Lynn Vavreck on the 2020 Election and the Challenge to American Democracy

Lynn Vavreck

Lynn Vavreck is the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA. She’s a contributor for The Upshot at The New York Times. She recently coauthored (with John Sides and Chris Tausanovitch) The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy.

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The people who win get to enact policy and they get to change the world we live in. But we’re at this moment where the candidates who lose, if they think that they don’t have to abide by election outcomes, that’s very important and that affects the kind of world we live in.

Lynn Vavreck

Key Highlights

  • Introduction – 0:39
  • Lessons from 2016 – 3:05
  • Political Calcification – 14:31
  • Why Did the Democrats Nominate Joe Biden? – 18:51
  • Forecasting the 2020 Election – 25:52
  • Implications for American Democracy – 29:39

Podcast Transcript

In a little more than a month the United States will have its Midterm elections were we elect members to the House of Representatives, about a third of the Senate, and countless other offices at the state and municipal levels. Of course, a lot has happened in the past two years since the last major election. But the 2020 Presidential election still casts a long shadow over politics today. Indeed, a lot has already been said. But I wanted to look back one more time before we get too close to the Midterms.

So, I reached out to Lynn Vavreck. Lynn is the Marvin Hoffenberg Professor of American Politics and Public Policy at UCLA. She’s written quite a lot about American politics in academic journals, but also in The Upshot at The New York Times. Recently, she coauthored a new book with John Sides and Chris Tausanovitch called The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy.

Our conversation reflects back on the 2020 election, but it’s also a conversation about American democracy. President Biden has continued to make the defense of democracy a theme throughout his presidency so the 2022 Midterms provide an important test of those efforts. Indeed, it’s not just a test of who will win, but as Lynn emphasizes also for those who lose. 

If you want to hear more about the Midterms, you can hear other episodes from other shows in the Democracy Group network by searching for 2022 Midterms: What’s at Stake? For those already listening, this is the first episode in the series. Those listening to Democracy Paradox for the first time can also find Democracy Paradox in your favorite app. If you like the show, please leave a 5 star rating on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you listen. Like always there is a full transcript at This is my conversation with Lynn Vavreck…


Lynn Vavreck, welcome to the Democracy Paradox.

Lynn Vavreck

Thank you.


So, Lynn, you look at all of this a lot more closely than even I do and have really paid attention to multiple election cycles. In the 2016 election, it seems like an election that, at least for me, and for most people that I know, challenged a lot of assumptions that we had about politics within America and about politics in general. Did you learn anything new from the 2016 election as it happened?

Lynn Vavreck

Yes. So, I think a couple of things are interesting. The first is that political scientists have always believed that party identification is the number one driver of vote choice. So, you saw that play out in vivid color in 2016 when people would say to me, ‘Who are these people who voted for Hillary Clinton’ or ‘Who are these people who voted for Donald Trump?’ The answer is if you’re asking me about Hillary Clinton, you know who they are? They are people who call themselves Democrats. Who voted for Donald? You know who those people are? They are people who call themselves Republicans. 90% of self-identified Republicans voted for Donald Trump in 2016, same thing for Clinton.

So, we’ve always known that party identification was the most important driver and that can be reflective of policy positions. It can be reflective of an identity, whatever it is. We’ve always known that it matters and it mattered in 2016. So, in that way, that’s very typical.

The second thing was the negativity of the Trump campaign and that’s another thing that political scientists had done a lot of research on up to that point on attack advertising or negative campaigning or even where you’re drawing contrasts with your opponent. The findings there are a little counterintuitive. Voters say they hate them, but objectively when we look at their behavior, people are learning a lot from attack advertising. You learn more about a candidate’s policy positions if they run an attack ad relative to if they run a promotional ad. Why? Well, if I’m running a promotional ad, I might say I grew up in Cleveland. You know, I love dogs. You’re telling people about yourself and not necessarily pointed comments about your policy preferences.

