Editorial note: The following article was authored by Amelia Hadfield and Christopher Logie, and published in the PSA Blog. With Professor Hadfield’s permission I offer a condensed version here. Amelia is the head of the Department of Politics and chair of European and International Affairs at The University of Surry in Guildford, England. Christopher Logie is a Law With International Relations graduate.
The 2020 Election is Unlike 2016: That Should Worry President Trump
After a breathless first term, President Trump’s current re-election prospects can be summed up as “not super.” Democratic nominee and former Vice President Joe Biden and his new running mate 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.
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 8.4% nationally according to FiveThirtyEight’s widely respected polling aggregator. And, Trump has a -12.1% net approval rating. Biden has also pulled ahead in the swing states of Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, and he has narrow leads in the traditionally red states of Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.
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, 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 by 9% among this demographic. Bear 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.
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, a group which has historically voted Republican in every presidential election since 2000. They have taken kindly neither to Trump’s pandemic approach, nor to 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 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.
Identities and Intentions
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. Biden’s ability to keep an electoral edge on moderation, honesty and clarity of identity has helped him weather increasingly extreme attempts by Trump and his campaign to brand him as a trojan horse for a number of issues, including socialist policies. Trump has been collectively dragged down by persistent and flagrant dishonesty, a collapsing economy, 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. Trump has missed perhaps the simplest election truth of all: that as incumbent, the election is not his to win, but rather to lose.