William Howell and Luigi Zingales
Big Brains podcst

What Remains Unanswered After The 2020 Election, with William Howell and Luigi Zingales (Ep. 58)

UChicago economist and political scientist discuss the polls, what lies ahead for Biden and the country post-Trump


William Howell and Luigi Zingales
Big Brains podcst

Show Notes

It’s hard to think of a presidential election that has raised as many questions as 2020. What do these results tell us about the views and desires of the American public, what the polls got right and wrong, and how all of this will affect our economy? To find some answers, we turned to two leading UChicago scholars—and fellow University of Chicago Podcast Network hosts to discuss what comes next, following the historic election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris.

Big Brains host Paul M. Rand welcomes Luigi Zingales, professor of economics and host of the Capitalisn’t podcastand William Howell, chair of the Department of Political Science and host of the Not Another Politics Podcastto untangle the record-setting 2020 campaign and debate the future of the country, post-President Trump.

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(Episode published November 11, 2020)


— Big Brains podcast: Trump, Coronavirus and the Cost of Ineffective Government

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— Big Brains podcast: Trump and the Changing Power of the Presidency


Paul Rand: Well, first off, thank you for joining on what has been an absolute roller coaster of a period of time. I wonder if each of you can recall what your first thoughts were as the election results began rolling in and how do they proceed during the week? Will, why don’t we start with you?

William Howell: Well, I think we learned something early on, and that was followed by a long, agonizing period of uncertainty. So what we learned early on is that we weren’t going to have a repudiation of Trump. Certainly, we weren’t going to have a Blue wall. So if you’re looking for a restoration of democracy and a pushback against Trump, you were disappointed early on.

William Howell: And then, I figured we weren’t going to learn anything for a few days. So I went to bed, woke up in the middle of the night, checked my phone and saw that Trump had declared victory and thought, this is the worst possible scenario. This is what we feared, amidst uncertainty on Election Night, he would declare victory. Now, I think we’ve crawled back from that moment, not just in terms of the vote totals, but also in terms of that sense of precarity. We’re on sounder ground right now than we were then, but it was pretty harrowing.

Paul Rand: Well, I know from your podcast that you’re a huge Taco Bell fan. Did you at any point feel this urge to run out and get a giant bean burrito or anything like that?

William Howell: You know, the bean burrito is good, but I like, for a festive night like Election Night, or what’s meant to be festive, you want to mark the occasion, I like the nachos. I like the crunchy taco supremes and a burrito supreme. And that’s what I had.

Paul Rand: The crunch is pretty critical for celebration, isn’t it?

Will Howell It really is. And what’s really critical is the hot sauce. You can’t go without the hot sauce.

Paul Rand: Well Luigi, and I know you can talk about food all day long as well, as you recall this happening on Election Night, what were the thoughts running through your head?

Luigi Zingales: No, for a moment, I thought it was a repeat of 2016, because you could see Trump so strong in Pennsylvania and not so behind or even ahead in the beginning in Michigan and Wisconsin. I was wondering how could a pollster have screwed up a second time this much? And then I was changing channels, and I actually ended up on FOX and I saw FOX calling Arizona, and I thought that was a completely different feeling. And just the fact that they called Arizona, I think for me was a pretty big signal that the wall was going the other way around.

Paul Rand: This thing about polling, clearly it was not all wrong, but it wasn’t anywhere near the sweep or the wall that was projected. And I wonder if you have any ideas why?

William Howell: I guess I’d want to say two things about the polls. The first thing I’d want to say, is that they got it wrong at the state level more than they got it wrong at the national level. It was a decisive win at the national level when you look at the popular vote. It’s at the state level that you have things break down. And this is in the aftermath of all kinds of trend lines, making life more difficult for pollsters. Fewer and fewer people answer the phone, getting representative samples are hard, when you have response rates somewhere between 4% and 8%, it’s awfully hard to say, to generalize, to any population.

William Howell: To my mind, a key thing that’s happening, a lot of people point to the difficulties of figuring out who the likely voters are, I think what’s happening rather is that getting representative state samples is hard because everybody’s on their cell and then you carry the cell number when you leave the state. I think that’s a big part of it.

