(Author’s note: You’ll be relieved to know PPFA’s frequent, turgid posts are not permanently back after a six-month hiatus. I found the time and motivation to make a single post with a take on where this election is headed. Just give me 20 minutes of your time, then I’ll leave you alone again.)
It’s an image seared into the nation’s collective consciousness. A balding, bespectacled, mustachioed man studies two debating candidates. The glow of his red sweater lights up the screen while the seams of his backup pants hold on for dear life. His name was, impossibly, Ken Bone, and for the better part of a news cycle he was America’s sweetheart. I literally wrote a sonnet about him.
Mr. Bone quickly became America’s mental picture of the undecided voter, a group that made up an unusually high 15 percent of voters in the 2016 campaign’s closing weeks. It was hard to imagine all the Ken Bones out there unable to decide between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, but there were apparently many.
This time, however, there are apparently few. In 2020, the American electorate, like our President’s favorite crispy dinner, is Boneless.
We’re now one month away from the 2020 election. Four years ago, my “One Month Out” post had Hillary Clinton winning a narrow electoral victory — 272 to 266 — over Donald Trump.
Unlike most pundits, I found it a difficult race to call. We’re a deeply divided nation with intense negative partisanship, so I think the blowout elections of eras past are behind us. Though I did end up predicting Secretary Clinton would emerge victorious, I lacked confidence in that prediction.
This uncertainty stemmed from an inordinate number of Ken Bones out there. At times, “undecided” plus “third party” voters (I was in the latter) totaled about a fifth of the electorate. That high number wasn’t a surprise; after all, we had the two most unpopular presidential nominees in polling history.
Still, whatever the cause of their unpopularity, what mattered to a thoughtful prognosticator was the potential effect. Specifically, with so many votes up for grabs – and a trend for third party support to diminish near Election Day when those voters capitulate to the pressure of deciding between the major party nominees – we were going to see a huge chunk of voters choose sides in the last few days of the campaign, a stretch that wouldn’t be caught by polls. The polls were close enough that if these late deciders went to Trump, he was going to win.
And that’s exactly what happened. Most pundits, including myself, assumed the late deciders would allot themselves relatively proportional to the polls, but we were dead wrong. Trump won late deciders nationally by 14 points. In the three pivotal states – Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin – Trump won late deciders by 11, 17, and 29 points, respectively. Since he won each of those states by less than one percent of their overall vote, and those three states decided the election, it was clear that this stunning late break toward Trump proved decisive in the election.
Worth noting, too, is that parts of the late-deciding group were prospective third-party voters. About seven weeks before the election, the Real Clear Politics polling average had Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson and Green Party nominee Jill Stein totaling 12 points. About 2 weeks before the election they still combined for 9. By election morning, their polling totaled just 6.6 percentage points, and then in the actual election they combined for just 4.4% of the vote, barely one-third of what they polled less than two months earlier.
Potential third party voters and other late deciders were usually voters who didn’t like either candidate, a large swath of the electorate. This group also heavily backed Trump. He won that group by 22 points nationally, including in nearly every state. In the Big Three of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, voters who didn’t like either candidate voted for Trump by 21, 25, and 37 points, a split that enabled him to eke out wins in each state.
Ultimately, when voters were faced with someone they didn’t like who represented the status quo or someone they didn’t like who represented change, most Ken Bones voted for change.
Many pundits like to draw parallels between our current election to that of 2016. The Democrats, perhaps obtusely, have once again nominated an aged Washington insider from the Obama Administration to take on the unorthodox Donald Trump. The latter has proven his bona fides to a Republican base that adores him. They appreciate all the President has done to advance the conservative cause, and they’re hoping undecideds will again realize that the media is lying to them and that the right way is better than the left.
Indeed, they might even be expecting it. Surveys show us that most Americans think Trump will win, even though Biden’s polling lead of about 7 points is steady. The polls, we hear, are not to be trusted. “Picking Biden?” some ask. “What a rube. Learn your lesson!” One’s prediction has turned into a litmus test on one’s perspicacity, and picking Biden reveals a lack thereof.
But I’ll say it, right here, right now: a second Trump miracle is not going to happen. My position is that 2020 is not 2016.
Let’s first establish that the national polls in 2016 weren’t too bad. Whether in the four-way race with Johnson and Stein or just the two-way race, an average of national polls suggested Clinton would win by 3, and she won by 2. Two years later, polls correctly predicted a blue wave across the House of Representatives (with Republicans maintaining control of the Senate), which is exactly what happened.
Of course, back in 2016, crucial state polls missed that silent stampede of undecided and third party voters toward Trump in the final days. This time around, however, that chunk of the electorate is simply not available. Nearly every voter has made up their mind.
To illustrate, here are the four-way polls charted by Real Clear Politics one month before the 2016 election, followed by the current four-way RCP average in the 2020 race, which includes Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen and Green Party nominee Howie Hawkins:
I say again: 2020 is not 2016. Not only is Biden’s lead twice that of Clinton’s, but there are half the late deciders remaining for President Trump to make up the gap. Whereas in 2016 Trump and Clinton combined to a polling number somewhere in the mid-to-high 80s, polls regularly have Trump and Biden totaling in the mid-90s. Relatedly, third-party support has considerably evaporated.
