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Biden won because of Covid

Summary:
I believe that the election outcome confirms two claims for which I was heavily criticized: 1. The Dems should nominate Biden. (I was told that Biden’s a weak candidate, a loser.) 2. Trump would have won if not for Covid. (Polls suggested otherwise.) We now know that the polls were very misleading. Even with the huge lead in the polls, Biden probably only won by about 0.6% in the tipping point state. Back in February, the economy was booming and the polls were considerably closer. In retrospect, Biden did not have even close to a big enough lead to overcome both the EC bias and the shy Trump voter bias. So as for all you commenters who pointed to the fact that Biden did have a lead in the polls even before Covid, your argument doesn’t show what you

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I believe that the election outcome confirms two claims for which I was heavily criticized:

1. The Dems should nominate Biden. (I was told that Biden’s a weak candidate, a loser.)

2. Trump would have won if not for Covid. (Polls suggested otherwise.)

We now know that the polls were very misleading. Even with the huge lead in the polls, Biden probably only won by about 0.6% in the tipping point state.

Back in February, the economy was booming and the polls were considerably closer. In retrospect, Biden did not have even close to a big enough lead to overcome both the EC bias and the shy Trump voter bias. So as for all you commenters who pointed to the fact that Biden did have a lead in the polls even before Covid, your argument doesn’t show what you thought it showed.

Way back in March of 2019, Tyler Cowen had this to say about Biden’s chances:

As the information trickles out that the Mueller report probably will not end the Trump administration, it is worth thinking about how the broader landscape has changed, and who might be the winners and losers.

Politically, the biggest loser is probably Joe Biden.  The belief that he can run as the “safest,” most vetted Democrat against an ailing, politically destroyed Trump all of a sudden seems less relevant.  It now seems more important that Biden has run for president several times before, and never done extremely well, in part because he has not been an entirely convincing campaigner.  He’s never come close to winning the nomination.  He is a candidate of the past, for better or worse, but the dominant mood may not be one of restoration.  The Mueller report makes it clear that we really are in a post-Obama era, and that even Trump critics need to be thinking about what comes next rather than looking to the past.

That claim might look dubious today, but I suspect Tyler was partly right. The Dems were on track to lose the election if not for Covid. In a sense, Covid created the “ailing, politically destroyed Trump” that Mueller failed to produce. That made Biden the safe choice to run as “brand X” against a president who would basically be the only real issue in the campaign. Someone more dynamic but controversial might have lost.

Tyler continues:

Which candidates then are helped the most?  Most likely that would be the dynamic or potentially dynamic, relatively centrist Democrats, and that includes Beto O’Rourke, Pete Buttigieg (dynamic in a Mister Rogers sort of way), and Kamala Harris. 

Harris might have turned off men for the same reason that Hillary did. I like Buttigieg, but is the country ready for a gay president? I hope so, but I’m not sure. Biden was the safe choice. On the other hand, perhaps without Covid a candidate like Buttigieg might have been what it took. You take risks if you are behind, which was probably Tyler’s tacit assumption in 2019.

A month later Tyler had this to say:

Donald Trump ascended to the presidency because he mastered both worlds, namely he commands idiomatic American cultural expressions and attitudes, and also he has been brilliant in his political uses of Twitter.  AOC has mastered social media only, and it remains to be seen whether Kamala Harris and Joe Biden have mastered either, but probably not.

I think we need to be careful here. A political style can be successful in one dimension and unsuccessful in another. Trump’s wacky demagogic tweets during Covid-19 may have both firmed up support in his base and also cost him support among swing voters. It’s not either/or, both can happen at once.

Let’s not forget that this is one of the worst losses by an incumbent since 1932 (in the sense that his opponent will get over 51%). And unlike the first Bush and Carter (who also failed to be re-elected), voters gave Trump high marks for the economy. For an incumbent to lose by 7 or 8 million votes while simultaneously get high marks for the economy.well, has that ever happened before? I suspect the “Trump is a brilliant communicator” bubble has burst. He’s definitely brilliant at getting intense support for 42% of the population—and that’s a skill very few people have, to his credit—but even with the pro-GOP bias in the Electoral College, that’s not enough.


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Scott Sumner
Scott B. Sumner is Research Fellow at the Independent Institute, the Director of the Program on Monetary Policy at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University and an economist who teaches at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts. His economics blog, The Money Illusion, popularized the idea of nominal GDP targeting, which says that the Fed should target nominal GDP—i.e., real GDP growth plus the rate of inflation—to better "induce the correct level of business investment".

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