Q&A: Pomona politics professor Tom Le weighs in on tight presidential race

A young man wearing glasses and a white button down, smiling at the camera.
Pomona College politics professor Tom Le weighs in on a nail-biting presidential race. (Courtesy: Tom Le)

As of Wednesday afternoon, the 2020 presidential race still had not been called for either President Donald Trump or former Vice President Joe Biden. TSL spoke to Pomona College politics professor Tom Le to get his take on the tight election.

The interview has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity.

Did you anticipate or foresee this kind of state of uncertainty with the possibility of recounts, lawsuits, stopping counts, etc.? 

I’ll preface this by saying that everybody who’s making these predictions, it’s really hard to hold people’s feet to the fire [to call a state], so you either call it one way or the other. Ultimately, it’s a 50/50 [chance of being correct] regardless of what the data tells you, because it’s going to be right or wrong — because we’re dealing with probability. 

I would say that I thought that it would be a pretty close election …There’s a lot of things people don’t like talking about in this country. For instance, I’m on message boards for mixed martial arts and video games and stocks and whatever random interest that I have. And I would say 90 percent of the comments on those kinds of different forums are not reflective of what we see at the 5Cs. 

So I was well aware that the polling data was not capturing the opinions of people who tend not to take polls, for whatever reason: they don’t believe in them, or [think] why would they share their opinion if they get criticized. So I had a hunch that it would be a pretty close election. 

I didn’t bother mapping out how many electoral votes would play out, so I can’t say that I anticipated it playing out exactly the way it has. But I knew it was going to be contested and President Trump has already been setting it up to challenge the election if he didn’t win. So none of this is really surprising — it’s been telegraphed for quite a while.

What impact do you foresee the possible results having on you personally, or for others?

Depending on who wins that has a huge impact. Let’s say if President Trump wins, that would personally, for me, be awful, because I don’t agree with his policies. I worry for our students that don’t have certain protections — legal protections, or international students already are pretty stressed with all the immigration policies that President Trump has pushed — and I assume in a lame-duck presidency he’s just going to go all out.

The Supreme Court, if we’re honest about it, without [Ruth Bader Ginsberg]  … the other justices are also pretty old, so if he wins four years, he could probably lock in another two slots for a long time.

My spouse is international. So personally, it would affect us quite a bit … If Vice President Biden wins, I’ll probably have some issues with some of his foreign policies.  He would bring a lot of expertise in terms of who works for him. A bunch of the old norms that I believe in, in terms of well-functioning democracy, would be returned. 

But there’s going to be a lot of work for him too: rebuilding relationships with the international community, keeping up with the many promises [of] structural reform and environment … He still has a lot of work to do if he wins. Either way, it’s going to be impactful — I mean, it’s the president of the United States. But it’s going to impact us in different ways.

What impact do you think the uncertainty around this election carries for the future of further American elections and the state of democracy as it functions? 

In the short-term, it looks pretty bad. To have a president kind of claim victory before the results are done … I don’t think that’s good. We’ll see in the next two days.

I was kind of concerned about violence [if] President Trump loses and if he doesn’t concede gracefully. So far, there wasn’t really any violence at the polls, which is good. And so maybe norms are holding up. 

I was hoping that regardless of which way the election goes that it would be a huge win for either side. Just theoretically speaking, because it would put a stamp of approval on the [election] process. But we don’t have that. That uncertainty just adds more doubt and frustrations with the way things have been going. 

What about this election most excites you or worries you in terms of American politics?

The turnout has been great. It’s pretty exciting as Vice President Biden is probably going to get above 70 million votes [Since the interview was conducted, Biden has surpassed 70 million votes.] President Trump … already has more votes than in the last one, and I think he has more than Clinton had in the last one too. [Trump has now received more votes in 2020 than Hillary Clinton did in 2016.] That one was a low, lower turnout election I believe, so that’s good. 

Ultimately, people have their vote, and they should vote however they want. So getting people to show up is good because Biden’s probably, if he wins he’s gonna get 52% of the vote or something like that. If Trump wins he’ll have 49% or whatever it is. And if you think about it, that’s still 60 to 70% of the population voting, so neither of them would have the majority of the actual population supporting them, so that’s not good. So seeing more people show up is good. 

What’s concerning is the amount of money that’s gone into this election. We’re just breaking all kinds of fundraising records. I don’t know if that’s good for democracy that you need that much money to get noticed, and all this money’s just going to advertisers anyway. I don’t know if this is making us any more free or representative, because there’s so much money — I don’t know if that’s a healthy thing.

Anything else that you’d like to add? 

This is hard to do because the resources start dwindling and the attention and things like that, but this election should show there’s fundamental issues with gerrymandering and voter suppression, all these things. So even if Biden wins and even if Trump wins, those are issues that need to be fixed, that requires sustained local level involvement. 

I think it’s unfair to put the pressure on students [and say], “Okay, you put all this energy in to be active in this election,” and then it ends [say], “Keep it up” and find ways on your own [to be politically engaged], because everyone’s busy and not everyone knows how to navigate it. 

It’d be nice to see these organizations that have been doing this [election] work, and even the college, help facilitate student political involvement, and … get them involved by providing resources for it — either more internship opportunities, more funding for [internships], giving course credits for being involved. 

It doesn’t matter what political party — just to get people being political at all times, or at least involved, as opposed to just when you feel like the world’s on fire or whenever there’s a big election.

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