One Last Funny Feeling About 2020October 27, 2020
Over the past month, I’ve shared insights gathered from a year spent on the road talking with voters in the nation’s most competitive swing states. The idea was to offer an unfiltered view of the race in its closing weeks, based on the hunches I’m left with after connecting so many anecdotal dots and placing them in the context of polling data, campaign metrics and talks with party officials.
I first inched out on a limb four weeks from Election Day, describing how Trump fatigue was peaking at the wrong time and predicting that the president could lose a historic share of women voters. Three weeks from Election Day, I wrote about the yard-sign wars and what they foretold about partisan intensity and record-breaking turnout. Then, two weeks from Election Day, I suggested that we’re overthinking this election; that more than Covid-19 or an economic collapse, the driving force behind Trump’s impending defeat is his essential unlikability.
I’ve got one last funny feeling about 2020 to share—and it won’t leave much doubt as to my expectations for November 3 and beyond.
This is nothing like 2016.
All of us—Republicans and Democrats, journalists and party operatives, political junkies and casual observers—are held hostage by memories of four Novembers ago. We remember how the polls insisted Donald Trump would lose. We remember how GOP officials left Trump for dead and planned a rebranding effort after his defeat. We remember watching the returns come in, wondering what we’d missed and how we’d gotten it so wrong.
The good news for Trump supporters is that his position today is similar enough to the one he was in four years ago: trailing badly in the polls, largely left for dead, needing some sort of electoral miracle to win the election. They saw him defy the odds once; because of that, they believe he will do it again.
The bad news for Trump supporters: 2020 is nothing like 2016.
We are always fighting the last war in politics. But if we’ve learned anything about American elections in the post-9/11 era, it’s that volatility is a feature, not a bug. George W. Bush’s “mandate” in 2004 was wiped out by a Democratic rout in 2006. Barack Obama’s landslide in 2008 invited a Tea Party revolution in 2010. Trump’s shocking upset in 2016 was chased by a blue wave in 2018. These swings demonstrate how dramatic realignments—demographically, ideologically and otherwise—continue to accelerate in ways that keep both parties off balance. The coalitions that deliver victory often crumble just two years later. Four years, in this regard, amounts to an eternity.
With that in mind, here are 16 reasons why the 2020 election is nothing like 2016:
1. Four years ago, Trump won with a coalition of voters. While the fabled working-class whites were central to this coalition, he couldn’t have won without sizable support from suburban white women; from seniors ages 65 and older; and from independents who voted for Barack Obama in the previous election. Today, that coalition is in tatters. Trump ran competitively with college-educated white women against Hillary Clinton, losing them by 7 points; polling now suggests he could lose them by 25 points or more. Trump won seniors by 7 points against Clinton; polling now shows him consistently trailing among seniors by 5 to 15 points. Trump won independents by 4 points; polling now shows Joe Biden running up big margins with those voters. None of this means the president can’t assemble a new coalition to win this November. Indeed, his team has spent considerable time and resources targeting Hispanic voters and Black men, believing inroads with those groups could offset heavy losses elsewhere. Whether he’s successful, the fact remains: Trump’s coalition from 2016 no longer exists.
2. Four years ago, just a third of the country believed America was on the right track. These conditions were fundamentally advantageous to Trump, a political outsider, whose party had been out of power for eight years. Today, only one-fifth of the country believes America is on the right track. But this time, Trump bears the brunt of the public’s frustration, primarily due to his handling of the Covid-19 pandemic.
3. Four years ago, Trump defeated a Democratic opponent who was intensely disliked by tens of millions of voters; who was viewed as untrustworthy by huge majorities of the public; who was under FBI investigation for much of the general election. Today, Trump is facing a Democratic opponent who does not polarize the country, who does not antagonize the right, and who is personally well-liked.
4. Four years ago, turnout was a mixed bag, with solid numbers in some states but anemic participation elsewhere. Early voting numbers lagged in many swing states, reflecting a lack of organizing on the ground. Today, a week out from Election Day, early voting totals have already rocketed past the final figures from 2016, and absentee ballots are pouring into clerks’ offices at a clip nobody ever thought possible. Overall turnout could shatter records. (More on that below.)
5. Four years ago, turnout was especially stagnant in battleground states such as Michigan and Wisconsin. (Fun fact: Despite carrying Wisconsin, Trump won fewer votes in the state than Mitt Romney did in 2012; Romney lost Wisconsin by 7 points.) This low turnout owed largely to waning enthusiasm in major Democratic strongholds, such as Detroit and Milwaukee. Today, organizers in these cities report voter-mobilization efforts that make 2016 look like a school board election.
6. Four years ago, sluggish voter turnout allowed Trump to win the Electoral College by threadbare majorities (77,744 votes combined in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania) while losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million. It was widely acknowledged that had participation been modestly higher than the roughly 137 million people who voted, Clinton would have won. Today, experts believe we could be heading for turnout in the neighborhood of 160 million votes or higher—which would roughly match the scale of record-breaking turnout in the 2018 midterms, when Democrats won the popular vote for the House by nearly 10 million votes.