But if I’m running an attack ad and I say, ‘Don’t vote for Joe. Joe is going to take away your ice cream.’ You implicitly think that I’m not. So, there’s a lot more issue content in those attack ads and people learn from them. So, in this very perverse way, they are good for democracy. We want people to learn about candidates’ policy. So, it wasn’t so much the negativity or the attack orientation of Trump’s campaign that surprised me. The thing that I think was surprising is the way in which he was able to talk about people’s underlying racial attitude and about race and ethnicity and religion and gender, those things that are identity based, so explicitly.

So, if you can think back to the 1980s Revolving Door ad which caused a lot of attention to be drawn to candidates using implicit appeals to people’s racial attitudes, to their underlying racial attitude, without ever saying that they were talking about race that the ad was talking about. So, for all of those years in between 1988 and 2016, the conventional wisdom and the pattern in social science research was that candidates could make implicit appeals, but not cross the line to explicit appeals. When they did that, they seemed to suffer at the polls. What’s the mechanism there? What’s driving that?

Maybe something that we call social desirability bias. People may hold these attitudes, but they know that it is not socially okay or socially acceptable to express them. So, when the appeal becomes explicit and they have to say explicitly, yes, they know there’s going to be pushback societally from doing that. That’s why social scientists thought there was a line between implicit and explicit appeals. But then Donald Trump comes down that escalator in 2016 and he says all of the things he said in his announcement speech. He crosses that line boldly and fully and Republican primary voters, a set of them, respond enthusiastically. That is to me, sort of the first moment, where I said, ‘Oh, the world is not working the way that social scientists believed it would work when a candidate behaves this way and we better start paying attention to this.’

Then, of course, when he continues to make those explicit appeals to people’s racial attitudes, their gender attitudes, attitudes about religion and he doesn’t decline in the polls, there doesn’t seem to be any cost for doing that. That’s when I sort of thought, ‘Okay, something very different is happening now than has been happening in the last couple of decades.’


Now what surprised me even more than Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 election in many ways was the way that Republicans really consolidated their support behind him throughout his presidency. Not all Republicans, but once you got through kind of that initial Never-Trumper phase, most Republicans supported him in extraordinarily high approval ratings throughout his presidency from its very beginning until the end in 2020. Did Donald Trump really shape the Republican party? Did he change people’s minds within the party itself or was this something that Republicans really wanted all along that they just didn’t verbalize or didn’t recognize until Donald Trump was elected president?

Lynn Vavreck

That is a great question and the answer is the candidacy and presidency of Donald Trump has reshaped the Republican Party. The second thing you said is not true. He did not change people’s minds. So, the way to think about this is he is going to come down that escalator and he is going to start campaigning on these identity inflected issues. He is going to activate those attitudes. He didn’t make those attitudes. People had those attitudes and it’s not just people in the Republican Party. There are people in the Democratic Party, not as many, but pollsters have long shown that Americans have these conservative attitudes about race, gender, religion, ethnicity. But there has been this sort of unspoken agreement between the Democratic and Republican parties over the last several decades. If they were going to fight over those things, they weren’t going to fight explicitly.

And I say unspoken agreement but that gives it even too much structure. Each party understood that there were no incentives, there were no payoffs to them from explicitly talking about those attitudes. So, what Trump either experimented with or realized from listening to conservative talk radio or being a part of those communities is that there was going to be a payoff. People hadn’t tried it, so how did they know. There was this assumption between Democrats and Republicans that you couldn’t talk about these things that there would be a cost. Yet it hadn’t really been demonstrated. So, Trump goes out. He gives it a whirl. And in fact, there is no cost. There’s a payoff. So, he leans into that.

He’s not creating these attitudes. The attitudes exist. You can think of them as maybe embers. And what he does is comes along and he throws gasoline on them and they flame up. But once that happened and we’re talking about identity inflected issues, the bread-and-butter new deal issues that we’ve been fighting over for decades and decades are falling away from importance. So, the identity stuff is climbing up the ladder of important issues and the new deal stuff is falling down the ladder. It’s not that people’s attitudes have changed. The attitudes have not changed. It’s just now the most important ingredient in their vote choice. So, Trump is making those identity things the most important thing.

