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
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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.
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.”
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
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