Credit to Marc Müller, Joe Ravi, Lucas Sankey, Fibonacci Blue, David Maier, Marek Studzinski, Library of Congress, Scientific Animations and Oregon Dept. of Forestry.

What's at Stake? The 2020 U.S. Election

2020, Democracy

On November 3, all eyes will be on the United States as voters go to the polls in one of the most important presidential elections in the country’s history. Americans are more polarized than they have been in decades, as Donald Trump’s inflammatory rhetoric has intensified emotions across the political spectrum. Many fear that fundamental democratic values, such as the rule of law, the right to vote and the right to peaceful protest, are under threat. The Senate is also in play, with implications for the Supreme Court and even the election itself. Will Donald Trump win a second term and will Republicans hold the Senate, or will Joe Biden and the Democrats sweep to power?

Just days before the election, our panel of experts will discuss where the electoral map stands, the key issues for voters, and how the election might reshape US politics in the coming years. Panelists will address how key groups, including Black, Latinx and women voters, will influence the outcome, as well as the role of COVID-19 and the president’s handling of the pandemic.

Wed, 28 Oct 2020

6:00 p.m. (PT)

Online Event


Steven Weldon

Professor, SFU Department of Political Science

Steven Weldon is a professor of political science at Simon Fraser University and is also the founding director of SFU’s Centre for Public Opinion and Political Representation. His research focuses on the politics of diversity and immigration, particularly how the recent rise of radical right, anti-immigrant politics is reshaping and threatening democracy in places like Canada, the United States and across Europe. Currently, Steven leads a research group on the Politics of Extremism and Democracy, which studies the psychological roots of radical right politics and the role of social media in spreading these ideas.


Niambi M. Carter

Associate Professor of Political Science & Director of Graduate Studies, Howard University

Dr. Niambi M. Carter is an associate professor of political science and director of graduate studies at Howard University. She earned her doctorate in political science from Duke University (2007), working primarily in the area of American politics with a specific focus on race and ethnic politics, Black politics, public opinion and political behavior.

Dr. Carter’s book, American While Black: African Americans, Immigration, and the Limits of Citizenship (Oxford University Press), investigates African American public opinion on immigration. She is also actively involved in other work that examines sanctuary cities, lynching and race in American politics, and the political ideology of African American Republicans.

Richard Johnston

Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of British Columbia

Richard Johnston is professor emeritus of political science at the University of British Columbia. Dr. Johnston’s research falls into three major areas: electoral systems, party systems and parties, communications media and campaigns, and social capital, diversity and the welfare state. He was research director for the National Annenberg Election Survey at the University of Pennsylvania.

He has written six books, including The End of Southern Exceptionalism: Class, Race, and Partisan Change in the Postwar South (Harvard University Press) and The 2000 Presidential Election and the Foundations of Party Politics (Cambridge University Press).

Stephen Nuño-Perez

Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Affairs, Northern Arizona University

Dr. Nuño-Perez is an associate professor and the Chair of the Department of Politics and International Affairs at Northern Arizona University. His research centers on political behaviour, race and ethnic politics, Latino politics, political mobilization, and partisanship. Dr. Nuño-Perez is also a research associate at the Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles at Loyola Marymount University. As a contributor to NBCNews-Latino, he writes about politics, immigration, political campaigns and life stories of Latinos making their imprint on the American story. Dr. Nuño-Perez is the Director of Communications and Senior Analyst at Latino Decisions as well.

Mark Pickup

Associate Professor, SFU Department of Political Science

Dr. Mark Pickup is an associate professor of political science at Simon Fraser University. He is a specialist in political behaviour, political psychology and political methodology. Substantively, his research primarily falls into three areas: political identities and political decision-making; conditions of democratic responsiveness and accountability; and polls and electoral outcomes.

Dr. Pickup’s research focuses on political information, public opinion, political identities, norms and election campaigns within North American and European countries. His methodological interests concern the analysis of longitudinal data (time series, panel, network, etc.) with secondary interests in Bayesian analysis and survey/lab experiment design.

Laurel Weldon

Distinguished Full Professor, SFU Department of Political Science

Dr. Laurel Weldon is a Distinguished Full Professor in the Department of Political Science at Simon Fraser University. Previously, she held the position of Distinguished Professor at Purdue University in Indiana, where she taught for 18 years.

Her research focuses on comparative public policy, social movements, feminist theory and women’s human rights, especially violence against women. Her contributions include creating and analyzing global datasets on women’s rights and social movements as well as theoretical innovations in the study of human rights and gender politics.

This year, Dr. Weldon was named to the Royal Society of Canada (RSC). Membership in the RSC is Canada’s highest academic honour.

Event Summary

What's at Stake? The 2020 U.S. Election

By Marcus Macauley
Ph.D. candidate, SFU Department of Political Science
Website | LinkedIn | Twitter

Against the backdrop of a global pandemic, the United States is poised to hold a general election of great consequence. Not only is the highly controversial incumbent U.S. president, Donald Trump, up for re-election, but the balance of power in Congress is at stake, highlighted by several hotly contested down-ballot Senate and House races.

To discuss salient issues and implications related to the election, SFU Public Square hosted a roundtable event on October 28, moderated by SFU Political Science professor Steven Weldon and featuring a diverse panel of experts on American politics, including Richard Johnston (UBC Emeritus), Stephen Nuño-Perez (Northern Arizona University), Niambi M. Carter (Howard University), Laurel Weldon (SFU), and Mark Pickup (SFU). Each panelist provided unique insights on what’s at stake in the 2020 U.S. election and offered their thoughts on what we should expect on election night and in the days that follow.

