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The 2020 election is unlike 2016: that should worry President Trump
With fewer than eighty days to go until the US Presidential election, Convention season approaching and with a settled Democratic ticket it’s a good time to review the state of the US presidential election race. After a breathless first term, President Trump’s current re-election prospects can we think be summed up as “not super”.
Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden and his new running mate California Senator Kamala Harris now lead Trump by over 8 points in national polling averages. If this lead holds until the election, Biden could be looking at a larger winning margin than Barack Obama’s historic 2008 win. Surprises can happen, however. Can Trump possibly surprise mainstream expectations and win once again? The race so far would suggest otherwise, and gives pause to those who think that Trump can indeed repeat his 2016 performance without breaking a sweat. The reasons for this are multiple, as are the reasons why Biden is so far ahead right now. Let’s explore them.
The State of the Race
Despite the prevailing wariness which has gripped the majority of commentators since Trump’s 2016 surprise victory, it would be wrong to describe the 2020 race as ‘close’ as it enters its final and most decisive phase. As of mid-August, Biden leads Trump by exactly 8.5% nationally according to FiveThirtyEight’s widely respected polling aggregator as well as enjoying a whopping -13.1% net approval rating by the same metrics. Qualitatively, Trump’s approval rating currently has more in common with Jimmy Carter, L.B.J. and George H.W. Bush at the end of their first terms than Barack Obama, George W. Bush or Bill Clinton.
Biden’s national lead is even more eye-catching when analysing polls in the notorious ‘battleground’ states from 2016. Bearing in mind that Trump’s victory was produced by flipping Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania from the so-called “blue wall” (representing a warning to other politicians who rely on electoral walls of any colour). Biden now leads Trump in these three states by over 7% on average. This means that Biden would only need to recapture these three “blue wall” states worth 46 electoral votes, plus the 2016 Clinton states worth 232 votes to produce an electoral college majority of 278 (270 electoral votes are needed).
This is not the only bad news for Trump. He is currently adrift in other states too. Biden leads Trump in Arizona by 3.6%, Florida by 5.4%, North Carolina by 1.7% and Ohio by 0.6%. Even more astonishingly, Trump leads in a rapidly evolving Texas by just 0.5%, Georgia by 0.4% and Iowa by 1.2%. This is quite a shift considering how handily Trump won almost all of these states in 2016; Trump won Texas by 9% and Ohio by 8%.
Of Margins and Mayhem
The key – as in every election – is margins. In 2016, Trump’s narrow wins in key states still provided him with the required the electoral college majority despite having lost the popular vote by 2.1%. Today, current and predicted falling numbers across both battleground and traditional states alike have eroded that electoral college baseline. In simple terms, if Biden won only the states where he is currently polling leads, he would win a landslide 352 votes in the electoral college, representing the largest overall margin since Barrack Obama’s own history-making victory in 2008. In Florida alone – which no Republican has won the Presidency without in 96 years - Trump has yet to lead Biden in a single public poll since March.
Trump’s only path to victory - to hold onto his 2016 states by his fingernails – simultaneously provides Biden with a multiplicity of winning strategies. For example, Biden could win simply by taking back the aforementioned parts of the “blue wall” lost in 2016. Equally, Biden could win through the vital “sunbelt” states (encompassing states from the southwest to the southeast of America), simply by adding Florida with either Arizona or North Carolina. In 2016 the nature of the battleground meant both Trump and Clinton needed to win Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania to beat their opponent. However, Trump’s numbers have at this stage of the race diminished such that he could win these states and still lose. Biden could even win outright by flipping Texas alone, a state worth 38 electoral votes alone.
In terms of overall context, the polling shifts which have produced these results are just as stark. While Biden is actually running slightly behind Hillary Clinton’s performance among Black and Hispanic voters (giving him space to improve), Biden’s performance has been driven by increasingly substantive shifts among largely white suburbanites. At this point in 2016, Trump led Clinton by a solid 10% among suburban voters; yet the same pollster now has Biden up 9% among this same demographic. Bearing in mind that the conglomeration of suburbs provided the Democrats with 40 new seats and a thumping majority in the House of Representatives in 2018, current figures suggest the suburbs could punish Republicans once again.
The socio-economic impact of the Coronavirus crisis and perceptions of Trump’s overall management of the crisis have together provided Biden with another core demographic: voters over the age of 65. The 65+ group are key; historically favoring Republicans in every Presidential election since 2004, they have taken kindly neither to Trump’s pandemic approach, nor his repeated insinuations regarding Biden’s age and mental faculties.
There is still time for Trump to turn his situation around. A lot can and will happen in the final days of the election campaign. But at this stage, it is looking increasingly likely that the US will take a chance on Biden. Every additional day that Trump remains behind makes it exponentially harder to make up lost ground between himself and Biden; days which are still embedded in the largely incoherent and mercurial response by Trump to both the Coronavirus (which has now left more than 150,000 Americans dead) and the US economy.
2016-2020: Compare and Contrast
One of the prime reasons the 2020 race is so unlike 2016 is that Trump no longer possesses many of the advantages he once held. Trump ran his first campaign as an anti-establishment candidate: a billionaire businessman who had never before held elected office, making virtuous his lack of experience with politics in general, and lack of acquaintance with Washington in particular. His complete lack of record and heterodox views resulted in voters regarding Trump as a radical candidate with tolerable if robust views, and therefore more rather than less electable, despite his overt use of racial grievances.
In July 2016, a key Pew Research poll revealed 58% of voters identified Hillary Clinton as holding liberal views, while 44% identified Trump as conservative. Trump was regarded as the least conservative Republican candidate for at least 25 years. Clinton’s long record, combined with powerful sexist perceptions of female politicians as simultaneously more liberal and less empathetic produced the overall impression that she was more deeply ideological.
