2020 in Review

CFR Senior Vice President James M. Lindsay reviews the most important global issues in a year that was crowded with them, noting that many will remain relevant into 2021.
Dec 17, 2020
CFR Senior Vice President James M. Lindsay reviews the most important global issues in a year that was crowded with them, noting that many will remain relevant into 2021.
Dec 17, 2020
  • 2020 in Review
    Ten Most Significant World Events in 2020
    As 2020 comes to a close, here are the top ten most notable world events of the past year.
  • 2020 in Review
    Visualizing 2021: Trends to Watch
    CFR experts illustrate the trends to track in the coming years.
  • 2020 in Review
    The Council in 2020: Year in Review
    A global pandemic, elections, civil unrest, and much more. The year 2020 was like no other. Take a look back at how the Council on Foreign Relations brought together renowned experts and leaders to unpack one of the most challenging times for the United States and the world.
  • Elections and Voting
    The 2020 Election by the Numbers
    It’s almost over. Yesterday Electoral College electors convened virtually or in person in state capitals across the country to cast their votes. The result was what everyone expected, the election of Joe Biden as president of the United States. With the election now essentially settled—Republican lawmakers may make one last doomed attempt to reverse the results when Congress meets on January 6 to confirm the Electoral College vote—here’s one last review of how the vote went. The Electoral College In 2016, seven electors declined to vote for the candidate they were pledged to. That was the highest number of “faithless electors” ever, with the exception of the election of 1872. That year sixty-three electors broke their pledge. They had a good reason to do so, however. They were pledged to Democratic candidate Horace Greeley—he of “Go West” fame. Greeley died three weeks after losing to Ulysses S. Grant and before the Electoral College met. His pledged electors were understandably reluctant to vote for a dead man. Three electors, however, did cast their votes for Greeley. This year there were no faithless electors. So the final tally in the Electoral College was 306 to 232. That, of course, is the reverse of the margin Donald Trump won by in 2016. He called that a “massive landslide victory.” Biden flipped five states on his way to winning the Electoral College: Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Every other state held to form. The Popular Vote Biden won 81,283,098 votes, or 51.3 percent of the votes cast. He is the first U.S. presidential candidate to have won more than 80 million votes. Trump won 74,222,958 votes, or 46.8 percent of the votes cast. That’s more votes than any other presidential candidate has ever won, with the exception of Biden. (Third-party candidates picked up 1.8 percent of the votes cast.) More than 159 million Americans voted in 2020: 159,633,396 to be exact. That’s the largest total voter turnout in U.S. history and the first time more than 140 million people voted. Voter turnout in 2020 was the highest in 120 years when measured as a percentage of the voting-eligible population: 66.7 percent. You have to go back all the way to 1900 to find a higher percentage turnout (73.7 percent). The election of 1876 holds the record for highest turnout: 82.6 percent. That, of course, was also one of America’s most controversial and consequential elections—and not in a good way.   Minnesota holds pride of place with the highest state voter turnout. Eighty percent of Minnesotans went to the polls. Oklahoma holds the dubious distinction of being the state with the lowest voter turnout. Just 55 percent of Oklahomans voted. A Close Election or Not?   So did Biden win comfortably? Yes, if you go by the popular vote. In the past six presidential elections, only Barack Obama in 2008 won by a larger total vote margin than the 7,060,140-vote margin that Biden piled up. Likewise, Biden’s 4.5 percentage point lead is the largest win in the past six elections other than Obama’s seven-point win in 2008. But as Andrew Jackson, Samuel Tilden, Grover Cleveland, Al Gore, and Hillary Clinton can all attest, winning the popular vote doesn’t necessarily mean winning the presidency. When you look at the smallest popular vote shift needed to give Trump a victory, the 2020 election was close. Indeed, it was even closer than 2016. If Trump picked up the right mix of 42,921 votes in Arizona (10,457), Georgia (11,779), and Wisconsin (20,682), the Electoral College would have been tied at 269 all. The House would have then decided the election. Republicans will hold the majority of state delegations in the new Congress, and they undoubtedly would have chosen Trump. If Trump had also picked up the one electoral vote in Nebraska’s Second Congressional District, which he lost to Biden by 22,091 votes, he would have won the Electoral College outright. Back in 2016, Clinton needed to pick up the right mix of 78,000 votes in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin to win the Electoral College. Women in Congress The 117th Congress will have a record total 141 women, or 26.4 percent of its membership, when it convenes on January 3. (Even so, women’s representation in Congress will lag behind that in the national legislatures of many other democratic countries.) Those numbers don’t include Senator Kamala