So, if you think of the electorate and the electoral landscape as a circle, we’ve always had a horizontal line cutting through it. That’s what we’re fighting over. Are you on the top or the bottom? What’s happening in 2016 is that line is turning and turning and turning. So, we’re cutting that circle now maybe vertically. Now you’re either on the left or the right or the up or whatever, We’re cutting it in a different plane and that shift of the electoral landscape, that’s a big deal. Then he becomes president and he continues to govern the way he campaigned. So, going back to that New Deal, previous electoral landscape dimension, that is going to be very difficult because we’re fighting over something completely different now. So, that’s what our 2020 book is about. Can you imagine something that can get us back? It’s very hard to do.


Is that part of the reason why Biden’s having such a hard time in his approval ratings? Because Trump had bad approval ratings, but he had solid support within his base, within the Republican party. It feels like Biden’s facing some of those same challenges because Republicans aren’t willing to cross over and say that they approve the job he’s doing, but he’s also losing some of the support within his own base. They seem to be harsher on his performance than Republicans seem to be on Trump’s. Am I reading that?

Lynn Vavreck

I think that’s right. The floor is the same for both of them. The out-party partisans don’t like them. That’s a new development by the way. That starts in the Obama Presidency. So, this is something that has been developing since 2008. The floor is low and the ceiling has always been very high, especially for Trump and then Biden doesn’t have quite as high a ceiling among his in-partisan. I wouldn’t read too much into that.

The composition, the energy within each of the two parties, may be a little different where supporters had a lot of energy and the people who were sort of supporting him, but didn’t love him, find it very hard for them to energize around an alternative. But in the Democratic Party, the energetic chunk of that party is the chunk that wishes Biden were different. So, I think that just might be a little bit of what is happening there. But I would say the pattern is the same low out-party support and high in-party support.


Now, one of the early points that you make in the book, The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy, is this concept of political calcification. I’ve talked a lot on the podcast about polarization, but you argue that calcification might even be more important than polarization. Can you explain this concept?

Lynn Vavreck

Yes. So, calcification might sound like polarization, but the way I like to think of it is it’s polarization plus. So, it adds a little bit to it. Let me start by telling you what calcification is. Then I think you’ll see what the plus part is. So, calcification has four components. The first is the increasing distance between the two political parties. Democrats and Republicans are farther apart on policy preferences today than they’ve ever been in the mass electorate. We’ve seen this happen in Congress. Everybody kind of knows this is going on in Congress, but it hasn’t been so clear in the mass electorate. Now it is. Democrats and Republicans are farther apart than ever. That’s thing one.

Thing two is increasing homogeneity within the party. So, Democrats are more like one another now than they’ve ever been and Republicans are more like one another now than they’ve ever been. And the easiest way to think about that is as we move out of the 1960s and out of the Civil Rights Era, Conservative Southern Democrats are figuring out, ‘Hey, we should be Republican.’ So, they’re sorting. We’ve had some sorting into the two parties where people go, ‘Oh, I’m mismatched with my party given what my ideology is.’ Then also people within the parties becoming more like one another. Those two things are happening. So, increasing distance between the parties, that’s what people usually mean by polarization. We’re going to add onto that increasing homogeneity within the parties. Then we’re going to add a third component, the rise of identity inflected issues.

So, that thing we just talked about. The reshaping of the political landscape, so that we’re fighting now about identity inflected things. Not the tax rate, not the role in size of government, but who gets to be an American, who gets to come to this country. So, those issues are highly divisive, because their sort of core is about equality and humanity. Then the fourth component of calcification is partisan parity within the electorate. This one ends up being critical. We just happen to be at a moment where we are in a rough balance nationally between people who call themselves Republicans and people who call themselves Democrats.

So, those four things together, calcification, what that means is that elections are going to be very, very close. They’re going to be very divisive. They’re close because of the parity. They’re divisive, because we’re fighting over these identity inflected things and the stakes are going to seem very, very high to people, because the other side is farther away than ever. They’re very different from me and victory is just always within reach for both parties.

So, the parity makes me almost always a winner. If the other side loses, the world that they’re going to make is a really different world than the one I want to live in. So, I’m going to fight really hard to win. If I lose, there’s very little incentive for me to go back to the drawing board and do what the Republicans did in 2012 and have an autopsy and write a hundred page growth and opportunity project report to say, ‘Oh, people don’t like what we’re offering. We’ve got to change in order to attract more voters.’