In 2020, as the incumbent candidate, Trump has an extensive record to defend, having been impeached just 9 months ago for inviting foreign interference in the election. More recently, Trump has been condemned by a wide range of different voter groups for his various responses to the COVID-19 pandemic, federal-state relations, the economy in general, and the widespread popular protests in support on Black Lives Matter since the killing of George Floyd in May. Trump’s Coronavirus response for instance currently stands at 57.3% disapproval, and just 39.4% approval. An even larger proportion - around 67% of Americans - disapprove of the way Trump is handling American race relations.
Were the polls wrong in 2016? Is a 2016-2020 comparison feasible? No, and yes. The majority of polls were not dramatically off in 2016 - Trump was just a normal polling error away from victory; instead, overall expectations were off. Biden’s current lead is not only meaningfully larger than Clinton’s, but far more viable – and indeed sustainable - with less than 100 days to go. Clinton led Trump by less than 1% just before the Democratic National Convention in 2016, and an average of 4% in the final four months on the campaign. Biden has blown past both of these baselines.
This can be seen clearly in from these two excellent graphs produced by FiveThirtyEight. Essentially, to win from his current position, Trump must now pull back faster than any incumbent President in the last 30 years, and do so in an environment wracked by socio-economic crisis and uncertainty. With entrenched political opinions still the prevailing zeitgeist, there are far fewer undecided voters this time around. Among those who remain undecided - which in 2016 helped swing the election in Trump’s favour - those who dislike both Trump and Biden still prefer Biden.
Identities and Intentions
In his race against Biden, Trump is now perceived as the candidate further removed from America’s sense of the political middle, even while Biden’s agenda is markedly more liberal than Hillary Clinton’s. From an ideological standpoint, Trump has passed mid-range Republican legislation combined with more robustly conservative judicial picks. His unorthodox populist impulses continue, though he has shed some of his apparent heterodoxy in favour of standard Republican positions, even while congressional Republicans have continually struggled with his unpredictability on a policy-by-policy basis. Any illusions of Trump’s populism have been repeatedly shattered by White House proposals to cut budgets for social security, Medicare, Medicaid, food stamps and student loans. It is for these reasons that by January 2018, Trump’s scattergun positioning was reckoned by on the issues as having veered from the second most liberal of the past five GOP Presidents to the second most conservative.
For his part, Biden’s profile as a relatively moderate candidate has been facilitated by his identity as an older, white man with a long record of representing the core middle of the Democratic party. Never a firebrand, Biden is still also regarded as significantly more honest than both Trump and Clinton to the American public.
Biden has also benefitted by becoming the presumptive Democratic nominee through a long but ultimately decisive primary campaign characterized by his deliberately moderate attitude when compared to many of the other candidates, including Bernie Sanders in particular. Biden’s ability to keep an electoral edge on moderation, honesty and clarity of identity has in turn helped him weather increasingly extreme attempts by Trump and his campaign to brand Biden as a trojan horse for a number of issues, including socialist policies and left-wing figures in the democratic party. As the Atlantic’s Adam Serwer persuasively puts it: “after 12 years of feasting on white identity politics with a black man and a woman as its preeminent villains, the Republican Party is struggling to run its Obama-era culture-war playbook against an old, moderate white guy.”
At this point, US voters do not appear to believe that Biden is an avatar of the extreme left, nor a mouthpiece of China, nor responsible for America’s Covid-related fallout. By insisting that he is, the Trump campaign is miscalculating at a key point in the campaign. An example of this approach is the airing of Republican attack ads in the same regions which simultaneously accuse Biden of being a soft-on-crime anarchist, while accusing him of being too tough for his support of the 1994 Crime Bill. These mixed messages condemning Biden for holding opposite extreme positions have ironically only served to bolster Biden’s image in a country which favours candidates with largely moderate demeanours.
Conclusion: It’s (still) the Economy, Stupid (among other things)
Despite warnings of another eleventh-hour Trump upset, 2020 seems less of a close-run race. For the reasons explored above, Biden maintains a lead both quantitatively and qualitatively more robust than the leads held by Hilary Clinton four years ago.
The Trump campaign has continued to struggle with Joe Biden’s moderate and folksy image. Contrary to the Trump campaign’s attempts, voters don’t regard Biden as a radical anarchist or soft on China, nor do they think he’ll defund the police or raze the suburbs. The recent addition of Kamala Harris to Biden’s ticket has so far failed to change things in Trump’s favour. While her own presidential campaign faltered on her “lack of ground game” and failure to capture voters with a “galvanizing breakthrough message”, Harris’ remarkable ability to break the mold throughout her political career- an attribute described by The New Yorker as “firstdom” has resonated across the country: a snap YouGov poll finding that 51% of registered voters approved of the selection.
Trump meanwhile has been collectively dragged down by persistent and flagrant dishonesty, an instrumental attitude to both managing and utilizing the collapsing economy against the still larger mishandling of the Coronavirus pandemic, and hard-heartedness over the Black Lives Matter protests and issues. It’s not impossible that Trump could win the electoral college once again, but to do so he needs to dramatically narrow the polls, centrally by making Biden unpopular, but there’s a reason the most robust 2020 forecast now gives Biden a +70% chance of victory. With North Carolina sending out mail voting ballots from September 4th and other states following shortly after Trump is running out of time to recover.
Trump has missed perhaps the simplest election truth of all: that as incumbent, the election is not his to win, but rather to lose.
Professor Amelia Hadfield is the Head of the Department of Politics at the University of Surrey. Chris Logie is a Law with International Relations graduate. Image credit: White House/Flickr.