Four years ago, Donald Trump won the 2016 Election in shocking and rare fashion- losing the popular vote by nearly 3 million votes, but narrowly winning “the big six” states by roughly 450,000 votes. The pundits acted shocked, and they asked things like “how were the polls so wrong,” and “how did this happen?” I have to admit, I believed Clinton would win the election, even into election night, but I also wasn’t all that shocked. The polls were not really wrong, as her national lead averaged 2.9%, and she won by 2.1% in the popular vote, which fits pretty much exact with her less than margin of error leads in the swing states actually going to Trump by margin of error margins. That .8% shift nationally shifted the closest states red. That’s what happens in a very close race sometimes. There’s a reason polls give a margin of error, and frankly being within a point is scientifically correct.
I must admit that I pretty much predicted that exact outcome back in the Summer of 2016, before I had formally joined the Clinton campaign. That race was very volatile throughout, and there was a lot of room for error. While Trump had very high unfavorables, Clinton also had record breaking unfavorables. Even when Clinton held “big” leads of near 10%, she rarely (if ever) was brushing up against 50%, often holding leads like 45-37%, with close to a fifth of the electorate saying they were undecided. Lots of people were saying they disliked both, and that they were undecided. An unusually high 6% ended up picking third party and write-in choices, lowering the threshold for victory. While there was never much doubt that Clinton would win the popular vote, there was always at least some pathway to victory for Trump. It seemed unlikely. It was never even close to impossible though.
And so here we are in 2016, with Joe Biden holding commanding leads nationally, and significant but competitive polling leads in the swing states. Even so, a lot of folks on both sides believe it’s likely Trump will pull it out the same way again. It is true, Trump does better in the swing states than he does nationally, and it always has been. While Joe Biden isn’t likely to match Barack Obama margins with Black voters, LatinX voters, Asian Americans, or the youth, he’s still likely to win most of these groups handily. The real issue for him is what states they are most populous in. The truth is that the Democrats have won every popular vote for President since the Cold War but 2004, and probably will continue to as they continue to grow their performances in some of the largest states in the country. It’s also true that politically speaking, California and New York are just way different than most other states. Most people agree therefore that Biden will win the popular vote by at least 3-5 million votes. And yet, so many wonder about the final result.
But I’m here to tell you that 2020 is not 2016. Really. There are a lot of fundamental differences that make this election very, very different. The pathway for Trump is much, much more narrow, even if it looks roughly similar to 2016. Trump is a different candidate than 2016, even if he hasn’t changed a bit. Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. Many of the 2016 assumptions have been decimated, if not turned on their head. And of course, Covid.
Let’s start with the most basic and clear difference- Joe Biden isn’t Hillary Clinton. He has not been beat on with the most intense negative messages for 25 years coming in, even if he’s been around a while. Some polls show Joe’s approval as high as 8% to the positive, others as low as -4% to the negative, but none of them show Joe at -15% levels of approval, as Hillary was. Joe has nothing on par with Benghazi or the e-mail server for a scandal right now, nor have we seen Wikileaks dropping well timed leaks on him. By this point in 2016, she was months into investigations by the House, James Comey’s FBI, Wikileaks, and the press. They were well baked into the public’s consciousness by now, let alone Election Day. Biden has also had less issues with Bernie Sanders and the overwhelming majority of his supporters than Hillary did. There’s the reality of how hard it is to win the White House three straight times for one party as well. Then there’s the gorilla in the room- sexism. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden is not a historic candidate trying to crash a “glass ceiling” in our society. Joe Biden is facing less political “garbage” at this point, and again, with how close 2016 was, that might be enough to flip things.
Then there is the campaign Biden has run, which has been very different. Look at Biden’s Summer ad buys- they were heavy in Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin. There was less “expedition buying” in “emerging” swing states that are less likely to be the tipping point of reaching 270 electoral votes. Joe Biden is spending Labor Day in Harrisburg, PA, not Philadelphia, and his visits to swing states have often been to places outside the major metropolitan areas. While the Clinton campaign was completely banking on huge vote numbers from big blue, metropolitan areas, Biden has built his Summer lead on flipping senior citizens by nearly 20% from 2016’s exit polling. This is huge because seniors are highly reliable to vote, and they are plentiful in every state, let alone the swing states. Biden is largely seen as safe, reliable, and experienced by voters. He ran a whole primary campaign banking on the country wanting a mainstream moderate, and won, and that has helped inoculate him from Trump’s attempts to tie him to protestors, scandals, and the more “AOC left” that Trump wants to run against. In short, this is a different beast. Joe just raised $364.5 million in August, and seems to know how to use it.
