narrowly in the electoral college, it looks like he will have more American individuals having voted him into office than any other presidential candidate in the history of American politics.

How are you reacting to the election uncertainty while we wait for votes? How has the uncertainty impacted you? 

Well, I was about the age of most Pomona College students in 2000, which was the last time that we woke up the day after election day and didn’t know who won. So, this seems in some ways like familiar territory to me. 

I feel like my main job at this point is to reassure students who haven’t been through or don’t remember that kind of experience that, just because we don’t know the results of an election on election day, doesn’t mean that the republic is collapsing.

Did you anticipate any of this uncertainty that we’re experiencing right now?

Yes. And I think it’s really important for people to remember that. The pollster that most people look to is Nate Silver at FiveThirtyEight. As I said to my class today, 24 and 48 hours ago, Nate Silver and FiveThirtyEight were saying the odds are in Biden’s favor. If you look at this in one way, you can anticipate a landslide. But a lot of the possible options are nail-biter options. 

Before the election, there were lots of people saying, “Hey, we’ve got to get the word out that the election is not likely to be decided on election night,” because there are so many absentee and mail-in ballots, and rules in certain states, specifically, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that mean that those ballots can’t be counted until effectively after election day. 

I think what’s happening was absolutely predicted by lots of people. It may not have been the electoral alignment that a lot of Pomona students hoped for, but … it was actually pretty squarely in the realm of the predictions by people who do election forecasting.

How are other faculty and students holding up with the uncertainty? 

I am super impressed by how well our students are holding up. I think about the fact that our students are stuck in their childhood bedrooms, or at least most of them are, during a global pandemic trying to deal with the fact that all of these things that have been promised to them for years haven’t panned out, like a college campus experience, or in-person internships or a certain path to employment after graduation, and, on top of that, have election uncertainty. 

And I am just really impressed by how well our students have done. I taught class today. The day after the election, I told my students that it was optional, especially if they were feeling tired or burnt out or hungover after the election, and every single one of my students showed up. 

More than that, almost all of them stayed for an extra hour of class discussion to talk about the election. And to me, that it just reminds me why I love Pomona students the way I love Pomona students, and it’s just a real credit to the resilience of our student body that in the face of uncertainty they persist, which is what we have to do sometimes in life.

Anything else you’d like to add?

I know a lot of Pomona students were hoping for a real decisive moral repudiation of Trump … I would say to those people, “Look, a moral transformation in politics never happens in a day or in a single election. It happens over time. You know Dr. King said the moral arc of the universe is long and bends toward justice.” 

Pomona students always remember the second half, but I would advise them in this moment to remember the first half, which is that the moral arc of the universe is long. 

In the meantime, winning an election, even in a nail-biter fashion, even if not on election night, as I know so many of them hoped would be the case, it’s no matter how you win. It’s still winning.

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