Eleven Three Twenty: 6 Reasons Why 2020 Won’t Be Like 2016…Probably
October 30, 2020
There are few things diehard Joe Biden supporters and diehard Donald Trump supporters have in common. But one of them is the belief that no matter what the current polls say, the 2020 election result is going to be as shocking as 2016.
For Biden supporters, this belief has created a near pathological level of paranoia that President Trump will once again pull a rabbit out of his MAGA hat on Tuesday and somehow win a second term. For Trump supporters, this belief has created a sense of assuredness bordering on cockiness that they and their fellow MAGA supporters will show up by the millions on Tuesday to re-elect their red-hatted Commander in Chief for four more years — regardless of what pre-election polls say.
So, are both sets of voters right? Will President Trump somehow confound the pundits and pollsters on Election Night once again? In a word…well, two words: probably not.
Look, no one — and I mean NO ONE — knows for sure how the election is going to play out. (Hence the “probably” qualifier…) But I do believe there are 6 significant reasons why a miraculous come-from-behind victory is going to elude Donald Trump this time around.
1. The Low Number of Undecided Voters
Both pre-election and post-election polls of 2016 voters revealed that between 15 and 20% of all voters made their final decision of who to vote for during the final three to five days of the campaign. And Donald Trump won approximately two-thirds of those late-deciding voters. That translates to a final swing of 5–7 percentage points, which was more than enough for him to win (barely) the key electoral states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin.
Fast forward to 2020…polling this year has consistently shown that only about 3–5% of likely voters are undecided at this point. Even if President Trump were to replicate his 2/3 share of those votes (and that’s a dicey assumption at best) the impact would be nominal — about a 1–2 percentage point boost. Unfortunately for the President, that would not be enough to overcome his current polling deficit in those three critical states — let alone even closer states such as Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, where polls indicate he currently trails the former Vice President by about 2–4 points.
But weren’t the polls wrong in 2016? If so, why should I trust them in 2020? I’m glad you asked…
2. Pollsters Made Adjustments to Their Methodologies after 2016
This is perhaps the biggest reason both Biden and Trump supporters anticipate a shocking outcome on Tuesday. And make no mistake, the polls could be wrong. After all, polls are not elections.
Having said that, I think it’s important to recognize a couple things. First, despite the impression given by the media, one that was mindlessly accepted by the masses, the polls in 2016 weren’t that off. In fact, analyses conducted after the 2016 election showed that the November Presidential polls that year were, on average, about as accurate as the November Presidential polls in every election back to 1972. State polls were indeed less accurate than national polls in 2016, but even they were “still within the ‘normal’ range of accuracy,” according to FiveThirtyEight.com’s editor-in-chief Nate Silver.
It was the interpretation of the polls that caused the biggest shock — especially in the pivotal states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. The fact is that most of the pre-election polls in those state fell within or just outside of their margins of error. Therefore, they should have been viewed with more caution than they were. Throw in a lower turnout than hoped for by the Clinton campaign, especially among key Democratic voting blocks, and you ended up with three critical states decided by the slimmest of margins.
But even though the 2016 polls actually were fairly accurate, most of the major polling companies tweaked their polling methodologies based on what they learned during that election. These changes included making sure more rural voters were included in their response samples. They also recognized that the education level of their respondents — the single greatest predictor of how someone voted in 2016 — deserved more weighing in their models. Finally, they started using different ways to reach their respondents in the first place, including relying on “snail mail” again as part of their attempts to include more rural and older respondents (two demographic groups who broke heavily for Donald Trump in 2016).
These changes in polling methodologies should mean that this year’s polls are even more accurate than the 2016 polls, which, as it turns out, weren’t that inaccurate to begin with. Also, it’s not just the polls that we need to examine, it’s the nature of the Biden lead those polls are revealing…
3. Joe Biden’s Lead IS Different This Year
First, Joe Biden’s leads in many of the key Electoral College states are larger than those of Hillary Clinton’s four years. Even in the states where they’re not larger, they are more stable. And that’s actually more important because it reinforces the fact that this has been one of the most remarkably stable elections in recent Presidential history.
Over the past 3–5 months, Joe Biden’s lead in the polls has rarely swung more than a few points either way. In 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead was evaporating on an almost hourly basis over the final few days of the campaign. That’s simply not happening this year.
This stability is due in large part to the fact that voters flat out like Joe Biden more than they did Hillary Clinton (as measured by favorability ratings). Consequently, they are much less likely to change their minds before casting their votes.
One final, critical difference in Biden’s leads this year involves the significance of polling above 50%. As Galen Druke wonderfully explained in this FiveThirtyEight.com video, Biden is over 50% in many of the key states — a feat Hillary Clinton never achieved. Why is that so significant? Because it means that not only does Donald Trump need to hold onto all of his voters and convince undecided voters to vote for him, he further has to steal some votes away from Biden to win the state. And that will be a tall order for this President because...
