Tom Bevan, cofounder and president of RealClearPolitics, joins Brian Anderson to discuss what happened in the 2020 election, the Trump campaign’s legal challenges to the results, the issues with polling, and criticism concerning new state voting laws and “ballot harvesting.”

Audio Transcript

Brian Anderson: Welcome back to the 10 Blocks Podcast. This is Brian Anderson, the editor of City Journal. Joining me on today's show is Tom Bevan. Tom is the co-founder and president of Real Clear Politics, the indispensable website during elections and generally for anyone interested in politics at any time. So if you're not a regular visitor, you should absolutely check out RCP, of course. You can also follow Tom on Twitter @TomBevanRCP. Tom is also, I think it's fair to say, an old friend of City Journal, and we're excited to have him on the podcast today to talk about what's going on right now.

Tom, thanks so much for joining us today.

Tom Bevan: Absolutely, Brian, good to be with you.

Brian Anderson: You know, the big question everyone is asking is obviously, is the election still on? Do the Trump campaign's legal challenges have any chance of succeeding in your view? And how many votes would really have to shift to change the election outcome? Which the mainstream press outlets and social media platforms are encouraging everyone to see as definitive. But maybe they're not so definitive.

Tom Bevan: Yeah. I mean, it's hard to tell exactly how this is going to shake out and where the ... how much merit each one of these different court cases has. I think some of them have some merit, others don't and ... I mean, the problem for the Trump campaign is that he's going to need to change the outcome in three states. This is not just flipping 500 votes in a single state or 5,000 votes in a single state. It is 15,000 votes. Just under 15,000 in Arizona. It's just over 12,000 in Georgia. And then it's 47,000 and growing in Pennsylvania.

And so I think it's an uphill battle. I think the president has every right to make his case in court and we should not try and ... I think there's a real rush on the part of the Democrats, which is understandable. And on the part of the media, which is less understandable, in my opinion, that this has to be ... if we wait 48 hours, 72 hours for the president to file his legal challenges and have his day in court that somehow we're shredding democracy. So I think it's an uphill battle. I think the chances of him overturning enough votes in enough states is really, really slim.

Brian Anderson: Yeah. You know, the other big race everybody's starting to look at now are the Georgia recounts where the two Republican senators, David Perdue and Kelly Loffler both won in the state, but they didn't reach 50%. So they face these runoffs, which I think are on January 5th, early January anyway.Control over the U.S. senate will hinge on the outcome. So these are going to be hotly contested, obviously, races, and everybody's going to be paying attention to them. Do you have any sense of how those races might go? Can we handicap them at this point?

Tom Bevan: Well, I mean, I think. Look, the Democrats really turned out the vote in Georgia and-

Brian Anderson: That's actually another part of that question would be is, is Georgia really becoming a kind of a purple state?

Tom Bevan: I think it is. I think this year proved that it is. And there's no reason to think that it won't continue to be competitive. And as someone on Twitter said, my thinking is that Georgia sort of reverts to its factory settings as this person put it. And because it is still a ... it may be heading to purple, but it's still a reddish purple. So I think, especially if you're talking about a situation where January 5th date ... But again, as you mentioned, I mean, both sides are going to be pouring huge amounts of money and effort into winning these because the stakes are very, very high. So I think it's going to be competitive. But if I had to handicap it at this point, I'd probably give the Republicans, both of them, a slight edge.

Brian Anderson: The GOP did surprisingly well in the house picking up a number of seats as yet undetermined, but at least five and maybe as many as 12 I've read. Was this shift in your view result of Trump's coattails just driving up the number of voters getting to the polls? Or was it the result of other factors like the defund the police push that some Democrats were embracing, or I guess it could be both of these things. There's certainly though it wasn't the blue wave repudiation of Trump that the Democrats were hoping for, right?

