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Win, lose, or brawl

A razor-thin presidential contest defied pollsters’ landslide predictions—and showed that political foes need to talk to each other, including within the church


Joe Biden and Donald Trump Jim Bourg/Getty Images/Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images

Win, lose, or brawl
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At around 9’oclock on election night, conservative commentator Henry Olsen had a sinking feeling. “I don’t like to eat crow,” he wrote on The Washington Post’s election blog, “but the more I look at the data the more I think I was too optimistic for Biden.” A minute later, Olsen added: “I’m not saying Biden won’t win the presidency. It’s just not shaping up as a Biden +7 national win in the popular vote.” Earlier in the week, Olsen—like many pundits studying the latest polls—had predicted an easy win for Democratic nominee Joe Biden. By 9:30 p.m., Olsen was disconcerted: “I never like being wrong professionally, but it’s clear that Biden is not going to win the national vote by anything like what every major poll’s crosstabs implied. That means polling error of mammoth proportions—the industry will have a lot of serious thinking to do.”

That remained true even as Biden appeared to gain an edge during prolonged election returns in swing states the next day. As of Nov. 5, officials were still counting votes in a handful of states, and President Donald Trump was pursuing election-related litigation.

But whatever the outcome, it was clear that pollsters and at least some major media outlets still had serious thinking to do: Why did they predict a Trump nosedive, instead of an electoral nail-biter that showed the country still sharply divided down the middle—and not decisively flocking to the left? And what could be done about the great divide, especially if those divisions result in a divided government?

Many weren’t sure.

David Wasserman of the Cook Political Report tweeted: “Polls (esp. at district level) have rarely led us more astray, and it’s going to take a long time to unpack.”

Jay Cost of the conservative American Enterprise Institute had a more straightforward theory. “When polls are wrong in random directions, that’s statistical variance,” he wrote. “When polls are wrong in the same direction, that’s statistical bias.”

If bias played a part in errant polls, at least some media outlets may have too easily followed an errant path by not heeding clues the contest could be close: While national surveys showed Biden leading by double digits, polls in swing states showed single digit leads—close enough to suggest a tighter race than some media predicted.

Some outlets did note those closer numbers, but also indulged in speculation over a Biden landslide, creating a narrative that likely led some voters to develop landslide expectations.

By the time Trump won Florida on election night—with a significant number of Hispanic voters in the swing state—the landslide theory was evaporating, along with the bubbly morale of many political news anchors.

Commentators at MSNBC had long reveled in contempt for Trump, but their refusal to consider an alternative outcome to a Biden romp on Election Day proved embarrassing. As the race grew tight on election night, one reporter furiously tried to map out scenarios for Biden to claim presidential victory without winning Pennsylvania.

“That is crazy,” MSNBC anchor Rachel Maddow replied. “I mean, I have done that math myself, and I know it’s true. But I can’t believe we’re talking about it as one of the things that might actually happen.”

As voters waited on presidential returns the next day, they also waited for Senate race results. By Nov. 5, those results appeared nearly evenly split and leaning toward GOP control—another outcome some pundits didn’t seem to expect. (Republicans also made unexpected gains in the House, while Democrats retained control of that chamber).

What the possibility of a divided government could mean for the country remained unclear until election results were settled, but it suggested neither party had a firm grip on a divided public.

It also suggested many media outlets don’t have a grip on understanding those divisions. David Brooks of The New York Times admitted after the close presidential contest: “Our job in the media is to capture reality so that when reality voices itself, like last night, people aren’t surprised. Pretty massive failure. We still are not good at capturing the rightward half of the country.”

For defeated candidates, proving pollsters wrong while still losing races is probably cold comfort. But it should also be uncomfortable for a deeply polarized public.

David Graham of The Atlantic put a sharp point on it. “We no longer spend much time around people who disagree with us,” he wrote. “Public opinion polling was one of the last ways we had to understand what other Americans actually believe.”

Of course, there is another way for us to understand what other Americans believe: Ask them.