William Howell: The other thing that I’d want to say though, is that I hope that this, all the kind of energy that we pour into horse race conversations and the extent to which we look at pollsters as being tribunes of the people and beacons of light that we should kind of bow before, I hope we disavow ourselves of that. And campaigns are, if not unique moments, then certainly rare moments for the country to come together and ask hard questions and speak across difference. And instead we obsess about polls, and we have very little to show for it.

Paul Rand: Well, Luigi, how do you feel about that? Because I think we’re never going to want to give up our, at least, perception that we can see around corners, are we?

Luigi Zingales: No, that’s for sure. And this is a little bit like in the stock market, in which we chase what are going to be next-day earnings just before they’re announced. And I think it’s not a particularly high social value activity, but it’s an activity that is compensated very well, is compensated very well in the stock market, is compensated very well also in the polls market. And most pollster, in my view, make money by telling stories that customers want to listen rather than getting it right.

Luigi Zingales: I think the other big issue is that people are afraid to say they’re going to vote for Trump. I saw a poll that says that 45% of Republicans are afraid for their job to reveal that they vote for Trump.

Paul Rand: That’s an interesting stat. Wow.

Luigi Zingales: And this is particularly true among, ironically, college-educated people. It seems that the biggest mistake is that if you look at the polls, they say that college-educated whites should go for Biden with a 20% margin or something like this. If you look at some exit polls, it seems that they were pretty even. So I think that that was a gigantic mistake. And then I think this gigantic mistake is due to the fact that if you are college-educated, you don’t want to tell your friends that you vote for Trump. You’re even less going to tell…

Paul Rand: A pollster.

Luigi Zingales: A pollster. Yeah, exactly.

Will Howell: Yeah. I guess, I think that’s really interesting and important. My interest in exploring the phenomenon, though, has less to do with correcting the polls and more understanding what that says about our politics, that there are a whole host of people who feel like they cannot openly reveal to family, to people who are anonymous to them, what their political views are. That’s speaks substantively to this moment, and that’s worth engaging.

Paul Rand: OK, well, let’s explore this question that you just went after. Why did he do so well do you guys think?

William Howell: I think this is a question that Democrats need to be asking themselves for the next few years, because if you’re a centrist or you’re left of the political spectrum, you think: How is it possible that the electorate puts up with this? And the issue is regularly framed as a willingness to look the other way amidst one offense or another. And I guess what I’d suggest is that no, there are people who really like this man, who find meaning in him, who believe that he speaks for them. And to my mind, a big part of it has to do with the rise of populism in American politics.

Paul Rand: Luigi, what are your thoughts on that?

Luigi Zingales: First of all, I have to say I’m at a disadvantage here because Will is a political science professor.

William Howell: I’m not going to talk to you about the stock market. I don’t want to join you.

Luigi Zingales: So I feel a bit at a disadvantage here. But I have a quite a different view, in a sense. The only thing I strongly agree is that Democrats have to spend the next four years trying to understand that. But honestly, I think that actually many of the more moderate conservative did not like Trump. And that’s the reason why he lost, in that there are a lot of, for example, suburban women that rejected Trump because of his demeanor.

Luigi Zingales: However, I think Trump has identify a need that was not fulfilled in the political spectrum in the United States, which is anti-free trade and socially conservative. This part was completely underserved, actually underserved is an understatement, was not served at all because the Democrats are too socially liberal and the Republicans go through what I call the invisible primaries first. So they go with the rich donors and ask the rich donors for money. And if you aren’t for free trade at that round, you’re history.

Luigi Zingales: And so I don’t think that Trump invented a new form of populism. Trump actually rediscovered an element of democracy that democracy is there to create demand from a representative to represent the interests of people.

William Howell: I think that the fact that the Republicans held on and did reasonably well is further evidence that this most recent election wasn’t a huge repudiation of Trump, that people who stood close by or were willing to either accommodate or enable Trump were not punished at the polls, I think as many Democrats hoped that they would be. I disagree that Trump assumed a set of widely popular positions that leads you to the characterization of a set of people whose voices were not adequately heard, their politics, I think is fair, but I don’t think that, broadly, the public was looking for big tax cuts for corporations and for people who are the highest earners or looking for a wall to be built on the Southern border, or were looking for a trade war with China, or were looking for a more relaxed stance vis-a-vis Russia.