Harris, who will be resigning her seat, or non-voting delegates in the House. These numbers could change slightly or remain the same, depending on whether Kelly Loeffler wins the January 5 run-off for her Georgia Senate seat and who is appointed to fill Vice-President-Elect Harris’s Senate seat. Ohio Representative Marcia Fudge is set to resign her seat so she can become secretary of Housing and Urban Development. Women won’t, however, be equally distributed between the two parties. Democrats will have 105 women members of Congress, which is one less than in the 116th Congress. Republicans will have thirty-six women lawmakers, or fourteen more than in the 116th Congress. That breaks the record the GOP set back in 2006. The House will have 117 women lawmakers, with eighty-nine Democrats and twenty-eight Republicans. Nine out of the thirteen House seats Republicans flipped from blue to red were won by women. Meanwhile, there will be twenty-four women senators, sixteen of whom are Democrats and eight of whom are Republicans. Again, how Loeffler fares on January 5 and who replaces Harris and Fudge could change these numbers. A record fifty-one women of color will serve in the 117th Congress. The previous record was forty-eight, set by the 116th Congress. Republicans broke their record for most women of color in Congress (five). The previous GOP record was three, set in 2014. Forty-six women of color will represent Democrats (not including Kamala Harris), down from the record forty-seven from the last Congress. Cori Bush (D-MO) became the first Black congresswoman elected in Missouri and Marilyn Strickland (D-WA) the first in the state of Washington. Strickland also joins Young Kim (R-CA) and Michelle Steel (R-CA) to become the first Korean American women in Congress. Wyoming elected its first female Senator: Republican Cynthia Lummis.   Other Notable Developments People of color will make up about 28 percent of the new House. Elected to the House this year, not including non-voting delegates, are forty-three Hispanic Americans (three more than the 116th Congress); sixteen Asian Americans (three more than the 116th); fifty-seven Black Americans (five more than the 116th); and five American Indians (two more than the 116th), and one native Hawaiian, Kaiali’i Kahele. Kahele is only the second native Hawaiian elected since Hawaii became a state in 1959. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) is the only Hispanic member of the Senate’s incoming freshman class. Once he is sworn in, the Senate will have five Latinx members, with the others being Democrats Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada and Robert Menendez of New Jersey, and Republicans Ted Cruz of Texas and Marco Rubio of Florida. The Senate will have two Black members after Harris resigns, Democrat Cory Booker of New Jersey and Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina. That number could go higher depending on whether Raphael Warnock wins his race in Georgia and on who is chosen to succeed Harris as California’s junior senator. The Senate will continue to have two senators of Asian descent, Democrats Tammy Duckworth of Illinois and Mazie Hirono of Hawaii. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) and Ritchie Torres (D-NY) became the first openly gay Black men elected to Congress. The addition of Jones and Torres means that a record number of eleven LGBTQ+ lawmakers will be in the 117th Congress.   Morgan Cawthorn (R-NC) became the youngest person elected to the House in modern history. He is twenty-five years old. The pandemic helped popularize early voting and mail-in ballots. Americans cast 101,453,111 early votes. That is 64.1 percent of the total votes cast in 2020. The total number of mail-in ballots was 65,642,049. Looking Ahead The 2022 congressional midterm elections will be held on November 8, 2022. That is 693 days away. All 435 House seats and thirty-four Senate seats will be up for grabs. The 2024 election will be held on November 5, 2024. That’s 1,421 days away. Margaret Gach assisted in the preparation of this post.
  • China
    How 2020 Shaped U.S.-China Relations
    This year, tensions between Washington and Beijing flared over many issues. As the Biden administration prepares to take over, what lies ahead for one of the world’s most important bilateral relationships?
  • Cybersecurity
    2020 in Review: The COVID-19 Pandemic and Cyberspace
    The COVID-19 pandemic has exacerbated existing problems in cyberspace but has not ushered in a new era of cyber policies to appear in 2021.
  • 2020 in Review
    2020: The Year’s Historic News in Graphics
    Extreme natural occurrences. Police brutality and racism. A global pandemic. CFR breaks down 2020’s biggest news with graphics.
  • COVID-19
    The Year the Earth Stood Still
    The COVID-19 pandemic brought travel around the world to an abrupt halt in 2020. Nations are still trying to grasp the consequences, and restarting movement could take years.
  • Middle East and North Africa
    The Arab Spring at Ten Years: What’s the Legacy of the Uprisings?
    Ten years on, the lives of people in Arab Spring countries have improved in certain aspects but worsened in others. CFR.org visualizes the changes in Bahrain, Egypt, Libya, Syria, Tunisia, and Yemen.
  • United States
    Ten Anniversaries to Note in 2021
    As 2020 comes to a close, here are ten notable historical anniversaries to mark in 2021.