What just happened? VCU alumni journalists discuss the 2020 presidential election results.

Joe Biden is the projected president-elect. But other questions remain, including why he cratered among Latino voters in South Florida, and whether we can ever trust polls again.

a bunch of "I voted" stickers on a window.
(Getty Images)

(Editor's note: This story originally published Friday, Nov. 6, and was updated Sunday, Nov. 8.)

Two nights after the polls closed and about 36 hours before news networks called the presidential race for former Vice President Joe Biden, four journalists who graduated from Virginia Commonwealth University gathered Thursday to discuss the unfolding election results.

“I was a reporter in 2000 during the Bush-Gore bizarreness. In fact I was in Florida at the time,” said Sergio Bustos, a 1984 graduate and corps excellence regional manager–south for Report for America, a nonprofit organization that seeks to strengthen local newsrooms. “[This election] reminds me of Florida, but six times Florida. Florida, remember, was decided by 500-some votes. But instead of one Florida in 2000, you’ve got six, seven states like that in 2020.”

With the presidency and control of the U.S. Senate hanging on votes being tabulated in key swing states, Bustos and other alumni convened for the virtual event, What Just Happened: Understanding the 2020 presidential election results,” hosted by the Richard T. Robertson School of Media and Culture in the College of Humanities and Sciences and VCU Alumni. The event was part of an ongoing speaker series hosted by the Robertson School. In addition to Bustos, the event featured Chandelis Duster, a politics reporter for CNN; Mechelle Hankerson, a reporter for WHRO in Norfolk; and Derick Waller, a reporter for Eyewitness News This Morning at WABC-TV, the ABC flagship station in New York City.

As they spoke, President Donald Trump falsely claimed victory for a second time. A few hours later, Biden took a small lead in Georgia and then in Pennsylvania, states that would put the Democrat over the 270 electoral votes needed for victory. Biden was declared the winner of Pennsylvania's 20 electoral votes and Nevada's six electoral votes late Saturday morning.

On Thursday, Hankerson said Biden had multiple paths to winning the presidency (the former vice president also led in Arizona), while Trump, mathematically, did not.

“He could win Pennsylvania, Georgia and North Carolina and he would still not be able to make up the lead that Biden has, when it comes to electoral votes," she said during the virtual event. “Trump has started the legal process in several states, so that is another possibility — forced recounts or whatever he may ask for in some of these key states — but I wouldn’t call that the easy path.”

Understanding the 2020 election results

Marcus Messner, Ph.D., director of the Robertson School and moderator of the event, asked the journalists what they would expect to see in a Biden presidency.

Waller, who graduated in 2010, said a Republican-led Senate would likely hinder much of the policy agenda of Biden and the Democrats.

“I think a lot of people were expecting a blue wave,” he said, “and that we’d be getting a public option or Medicare for All …”

“Expansion of the Supreme Court,” Bustos interjected.

“All of that sounds dead to me,” Waller said. “But at least they’ll be able to get something done on coronavirus, but even that, I don’t know.”

In the event of a Republican majority in the Senate, Bustos said he expects Mitch McConnell, the majority leader, would “put a stop to everything that Joe Biden would want to do,” leading to a paralyzed Washington, even for coronavirus and economic relief.

“It’s hard to see how you’re going to implement, say, a national mask mandate if McConnell is opposed to it,” he said. “I think he might actually be in favor of [that], but there will be many clashes on so many policies.”

Whether Trump is reelected or Biden is the next president, COVID-19 will be the top priority, Duster said.

“Regardless of who ends up president on inauguration day, whether they’re standing outside or somewhere else because we’re in a pandemic, they will have to deal with the pandemic,” she said. “Unless something miraculous happens in the next couple weeks, they’ll have to deal with the pandemic.”

Retired television executive Richard T. “Dick” Robertson, who the Robertson School is named after, asked the journalists their thoughts on political polling, given that many polls were clearly off about the presidency both in 2016 and 2020. Will we, he asked, ever trust polls again?

“I wouldn’t,” Waller quipped. “I don’t know how you look at the last election cycles’ [polling] and say, ‘OK, 2024 is going to be different.’”

“I’ll call out our own network, ABC,” he added “An ABC/Washington Post poll last week had Wisconsin plus-17 for Biden. Seventeen points up for Biden. So obviously whatever metric they were using was completely wrong. I don’t know if people were lying to pollsters, if they had the wrong methodology, I don’t know. But something has to change.”

Messner asked the reporters about the Latino vote, particularly in Florida’s Miami-Dade County, that provided to be an important element of Trump’s victory in the state.

Bustos said the Trump campaign’s efforts to label Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris as socialists was effective, especially in Miami-Dade. But even more important, he said, was the Trump campaign’s success in turning out more than 1 million more voters across Florida in 2020 than it did in 2016.

The Latino vote, he said, should serve as a wakeup call to American media about how it covers the Latino community.

“At the end of the day, somos puertorriqueños, somos venezolanos, somos cubanos. We’re not somos Hispanics,” he said. “I think, to understand that we are Venezuelans, we are Puerto Ricans, I want you to go back to the last century when Irish, Italians, the British, when folks came over from Europe, we didn’t call them Europeans. We called them Germans, we called them the Irish, we called them Italians. Even the Italians, we’d [specify] those from southern Italy, those from northern Italy, they’d even identify themselves from towns.

“I think the American media is going to finally learn that the Latino in America really identifies by country of birth,” he said. “And I think once the campaigns understand that, they’ll be able to tailor messages. So I’ve got to say, Trump in the campaign was very smart in tailoring a message to Venezuelans and Cubans, who dominate Miami-Dade and that’s what resonated. And to take that a step further, Biden just didn’t come up with a rebuttal. Even though the Trump administration has been deporting Venezuelans, deporting Cubans under his policies.”

I was a reporter in 2000 during the Bush-Gore bizarreness. In fact I was in Florida at the time. [This election] reminds me of Florida, but six times Florida. Florida, remember, was decided by 500-some votes. But instead of one Florida in 2000, you’ve got six, seven states like that in 2020.

Hankerson added that it’s also important to understand that religion is a major part of many Latino cultures, particularly for many first-generation immigrants in the U.S.

“They’re highly religious and we know the Republican Party sells itself as the party of Christianity, of religion,” she said. “I’ve talked to a lot of Latino voters, and the only reason they go out to vote is about abortion. It's tied to their religion … I think a lot of people in newsrooms and news organizations, they don't always make that connection.”

The journalists were also asked about misinformation and disinformation surrounding the election and the vote counting efforts.

Waller noted that earlier in the day, a video of a man wheeling a wagon into the vote center in Detroit went viral, suggesting that it was a ballot box filled with absentee ballots to be counted after the deadline. It was actually just camera equipment from a WXYZ-TV videographer going in to cover the vote counting.

“That’s what so dangerous with social media, just anyone can put this stuff out there,” Waller said. “As they say, a lie spreads a lot faster than truth. How many people saw that video and shared it? And then how many people saw the truth later? Probably a bunch fewer.”

How can people know what sources to trust? Waller said to start with getting your information from news outlets you’ve heard of before.

“Part of the population doesn’t want to believe the mainstream media, but it’s mainstream for a reason,” he said. “If you’ve never heard of the website, that’s a giant red flag. I think it’s as simple as that.”

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