Luigi Zingales: Actually, on the trade war on China, I disagree on. The other one, you’re absolutely right. But the position on China and I’m not endorsing what Trump has done on China, but the elite, particularly economically elite, has been completely of trade is great and make sense of it and this has devastated the Midwest and these people are angry, and they are rightly angry for this.

William Howell: No, I completely agree with that. I completely agree with that. Yes, the anger and the disaffection in the sense that the system is broken is something that he tapped into. And to my mind, that is part of both the populous kind of strategies and the rhetoric that he deploys and helps explain the anti-democratic, small ‘d’ democratic, posture that he has assumed throughout his presidency and why he constitutes a very real threat to democracy.

William Howell: It isn’t just somebody who has assumed a different set of positions, or is a new brand of Republican. He’s somebody who has pushed back in all kinds of really important ways against democratic institutions, democratic norms, democratic practices, that’s a constituent feature of his presidency. He’s not just kind of a new guy who’s rethought a couple of positions that then has attracted some additional votes.

Paul Rand: So the Democratic Party is now going to sit down. I can only imagine, not only trying to get ready to transition, but they’re having some of these same conversations of: ‘What do we learn out of this? And we’ve got another two years, we might be able to flip some additional seats after you get past January in Georgia.’ What are the Democrats learning from this? What do you think they need to learn out of it? And do you think they will?

William Howell: This is where I agree with a number of things that Luigi’s said. I think that they need to recognize that significant portions of the American public have suffered under a set of policies involving open free trade, rise of globalization, automation that they haven’t stepped in, in a meaningful sense, in a robust sense and said: “The government hasn’t served you well. And I’m going to stand by you.”

William Howell: A big thing that I think Democrats ought to learn, not all, but a significant number of Democrats, their view is that look, the government can solve problems. And what the public simply needs to recognize is that the government is essentially good. And that the problem that they have is a PR problem. It’s a communication problem. It’s about, you just don’t see all the goodness that flows from the government. And that, to my mind, is a losing proposition for the Democrats.

William Howell: What they ought to do is to step up and say: “You know what? The government in many ways is broken. In many ways, it has been an abject failure. It hasn’t delivered. And that isn’t to say that then we ought to disavow the government or that we should somehow turn and all become libertarians.” But rather the Democratic Party would do well to take some ownership of the failures of government to solve problems and to spend some attention to how they want to rebuild institutions in the service of a more effective government.

Paul Rand: Luigi, do you think that he’s right in this?

Luigi Zingales: First of all, I think there is a distinction between what they should learn and what they will learn.

Paul Rand: Absolutely.

Luigi Zingales: But let’s first start with what they should learn. I mostly agree with Will. I think that one thing that they should learn is they push too much the identity politics in the sense in the very same California where they won by a gigantic margin, a referendum block the use of discrimination to favor disadvantaged communities. And they lost by, I think, 56 to 44. So I think it was a pretty wide margin. So even the most hardcore Democrats don’t want that as a center of the policy.

Luigi Zingales: The second thing, they need to understand the economic issue and understand that there is a broad support, even among a Republican base for this. And this is what is a bit tricky, because they need to bypass the business elite that is behind both parties, but increasingly so the Democratic Party. Everybody thinks about democratic party as the party of the people, but you can’t reconcile this with the fact that three quarter of the S&P 500 CEO endorse Biden for president. The fact that Biden defeated Trump in money raised by a huge margin and not money raised only in small donation, money raised by the big donors.

Luigi Zingales: The fact that the top of the administration of the Biden administration will be coming, we see already the first signs, the head of the transition team, where they come from? Goldman Sachs. The head of tech policy is the former legal counselor of Facebook. And then you go down and you see that this is a party that would like to be a party of the people, in fact, is the party of the elite. And I think that this soul searching of the Democratic Party is something extremely difficult. And I’m not so sure that we’ll be able to do it, but that’s what they should do.