Donald Trump is different too. Much different. He’s not the same upstart candidate as 2016. Sure, he’s still the “anti politics” crusader, complaining about everyone in DC who won’t bow to him, but that’s a lot harder to sell as President. He’s now been the President as Covid-19 took 189,000 Americans lives, and tens of millions of Americans jobs and businesses. He was now President as a laundry list of friends, staff, and supporters of his have been indicted, plead guilty, or been convicted, cutting into his anti-corruption attacks from 2016. The rioting and looting in the streets that he is trying to use as an attack on former Vice-President Biden, are happening in President Donald Trump’s America. George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery are happening in Trump’s America too, as he does things like order the end of race sensitivity training in federal agencies. His achievements? Let’s boil it down- a big tax cut for rich people making “passive” income, lots of conservative judges on the bench, and some executive orders that reversed Obama era orders. Gone is the booming economy that he inherited from President Obama, our standing in the world, and any sense of civility in our politics. Let’s be honest- I even hate talking politics in public now. Can his campaign overcome these things? I mean he let his former campaign manager, who was way over his head but good at fleecing him for money, drive that ship for 3.5 years. Steve Brannon and Kellyanne Conway aren’t seeming to be available to come save things this time either.
All of this leads to something totally expected, but important- the polls are telling us this is a remarkably steady race. This, again, is not 2016. Joe Biden holds a remarkably steady lead in the 7-10% range. He is remarkably steady in the 48% (Hillary’s 2016 total) to 52% range in polls, meaning he has a larger base to work with, and he’s either at win numbers in most places, or needs less than one in five undecideds to get there. When Trump does get a close poll, Biden still is right around the 50% mark, meaning the number of real undecideds is remarkably low. Biden is doing all of this with slightly lower support numbers among Black and Latino voters than Hillary had, which also suggests some room to still grow. The gender gap in this race, particularly among women, is record breaking in Biden’s favor. Seniors and suburbanites, the most reliable voting blocks, are breaking toward Biden, in ways Hillary would have dreamed of. In short, more people have made up their minds, Biden has a stronger vote share than Clinton did, and Biden’s voters are better spread across the electoral map. And it’s been that way for months.
My basic theory about this election is that while Trump’s 2016 pathway to victory is still possible, it’s much less likely. There are less undecided voters to do it with. Trump’s standing, particularly in Michigan and Arizona, looks far worse. Biden is more competitive with white voters, mostly old white voters, than any Democrat since 1976. For Trump to win, he will need to win an extraordinary number of voters who don’t particularly love him, in an increasingly small number of states, to overcome leads that are both larger and more durable than Hillary’s were at this point. I wouldn’t bet on it.
And yet, many of you will. It has been pointed out to me that “betting markets” are moving towards Trump. I’d remind you that betting markets are very male, and men tend believe Trump has a lot more “magic” than he really has. It’s also been pointed out to me that the “law and order” argument worked in America before, but it’s worth noting those times weren’t for an unpopular incumbent. Still others base their nervousness on “swing states being closer than national polls,” which is sort of self-explanatory when you consider what defines being a “swing” state. Others yet say the “2016 polls were wrong,” which I debunked above. Some want to discuss an imaginary “enthusiasm gap,” just after Biden broke every fundraising record known to man, and Kamala Harris had higher convention ratings for her speech than Trump (Biden beat both). There are legitimate fears about cheating, whether it be with Trump’s USPS slow down or foreign interference, which I will not dismiss, but I offer but one remedy- don’t let it be close. It’s not terribly close right now, and it doesn’t have to be in November if you volunteer your time to the campaign, and vote.
In short, Joe Biden is going to win. It is possible that Trump pulls out some combination of Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, North Carolina, Florida, Arizona, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, and Maine, all by 3% or less, and reaches 270 electoral votes again- just like it’s possible to be bit by a great white shark two separate times, and survive. Biden is well equipped to beat that plan though. His improved standing with men, white voters, independents, seniors, suburbanites, and most critically women, make him stronger in the swing states. The campaign is running precisely to deny Trump his 2016 pathway. People simply don’t believe Biden is corrupt or a socialist, despite the repeated attempts to sell that narrative by Trump. His approval is simply stronger than Hillary’s was at this point. There are far less undecideds than there were last time. Trump has a tough record to defend, and low approval to begin with. And of course, sexism is less likely to define this race than 2016.
None of this is to say anything is impossible. If you want Trump out, volunteer for the Biden campaign. If you’re a lawyer fearing shenanigans, volunteer for the Democrats voter protection team. If you’re not from a swing state, volunteer in one. Make sure three of your friends are registered and voting for Biden. Put as much effort into turning out the Biden vote as you are to that Facebook post about how awful Trump is. If you put in the effort to the things that matter, this election is a slam dunk. Trump’s only chance is your complacency. That is a chance though. It’s one you control, but it’s one we’ve dropped the ball on before.
Happy Labor Day.