On Tuesday Joe Biden will go up against Donald Trump to battle for the nation’s soul. That is the pitch by the Democrats. Trump’s case is to bring America back to where it was before Covid. In Trump’s mind, Covid was the thing that maybe sank his re-election bid. For Biden, he’s attempting to be the first Veep in modern history to come back four years later and defeat a one-term president. What it looks like to me is a battle between Obama’s America and all that came with it, and Trump’s America and all that has come with it. We have not been this divided since during the Civil War. Many Americans practically hate anyone in the opposition. Thus, this election already feels like war before we even find out the results.
I am seeing so many similarities between the Best Picture race and this year’s US Election. Heading in, we have a few rules we follow in both:
Historical Precedents vs. Momentum
The Preferential Ballot and the Electoral College
The Frontrunner and the Underdog
So let’s go through them and figure how predicting the Oscars can resemble predicting an election.
In 2016, I won $100 predicting Trump would win based on historical precedent. No Democrat had held onto a third term since Roosevelt. Only one president had – Ronald Reagan who took out one-term Jimmy Carter. The Democrats were divided into two camps and there was a strong third party presence. 2020 remains Trump’s to lose because one-term presidents are so rare, just four times in the last 100 years and only twice since Roosevelt.
In the past, one-term presidents usually start out favorable but then dip in favorability as the economy and their job performance tanks. Trump’s win was never considered legitimate by the left in any way and in fact has been protested from Day One, not just with literal protests but he has sustained non-stop consequences and attacks for four years, which include the indictments of many of his team, and a failed impeachment bid. His approval/disapproval numbers have not wavered in all of that time, which is yet another illustration of the two different realities at play in this country.
It is no secret to the American public that the Democrats have been trying to get rid of Trump such that the attacks against him have begun to feel like white noise to many. That was until Covid came along. Trump’s strong economy would have most likely guaranteed his re-election but his opposition has seized upon his mismanagement of Covid to illustrate just what a bad of president he is in a crisis, and how much better a different leader would have done. As cases and deaths climbed, Trump’s chances of winning reelection began to fade.
But is that the whole story? It might be. We are at a political, as well as a cultural, inflection point. I see the major cultural shifts in this country, at least in my lifetime, have been from JFK to Reagan, and then from Bush to Obama and now from Obama to Trump. When American culture was pulling away from JFK’s America it was rough, messy, violent and hard. It took ten years for the pendulum to swing before landing on Reagan’s America. Obama’s cultural revolution was profound – he has shifted American culture once again and it came in the midst of the rise of social media, and Generation Woke that has come of age only knowing Obama’s America. If we are in the midst of another pendulum swing to a different kind of cultural reality, it is going to be rough, messy, violent and hard.
In the Oscar race we look at historical precedent too – and that will only take you so far. We drag them out when we have unpredictable Oscar races on our hands – like the Chariots of Fire stat – when it won in a surprise victory after losing most of the other major awards. The Braveheart stat – Apollo 13 won all the big guilds and then lost to Braveheart for Picture and Director. We now have the Moonlight, Spotlight, Parasite stat – where films win a surprising victory when odds and precedents were stacked against them.
To that end, you have to go back to JFK to find a year where the winner of Ohio did not win the presidency. Ohio is competitive at the moment and one of its biggest papers, The Toledo Blade, which hasn’t endorsed a Republican in 30 years just endorsed Trump. Well, maybe it means something, maybe it doesn’t. If there is one thing we have learned in the Oscar race stats only take you so far.
Most of us watching this election who also watch the Oscars are watching Florida. If Biden wins Florida the race is over. If Trump wins Florida then we know we are likely in for another close election watch. Texas, North Carolina, Arizona are also states to watch. If Biden wins Texas, needless to say, it’s all over but the shouting.
There hasn’t been a recent example of a former veep from four years prior taking back the presidency. The closest is when Richard Nixon ran many years after serving as Eisenhower’s VP. Nixon’s very close win in 1968 was a shock to the rise of the counterculture movement in the JFK era. Nixon’s landslide in 1972 was seen as the rise of the silent majority desire to return America to seemingly stable conservatism. After Nixon’s resignation in disgrace gave lie to that stability, Democrats held onto the presidency for just four short years in 1976 with Carter before returning the country’s politics and culture to Reagan in 1980.
Is Trump’s chaos itself like the counterculture movement Nixon stopped? Biden’s support in the suburbs seems to say exactly that. Trump won the suburbs in 2016 but this year, Biden seems to be leading him decisively, which would indicate that to those voters Biden represents a return to safety and away from chaos.