Luigi Zingales: I think for the sake, more of the country rather than the Republican Party, I think that it should become a reasonable conservative popular party. In the sense that, I think that the people like Rubio, for example, are moving in this direction of trying not to be just the party of business and defend the business interests, but trying to respond to that demand that Trump identified. And I think that they, actually, have an enormous opportunity because the part we’ve not discussed so far, is that you have a third of Asian Americans who voted for him. You have, I think, 26% of Hispanic and 18% of black males or something like that, numbers that were very hard to reconcile with some of the rhetoric that Trump used, but some of the rhetoric that the democrat were using that they’re all racist, they’re all bigots and so on, so forth.

Luigi Zingales: And I think that if they were to give legitimate and democratic responses, democratic with a small ‘d’ democratic responses to the questions that Trump was addressing, I think that they are a majority party in America for a long time. And they will stabilize the American system. The fear is that they, as Will was saying, they kind of flirt with this authoritarian ideas, and that will be very dangerous for the country.

William Howell: And I think transition that too, from what you would hope they would be to what’s most likely to happen, not seeing Trump and Trumpism and populism going away. These leanings, yearnings for authoritarianism, these demagogic appeals, these racialized appeals, combined with voter suppression efforts, all the work of the Republican Party when it comes to small d democracy has been about reducing the franchise, shrinking the franchise, not expanding it. And that’s in no small part because they see the writing on the wall, which is a set of demographic changes, which disadvantage them and for which they, in order for them to their hold on power, they need a Senate. They’re going to start celebrating the judiciary, and they need to do everything they can to push back against rising levels of turnout.

William Howell: And so my best guess about what’s going to happen is we’re not going to see them taking the kind of stock that we saw them taking in the aftermath of Romney’s defeat and saying, “Come on people, we need to speak clearly and reach out to people who are having a hard time of it and get our senses.” But rather Trumpism will continue and to continue to push back against our democracy. And they’re going to be, to the extent that they win, they’re going to be the minority party. It’s not an accident that they’re not winning the popular vote in presidential elections.

William Howell: And this go-around, if Trump beats every conceivable odd and somehow takes the office this go-around, it will be in the aftermath of having lost the popular vote by 5 to 6 million people. Unbelievable. That’s the kind of groundwork for presidential politics for sometime to come. And it’s only going to be weighing more in the favor of the Democratic Party.

Paul Rand: OK, so here we go. And assuming that the Democrats are not going to take the Senate as we get into January, we’re going to end up, of course, in divided government. And I wonder what you think that’s going to look like, Will, and we do have Biden who’s seen as this consensus builder, or is he going to have some of the same experiences with McConnell and the Senate that Obama ran into?

William Howell: So the fact that the Republicans are likely to maintain control of the Senate, that they’ve picked up seats in the House, they have a six to three majority in the Supreme Court, this is not a table that’s been set for a Democratic president with a really ambitious, progressive agenda. There are a set of things that were talked about at length during the Democratic primaries that as best I can tell are off the table. We’re not going to get single-payer health care. We’re not going to overturn the Trump tax cuts. We’re not going to pack the court.

William Howell: That’s not to say that nothing will be done legislatively. There will be some things. I think we can well imagine a Stimulus Act put forward and taken up. I think I can well imagine some action happening on infrastructure. It’ll be interesting to see whether or not any progress is made on immigration. I wouldn’t expect anything comprehensive in that space, but if any action is happening in that space. The things with the clearest partisan valence that will be advanced are going to be things that are advanced unilaterally. So the overturning of all the deregulatory activities of the Trump administration, all that’s going to be happening unilaterally. But when it comes to legislative enactments, I think we’re not going to see very much and what we do see is going to be pretty centrist.

Paul Rand: Luigi, as we think about this, certainly Wall Street prefers this idea of a divided government. Is that accurate?

Luigi Zinagles: Oh, absolutely. I think that because they know that nothing major will be done and they like the status quo. Wall Street was enamored of the stimulus package the way it was designed, brought a lot of money to business, more than actually to people, in my view. And I think that they can be reassured that nothing major will be done in the next few years.