Now, if you almost won by 44,000 votes in three states, you don’t want to change what you’re offering. You almost won. The incentive is maybe we should change the rules of the game so that we get those 44,000 votes. That’s the ultimate challenge to democracy. When parties, instead of changing what they’re offering, start trying to change the rules in order to win. That’s sort of what we’re worried about in the book.


At the same time, this idea of calcification does imply some change within both of the parties, both the Republicans and the Democrats, especially as the axis, changes away from being about economic issues to more identity issues. But one of the odd things in the 2020 election was that everybody expected that to mean that the Democrats would nominate a transformative candidate who was just different from what we’ve seen as a real candidate in the past. So many options were available. But at the end of the day, they nominated the person who was the most moderate, who was almost a throwback to an earlier era of politics. They nominated Joe Biden. What does that say about the Democratic party that Joe Biden became the nominee for the presidency for them in 2020?

Lynn Vavreck

I love this question, because it privileges one dimension of Biden’s characteristics, the ones that you just talked about. But another way to describe what happened is, ‘Wow, those Democrats. They ended up nominating the candidate that the head-to-head matchup said had the best chance of beating Donald Trump.’ People forget that both those things are true. Looking back at those head-to-head matchups going back to 2019, Biden performs well against Trump relative to the people who are running against him in the nominating contest. He doesn’t do so well on the primary campaign trail. He doesn’t have a good performance in Iowa. He doesn’t have a good performance in New Hampshire and that’s when people ask, ‘Oh, can he really beat Trump?’ That’s when things sort of start to shift.

But interestingly, what’s happening in that three-week period from Iowa and New Hampshire heading into South Carolina when people are sort of reevaluating, ‘Is Biden the one who can beat Trump?’ While Buttigieg or Sanders are winning the primaries, the polls sort of say, ‘We’re not sure they can beat Trump.’ So, it all sort of happens very quickly.

But one way to look at it is what ends up happening is Democrats realize they have to nominate the candidate who does have the best chance of beating Trump and that all sort of takes shape very quickly. COVID is also starting to really change what’s happening nationally and South Carolina goes well for Biden. COVID hits. Candidates are dropping out. It all happens very quickly. But I’m not sure that I would say that the reason Biden got nominated is because he was a throwback to a past era and mild and moderate. People thought he could beat Trump.


Why was Biden viewed as the candidate who can beat Trump? I mean, was it just because of name recognition? Was it because they thought that the moderate policies would appeal more to the general electorate? Was it just because of his personality?

Lynn Vavreck

I think some of it for sure is name recognition. So, we were doing this big project called Nationscape. We started in 2019 interviewing 6,000 people a week. Every week. We did it until the end of January 2021, so through the insurrection. But in 2019, you can just see in the data, for example, Buttigieg goes on CNN and he gives this interview like a town hall interview to one of the anchors there. Before that in our data, hardly anybody knows who he is. I’ve never heard of this candidate is the plurality category. But after that interview, he starts getting news coverage and people start talking about him and then he goes on and does another great interview.

So, you can kind of see the share of people who have heard of him going up, up, up, up, up, up, up, and then that affects the balance of do you approve or disapprove or are you favorable or unfavorable. Part of it for sure is, ‘Have you ever heard of this person? Do you know anything about them? Can you even say you have a favorable or unfavorable impression of them?’ So, you know, because in these primary elections you don’t have the party cue to immediately tell you which candidate is quote unquote more like you, you’re really starting from a blank slate except for some characteristics. So, I would say that’s the most important thing.

Then from there, people like to talk about their lanes. The primary candidates are in these lanes, the moderate lane, the more policy extreme or progressive, and you can see that in the data. Sometimes it’s not as pronounced as people would like to believe. People’s first choice will be Biden and their second choice will be Warren or something like that. And if people were really thinking about, ‘Oh, I want a moderate candidate,’ they wouldn’t necessarily do that kind of crossover. But you can see that there’s sort of a Biden-Buttigieg chunk of voters. Then there’s a Warren and Sanders chunk of voters. Klobuchar is kind of in there with the Biden-Buttigieg camp, but not really.

