Opinion: Should Prime Minister Trudeau formally acknowledge a Joe Biden victory?

Published Nov. 6, 2020 10:04 a.m. ET
Updated Nov. 6, 2020 10:29 a.m. ET

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Prime Minister Justin Trudeau shakes hands with US Vice-President Joe Biden on Parliament Hill in Ottawa on Friday, December 9, 2016. THE CANADIAN PRESS/ Patrick Doyle

MONTREAL -- As the final results in the battleground states of Pennsylvania and Georgia come in, former Democratic vice-president Joe Biden will soon announce that he will be the next president of the United States. Predictably, Donald Trump is insisting that he was the winner and that he’ll legally challenge what he is calling "illegal ballots" in a "corrupt voting system" that operates in areas with high concentrations of Democrats. He’s already singled out such places as Detroit and Philadelphia where he says corruption is inherent and many of his supporters will assume he’s referring to the vulnerable minority Black population in those cities. 

Once the former vice-president declares victory, should Prime Minister Justin Trudeau officially congratulate the incoming president? It is very tempting to do so given Trump’s authoritarian behaviour and considering that eight-in-ten Canadians favour Joe Biden as do nine-in-ten Liberal supporters. For the time being, Trudeau may be better off resisting the temptation since Trump will contest the election and he will remain president until the transfer of power on Jan. 20. Also, while still in office Trump may retaliate against Canada should Trudeau step in as the recounts and judicial proceedings run their course. That said, in the midst of what will likely be a politically turbulent next couple of months south of out border, Trudeau should reaffirm his faith in the democratic decision of Americans.

How did America get to this point? Prior to the elections, many pollsters were predicting a landslide victory for Biden putting him ahead of Donald Trump by as much ten points during the month of October. But on the evening of Nov. 2, as the election results came in, many were on the proverbial edge of our seats with Democrats stunned by the numbers of Trump voters and Republicans in a state of euphoria. By the end of the night, Biden was up by about two points in the popular vote (50 to 48 per cent) and as U.S. election watchers are frequently reminded the winner is determined by the number of votes secured in the electoral college which vary across the States. While there remained millions of votes still to be counted on Tuesday night, Republicans began dreaming of a Trump re-election while Democrats were having nightmares about it.

Based on the pre-election polling, on voting day, global online gaming sites made Joe Biden the clear favourite to win the presidency. That prediction lasted until about 9 p.m. on Tuesday. As the results came, Trump had a commanding lead in what are described as those battleground states that ultimately determine who will be president. Hence from 9 p.m. until 5 a.m. on Wednesday, Trump emerged as a heavy favorite to obtain a second term in those same gaming sites. But as the sun came up on Wednesday and more votes were counted, the pendulum seemed to swing back to Biden and he took the lead in a number of key states, thereby giving him a clearer pathway than Trump to the 270 votes needed to win the electoral college and become president. As many Republicans awoke, their dreams seemed to be busted and, for many, joy turned to anger. Over the course of Wednesday morning gaming sites increasingly made Biden the heavy favourite to win.

Predicting U.S. elections is no simple task. In the 2016 U.S. presidential elections, many pollsters put Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton comfortably ahead of Donald Trump and while she secured more of the popular vote in that year the total was well short of where most polls had her before the election. Four years later, the polls again seem well off the mark with some predicting a Biden landslide. It is likely that when the post mortem is done on the 2020 U.S. presidential election there will be serious questions raised about the accuracy of election polling.

Trump has argued that many pollsters damaged his campaign by giving his supporters the impression that the Republicans had no momentum. On the other hand it is possible to contend that polls giving the Democrats a commanding lead might have convinced Biden supporters that they needn’t come out to vote. And the polls giving Hillary Clinton didn’t stop Republicans from winning the 2016 election.

But the 2020 national election polls may not have been as far off as many observers presume. When the dust settles, Biden will likely be ahead by three percentage points with 50.5 per cent of the popular vote versus 47.5 per cent for Trump. If many of the polls overestimated the Democrats lead it was, to some extent, because they do not take into account the varying rates of voter participation across regions and on the basis of age (the same is true in polling on elections in Canada). The turnout rates in the 2020 U.S. elections attained some record highs, but in the very large and overwhelmingly Democratic states of California and New York they were as much as 20 points lower than the national average thus substantially reducing the projected lead in the popular vote for Joe Biden.

One thing that all pollsters acknowledge is the demographic characteristics that underlie the sharp political divisions south of our border. Urban versus less urban, younger versus less young, more and less formally educated, more religious versus less and differences across racial lines have for many decades shaped the polarized American political landscape that from the outside looks to some like a unified patriotic citizenry. It is true that Americans have shown a capacity to rise above these differences. But for political purposes, Donald Trump successfully exploited these tensions to a degree not seen in recent decades. And despite the Democrats pending 2020 win, in the future others risk following Trump’s political example.  

Jack Jedwab is president of the Association for Canadian Studies 

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