Luigi Zingales: I do think that Biden could try a few things. Could try, for example, an increase in the minimum wage. He can try to introduce a public option. Certainly, there is no way he’s going to do a major reform on health care, but introducing a public option could be a way forward. But I agree with Will, is there is an enormous amount of stuff you can do from a regulatory point of view, without passing any law, from the EPA to, of course, what he can do at the FTC and the DOJ from a competitive point of view. I think that there is a very interesting part.

Luigi Zingales: Before the election, I wrote a piece on the Wall Street Journal saying that the Department of Justice suit against the Google was a poison pill for Biden, because now Biden finds himself with an open case. And if he closes it, it looks like he is too weak with big tech. If he endorses it, then he finds a trouble with his donors and particularly the one of Kamala Harris. Let’s remember that from day one, Kamala is running for president, OK? So Biden is clearly a transition president, and the real game is what happen in 2024. And I wouldn’t count out Trump in 2024, either in person or through one of his kids.

Paul Rand: All right, well, let’s dig into this because I wonder, Luigi, if you can tell me what you think a Biden economy is going to look like?

Luigi Zingales: This is a $100 million question because nobody knows what Biden really stands for. There’s always been a model, but it’s changed a lot over his life. And also there are other circumstances. So I could see a Biden that becomes an LBJ and says, “I am at the end of my career. And I want to end with a bang, and end with a bang making some major changes.” Now, of course the Senate is a problem along that way, but at least there is this inspiration.

Luigi Zingales: There is the Biden that is cooperating with everybody in the Senate and is not going to get very much done. But I think that there is also the tension, and I think this is very important for 2024, and since Biden got elected by putting together a coalition that goes from AOC to Bill Kristol. I think that the only thing that kept together this coalition is how bad morally Trump was. Okay. It was not an economic idea, it was a moral idea. And now when you govern, morality is not enough. You need to have a common vision. And I don’t see this common vision. And what I fear is that this coalition will break apart. And so the next democratic president or presidential candidate will have to give up one of the two wings and that will make him or her extremely weak vis a vis sort of a resurgent Trump or Trump lookalike.

William Howell: So I’m interested in hearing what Luigi thinks about the relationship between economic growth under Biden and our efforts to get a handle on COVID. We haven’t said COVID yet. It’s clearly the No. 1 issue that Biden plans to attend to. And I think by his account, the only way we get back the economy is by first getting on top of the pandemic.

Luigi Zingales: I think that by March 2021, we will have a vaccine that people start to deploy, and Biden could be faster in deploying this. In that sense, Biden has it easy because he gets on the way out. So I don’t think he has to do a lot to get the infection under control by that time. It will be, one way or another, on our way down.

Paul Rand: Will, thanks for bringing up the COVID component. What we’re not tackling, even if we get COVID under control, is some of the bigger existential issues that are facing our world. And they almost got lost completely out of sight during this election cycle. Whether it’s climate change or some of these other topics there’s been minimal to no discussions about those. Are we going to put those on the back burner for the next four years just because they are so far out and so unreachable that we’ll never get alignment on them? Or do you think we can actually make progress on them?

William Howell: I don’t think given the makeup of our federal government that we can expect to see a robust response to climate change, in the near term. But I think that both to maintain the democratic coalition and to attend to the reality that is climate change, Biden would do well to begin to structure conversations, much more robust conversations than we’ve had up until now, about the problem. This isn’t about him delivering his solution to Congress on day one.

Paul Rand: No Green New Deal on day one?

William Howell: No, that’s not going to happen. But he can do a whole host of things unilaterally, which have some policy value, maybe have even greater symbolic value. He can talk about the issue to a greater extent. He can form commissions that then will lay out pathways to attending to this issue. He can formulate and reenter international agreements.

William Howell: He can’t ignore it, simply because there’s not a pathway to advancing change legislatively. He can’t afford to do so either by reference to his base and keeping the coalition together, or by being a responsible president, which is about attending to profound national, international challenges that significant portions of the public may not be ready yet to attend to. That’s what leadership is about.

Paul Rand: We are now, what, 70-ish days out from inauguration? But as you know, we still have a president who’s disputing the results. What do you project is going to happen during this period?