Our habits could make that difficult. A Pew Research study last fall reported some 80 percent of Trump supporters and 80 percent of Biden supporters said they had few if any friends who supported the opposing candidate.

With rates of church attendance falling and civic engagement often waning, some Americans find a strong identity and a welcome community among fellow citizens who support the same political candidate.

Committed Christians in Biblically sound churches seem like an obvious group to promote spiritual truth from a Biblical perspective while trying to engage the concerns of outsiders. But this election has shown that many Christians are grappling mightily with how to engage even each other.

Pedestrians stop to watch early election results on the electronic billboards in Times Square in New York.

Pedestrians stop to watch early election results on the electronic billboards in Times Square in New York. Seth Wenig/AP

On the Sunday morning before Election Day, the bulletin of Capitol Hill Baptist Church in Washington, D.C., included a solemn reminder: “We believe that the end of the world is approaching.”

The statement wasn’t an anticipation of the election, but an affirmation of Christian doctrine in the church’s statement of faith: On the last day, God’s work of judgment and salvation will culminate when Christ returns.

An eternal perspective was helpful at the beginning of an election week: Political outcomes are weighty, but not ultimate. Yet for many evangelicals, this election cycle has proven both weighty and divisive. Respectable leaders have disagreed.

Theologian and author John Piper recently wrote about his concerns over moral character in leaders and why he didn’t intend to vote for either major presidential candidate. Southern Baptist Theological Seminary President Al Mohler didn’t support President Donald Trump in 2016 because of concerns over Trump’s character, but he recently explained why policy concerns motivated him to vote for Trump’s reelection this year. (Mohler is a member of WORLD’s board of directors.)

But the reasonable arguments of respected men still provoked contention in some quarters: After Piper’s essay about politics appeared online, officials at Liberty University removed a newly posted video of Piper speaking about evangelism and church planting at a recent student convocation.

Southern Baptist Convention President J.D. Greear appeared with Piper during the convocation. He told Religion News Service he was disappointed the school had removed the video: “As followers of Jesus, mobilizing ourselves for the Great Commission is the most important thing for us to do, and our commitment to Jesus and His mission is something we can all be unified around.”

Meanwhile, voters were unified in their expectations for their candidates. A recent poll of Wisconsin voters showed that 80 percent of Trump’s supporters in the state believed he would win. Eighty percent of Democrat Joe Biden’s supporters there believed Biden would prevail.

That means a sizable chunk of American voters are disappointed. And depending on the outcome, at least some portion of evangelicals feel disappointment too—whether they voted for Trump, Biden, or neither candidate.

How can Christians respond? Jonathan Leeman, editorial director of 9Marks ministry and author of How the Nations Rage, offered this counsel when thinking about the election:

If your candidate won: “I think you, as a Christian, need to show empathy and compassion towards those fellow believers whose candidate lost, and who may be feeling a significant degree of apprehension and fear and anxiety. … You cannot lose sight of the fundamental gospel unity that we share, and the call to love those who are genuinely upset.”

If your candidate lost: “We still need to take confidence in the fact that God is on His throne, and that Jesus’ vindication and victory are certain. God is not caught off guard.”

None of this diminishes the importance of the election, Leeman added: “It’s just to say that the gospel itself and the kingdom of Christ is that much more important. So contested outcome or no, civic unrest or no, put not your trust in horses and chariots.”

Adam Mabry, pastor of Aletheia Church in Boston, Mass., wrote about the importance of truth and the anxiety over politics in a chapter of his recently released book Stop Taking Sides. Mabry doesn’t argue for diminishing truth or disengaging from politics, but he does offer a helpful reminder:

“While the world may lose their collective marbles when an election goes ‘wrong,’ may it never be so for the church of Jesus Christ.”

Mabry continues: “When you feel the nagging draw of anxiety … remember your King is on the throne already. While the outcome may change the moment, it changes neither the mission nor eternity. The world is desperate for a people who are secure enough in grace that they can flourish under Caesar, whoever he or she may be.”