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Richard Johnston
Professor Emeritus of Political Science, University of British Columbia

Richard Johnston began the evening by situating the 2020 election in the context of previous U.S. elections, underscoring the key role of the electoral college, battleground states and the growing partisan divide in the U.S. Johnston stressed that, like past elections, the 2020 election will be largely decided by a handful of highly competitive states where electoral college votes will be crucial.  

Among the key states to watch, Johnston identified Pennsylvania as this year’s “tipping point” state for Democratic challenger Joe Biden, where a plurality of the popular vote would likely secure enough electoral college delegates to unseat Donald Trump. Further, if Biden manages to capture the newly minted battleground state of Georgia, we can expect an outright Biden sweep of the electoral college.  

That said, Johnston expects that partisan loyalties will dominate the 2020 election, as has been the growing trend in the U.S. electorate. While there may be some fluctuation in expressed support for candidates in the days leading up to the election, we should expect partisans on both sides to support their party. Fewer and fewer Americans are shirking partisan ties at the ballot box, and Johnston does not expect this trend to decline.

Stephen Nuño-Perez
Associate Professor and Chair of the Department of Politics and International Affairs, Northern Arizona University

Stephen Nuño-Perez spoke to the role of Latino voters in the 2020 election by presenting findings from newly released survey data highlighting current trends among U.S. Latino populations.

On average, Latinos favour Joe Biden over Donald Trump (67% to 26%). However, Nuño-Perez noted that this favourability margin varies across gender. Men tend to favour Biden only slightly more than Trump, while women favour Biden at a much higher rate. This trend is reflective of similar patterns among Latinos in previous elections, where men vote conservative with higher frequency than women. Further, Biden appears to lead Trump in key age demographics of 18-34 and 65+.

Nuño-Perez said these trends could be detrimental to Trump’s re-election efforts in states with considerably large Latino populations, including the battleground states of Arizona and Texas. Further, Nuño-Perez suggested Latino voters (particularly Puerto Rican-Americans) may prove consequential in other battleground states not traditionally associated with large Latino populations, such as Pennsylvania. 

Niambi M. Carter
Associate Professor of Political Science and Director of Graduate Studies, Howard University

Niambi M. Carter discussed the state of voting rights in the 2020 election and highlighted the increased role of voter suppression efforts following key changes to the U.S.’s Voting Rights Act (VRA) in 2013.

Citing specific changes to sections 4 and 5 of the VRA resulting from the Supreme Court case Shelby County v. Holder (2013), local adjustments to electoral district protocols no longer require judicial review prior to enactment. This change has corresponded with a rise in draconian methods for preventing voter registration and voting (stricter voter identification requirements, reduction in polling places, and restrictions on mail-in ballots, to name a few). This has disproportionately impacted turnout rates among minority and marginalized populations, as Republican-led states seek to stifle Democratic support in neighbourhoods with large visible minority populations.  

Carter expects that increased barriers to political participation through previous changes to the VRA will play a pivotal role in the 2020 election, in consideration of broader restrictions on in-person voting during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Laurel Weldon
Distinguished Full Professor, SFU Department of Political Science

Laurel Weldon provided insights on key similarities and differences among white voters in the U.S. from 2016 compared with 2020.  

With a focus on gender differences and levels of education, Weldon noted that support for Democrats among college-educated white women remains similar to 2016. However, in 2020 Trump is receiving less support from both educated and uneducated whites of all genders. In fact, white women as a group are leaning Democrat at their highest rates since 1992.

Weldon suggested that a few salient factors unique to the 2020 election may help us understand these trends. At present, the current pandemic and the meagre response efforts by the Trump administration may skew the electoral advantage to a Democratic party campaigning on enhanced health care supports, especially among aging high-risk populations, such as older whites. Longitudinal variables may also be contributing to increased migration of white women to the left, including increased legislation for reproductive rights, greater economic benefits for women, and/or enhanced policy efforts toward gender equality.  

For men, Trump’s anti-immigrant rhetoric may have less draw in 2020 than it did in 2016. Educated white men report feeling less threatened by immigrants in recent years. Alternatively, whites may simply prefer Joe Biden’s protective parental image, as opposed to Donald Trump’s “burn it down” mentality. Weldon suggested that historic changes in aggregate patterns of support among whites toward the Democrats may have wide-ranging effects for 2020 and beyond.

Mark Pickup
Associate Professor, SFU Department of Political Science

Mark Pickup detailed the diverse methods employed by the Trump administration over the past eight months to “spin” public opinion on the COVID-19 pandemic to show Trump in a favourable light. From regularly downplaying the virus’s lethality to promoting unfounded Chinese conspiracy theories to an outright proclamation that the “pandemic is over,” Pickup stressed that Trump and his campaign have worked tirelessly to control the public narrative of the pandemic by disseminating erroneous claims and misinformation.  

To some degree these tactics have been effective, especially for Republican partisans. Recent U.S. survey data shows that individuals who identify as Republican are more likely to approve of Trump’s pandemic response efforts, less likely to be concerned about COVID, less likely to take precautions to avoid COVID infections, and much more likely to believe the virus is the result of a Chinese plot than Democrats.  

Further, Pickup suggests Trump’s concurrent efforts to question the legitimacy of mail-in ballots are related to spinning the pandemic narrative and laying groundwork for contesting a tight election outcome. With Democrats using mail-in ballots at nearly double the rate of Republican voters in efforts to avoid potential COVID infections at polling stations, the Trump campaign has added incentive to downplay the virus and punish voters who do not show up at the polls on election day.


Event Recording