Unprecedented Times: Tom Whalen on the Fierce Urgency of the 2020 Election

With the news that President Donald J. Trump had just tested positive for Covid-19 having just broken earlier in the day, CGS Associate Professor of Social Sciences Thomas Whalen predicted that based on historical precedent, former Vice President Joe Biden would be elected President this November, while admitting that this election year is anything but predictable. 

Whalen addressed a crowd of about 50 during his virtual lecture, The Fierce Urgency of Now: 2020 Election and What it Will Mean for America, as part of BU’s Alumni Weekend Reimagined on Oct. 2.           

CGS Associate Professor Thomas Whalen addresses a virtual crowd during his Alumni Weekend lecture on the 2020 election.

During the lecture, Whalen highlighted examples of past Presidents who did not win reelection and the reasons why, before pivoting to examine the situation Trump faces today.

Whalen described how the economy, often a major predictor of reelection chances, is in shambles amid the pandemic, mass demonstrations for social justice, natural disasters and overall disunity in the U.S. 

“We are an utter train wreck and in the middle is an election,” Whalen said. 

He then went on to the core of the presentation, analyzing if Trump will win his second term of presidency. In order to answer that question, Whalen highlighted six common criteria that led to the downfall of past one-term presidents.

“The checklist is party split, bad economy, political scandal, foreign crisis, domestic strife, and debate,” Whalen said. 

Whalen analyzed five past presidents, William Howard Taft, Herbert Hoover, Gerald Ford, Jimmy Carter and George H. W. Bush. All of them had a combination of the key factors that led to their failure, with one common aspect being a struggling economy.

“Hoover was blamed for the stock market crash of 1921,” Whalen said. “Carter inherited a bad economy that will get worse and was blamed even though it was not his fault.”

According to Whalen, Trump checked four out of the six factors that would cause him to not win his second term. But he cautioned that anything could happen, especially since Trump has said he may not accept the outcome of an election he does not win.

“Based on these criteria, Joe Biden will become President in 2020,” Whalen said. “But these are unprecedented times, Trump will not accept if he’s not the winner.”

Whalen also noted that Biden also has factors that negatively affect him, such as the ideological split in the Democratic party and criticism of his record on racial justice.

“The question is can he attract young voters to his campaign’s side,” Whalen said. “So far, young people seem to be flocking to his side more.”

During the Q&A at the end of the lecture, audience members asked questions about topics ranging from the chances of a Democratic takeover of the Senate to possible outcomes with the Electoral College.

“There are many arguments about the Electoral College such as it can be seen as undemocratic,” Whalen said. “Maybe there can be a chance to tweak it in the future.”

— By Natalie Seara