Published: Nov. 4, 2020 By

EDITOR'S NOTE: Joseph Biden Jr. was elected the 46th president of the United States on Saturday, Nov. 7, surpassing the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House. 

With results still being counted in several states Wednesday, threats of lawsuits and some suggesting it could be days or even weeks before the presidential race is resolved, election night 2020 was far from decisive—at least on the national level. But a few things did emerge as certain, CU Boulder political scientists say.

The once red Centennial State is looking decidedly blue, passing progressive measures such as a paid family medical leave plan that is unique in the nation and tilting the CU Board of Regents to the left for the first time in decades.

And no matter who wins the presidential election, U.S. voters have some healing to do.

We asked Kenneth Bickers, chair of the Department of Political Science, and Celeste Montoya, an associate professor of women and gender studies, for their take on the election as it stood on Wednesday afternoon.

Their interviews have been edited for brevity and clarity:

2020 has been framed as a ‘historic election.’ What’s historic about it?

Montoya: What’s notable about this election is that we are in the middle of a global pandemic, at a time of high polarization, amid mass mobilization around inequality. The election is seen as a mandate on these issues—on whether or not the government policy response to COVID-19 or differing approaches to race, immigration, gender and LGBTQ issues has been appropriate. Who wins has huge policy implications. That is not always the case.

Bickers: I would not call 2020 a historic election. I would say 2016 was the historic one. It represented a major break from normal politics with the nomination of Donald Trump as a nontraditional Republican candidate, and it posed a choice between an outside-the-box disrupter and a very traditional candidate, Hillary Clinton. 2020 is about voters deciding whether they made the right or wrong decision in 2016. Clearly, the country is divided on that.

How unusual is it for us to not know who the president is yet?

Bickers: In some ways this is more reminiscent of life before the internet and modern technologies. It was not unusual until the 1950s or 1960s for elections to take some days before we knew the outcome. How often do we see contested elections? It is uncommon, but not totally unprecedented. In 1960, it was a potentially contested election between Nixon and JFK, but Nixon chose to concede and not put the country through that. And there are others: 1876, 1824, 1800.

How will this one go? If it can be resolved where Pennsylvania is not the pivotal state then we could know the outcome sooner. But if Pennsylvania lives up to its namesake, and is the keystone state, it will be very much like 2000 with Bush vs. Gore, and that takes time. It could be quite painful.

Montoya: It is a bit unusual, but it should not be. If we are really focused on inclusion and making sure that democratic processes are in place and every vote is counted, it should take time.

What do you make of the Colorado results? Are we a blue state now?

Bickers: There is a big story and a small story here. The big story is that Colorado is now solidly a blue state. The flipping of the Senate seat from Cory Gardner to John Hickenlooper, the decisive victory by Biden over Trump, the down-ballot races and the CU Regents race all point to that. The small story is that, due to the tax measures that Colorado voters passed, it is going to be a lot less fun to be a Democrat in the state legislature than it was before last night’s vote. They will have less money in their coffers, and it will be harder to get more.

Montoya: Demographics and political engagement are shifting in Colorado. We have a growing millennial population and a politically engaged Gen Z, both of whom are more representative of communities of color. There is also an increasing number of independent voters in Colorado, some of whom are progressive. How those coalitions all hold together in the future will be interesting to see. Both parties still have some work to do to recruit and support more diverse candidates and make the delegation more representative of what the state looks like.

What surprised you on election night?

Bickers: Looking at the whole country, I had no idea it would be such a status-quo election. I really thought that either Biden was going to win handily, or the polls would be so wrong that Trump would win handily. Instead, if you look at the map, there has been a lot of stability—even in an election where we are being asked to stay the course or not. We are still a country as divided as we were in 2016.

Montoya: At the national level, I was not expecting it to be so close. In Colorado, there were also some notable outcomes, not all surprising. For the first time in 40 years there is going to be a Democratic majority on the Board of Regents, a 5-4 split. The new Family Leave Act is also historic. This is one of the most progressive family leave acts in the United States and to see it actually play out was a big surprise. People are going to be watching Colorado on this one.

No matter who wins, some are going to be deeply disappointed. What advice do you have for people whose candidate does not win?

Bickers: If your person didn’t win at the national level, focus your time and energy on your state or county or city government. You can lose at one level and win at another level simultaneously. To me, that is one of the strengths of federalism, in which power is divided between the federal, state and local governments. It is one of the most important relief valves for people who are overly invested in a national outcome and need to still feel like they can have an impact on policy.

Montoya: The fact that people, no matter what side they are on, feel that a loss by their candidate is this existential threat shows something is wrong with our system. Our institutions were set up to have more moderated results so that people still felt like they are being represented no matter who was in power and where elected officials are responsible for the entire constituency—not just those who elected them. That’s not happening. We need to start talking seriously both in our institutions and in our society about how we can find common ground. Regardless of the outcome of this election, there is a lot of work to be done to address issues of inequity and inclusion.

Ken Bickers

Ken Bickers

Celeste Montoya

Celeste Montoya