Nearly 70 years ago, Christian author C.S. Lewis wrote about a time when it really did seem like the world could come to an end—the dawn of the Atomic Age. Lewis essentially urged his Christian readers to heed the British government’s advice to keep calm and carry on in the face of deep fears and potential harm:

“If we are all going to be destroyed by an atomic bomb, let that bomb when it comes find us doing sensible and human things—praying, working, teaching, reading, listening to music, bathing the children, playing tennis, chatting to our friends … not huddled together like frightened sheep and thinking about bombs.”

Lewis added that this kind of fear and unease after a season of national prosperity could actually be a gift if it awakens Christian service and engagement with others about Biblical truth: “We have been waked from a pretty dream, and now we can begin to talk about realities.”

Pedestrians stop to watch early election results on the electronic billboards in Times Square in New York.

Pedestrians stop to watch early election results on the electronic billboards in Times Square in New York. Seth Wenig/AP

This year, of course, isn’t the first time Christians have disagreed over a course of action.

Four hundred years ago this month, some 100 passengers aboard the Mayflower spotted the coast of Cape Cod, Mass., after a miserable two-month voyage from England. A miserable winter awaited them, and they were already disagreeing about their next steps.

The travelers did sign an agreement on board the ship: The Mayflower Compact expressed their desire “for the glory of God and advancement of the Christian faith and honor of our king and country.”

Many of the ship’s passengers knew they wanted religious freedom to worship according to the Scriptures, but they also knew what fellow passenger William Bradford later wrote about the Christians on board: “They knew they were pilgrims.”

It’s a phrase worth remembering. The 2020 contest is important, and elections have consequences. But Christ’s kingdom is ultimate, and as Leeman reminds us, “God is not caught off guard.”

Indeed, even when we forget, He knows we are pilgrims.

—Please read additional WORLD reporting on race results and election analysis at wng.org/campaign_2020


Jamie Dean

Jamie is national editor of WORLD Magazine. She is a World Journalism Institute graduate and previously worked for The Charlotte World. Jamie has covered politics, disasters, religion, and more for WORLD. She resides in Charlotte, N.C.

@deanworldmag

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Big Jim

Cyborg3, wow, what an epic response. I feel very lazy for my usual 2 or 3 sentence comments. You just wrote an essay.

Salty1

Tim let us look at your argument in detail. First, you claim Trump is so evil and give examples of why you view him as such. You say the following:

I cannot vote for Donald Trump because of his willingness to sacrifice anybody -- Kurds, senior citizens, immigrant children -- on the altar of his political success (and other reasons). 

This is first seen as a very vague statement against Trump regularly seen in the liberal MSM. What exactly does it mean to “sacrifice anybody ... on the alter of his political success”?  You find it offensive that Trump seeks to win! You find it offensive that Trump is competitive and that he talks proudly like a New Yorker. But Paul was very competitive too! Didn’t he desire to preach the gospel where nobody else preached it? 

"It has always been my ambition to preach the gospel where Christ was not known, so that I would not be building on someone else's foundation. Rather, as it is written: ‘Those who were not told about him will see, and those who have not heard will understand.’ This is why I have often been hindered from coming to you" (Romans 15:20-22)

The language that Trump uses may turn you off but we see Paul having ambition and seeking to “win” as Trump would say. Paul sought to bring the gospel to the world, which is a noble endeavor. Trump on the other hand has sought to bring success for the citizens of America. This is why he had so many people at his rallies. Trump fights for the little guy and doesn’t sell out to big business, the elite, the moral elite, Silicon Valley, foreign interests, or anybody else.  Trump has been very transparent and has been extremely honest in putting forward his agenda and pushing to reach his objectives.  He has done better than any other president and I would challenge anybody to find another that was more successful! Just look at the economic success that all the minorities have achieved under Trump. Ironically, they keep calling him a racist when he has done so much for blacks, Hispanics, women, and so many others.  What you are seeing is an out of control press that is effectively an arm of the Democratic Party where they smear everything about Trump because of their hatred of the man. Again, my point here is that their is nothing wrong with “winning” when Trump is seeking to improve the lives of all Americans. God is pleased by his efforts and success! Would Trump’s losing make him more holy like the moral elite would say? No! The exact opposite is true for God would find him wanting if he wouldn’t go out with all his might and try to be successful! The same can be said for the election! He needs to fight on to overcome the Democratic shenanigans of election meddling!