William Howell: Yeah. Trump has not conceded and has shown no proclivity to concede. There are no signs of the administration preparing to or being disposed to cooperate with the incoming administration. And it’s too bad, because there’s a lot of examples of the early tenure of presidential administrations in the aftermath of chaotic transitions underperforming. And that is problematic both in terms of the capacity of the government itself to take the actions that need to be taken, but it’s also problematic in that where there is chaos domestically, that creates space for other countries to misbehave, that creates space for the kind of anger and disaffection that’s corroding our politics to take even deeper root. So, no, this is not just a lost opportunity, it’s something that’s causing real damage.

Luigi Zingales: I think that that Trump, it’s hard for him to face defeat. So will he be a bit crazy? Yes. I think that the part that we should remember, because I think it’s very important, is that the country has given an enormous proof of democracy. The participation has been unprecedented and took place in the most difficult moment in history, in the most smooth way in history, in the sense that there were no disorders. There was no shooting. There was nothing. So is he going to concede? Maybe not, but who cares?

Luigi Zingales: In a sense, yes, there will be a delay in the transition. I agree with Will, but every transition period is difficult, even under the best situation. But we know we have seen terrible transition when in 1931, ‘32, when Roosevelt was elected, Hoover was so desperate and went and asked for Roosevelt’s advice. And Roosevelt said, “No,” because he wanted all the responsibility to fall under Hoover. And then the day after he took over, he put a bank holiday and made all the changes.

Luigi Zingales: So I think that the tension in the administration change have been there for a long, long time. And I don’t think we need to exacerbate that. What I’m very happy about is that the victor is pretty clear, is not in question. My biggest fear was a world in which the difference was so close, that will be resolved by the Supreme Court. So you have a world in which the army says the legitimate president is Donald Trump because the Supreme Court has decided that, but the rest of the country will not accept it. And then would have been devastating.

Luigi Zingales: I don’t think we are there. I don’t think that, I’m not a lawyer, but everybody says that there is no merit to any of the claims that he makes. And at this point, I don’t even see John Roberts being so crazy to defend him and go down in flames with him. So I think that the transition will be much better than people expected, with a lot of ugly tweets, but I chose not to follow Donald Trump and I live happily.

William Howell: But 70 million people do follow him. 70 million people, none the less, voted for him. I agree with you that the turnout as high as it is, is a mark in favor of democracy. And particularly that we pulled it off during a pandemic. Just as we have an outcome that is reasonably clear. Thank goodness for that. When we think about the possibilities of a transition, a peaceful transition of power.

William Howell: But on the other side, we have a Republican party that is silent, and there are a number of vocal members who are coming out saying, “Yes, keep pushing.” That these court cases lack any merit. And yet Trump is pushing them in order to, again, sow the anger, to convince lots of people that Biden cheated and that when Biden assumes office, he’s going to be governing, going to be asked to govern a country in which a lot of people will think, all facts to the contrary, a lot of people will think that, in fact, he did cheat. And so that’s not to say that we won’t make it through. I’m hopeful that we will make it through. I think that there are, ah, this could have been much worse, but boy our democracy’s degraded by virtue of the last four years and the predilections of the man who’s been in office.

Luigi Zingales: I think it’s more our institutions that are degraded rather than our democracy. I think that actually our democracy, as a paradox, has been strengthened because more people are participating through the electoral process, more people understand how important it is. And I am a bit more optimistic because even FOX is abandoning Trump. I’m not that that worried about moving forward.

Luigi Zingales: What I am worried about is that there’ve been a lot of people fired in the administration because they were not doing what the president said, even when this was against the law. And we need to go back to a normal country where you have the right to disagree and disobey when this involves breaking the law. I think that this was the country that was after Watergate, in part, because the people who went along paid the price and the people who did not go along became the heroes. So I think that it’s important to establish some norms in institutions. I think that eight years in a row of Trump would have possibly destroyed these norms. I think now they are affected, but I think they are still solvable.

Paul Rand: Lot of work to do going ahead here. We’ll check back and see how this progresses. Really appreciate it.

William Howell: You bet.

Luigi Zingales: Thanks a lot.

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