Or is Trump more like Nixon in 1972, representing a different kind of silent majority, one that is sick of the “cancel culture” and “radical left”? It’s hard to know but perhaps the secret is in the suburbs.
The Preferential Ballot and the Electoral College
In the Oscar Best Picture race, because in 2009 they expanded the number of nominees, the win is decided by a ranked choice ballot. If no film is able to accumulate a majority of ballots on the first round, the process kicks into redistribution and recount. Whenever that happens, it is better to be a #1 and #2 or #3 choice on ballots than just a #1 choice. The more risky the art, the bigger the chance it will be divisive. Had La La Land gotten a SAG nomination that would have erased any question in my mind but it didn’t. And that mattered when it came to a movie about actors and acting.
The Electoral College is also the wrench in the machinery, and it often favors the Republican who is running. This, because America is more divided now that at any other time since the Civil War era — except now instead of a division between north and south, the split is between urban and rural.
In a perfect world, winning candidates would earn both the popular vote and hit the right combo of states in the Electoral College. As Barack Obama and Bill Clinton did. Ronald Reagan appears to be the last Republican to really dominate the country with both. Democrats have won the popular vote 6 times in the past 7 presidential elections, but have taken the Oval Office only twice.
The partisan divide in this country really began to intensify at the turn of the millennium. Three things happened. Al Gore lost the election by winning the popular vote but not the Electoral College, putting George W. Bush in office with just 570 votes in Florida. Around the same time, the internet exploded and forever changed how we get our news, how we communicate, how we shop, how we live, how we see the world. Then in 2001, the World Trade Center bombing on 9/11 forever altered our perception of our country, our place in the world, and our privacy.
Even though George W. Bush would win a decisive victory in 2004, he still would not win most of the more populous blue states like California, Illinois, and New York. Barack Obama won all the traditional blue states plus just enough of the purple states to put him over the top in 2008, winning both the popular vote and the Electoral College. In 2012, Obama would win again but the division was starting to grow and Congress eventually turned red.
By the time Trump came along, we were as divided as we have ever been since the Civil War. His win was a squeaker, like Nixon in 1968 and George W. Bush in 2000. Had things gone well for Trump over the past 4 years, and especially in the past 9 months, he’d be winning a decisive victory this year.
There are significant factors at play this year and in 2016 that make us even more divided than ever before, even in 2000. That’s social media, which has not only divided us into warring tribes (with no end in sight) but it has given us two separate sets of reality. There is the reality on the left and there is the reality in Trump world. The only cable news station that inches even remotely close to the middle view is Fox because both CNN and of course, MSNBC, do not hide their hatred for Trump and thus, they have to be counted inside the bubble on the left. Fox is mostly Trump friendly though they do cover the Biden campaign too and Covid, just not to the degree the left press does. I know it defies logic but if you watch it and then watch CNN and then watch MSNBC you can see why more people tune into Fox since it isn’t a five alarm fire every five minutes. Take from that whatever you will.
All of this to say that you can’t really get a read on this election or this country unless you take off your tribal affiliation and spend some time in the other camp. Even those Republicans who have joined forces with the Democrats to bring down Trump are part of the same bubble that tells people only what they want to be true as opposed to what might BE true.
The same sort of bubble groupthink goes on in the Oscar race. We convince ourselves a movie has to win based on not just a certain set of criteria but stories we place in our heads about how things should go. I’ve been doing this for 20 years and for much of that time I have had a weirdly and pointlessly hostile relationship to the industry and the Academy – as though those of us who cared about quality were in an opposing tribe to those who voted on the Oscars.
Now I see that as not only dumb but actually harmful to the evolution of the Oscars, which have now become a lot like the left – too insular, too punitive, too willing to speak to a utopian vision we want rather than the reality of the world we have. In other words, if the left is trying to win an election by treating half of America like trash that should be discarded down the garbage shoot – that is the same as the Oscars pretending like their insular world of hand-picked, hothouse films has anything whatsoever to do with the ticket buying public.
In the Oscar race we always know if a film is popular enough it will win on the first round and there will be no recount (we assume) – The Artist, the King’s Speech, Argo, Birdman, etc. Usually that means the majority of actors are behind the frontrunner. If the actors are divided the results can be unpredictable. They were for Moonlight. They were not for Parasite.
It could be that the lead Joe Biden is showing in the polls is a Parasite type situation and not a Moonlight one. Biden is on track to win the popular vote by a lot, as Hillary Clinton did, as Al Gore did. Check out this graphic to show you the last time both the Electoral College and the popular vote were this dramatically different.