You claim Trump has sacrificed the Kurds on his alter of political success. First you don’t seem to understand that there are a number of different Kurdish groups.  Here is an article that goes into the history. The Kurdistan Workers Party (KKP) is located in Syria and Iraq and have fought for independence from Turkey where they seek their own homeland in Turkey.  Obviously, Turkey is not keen on giving their land away so they have fought against this revolutionary group which even the US has labeled a terrorist organization. There is the Kurdistan Regional Government (KRG) that is located in northern Iraq which has enjoyed good relations with Turkey over the years. They helped us fight against ISIS and Trump gave them over 200 million in military supplies when we left Syria. A couple years back Trump also gave them 4 million for educational funding - helping to fund a college I believe. The US also protected the oil wells that benefited the KRG while we were in Iraq.  The notion that we totally abandoned the Kurds is not fully correct where you need to understand the geopolitical environment of the region. Trump viewed this map  and asked why we were over there in the middle of several regional conflicts.  He remembered his promise to get us out of Iraq and attempted to make good on it, thus saving American soldiers lives and preventing entanglement in regional conflicts with no clear objectives and exit strategy.  

You include the senior citizens on this alter that you cite. I would assume this is a reference to not keeping Obamacare, which was a disastrous program which raised rates on millions of people with insurance. Or is it the propaganda campaign of the MSM and Silicon Valley tyrants trying to place the blame of all Coronavirus deaths on Trump? He initially shut down our “border” with China and the Democrats called him racist for doing it, when it saved many lives. The Democratic governors were the ones pushing COVID-19 patients back into the nursing homes killing many elderly. With New York, Trump had pushed our military to get the medical ship over to assist in the pandemic, yet the governor still did not use it to help the elderly. Trump has worked tirelessly to mobilize industry to get the vaccines ready as fast as possible and he is given absolutely no credit in what he has done. Trump recognizes that locking down America has hidden economic costs such as alcoholism, drug addiction, depression, suicide, divorce, spousal abuse, and more.  Shutting down churches also has spiritual consequences. The locking down of America also has direct economic consequences where our businesses and economy is being destroyed. Trump has tried to balance the concern for the health of our citizens with the need to open up which has been a wise strategy.  The charge that Trump is sacrificing the elderly on some imaginary alter is totally without merit!

You also raise the issue of the immigrant children which is another baseless charge.  I would challenge you to read this article by world where an East Indian woman investigated the death of an Indian girl on our border. She went into the  the investigation with your view and came away speaking a Trump perspective. Again the media paint Trump as a monster when all he is seeking is justice for the illegal immigrants and American citizens. Oftentimes, the criticism is on how he says things where they jump to unfounded conclusions, such as he is a racist.  Why would Hispanic and black Americans vote for him if he was racist?  But we are regularly feed the lie by the liberal MSM that Trump is this monster racist! 

But I've been told by conservatives: "It's a binary choice. I'm not electing a pastor. The Democrats are so dangerous I have to vote for their opponent." I know conservative Christians who used that logic to justify a hypothetical Giuiliani vote against Obama, and used that to support Trump to beat Hillary.

Yes, it typically boils down to a binary choice so it is a measure of who will do the least evil and who will do the most good. The challenge is that we need to discern the “most good” and the “least evil” candidate. We need to understand that there are forces out there trying to convince us what is the evil and the good. 

1 Timothy 2:1-4 tells us what we should pray for in a political leader. 

“I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” (1 Timothy 1-4)

God wants us to pray for political leaders who will enable us to lead quite and peaceful lives so we can carry forward the work of the church- chiefly bringing the gospel message to the world. If this is how we are to pray, then obviously this is how we should vote.  We work to elect candidates who will benefit our cause as Christians and who will make laws that align with scripture.

