By David Perry
Unprecedented. Almost everything about the 2020 presidential election is different than before, from a campaign waged during a pandemic to the number of votes cast five days before Election Day – 80 million.
“More people will vote in 2020 than any previous election,” Chancellor Jacquie Moloney told a virtual audience drawn from the campus and community for a discussion on the historic election.
The university gathered three experts to dissect the election – UMass President and former U.S. Rep. Marty Meehan; Assoc. Prof. Joshua Dyck, director of the university’s Center for Public Opinion; and Asst. Prof. John Cluverius, associate director of the Center for Public Opinion.
“Decision 2020: A UMass Lowell Discussion on the Presidential Election” was held on Zoom on Oct. 29. It was presented by the Center for Public Opinion and the university’s Alumni Virtual Village.
Will the Supreme Court be drawn into a contested vote? Has the Black Lives Matter movement changed voters? Will Democrats take control of the Senate? And is it possible for a nation parted by political anger and vitriol to heal when it’s all over? Those were just a few of the topics the panelists addressed in a lively discussion in which they also fielded questions from viewers.
Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden held a commanding 10-point lead in a New Hampshire poll released Oct. 29 by the Center for Public Opinion. The center also released polls that day showing Biden and President Donald Trump tied at 48% in North Carolina and nearly tied in Texas, where Biden had cut Trump’s lead by three points since the center’s Sept. 29 poll.
Meehan, seeming at home in his political role, said he was “excited” to be talking about the election and quickly asked Dyck, “Who is going to win?” Biden, Dyck said, is “likely to win. Is there a pathway for Donald Trump to win? It is very narrow.”
There are indicators. “If Biden wins Florida, we’ll be in bed before midnight,” said Dyck. Trump has had “negative approval ratings since the second month of his presidency,” said Dyck.
Meanwhile, Biden is a “liked candidate” who hasn’t presided during a pandemic that has claimed 229,000 American lives. Any polling question regarding the coronavirus results in negatives for Trump, said Dyck.
“A huge majority believe the president contracted the virus by being irresponsible,” Dyck noted.
Democrats may gain control of the Senate, but if they do, it will be by a slim margin, the panelists agreed. “You’ve actually run campaigns and won races,” Dyck asked Meehan of the presidential contest. “Do you envision a late-breaking story in this race that could change it?”
“Eighty million people have voted,” said Meehan. “It’s going to be difficult to sway a lot of voters at this stage.” Mail-in ballots and early voting will change the way campaigns are run, all agreed. Strategies, how and when money is spent – it will all change, said Meehan.
“Elections used to be a picture of how people felt about candidates on Election Day,” said Meehan. “Now, whatever happens during the last five days, people have already voted.”
Meehan had a question of his own: Are we going to know who wins the presidency on election night? “The most likely outcome is we probably will know the winner on election night,” said Dyck. “But if Trump sweeps all the states that are toss-ups right now and … if Pennsylvania becomes decisive, then it could take a few days to count mail-in ballots.”
The panel roundly rejected the notion of mail-in ballots being “some new thing that came out of thin air.”
“That’s silly,” said Dyck, who noted that Washington and Oregon have used mail balloting for years without problems.
Dyck and Cluverius said an overwhelming majority of voters wants to reform the Electoral College. Because of the Electoral College, since 1992, the Republican party won the national popular vote once – in 2004 – but won the presidency in 2000, 2004 and 2016.
All stressed the importance of youth voting. Meehan recalled student engagement and protest across the UMass system following Trump’s election in 2016. But he was dismayed at how many students said they didn’t vote. He was heartened to see how many young voters were involved in the recent Joe Kennedy-Ed Markey Democratic primary race for the Senate.
“Young voters are driving the overall left or liberal preferences that we see in the national polls,” said Cluverius.
Dyck said Gen Z voters are left-leaning and believe in the power of government to bring reform. “We are a super-high participating campus,” he said. “Our students vote at higher rates than other campuses in Massachusetts and in the nation.”
The Black Lives Matter movement and the protests following the death of George Floyd have made a “dramatic” difference in the national landscape, the panelists agreed. Meehan noted the loud chorus of professional athletes and the “dramatic impact” is has had across the nation.
According to Cluverius, polling shows that when President Trump says something considered “particularly anti-Black or racist, those are the lowest moments in his approval and favorability ratings.”
Meehan spoke before a backdrop of a photograph taken when he joined the late civil rights icon, Rep. John Lewis, to walk across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Ala. An audience member asked if the nation will ever heal after years of political contention. Meehan said if Biden is elected, he will try to heal the country.
“We are a stronger country when we find a way to deal with our differences,” he said.
“I’m a little less hopeful,” said Dyck. “It’s going to take a while for us to find our way out of this polarization. The deep divide is not just issue-based, it’s the way we regard the people on the other side.
“We exist in information bubbles. We consume the same media as people who think like us, but it’s not the same media as people who don’t. We perpetuate the views we have about the world and those views are mostly that those on the other side are a bunch of real bad guys,” Dyck added.
“I am really hopeful that we can see a decrease in polarization through good old-fashioned boredom,” said Cluverius. Trump’s polarizing acts mean people are paying attention to politics all the time, he said.
“If you watched Biden’s town hall by himself, it was kind of a snooze — what you’d expect from a politician,” Cluverius said.
“If Biden wins, people will not feel the need to fight about politics all the time. I can say as a professor, there are advantages to boredom sometimes. You don’t have everyone amped up all the time.”