Tom Bevan: No, no. And I think it was a combination of factors, including the fact that Donald Trump really did help juice Republican turnout in a lot of these battleground states. And I mean look, he got what? 71 million votes? More than any other candidate in history, except for Joe Biden. And it's going to be, if he doesn't prevail in court, it's going to be one of the ironies that he managed to juice Republican turnout so that they basically held the Senate and avoided losing a net gain or net loss of only one seat. And we'll see how the runoffs play out. Not a single Republican, I think, running for reelection in the House lost. They didn't lose any state legislatures. It was a remarkably strong night for Republicans. And I think more than anything, I think, some people ... And I should say, I'm not going to let a bunch of pundits off the hook here.

Because there were plenty of pundits who were predicting a blue wave and predicting Biden landslide at the top of the ticket. But of those, I think that the House piece was the most shocking to folks because hardly anyone gave Republicans a chance of winning any seats, let alone coming within just a few seats of actually winning back the House. So I do think it was not a blue wave at all and a real miss in terms of ... And I'm sure we'll get into the polling, in terms of the reality on the ground versus the perception and the narrative that was circulating in the political class, the pundit class and the elite media.

Brian Anderson: Another, I think, striking shift to the evening, I'd like to get your thoughts on, or the election day, I should say, is the movement among Hispanics toward the GOP in Southern Florida and Texas. Do you see this as a trend or just something unique to this selection? And do the election results, especially in those states, validate the idea that the GOP is starting to become the party for working class voters? Or was this just really about Trump? Before the pandemic struck, the economic growth was leading to a significant wage increase among the lowest income quarter in the country. And there was record low unemployment among blacks and Hispanics. So perhaps this emphasis on work and opportunity has had something to do with that outcome. But maybe this also points the way forward for the Republicans, as some are arguing.

Tom Bevan: Yeah. I mean, I think it's too early to tell. It is a fascinating development and one that could have significant profound ramifications moving forward. But we'll have to see. I mean, look, that was one of the questions about Barack Obama. He sort of refashioned the democratic coalition, right? He did away with Bill Clinton's new Democrat coalition. Rebuilt it in his own form and fashion, which was huge turnout among black voters. He got huge portions of sort of well-educated, wealthy whites. Progressives. And there was a question of whether that coalition that Obama put together twice was durable and transferable to anyone else. And we found out in 2016 that for the most part, it was not transferable. Certainly not to Hillary Clinton.

Now you could make the argument ... I mean, it's impossible to prove the negative here, but that it might've somebody ... a different candidate may have been able to keep that coalition together and win. But to a certain degree, that was all about Obama. Right? And one of the pieces of that is he had these sort of working class whites and rural folks, non-college educated white voters in places like Wisconsin and Michigan and Iowa and these other places. And Donald Trump completely took those voters away and refashioned in the process, refashioned the Republican party into the party of the working class. And I do not think that ... I mean, I think he's fundamentally changed the Republican party. I don't think it's going back to the party that it was before. I think that the economic populist message is something that ... Republicans have been talking about opportunity forever.

But they'd also been talking about it and the backdrop to that was unfettered free trade, which was, finally Republican voters revolted against in 2008, 2012, as they watched their communities get sort of hollowed out. I think Donald Trump has basically restored that piece to the Republican coalition. And by the way, as we saw he's ... that focus on class as opposed to race. Focus on economic opportunity and populism, which is backed up by policies that working class folks are seeing rising wages, fair trade agreements, not just free trade, but fair trade. Those kinds of things. And you see that, that is now crossing over ethnic lines. And so I don't know what the future of the Republican party holds.

I don't know whether Donald Trump is going to continue to be the leader of it, but whoever emerges as the leader of the Republican party moving forward, I think is going to have to ... It would be catastrophic to try and deviate from that message when they've had such success in terms of not only with non-college educated whites, but now with Hispanics and even with black voters. Particularly young black males. I think that's where the party is going to be. That's the path that party's on. I don't think it's going to change. I think the Republican party that all these never Trump folks have been pining for to go back to is ... that's a fantasy it's never going to happen.

Brian Anderson: Another state which had a surprising election result was close to home for you was Illinois with the defeat of a constitutional amendment to permit a progressive income tax, which Illinois doesn't allow. This has significant implications for the democratic party in the state as John McGuinness just argued for us in an excellent piece, which was run on Real Clear Politics. That the Democrats dominate state politics, but they're not really going to be able to reward their base, their political base and the public sector unions [inaudible 00:13:24] the public sector unions anymore. Right?

