By Professor Tommy Koh: The 2020 US Presidential Election - A Quest For Understanding

November 10, 2020


The United States of America is a very complicated country.  Although I have spent over 20 years of my life in that country, I am frequently surprised and puzzled by events in that country.  This essay is an attempt to understand the 2020 elections which have been won by President-elect Joe Biden and Vice-President-elect Kamala Harris. I should add that President Donald Trump has not conceded defeat and intends to challenge the results in the courts.

Blue States and Red States

The Democratic Party is represented by the colour blue.  The Republican Party is represented by the colour red.  A very striking feature of the election result, is that the 3 states on the west coast and the 10 states on the northeast coast, are blue states.  The reason is probably that the people on the two coasts are better educated, more cosmopolitan and liberal.  This is why most of them voted for the Democratic Party.

Why is the South Coloured Red?

Another striking feature is that most of the states in the south, which were part of the confederacy during the Civil War, are red states.  Georgia is the only exception to the rule.  Historically, the southern states were blue states.  However, when Presidents Kennedy and Johnson, decided to end segregation in the south, and introduced the Civil Rights Act and the Voting Rights Act, the south felt betrayed by the Democratic Party.  As a result, all of them switched their allegiance to the Republican Party.  The Republican Party, the party of Abraham Lincoln, has forgotten his legacy and become the champion of the white voters.

Why are most of the states between the two coasts are red states?

It is also very striking that most of the states between the two coasts are red states?  Is there an explanation for the phenomenon?  I think there is. The people who live in the middle of the country tend to be more conservative than those living on the two coasts.  They also tend to be more religious.  Many of the Americans who live in the rural America and in the west, tend to own guns and hunt for recreation.  The Republican Party has weaponised Christianity against the Democratic Party.  It has also embraced the National Rifle Association and the gun lobby.  To understand this better, please read Joe Bageant’s excellent book, Hunting with Jesus.

Urban and Rural Voters

There is another interesting phenomenon.  It is the political divide between the voters living in cities, who tend to vote for the Democratic Party and the suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote for the Republican Party.  We saw the same divide in the British Brexit referendum.  This could be explained by the fact that people who live in cities tend to be more liberal than those who live in the suburbs and rural areas.

The Education Divide

Education is another divisive factor.  There appears to be a political divide between the white college-educated voters and non-college-educated white voters.  Those with college degrees tend to vote for the Democratic Party and those without tend to vote for the Republican Party.  I think the explanation is that those who have had the benefit of a university education, tend to be more liberal than those who do not.

The White Working Class

Until the 2016 Presidential Election, neither party had focused on the white working-class voters.  Historically, the Democratic Party was the champion of the working class.  The party made the mistake of taking this constituency for granted.  The party’s leaders, such as, Hillary Clinton, also became elitist and lost touch with this constituency.  In 2016, President Trump saw the opportunity to be the champion of this constituency. The Republican Party has succeeded in capturing the support of the white working-class voters. To understand this development better, I recommend two excellent books:  Hillbilly Elegy by J D Vance and the White Working Class by Joan C Williams.

White Voters and Black Voters

There is also a racial divide in the behaviour of the voters.  By a big majority, the black voters voted for Joe Biden.  Most of the Asian Americans, Hispanic-Americans and the Native Americans also voted for him.  However, in Florida, there were two groups of Hispanic-Americans who voted for Donald Trump.  These were the Cuban-Americans who were ideologically anti-left and the Venezuelan-Americans who were grateful to President Trump for his opposition to Venezuelan President Maduro.  In the case of the white voters, especially the male white voters, a majority voted for Donald Trump.  A majority of white female voters voted for Biden.

The Gender Divide

There is also a gender divide in the voting behaviour of male and female voters.  In every election, a higher percentage of women voters than men took part in the election.  There is a 4 percent gender gap between men and women.  More women voted for the Democratic Party.  About 56 percent of registered women voters identified themselves as Democrats or leaning towards them whereas only 38 percent of such voters identified themselves as Republicans or leaning towards them.

The Young Voters

Who did the young voters, below the age of 30, vote for?  This group of voters constitutes 17 percent of the electorate.  According to, 53 percent of the young voters cast their ballots this year.  The young voters did not vote as a bloc.  A slight majority of young male voters voted for Trump.  A big majority of young female voters voted for Biden.  Youth of colour voted overwhelmingly for Biden.  According to a report, of 7 November 2020, by the Tufts Tisch College, the youth vote was one of the factors which powered Biden to victory.

A Divided America

Thirty years ago, American was a different country.  In the old America, the two political parties did not see each other as enemies.  They saw each other as competitors.  The leaders of the two parties consulted frequently and were often able to achieve a consensus on contentious issues.  In those days, there was agreement to put nation before party and party before self.   In the recent past, some American leaders seemed to put self before party and party before nation. 

I recall for example, that Senator Joe Biden (D) and Senator Richard Luger (R) would alternate as Chairman of the powerful Senate Foreign Relations Committee, depending on which party had a majority in the Senate.  The two Senators were friends and were able to work closely together. 

To be sure, there was some ideological differences between the two parties.  The Republican Party stood for free trade and the Democratic Party was more protectionist.  The Democratic Party tended to give a higher priority to democracy and human rights in its foreign policy agenda. The differences were however, of degree rather than kind.  There were more commonalities between them than differences.

Over the past 30 years, America has become more polarized and divided.  The paradigm shift probably began with Speaker Newt Gingrich, a Republican who viewed the Democratic Party as enemy and advocated confrontation over compromise.  The relations between the two parties have become toxic and they view each other as the enemy of the people.

The Future

Joe Biden is a healer and unifier.  We must wish him success in uniting a deeply divided nation. I hope the Republicans in Congress will not rebuff him as they did to President Obama.  The Democratic and Republican parties must put aside their petty differences to tackle the monumental challenges of the COVID-19 pandemic, the economic recession, the just demand of the Blacks for equality and justice, climate change and the formulation of a new foreign policy. 

The election of Kamala Harris as the Vice-President-elect is a historical first in three ways.  She is the first woman, the first black woman and the first Asian-American, to hold that high office.  She is a tremendous asset to Joe Biden.

 I have a final message to my friends in the Democratic and the Republican Parties:  America leads best abroad when she is united at home.


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