4. President Trump Has to Run on His Record — Candidate Trump Didn’t
One of then-candidate Trump’s favorite lines to voters during the 2016 campaign was “What have you got to lose?” To his credit, it was a great line for him. At that time, he was best known as a reality television host and real-estate mogul who had never held a political office. Therefore, he had no political record on which to be judged by undecided voters, many of whom ultimately decided they didn’t have anything to lose by voting for him.
Contrast that to his opponent Hillary Clinton. She had been Secretary of State, a Senator, and a First Lady (of both the State of Arkansas and the United States). Yes, that gave her a record to tout. But it also gave her opponents ample ammunition to hurl at the candidate. This, combined with her low favorability ratings and lower-than-hoped-for-turnout, doomed her campaign.
Donald Trump is experiencing the exact same phenomenon in 2020, when he wouldn’t dare ask “What do you have to lose?” Because people now know. (In fairness to the President, they also know what they already have gained and probably would gain from four more years of his Presidency — something that strongly appeals to his most loyal supporters.)
Overall, however, being forced to defend a record is one of the few disadvantages incumbent Presidents face compared to their challengers. And President Trump is paying for that disadvantage — especially on the issue of his administration’s handling of the Covid-19 pandemic. Speaking of which…
5. The Covid-19 Pandemic
One of Presidential politics’ truisms, regardless of the year or the candidates is “It’s the economy, stupid.” Not this year.
Poll after poll shows that THE most important issue for American voters this year is the pandemic. (The economy is, however, a strong second.) That’s bad news for the President, because those same polls indicate most Americans believe Joe Biden would handle the pandemic better than Donald Trump has. That’s why the Biden campaign is focusing on that issue almost exclusively. It’s also why the Trump campaign is doing everything in its power to downplay the pandemic in the hopes that voters are thinking about…well, ANYTHING else…as they cast their votes.
Thus far, that approach seems to be failing — in large part because the nation is experiencing one of the biggest spikes in the number of cases since the pandemic began. That’s not going to magically change by Tuesday evening. And even if it did, it might be too late. Because as of this morning, over 83.5 million Americans have already voted, which leads me to…
6. Early Voting Turnout
Of the six reasons why 2020 is not like 2016, this ultimately may be the most important when we dissect the final results. Because of the pandemic, almost every state made it easier for their residents to vote (at least theoretically). Some expanded early voting. Some switched to mail ballots. And many did a combination of both. Consequently, Americans have had more time to, as well as more ways to, vote this election. And, holy cow, are they taking advantage of it.
As I mentioned above, over 83.5 million Americans already have cast a ballot, according to Michael McDonald’s The United States Election Project at the University of Florida. For comparison, around 136 million total votes were cast during the entire 2016 Presidential campaign.
While it’s dangerous to hypothesize what this incredible early voting turnout might translate into on Election Night, we can comfortably conclude two things. First, the general rule of thumb is that modern Democratic Presidential candidates do better as turnout increases. And, two, millions of people who didn’t vote in 2016 are participating in 2020.
Based on the information collected by those states who track the demographics of early voters, many of these first-time voters are young Americans and African-Americans. If that holds true through Election Day, the President is in deep trouble, because both of those groups are heavily Democratic leaning.
Another reason the early voting numbers are bad for the President is that once a vote is cast, it can’t be changed. Typically, that benefits the front-runner, not the candidate who is behind. And make no mistake, the President is behind the former Vice President.
But I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention that we don’t yet know if the high early turnout is just poaching voters who normally would vote on Election Day. Or, is it truly indicative of a high-turnout election? We should have a good sense of the answer to that by about midday on Tuesday.
Also, the President can count on a big advantage in terms of voters on Tuesday because poll after poll has indicated that his supporters are going to vote more traditionally on the actual Election Day. Meanwhile, the majority of Biden/Harris voters have told pollsters they plan on voting early. So expect the numbers from Tuesday to look really good for the President. The only question is if that will make up for what is expected to be a huge vote deficit heading into Election Day. We’ll have to see.
I began this column by saying there were few things both Biden and Trump supporters can agree upon. I’ll end this with another one: the importance of each and every vote. So, if you have yet to vote, please…PLEASE do so before the polls close on Tuesday. For as President Abraham Lincoln so beautifully put it, ours is a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.”
But only if those people choose to participate in their government. And the easiest way to do that is by voting.
For those of you wondering why I’m qualified to write about this topic, I have a Ph.D. in Human Communication Studies from the University of Denver — with an emphasis on leadership, power, and persuasion. My dissertation research focused on political communication, specifically Ross Perot’s 1992 Presidential campaign (“A Mythic Analysis of Ross Perot’s 1992 Campaign Infomercials as a Modern American Jeremiad”). And I have worked on — or consulted for — a number of political campaigns, ranging from the mayoral to the Presidential level.