In no way am I advocating having a theocracy, but all I am saying that the laws should be just and right. For example, we should not be killing unborn babies by abortion. We should not allow “hate crime” laws that would cause us to be arrested or our churches shut down if we spoke out against immortality.  We should resist the state having power over what is said in the pulpits. We even need to be careful in allowing the state to shut down our churches due to the pandemic.  Businesses owned by Christians should not live in fear that they will get sued or be fined if they exercise their right and refuse to participate in a same-sex wedding.  We should not live in fear that a mob of woke protesters will loot our homes and burn down our churches. Our children should be able to read their bibles and discuss the Christian worldview in class just like any other view.  The discussion of creationism, intelligent design and the weaknesses of evolution should be allowed in our public schools. We should be able to get news that isn’t filtered by propagandists on the Internet. We should be able to have fair elections where both parties have access and are able to view what is going on and be able to participate in deciding legal ballots. Elected officials should not be allowed to use their office to further themselves or their family financially.  I could go on but to save space I will not. 

Now what party is the most dangerous for Christians? Obviously, it is the Democrats for they are pushing forward all the garbage that will hurt the church and Christians in general. I understand that you see it differently but I challenge you to look at what I say objectively. Ultimately, all Christians will have to give an account to God for how they voted.  You have a responsibility to vote how you see it and I would not have it any differently, but I would challenge you to have a substantive argument supporting your position. May God bless you and all Christians as we wrestle through these issues. Let us all pray for our country that all legal ballots will be counted and all illegal ones will be thrown out. If the Democrats are able to cheat and win both the presidency and Senate then we can expect persecution to start against the church where our political system will be fundamentally changed with the packing of the Supreme Court, the addition of two new liberal states and an avalanche of new oppressive legislation against the church and the citizens!

Gregory P

As a matter of factual correction, counting continues in a number of states, not just a handful, and will apparently continue for some days ("As of Nov. 5, officials were still counting votes in a handful of states").  We pray that every legal vote will be counted and every illegitimate ballot will be rejected.  The President as the chief executive officer of our constitutional republic has the responsibility to ensure the integrity of this election.  Some may blame the President for casting doubt on the integrity of the election; on the other hand, he could be viewed as having acturately predicted the difficulties we are now facing.  And these difficulties and questions were not caused by him.  

Steve Shive

Thanks for this well balanced and insightful piece. I think some missed the point of allowing people, including other serious and committed Christians, to disagree and vote differently than I do. Though I voted for Trump, also in 2016, and his actual policies have supported my thinking, I know that others can see this differently. We especially need to be aware of the Christian divide. I am more embarrassed by our petty ideological denominational spats and division. The Mayflower analogy is a good reminder.

My Two Cents

Tim Miller, you get a standing ovation. You understand the dilemma and its fallout, and state it eloquently. Thank you.

Salty1

Well stated Hawkdriver! We cannot pretend that abortion is really not that bad! I am very disappointed by John Piper who thinks that a "proud" candidate is as bad as killing millions of babies.  I don't think Bill Piper would agree with him because he just had too much common sense. Also, you cannot forget that the "respectable" candidate Biden was one of the most corrupt candidates in American history.  He has taken in money from all over the world using his name and collecting through his family. If Biden can steal this election by all the ballot fraud then we really will be in trouble as Christians, though less so since we have retained the Senate if all plays out as expected.  We live in dark times where some Christians are oblivious to the danger! 

Hawkdriver

Good article. Not to be divisive, but does this article mention a Christian voting for a Democratic candidate that has an agreed upon platform of pro death (pro abortion)?  I might be reading into it too much, but just in case.   A Christian's real choices in this election were to vote: 1) Republican 2) Some other pro life, God fearing candidate or 3) Not vote. No other option is compatible with real, Biblical Christianity and shouldn't be mentioned as such. Thank you