Tom Bevan: Yeah, that's right. And-

Brian Anderson: They won't be able to do it without raising taxes on everybody.

Tom Bevan: Correct. And we look ... there are signs that things are changing here. I mean, Governor Pritzker has come out and basically said that he doesn't think that Mike Madigan should be running the democratic party. Mike Madigan is ... if there's one constant in Illinois politics over the last 35 or 40 years, it's Mike Madigan, speaker of the house who has had basically sort of a death grip on the political system and has done more to ruin the state of Illinois fiscal well-being by basically colluding with public sector unions, right? And our unfunded pension liabilities and all of that stuff. It can be sort of traced directly back to him. And most Democrats went along with it. The one Republican ... I mean the Republican party in Illinois is so anemic, but the one Republican who ... Bruce Rauner, the last governor who tried to stand up to him just basically hit a brick wall and failed miserably, and then got kicked out of office after one term.

But there are signs now that the public, this was a huge defeat for Pritzker. And it does put Democrats in sort of a tricky spot. And we're starting to see a little bit of some cracks in the Madigan wall. And we'll see where that goes. I mean, I think for the state and for taxpayers in general, regardless of your political affiliation, getting some new blood in Springfield and getting rid of Mike Madigan would be a good thing that might shake loose some of the just utter corruption and dysfunction that we've had in this state for so long.

Brian Anderson: That's an outcome that a lot of polls missed, I believe. So maybe we could address the question of polling. With some notable exceptions, Rasmussen, the Trafalgar group, that British group, The Democracy Institute, The Big Data Poll, a few others, I guess. But a lot of the polling, especially those from the mainstream press was wildly off during this election. Not just with regard to missing the hidden support for Trump, but also as [Steven Langa 00:15:57] has recently written for us with regard to state elections and initiatives, too. You watch these things very closely. What's been going on with the pollsters? Is this just a bias on their part? Or is there kind of a methodological problem that's seeping in and why did some groups get a lot closer this time just as they did with Brexit?

Tom Bevan: Yeah. I mean, that's a good question. It's complicated. I think there are a lot of moving parts to that. Part of it is bias, I think. Part of it is them not fixing the things that they assured us they would fix after 2016. But I think you make a good point. I think we have to be careful and be specific, which is, I'm reading all these stories about, oh, the polling industry sucks and it's terrible. And we got to throw it all out. Well, that's not really the story. The story is there were two sets of pollsters this time around. The ones that you mentioned, Trafalgar, Rasmussen, Insider Advantage, Susquehanna, who saw this basically as a very, very close election. They saw Trump being very competitive in Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, certainly Iowa and these other places. Arizona, Nevada. And then you had the sort of mainstream media, academic, elite academic institutions like NBC Marist and New York Times Sienna, Quinnipiac, Emerson, some of these other folks, that got it completely wrong. I mean, completely wrong.

Brian Anderson: Or one late poll had Trump behind by, I think, 17 points in Wisconsin, right?

Tom Bevan: Yeah. So that was the ABC News Washington Post poll. And it was obviously way off. And I will defend them on this part, which is to say pollsters every now and then are going to get an outlier. I mean, that's just, you get a bad sample. It's not representative. And that's why there are margins of errors. That's why there are things called confidence intervals, right? One every 20 polls could be just a lemon, just a bad one because it doesn't produce a representative sample. And no matter how you try and weight things, you're going to end up with a funky result. Now, sometimes pollsters don't release those polls. They go back into the field. Sometimes they do. It just depends. And ABC News released this and nobody thought that Donald Trump was going to lose, I think, Wisconsin by 17 points.

