November 8th, 2016 was shocking to a lot of people, but it should not have been. The Clinton campaign was built to maximize their total vote number, and it did, despite the candidate facing a number of challenges that were unique to her. The Trump campaign was built to maximize his swing state vote. Both succeeded. That gave Trump a win.
The Clinton campaign was very metric driven, producing huge call numbers and lots of volunteer shifts. Hillary’s campaign focused in on turning out the “Obama coalition.” Her travel scheduled focused on urban vote centers where the goal was turnout. She ran phenomenal vote numbers out of big cities- Philadelphia, Raleigh, and Miami- even as she lost swing states. She ran record breaking margins in the huge blue states (California and New York), and narrowed red states with large minority populations (Texas, Arizona, Georgia). The only candidate to get more votes than Hillary was Barack Obama- maybe the best political talent we’ve ever seen.
The Trump campaign made an early gamble that paid off- they could never get nominated in a conventional campaign, and the resulting “traditional” Republicans they lost in wealthy suburbs (the supposed “small government,” anti-tax breed) were less useful than the newcomers and Democratic converts they were targeting. Trump gambled that 90% of the 46-47% that had voted for McCain and Romney would stick with him, even as he ran harder on identity right-wing politics. With that base of about 42%, Trump took aim at Democrats that Hillary was less interested in- lower middle-class earning whites. He went after “Gephardt” Dem issues like global trade deals. He attacked illegal immigration, which Democrats used to decry as lowering wages. And he called her a war hawk. It didn’t hurt that Bernie Sanders attacked these same vulnerabilities in Hillary in the primary, but the strategy was very lucrative for Trump- those voters live disproportionately in states like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, Iowa, Minnesota, New Hampshire, and Maine- and Trump saw the benefits pay off in close state after close state.
Not much seems to have changed for 2020 so far. Trump is messaging to the exact same people so far. The only wrinkle in his strategy is an increase in talk about Israel, which clearly is meant to help him hold Pennsylvania and Florida. Democratic messaging hasn’t changed much either. Democratic messaging has focused on “expanding the base,” and increasing turnout. Both sides have largely doubled down on 2016. The result is a rather highly engaged electorate very early on- more people than ever say they will vote in 2020.
What can we gather from this? What will 2020 look like? I have some very early predictions about the electorate.
- I expect turnout to be up from the 2016 number of 138 million to between 142-145 million voters.
- I expect the electorate to be about 69% white and 31% non-white.
- I expect the Democratic popular vote win to increase from about 3 million votes in 2016 to 5 million votes in 2020. I expect the Democrat to get about 72 million votes to Trump’s 67 million votes.
- I’m predicting a 50% to 46% Democratic popular vote win.
- Despite all of this, the election is no better than a toss up for Democrats. If I were a betting man, based on Trump’s approval taking a bump up after the first Democratic debate, I’d say he should be favored to basically hold around 300 electoral votes. He has a decent chance of holding his 306 from last time, and even expanding it. Re-running 2016 on both sides, or Democrats just trying to be “better” at it, is not likely to change anything. Trump’s current approval sits between 43 and 47%, while it was 38% on Election Day in 2016.
This runs counter to what you might think if you spend a lot of time interacting with progressive activists on Twitter, so it’s a bit jarring for many of us. The fact is that both sides are re-running the 2016 playbook, and I don’t see a lot of evidence that any Democrat is much (if any bit) stronger than Hillary. Of the 20 some candidates, my feeling right now is that there are three to maybe six with a chance to beat Trump. They’re not all polling at the top of the field. The chances that Democrats nominate someone who’s appeal is strong with all or part of the base, but not with swing voters, are real. If that happens, you could be looking at something slightly worse than 2016 for Democrats, an environment where Speaker Pelosi not forcing her endangered members to walk the plank early ends up paying off in preserving the Democrats as relevant in at least one chamber of the government.