So, we could see that all in the data. I think the policy is also driving some of those preferences and the fact of the matter is that even in the Democratic Party, most democratic voters are more like Biden than they are like Bernie Sanders. So, in some sense, it’s not surprising that people think he can beat Trump.


So, in the 2020 election, did Trump lose the election or did Biden win the election?

Lynn Vavreck

Yes. You know, it’s 44,000 votes in three states. Anything could have changed the outcome of that election. That’s again, going back to calcification. One of the takeaways from calcification is that these elections leave us stuck. Like in the human body, calcification is making politics rigid. We’re stuck. It’s hard to move out of it. So, as long as we’re stuck where we are right now, fighting over identity with partisan parity in the electorate and a lot of distance between the party and a lot of homogeneity within them, these outcomes are going to be very close. That literally means that nearly anything might swing the outcome. Calcification doesn’t mean the same party’s going to win over and over again. It means that outcomes are going to flip. Dem, Rep, Dem Rep.

That’s going to be incredibly frustrating to people. It’s going to be a hard kind of world to make sense of. But could Donald Trump have done more to try to get 44,000 votes across Georgia, Arizona, and Pennsylvania? Yes. I’m sure he could. Did Joe Biden do enough to win? Yeah, I’m sure he did. So, anything is possible. In a way, if we were talking about an electoral college outcome that was a hundred electoral college votes different, we wouldn’t say anything is possible. Then we could say, ‘This candidate was behind from the get go. There’s nothing they could have done or they really blew it.’ But when we’re talking about the knife’s edge, it’s pretty impossible to place blame or award a pat on the back.


At the same time in the book, you emphasize the fact that the election was very close. In fact, you just did you emphasize the fact the election was very close. Within just a few states it’s within a few tens of thousands of votes. But at the same time, you write in the book that, “The 2020 outcome was not that hard to forecast.” Can you kind of explain how you reconcile those two views of how it’s not hard to forecast yet at the same time, it’s an extremely close election.

Lynn Vavreck

Well, there are these fundamental things that have been great predictors of election outcomes for a long time. I talked about one earlier, party identification. So, what does that tell us? It tells us pretty much that people who call themselves Republicans are going to vote for Trump and people who call themselves Democrats are going to vote for Biden. We saw it in 2016. So, we think that’s going to happen again in 2020. So, we know that 30% of Republicans are not going to bail and vote for Joe Biden in 2020. We know that.

Second thing that is sort of a fundamental feature of election outcomes is the state of the nation’s economy. So, in times of growth the incumbent party does well and in times where the economy is shrinking, the incumbent party loses. Going into 2020 before COVID the economy was growing and Trump knew it in January of 2020. He went to Florida and kicked off his official kickoff of the campaign and he said something like, ‘I’ve bought you a booming economy. You’re better off today than you were four years ago and you know it. And you don’t like me very much, but you’re going to vote for me anyway because I’ve delivered a booming economy to you.’ That was an important moment for me because I said, ‘Aha, Trump actually gets this and he’s going to run his campaign reminding people about the economy.’

Historically speaking that is exactly what an incumbent president in a growing economy should do. So, that was the second thing that sort of gave us a clue that lots of people are going to vote for Trump. So, again, not going to be a Democratic blowout. Then the third thing is this re-shifting of the dimension onto the identity inflected issues. People know how they feel about those things and they see very big differences between the two parties. 90% of Americans in 2020 say that they see important differences between the Democratic and Republican party. That’s the highest number of people since the American national election study has been conducted which started in 1948. So, in 1948, 1950, 1952 50% of people saw important differences between the parties and you and all your very smart listeners know exactly why.

The south is a very complicated part of the country in terms of partisanship at that time. But as we move through the decades and the sorting happens, we get to a point in 2020 where 9 out of 10 people, almost everybody see important differences. So, that’s the last thing that sort of gives us a clue going into 2020. There’s not going to be a lot of crossover. 2020 is going to look a lot like 2016.

