Adam Boulton: Reagan to Trump – covering US elections for 40 years has changed so dramatically

The first American election I was in Washington DC for was in 1980.

President Jimmy Carter had been fatally damaged by the taking of US hostages in Iran and a botched attempt to rescue them.

Ronald Reagan pretty much swept the board and was declared president-elect before the election night parties had even begun.

20th January 1981: Outgoing US President Jimmy Carter (L) sits with president-elect Ronald Reagan in the back of a limousine en route to Reagan's Presidential Inauguration Ceremony, Washington, DC. (Photo by Ronald Reagan Library/Getty Images)
Image:Outgoing US President Jimmy Carter (L) and Ronald Reagan en route to Reagan’s Presidential Inauguration Ceremony

The contrast to 2020, 40 years later, is dramatic. There has been no quick finish here.

Vote counting stretched over days, the result was disputed by one of the candidates and, technically at least, is likely to be contested in courts for weeks – at least up until 14 December when the Electoral College is convened to endorse the winner.

In 1980 there was a near universal urge to get behind the new Republican president who had a unifying slogan of “morning in America”.

By contrast Donald Trump depicted “American carnage” in his inauguration address four years ago.

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That cuts directly to the divisiveness which the incumbent has systematically encouraged in his campaign.

In his many mass rallies – dubbed “COVID superspreaders” by his opponents – he whips up the crowd by suggesting that his Democratic opponents are criminals trying to steal the election and should be “locked up”.

His other targets include “fake news”, or the mainstream media, and even Dr Anthony Fauci, the US adviser on coronavirus.

Even though the virus is surging in the United States, the president repeatedly told his reporters that the country is getting on top of the virus and that it will be forgotten after election day.

That is all exactly what they wanted to hear, even if many would regard it as an alternative reality.

He carried on in the same style after ballots had been cast.

He claimed the election was a fraud and being stolen from him and sent out his lawyers and supporters in a vain attempt to stop the counts.

I have little doubt that Donald Trump would have been re-elected if the coronavirus outbreak had not happened.

US voters are very conservative by European standards, and they seemed persuaded by Mr Trump’s boasts that jobs and the stock exchanges had done well under his presidency.

Instead COVID-19 has brought 230,000 deaths, and counting, to America. Four times more than the loss of American lives in the Vietnam war.

Mr Trump has been at least as incompetent in handling the disease as the British government. He has been even more reluctant to rely on what we call the state to handle the pandemic.

This hasn’t alienated his base who want to ignore or dismiss the outbreak. Mr Trump’s vote is up in the increased turnout at this election from 46% to 48% of the record turnout.

US President Donald Trump arrives for a Make America Great Again rally at Fayetteville Regional Airport November 2, 2020, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. - The US presidential campaign enters its final day Monday with a last-minute scramble for votes by Donald Trump and Joe Biden, drawing to a close an extraordinary race that has put a pandemic-stricken country on edge. (Photo by Brendan Smialowski / AFP) (Photo by BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI/AFP via Getty Images)
Image:Trump disregarded the pandemic to hold ‘superspreader’ campaign rallies

But Joe Biden’s share is up even more. He has more than 50% of the votes cast.

Significant numbers of women, the elderly, the college educated, young voters and ethnic minorities have been energised to vote against Mr Trump, some for the first time.

Mr Biden’s offer is the exact opposite. He has promised a concerted public health programme to deal with the outbreak.

His main message before and after election day was: “I am running as a Democrat, but I will govern for all Americans.”

COVID-19 has become yet another divisive issue in the culture war and in election politics. If you are worried about coronavirus, you are more likely to be a Democrat and you are more likely to have voted in advance or by mail.

This big turnout explains why Mr Biden caught up in Pennsylvania and Georgia, with the the not-on-the-day ballots counted last.

Earlier this year, nobody thought that Arizona and Georgia would be battlegrounds in this presidential election.

They were regarded as “ruby red” Republican states. Instead, Donald Trump had to bite his nails as the vote counts came down to fractions of 1%. He needed to win both states to stand a chance of being re-elected.

Georgia, the home of the peanut farmer and Democratic President Jimmy Carter as well as Dr Martin Luther King, is having the last laugh.

Mark Gibson

Graduates in Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois 1990. Move to Los Angeles California in 2004. Specialized in Internet journalism.

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