What does that tell you? In the Oscar race it tells you that there is division in the ranks. It means that La La Land would have easily won on a “popular vote” ballot as opposed to a preferential one. Parasite clearly would have won on either ballot because it had the support of the actors branch, which is the largest of all of the branches.
In the Electoral College it has to come down to the places in America where there is stark division on key issues, like gun control, free trade, abortion, and lately it also means agreeing with or disagree with the rising “woke revolution” that has overtaken the left with the Me Too and Black Lives Matter protests. How do Americans in the swing states feel about these changes?
In the Oscar race there has been a similar “woke revolution” that has made a significant move towards mandating inclusion and diversity this year which may or may not be too much for voters – silent majority voters, if you will, who might not agree with it but are too afraid to say anything about it. This is the same dynamic at play on a larger scale in America.
The Frontrunner and the Underdog
There is no doubt that Joe Biden is the frontrunner and Donald Trump is the underdog. That means Trump’s supporters will have more “urgency to vote” for him than the Biden side. But with early voting at historically high levels due to the Covid and what looks like record turnout it might not matter. With Best Picture, urgency to vote often pushes the film to the top of the ballot. That means even if it isn’t number one, it might be number two or three. Urgency to vote is a great way to suss out how a preferential ballot might turn out.
In the presidential race that translates to enthusiasm – but also a certain kind of devotion to a certain kind of candidate. President Obama was a candidate who inspired both enthusiasm and urgency to vote. But sometimes fear of a candidate can push urgency to vote and that is also playing out this year and if Biden wins it will be because America said to Trump, “you’re fired.”
In the Oscar race, the frontrunner has a much harder time winning unless they’re a movie like The Artist or Slumdog Millionaire – where they just win everything heading in and it’s a landslide. Or a sweep. But underdogs win more often than not. This is not as true in a presidential election. In general, the frontrunners win elections.
So why did Trump defy the odds? Part of that was, as we’re seeing now, a media and social media that perpetuates the narrative they want to be true versus the one that is true. You won’t notice this unless you pull yourself out of one reality to see both. Then you can tell what tweets you are seeing that match reality and which ones don’t.
The Oscar race, like all of American culture, shifted greatly at the turn of the millennium.
I used to arrogantly believe my own blogging about race and gender was making an impact on the race with landmark wins like Kathryn Bigelow and Halle Berry. It might be that I was a part of a culture evolving to the explosion of opinion replacing objectivity in news that the internet brought. Now we were advocating or shaping public opinion rather than merely commenting on it. So if you drag out into the light of day that no black actress had won in all of Oscar history, there may be a good chance that oversight would be fixed to avoid accusations and embarrassment. But that was all the way back in 2001.
Since the rise of Twitter the Oscar race has never been the same. When you have an arena for public shame and calling people out that means you have a voice to make change.
This is why in 2020 we find ourselves where we are with the Oscar race. Every decision the Academy makes, every film or person nominated is scrutinized to find out what crimes they have committed against culture and that has led to an inclusion mandate that is designed to encourage film productions and filmmakers to diversify their hiring practices.
The election is a stark contrast between a familiar and trusted man to lead the country out of chaos and a global pandemic. The other is a devil-may-care showman who flaunts any fear of anyone or anything, including the virus. Their differences are laid out plainly in these two ways each of them greets their supporters. Biden is being extra cautious, to make sure he keeps himself and his supporters safe. But in so doing, it reads as perhaps more muted, enthusiasm wise. And there’s Trump – which requires no explanation.
The Democrats are running on enthusiasm out of hatred for the same candidate. Each side seems to have a different definition of what love and hate mean.
That is why, ultimately, the so-called “shy” Trump voters and “shy” Oscar voters exist. At the end of the day they will vote with their hearts, not because they have been pressured into doing so. It is not a surprise that the bloated fury over Green Book came during the Trump era. It was the only film that won that was driven by a white male, or at least told the white male perspective. All winners otherwise did not. That tells you a lot about the state of the Oscar voters under Trump.
Who knows, maybe if Biden wins it will make white men great again. Or not.
The future of the Oscars is as uncertain as the future of this country. The Oscars were never intended to be a corrective measure to fix society’s problems but rather a group of industry professionals giving prizes to the highest achievements of the year. How they define high achievement, however, is up for grabs.
I’m guessing if Trump does pull in a surprise win it will likely be for this reason. Not that he’s such a great president but that the alternative scares some parts of this country more. Of course, right now, the polls suggest most people want a calm restoration of American decency. And that seems to be driving this election more than anything else.