Now we didn’t foresee COVID or the murder of George Floyd. Those are two shocks that happened during 2020 that could have really made it different. But the fact that those two very, very big shocks to everyone’s day to day get subsumed by the existing partisan landscape really tells you a lot about how powerful the current partisan landscape is. That’s really why the prediction going forward when people ask me, ‘Well, what about 2024?’ It’s going to be close. That’s the one thing you can say for sure.


So, I think that if there’s any message that your book has to offer, not in terms of analysis, but just kind of like a general takeaway for how we should think about democracy or think about the United States, it was a line near the end of the book where you write, “At this moment, the leaders who lose may be just as important as those who win.” Your mind obviously goes to Donald Trump when you read that line, but I’m also starting to think about all of the other possible races throughout the country whether it’s for governor, whether it’s for Congress, whether it’s even just for mayor.

Do you expect to see this kind of play out in other races throughout the country on other types of micro levels even at the presidential level once again? How important do you think that norm breaking was in terms of our democracy going forward?

Lynn Vavreck

I think we’re at a very important inflection point. That’s why we write that sentence. The people who win get to enact policy and they get to change the world we live in. But we’re at this moment where the candidates who lose, if they think that they don’t have to abide by election outcomes, that’s very important. That affects the kind of world we live in and it affects the kind of democracy we can have. So, those candidates are very critical to sort of what’s going to happen going forward. Could it happen at lower levels of office? Absolutely. I just think, you know, we just don’t know how this is going to develop. So, yeah, I would be looking very carefully at all election outcomes.


Right now, it definitely feels like it’s Republicans that have kind of embraced that Trumpian direction. Democrats have very much tried to portray themselves as being the party of democracy and have made that almost an explicit campaign issue nationally. Do you worry that that’s something that could be practiced on both sides of the aisle in the future?

Lynn Vavreck

Yes, obviously what we’re observing now is one iteration of that. But theoretically speaking, yes, it is possible. If we’re worried about it, we should be worried about it no matter which candidate is winning and which candidate is losing and try to protect against it.


So, after four years of Trump’s presidency, after the entire 2020 election, that came to its bitter end, if you will, is this really Trump’s legacy? Is the fact that candidates now feel that they’re empowered to contest elections even when the courts, even when nobody else really wonders about the outcome that you can kind of question the outcome of the election and mobilize your supporters against democracy?

Lynn Vavreck

I hope that that’s not going to be his legacy. I think it’s too soon to know the answer to that. So, that’s why I say I hope it’s not. Things would have to go really profoundly badly for that to be his legacy, because what it’s competing against is the reorientation of American politics off of the New Deal dimension of political conflict and onto an identity inflected dimension that is going to be Trump’s legacy. If you asked me today, you know, in terms of how we think of mass politics, it is an enormous shift and it is just an enormous change in what we’re fighting over. And we’ll be fighting over this, I think, into the foreseeable future. And I don’t mean two years. I mean 20 years.

So, for something to come along and really displace that as his legacy has to be bigger than that and that’s pretty big. So, I hope that candidates not accepting election outcomes doesn’t displace that because it would have to be very bad.


So, to hopefully end on a more positive note, in the book you do also write, “The challenge to American democracy is whether it will succeed in the future.” And that can go either way, but I’d like to give you an opportunity for optimism. Do you have hope for America’s democracy?

Lynn Vavreck

Definitely. The institutions, I think, are resilient and, you know, I do.


Well, thank you so much, Lynn Vavreck for joining me today. I want to plug the book one more time. It’s called The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy along with John Sides and Chris Tausanovitch. You also go through just an amazing amount of detail and analysis that really challenges a lot of assumptions about just things that we assumed about the demographics and the dynamics of the 2020 campaign that we didn’t talk about today which is why I think everybody needs to get out and order the book. So, thank you so much.

Lynn Vavreck

Thanks for having me.

Key Links

The Bitter End: The 2020 Presidential Campaign and the Challenge to American Democracy by Chris Tausanovitch, John Sides, and Lynn Vavreck

Follow Lynn Vavreck on Twitter @vavreck

Learn more about Lynn Vavreck

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