7. Four years ago, nearly 8 million Americans cast ballots for a third-party presidential candidate, with Libertarian Party nominee Gary Johnson winning roughly 4.5 million of those votes. Today, with polls showing that voters almost universally view this election as a binary choice between Trump and Biden, third-party vote share will likely plummet. (This is one potential ace up Trump’s sleeve; Johnson stole more votes from Trump than Green Party nominee Jill Stein did from Clinton; based on my reporting, many Johnson voters in conservative counties, where he took upward of 5 percent, are coming home to the GOP, voting for a candidate they weren’t comfortable backing in 2016.)
8. Four years ago, the polls were … actually pretty darn accurate, at least at the national level. The final RealClearPolitics average projected Clinton winning the popular vote by 3.3 points; she won by 2.1 points. If the average is off by an identical spread this year—if Biden beats Trump by 7.1 percentage points nationally, instead of the 8.3 points he’s leading by in the current averages—then he clobbers Trump in most if not all of the battleground states and carries somewhere north of 350 votes in the Electoral College.
9. Four years ago, some state-based polling missed the mark badly, in part because pollsters struggled to identify some Trump supporters—either people who didn’t want to share their support for him, or people who hadn’t yet decided. Today, pollsters have adjusted their methodologies and are confident they are capturing a more accurate picture of the president’s base; moreover, from my own reporting, it’s been nearly impossible to find the fabled “shy Trump voter” we heard so much about four years ago. Local GOP officials will be the first to tell you about the folks who were too nervous to put a Trump sign on their lawn four years ago but now have five of them plus two bumper stickers.
10. Four years ago, district-level polling was full of red flags for Clinton, as local Democrats saw her numbers flatlining due to consistent indicators of low voter enthusiasm. Today, that same district-level polling shows enthusiasm is off the charts, and the top-line numbers have changed accordingly: There are numerous congressional districts that Trump carried by 5 to 10 points in 2016 that he’ll likely lose by 5 to 10 points in 2020.
11. Four years ago, as I made clear in Nos. 8, 9 and 10, the polling was nowhere near as dire for Trump as it is today.
12. Four years ago, everything that possibly could have broken Trump’s way in the final three weeks of the race, did. Huge numbers of Republicans consolidated around him after panicking over the Access Hollywood tape in early October; his final two weeks of media coverage were by far his most positive of the entire campaign; and FBI Director James Comey’s letter to Congress, effectively reopening the Clinton email investigation just 11 days before the election, had a measurable effect on moderates and independent voters. The net result? Trump gained considerably on Clinton in the closing stretch. Today … well, between two shaky debate performances, a Covid-19 diagnosis, and Washington’s inability to deliver another round of economic aid, things are not exactly breaking the president’s way.
13. Four years ago, Democrats did not take Trump seriously. The party’s organizational efforts on the ground were a running joke. State parties bristled at tone-deaf directives handed down from Clinton’s campaign in Brooklyn; local Democratic rainmakers barely lifted a finger to help the nominee, so offended were they by her team’s arrogant approach (and so unworried about a Trump victory). Today, the Biden campaign has integrated itself with state and local parties, delegating major decision-making power to the people on the ground in places like Detroit, Phoenix and Charlotte.
14. Four years ago, the battleground map was not elastic. Trump had comfortable polling leads in states like Ohio, Iowa, Georgia and Texas, all of which he won by decent margins. The only safe red state where Clinton got aggressive was Arizona. Today, Trump is playing defense in all five of those states, his resources stretched thinner and thinner across a battleground map that’s gotten wider and wider.
15. Four years ago, nobody knew how Trump would govern. Republicans worried—and Democrats hoped—that the new president would fancy himself a New York machine pol, hanging conservatives out to dry and cutting deals with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on all sorts of populist initiatives. Today, there is no longer ambiguity as to Trump’s political true north: His embrace of socially conservative policies, deregulatory measures and tax cuts for rich people and corporations puts him, at least policywise, squarely in the Republican mainstream. His uncouth behavior notwithstanding, once-hesitant conservatives know exactly what they’re getting from a Trump administration. Then again, so do the moderates and independents who voted for him last time.
16. Four years ago, a Supreme Court vacancy was hanging in the balance. The election-year death of Justice Antonin Scalia, the conservative lion of the high court, gave Trump a critical leverage point that he exploited to rally conservative voters around his campaign. Republican leaders hammered this point home to their voters: This wasn’t about electing Trump; it was about electing a conservative Supreme Court. Today, those voters have a conservative Supreme Court; Monday’s confirmation of Amy Coney Barrett gives conservatives a 6-to-3 majority for years to come. It’s possible that this triumph rallies more troops to Trump. But it’s also possible that the president will be victimized by his own kept promises; that some anti-abortion evangelicals who agonized over the decision to support him in 2016, and did so precisely because they worried about the future of the courts, can now in good conscience vote against him, or just stay home, happy with the right’s takeover of the judiciary.