But setting that aside. Okay. If you go look at our final average, right? We had a Trafalgar again had Biden winning Wisconsin by one point. He won it by seven tenths of a point. So spot on. I think Susquehanna had Biden plus three and the Marquette university law school poll, which is seen as quote unquote the gold standard, which in 2016 had Hillary Clinton winning by six points, had Biden winning by five. So they didn't really learn their lesson. They were basically where they were last time. But in addition to that, Wisconsin was heavily polled and you had a grouping of polls that at the end of the election, they had Biden plus eight, plus eight, plus eight, plus 10, and plus 11. That does not even include ... our final average did not include the ABC News Washington Post poll. So you had basically two pollsters that got it right. And you had four or five pollsters that got it way wrong. And so as a result, the average in Wisconsin was six and a half or something. And as I mentioned Biden wins it by seven tenths of a percentage point.

So I do think there were some pollsters that ... The problem is, and this is the crux of it really, is that the elite crowd that the media, and again, the Nate Silver's of the world, the Nate Coen's of the New York Times, ABC News, Washington Post is rated a quote unquote A-plus pollster by FiveThirtyEight. Quinnipiac is rated an A-plus pollster. So all their ... New York Times Sienna was rated an A-plus pollster. Meanwhile, the more pro Trump friendly pollsters, the ones that got it right this election, are rated C-minus, D pollsters.

And so those pollsters that were showing results more favorable to Trump, the pundits and the experts were just crapping all over them and saying these guys were spam. They don't know what they're doing. This is clearly not right. They've got it rigged for Trump. Meanwhile, they had it exactly right. So not only did you have two sets of pollsters with two different worldviews, you had the pundit class and the experts basically dismissing the pollsters who showed it competitive and accepting the pollsters who were way off. And again, they had this preconceived narrative and notion about what this race was going to look like because of all these different factors that we were told. How many think pieces did you read about why 2020 was different than 2016?

Biden's more favorable, he's not Hillary Clinton. COVID. All of this stuff, the district polls and this and that. And so the pundit class decided to take all the data points that fit their preconceived narrative. And lo and behold, we have a consensus that it's a 93% chance of Joe Biden winning, and what was FiveThirtyEight, like 89% Joe Biden's going to win this election.

And again, telling everybody this was not very competitive when in fact it was very competitive. I mean, the three states, everyone always talked about, well, Trump won. Democrats always say, oh, 77,000 votes in three states that decided that election. Well, this time around, if you look at Georgia, Arizona, and Wisconsin, if Trump flips those, that's 47,000 votes. So 30,000 less. And then in addition to that, you've got ... Nevada's 36,000. You've got Pennsylvania is still 47,000. So I think there are problems with polling that need to be addressed, but there were some folks who got it right. And they should be commended for that. And those are the folks who should be given the A-plus ratings and we should be asking, what are they doing? And how can the rest of the industry follow them to have a better understanding of how to get it right next time.

Brian Anderson: This is somewhat related to the first question I asked. It's part of, I think, the confusion that we're experiencing right now. It's this shift to voting by mail this year because of the pandemic, but also because some of the election laws in certain states allow activists to collect votes, ballot harvesting where these third parties, whether it's your neighbors or party activists can collect and deliver ballots. Now, many Republicans are skeptical of these laws claiming that people could take advantage of the system by tampering with or disregarding ballots. I'm wondering if you've got any thoughts about whether this is a good or bad idea, and are we going to be seeing ballot harvesting and voting by mail as a kind of permanent feature of our political landscape?

Tom Bevan: So, yes, I think we are going to see vote by mail become more a permanent feature of our landscape. And I think to the extent that we do that, I mean, if I had my druthers, I would hope that we could enact some uniform standards that everybody abide by in sort of in dealing with vote by mail. Again, we have 50 different systems and sort of wildly disparate in terms of how they go about things. And it would be nice because I think one of the things, one of the reasons that we are in the situation that we're in is because of vote by mail we have this turnout on election day that drives the numbers in one direction. Then you start counting these mail votes and it's not done in a transparent way.

It's done late at night and then they stop. And then you wake up the next morning. And there are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of votes that have moved the needle in the other direction. And that just inherently breeds suspicion among partisans as to how these numbers, the ebb and flow of these numbers. Florida and some of these other, Texas and some of these other states are good models for putting a unified standard in place where, fine, accept mail in ballots, but they've got to be counted before election day. And we're not going to be counting votes after election day. And they have to have signatures and yada, yada, yada, all that stuff gets checked. Because otherwise we're going to end up in a situation where the ... Already, regardless of what happens moving forward, half the country, 70 million plus people are going to walk away from this selection thinking it was stolen. And we had a poll come out this morning that said 70% of Republicans do not feel like this was a free and fair election.

