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Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden addresses supporters at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., in the early morning of Nov. 4, 2020.ROBERTO SCHMIDT/AFP/Getty Images

As 2020 dawned, you could hardly imagine more favourable economic conditions for an incumbent U.S. president facing re-election, even one as polarizing as Donald Trump. Unemployment was at a 50-year low. Wages were rising across the board, and the stock indexes were shattering records on an almost-daily basis.

As Democrats prepared to choose their party’s nominee, left-wing rivals Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders and Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren were outbidding each other with a host of huge tax-and-spend promises, including socialized medicine, the heretofore third rail of U.S. politics. Republicans could hardly believe their luck.

Then, after a humiliating fourth-place finish in Iowa and a fifth-place finish in New Hampshire, former vice-president Joe Biden revived his third bid for the nomination with a blowout victory in the South Carolina primary, winning overwhelming support from Black voters.

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Mr. Biden was an imperfect candidate. A fixture of U.S. politics for almost five decades, he belonged to the same Washington elite that Mr. Trump had railed against in his 2016 presidential bid. At 77, he was widely seen as too old to be running for the world’s most demanding job. His cautious incrementalism left younger voters cold.

Had fate, in the form of the COVID-19 pandemic, not intervened, Mr. Trump would likely have been handily re-elected on Tuesday.

His impeachment by the Democratic-controlled House of Representatives was seen by most voters as a political stunt and distraction from real issues. While few doubted that he’d sought to inappropriately influence a foreign leader, Americans were divided about whether Mr. Trump deserved to be impeached.

Meanwhile, after three years of Mr. Trump in office, average Americans had learned to ignore his impetuous tweets, self-aggrandizing diatribes and “alternative facts.” Most saw him for what he was, warts and all – and were unbothered by it.

Besides, they liked his tax cuts, tariffs and tough talk toward China. They agreed when he berated allies for not paying their fair share at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. They had no problem with him attacking the mainstream media. What his critics decried as a violation of institutional norms, others cheered as the comeuppance of entrenched elites.

Mr. Trump willfully sowed division. His inhumane treatment of asylum seekers and their children and his coddling of white supremacists showed the depths of his depravity. But his hard-line stands on immigration and law and order were broadly popular.

His basic lack of empathy for the victims of COVID-19 revealed his utter soullessness. His endless attempts to play down the pandemic, working at cross purposes with public-health authorities, exposed his callous disregard for the lives he put at risk.

The recklessness that led him to contract COVID-19 was the final straw for many Americans, who had made major sacrifices to slow the spread of the coronavirus, only to watch Mr. Trump preside over a series of superspreader events.

As the pandemic dragged on, Mr. Trump did not just contribute to the problem; he became the problem. He repeatedly suggested the virus would “disappear” after the election, even though his own coronavirus task force warned otherwise.

And yet, at time of writing, election officials had still not declared a winner in several states that Democrats thought Mr. Biden had a lock on. Whatever the final result, Mr. Trump will have once again outperformed expectations. Predictions of a blue wave were proved wrong. And Democratic campaign strategists have some explaining to do.

So does much of the mainstream media. In their zeal to unseat Mr. Trump, they gave Mr. Biden a free ride. Instead of keeping running tallies of Mr. Trump’s lies, self-satisfied journalists should have spent more time talking to his supporters.

On Tuesday, Mr. Trump easily surpassed his total 2016 vote count of about 63 million votes, with millions of ballots yet to be counted. That is an astonishing result, considering that there are five million fewer white Americans without college degrees now than there were in 2016.

That so many Americans were willing to cast a ballot for Mr. Trump in spite of his egregious handling of the pandemic and his moral corruptness says something about the disconnectedness of Democratic elites. By pushing their party ever further to the left, and embracing identity politics, they alienated millions of moderate voters.

Mr. Biden has seemed like a bystander to his own campaign. He may yet pull off a victory. But it will be a narrow one, at best. That should give Democrats pause.

After a close evening of election results, Joe Biden told supporters that the final outcome may take time but he is optimistic about the outcome for Democrats. Hours later, Donald Trump claimed victory while key states still had votes to count and threatened to involve the courts.

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