That is a terrible thing for our democracy. And in an era where there are no longer ... we're so divided sort of politically, there are no blow out elections anymore. There are no landslide elections. We're constantly fighting over the same five or six states. And with some slight variations and some are moving in one direction, some are moving the other. But they're close and they're going to continue to be close. And so I do think we got to get a handle on it. Personally, what I would like to see also is I just think early voting is just a terrible idea in terms of ... And [Carl Cannon 00:00:26:12] and I have discussed this. I mean, our solution is you make election day a holiday and you make it a two day holiday. Well, basically a four day weekend, right? So if election's on Tuesday, you get Monday, Tuesday off and voting starts on Saturday.

So you have early voting, but it's only for three days. You vote Saturday, Sunday, Monday, Tuesday, and that's it. You're done. And you can still use absentee ballots if you're an overseas military person or you're elderly or infirm, whatever. But we do away with the idea that we're going to be voting for six weeks or something before the election takes place. And we do away with the mail-in balloting. Personally, I would. But that's just me. But I think mail-in balloting is going to be the future. We just have to figure out how to do it right. So that people have confidence in the system. Because the way we're doing it now, and the way we did it this year by sort of trying to jam all this stuff in because of the pandemic in six months, states that have never done it before, it's exactly the train wreck that people thought it was going to be.

Brian Anderson: Certainly it looks that way, man. Anything new on the horizon for a Real Clear Politics and your related sites? Any new sites launching? I'm sure your traffic must be insane right now with everything.

Tom Bevan: You know, for us, we're still a pretty small operation as you know, Brian. So like these election years, we just try and get through them. And then we come up for error afterwards and plot the future. Look, I think as far as the site goes, we don't have any plans to launch any new verticals in the near future. We're going to focus on the politics side. We have to do, I think, we're going to have to do a review of all of our polling averages and talk very seriously about how we go about our business, given how bad some of the pollsters were. Maybe we needed to make adjustments. Because one of the things that we have always done is we've just produced a simple average, right? The numbers are the numbers and you plug them in and FiveThirtyEight and some of these other places, they weight pollsters.

As I said, when they grade them, they give them different weights based on their gradings. They have a bunch of little secret sauce that they use in order to tweak these things. And we've never done any of that. We've just put in the numbers-

Brian Anderson: The raw average, right?

Tom Bevan: Yeah. It's just a raw average. And I think by and large that is served us very, very well. Particularly this year. But again, that doesn't mean that there aren't things that maybe we need to talk about doing and that we can do different, do better. Because I do think the trust in the polling industry writ large has taken a hit. Another hit. And I'm not sure how that changes how the public views pollsters in general. How they view averages and sites like us who aggregate pulling information.

So look, I think everybody's got to take a good, hard look in the mirror and figure out what they did wrong and there does need to be accountability for what happened. And I think we need to hold people accountable as well. This cannot be just a walk away from the scene of an accident and turn around and start telling everyone that once again, that you know exactly what you're doing. Because you just proved that you don't know what you're doing. And so we'll see how that goes. It didn't go so well four years ago, but maybe this will ... I'm not holding my breath, but maybe we'll have a little more introspection and humility this time around.

Brian Anderson: Well, thanks very much, Tom. Don't forget to check out, if you're not doing so already, Real Clear Politics for your election related coverage and general political coverage at all times. You can follow it's co-founder and our guest today, Tom Bevan, on Twitter @TomBevanRCP that's B-E-V-A-N. And you can also find City Journal on Twitter @cityjournal and on Instagram @cityjournal_MI. And as always, if you like what you've heard on the podcast, please give us a ratings on iTunes. Thanks very much for listening as always. And thanks Tom very much for joining us. It's great to talk with you.

Tom Bevan: Thank you, Brian.

Photo by Jeff Swensen/Getty Images

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