Perhaps just as important is that Trump is likely no longer the candidate best positioned to win late deciders. Trump’s approval rating has remained remarkably steady thanks to a high and solid floor of support but also a low ceiling, one that appears too low for re-election. A Quinnipiac poll last week, for example, reported 94% are locked in to their presidential choice. The President’s disapproval rating average has been north of 50% for nearly his entire presidency and is currently at 53. The American people have seen him as their President for nearly four years, and they’ve made up their mind. He’s the status quo. Biden might be a devil we know, but now so is Trump.
With too many voters having ruled him out, Trump needs to turn out every last Ken Bone in his favor, but they’ll be really hard to find.
Yes, Biden will likely win. His lead in the popular vote is almost certainly safe, and the President would have to narrow that margin to probably 3 points or less for the Republican Electoral College advantage to swing the election. Meanwhile, Biden holds comparable leads with few remaining undecideds in key Electoral College states. He’ll likely win a narrow Electoral College victory by flipping a sufficient number of battlegrounds won by Trump in 2016, most of which Biden now leads. The race can narrow and come down to a handful of these swing states, but every indicator I discussed in the opening week of 2020 roughly nine years ago – low presidential approval, the electoral map, the President’s ineffective strategy (an ineffective attempt to portray Joe Biden as a pawn of the radical left), and the Democratic strategy (the effective demonization of Trump over his handling of Covid and rising social tensions) – points to a Biden victory. The President’s debate performance on Tuesday did little to change that dynamic.
Of course, the big fear of Democrats and those who favor the continuation of a steady constitutional republic is that President Trump finds just enough Ken Bones to make the election close but not enough Ken Bones to actually win. It’s a doomsday scenario with a predictable evolution:
- Democrats, who show more caution regarding Covid-19 and more faith in the validity of mail-in ballots, will vote disproportionately by mail. Republicans, who are less fearful of Covid and more likely to be skeptical of mail-in ballots, will vote disproportionately in person.
- Many states, including most battlegrounds, don’t start counting mail-in ballots until Election Day. In a year where the number of absentee ballots will shatter records, this counting will last days, with close and large states stretching for over a week. (The President’s suggestion it could take months or years is unfounded, unless he’s planning on making it drag out that long, which, well, read on.)
- Therefore, on election night, when Republican ballots are much more tabulated, the President will appear to lead in most and perhaps all crucial swing states. In fact, I’m considerably more confident in that prediction – that Trump will be leading on election night – than I am in picking a Biden victory. Axios recently reported on data that estimates that if 15% of mail-in ballots were counted each day starting on November 3, it would appear, on election night, that Trump resoundingly won the Electoral College, 408-130(!).
- Knowing the President as we do, we can imagine he comes out to give a speech claiming his bigly victory. But Biden, perhaps motivated by Hillary Clinton, does not concede.
- As mail-in ballots are counted over the subsequent days, Biden’s electoral count pursues and then eclipses Trump’s. But Trump, perhaps inspired by Augusto Pinochet, does not concede.
- Trump, who has spent months laying the groundwork for distrusting states and towns to fairly administer and count mail-in ballots, cries foul. “The only way we’re going to lose this election,” he has told us, “is if it’s rigged.” We know he called into question his 2016 popular vote loss, which he claimed was the result “millions” of illegal ballots despite no evidence to support it, even after his administration put together a now disbanded commission to uncover some. Now with millions of mail-in ballots, we can expect the same. (Apparently, voting in person couldn’t protect the integrity of the ballot in 2016, and now voting by mail can’t either. I’m not sure what’s left.)
- Then the question is: what levers of government can the President pull to either reject the results or, more likely, cast enough doubt on them that eventually the Supreme Court, a third of which he appointed and another third of which was appointed by Republican presidents, becomes the final arbiter? Will Republican Senators support his challenge? Will Republican-controlled state legislatures work to nullify some mail-in ballots? It’s impossible to know, but the chances aren’t zero.
It’s nervous and busy times here at PPFA HQ. I think I’ll return to my hibernation, hopefully to dream of healthy republics and red sweaters. Take care.
(Author’s note #2: I finished this rough draft yesterday, a few hours before its near obsoletion at the hands of last night’s news: President Trump has contracted Covid. I guess I should have waited six months and a day. PPFA wishes the President a speedy and healthy recovery.)
Regarding Tuesday’s “debate” (if that IS its real name), I’m disappointed but not surprised Democrats thought Biden did a good job. He didn’t. Like most of his primary debates, his generally wobbly performance left a lot to be desired. The pundit in me noted he refused to support the Green New Deal but then defended it as if it were his position. The skeptic in me eye-rolled at his refusal to take a stance on court packing. The independent in me was bothered by Biden’s implication that Democrats would not be trying to fill the Supreme Court vacancy if they were in power. The fledgling government teacher in me squirmed when Biden said of Roe v. Wade: “It’s on the ballot in the court,” as if that makes either Constitutional or lexiconic sense. And the American in me sobbed when Biden, who the media seemed to ignore made quite a few interruptions himself, resorted to telling the President to “Shut up, man” (though most of us were thinking it) and called him a clown (though the oversized shoe fits).
And yet, if we compare his ineffectual performance to the odiferous one wafting from behind the other podium, it’s hard not to call Biden the least worst debater of the night. No one on that stage was without fault for what’s being hailed as a new low in debate history, but no one was more at fault than the incumbent, who in 90 minutes, according to a Fox New analysis, interrupted Biden or moderator Chris Wallace 145 times, more than double the interruptions made by Biden. His presidency has made an artform out of breaking what we once thought were rules of decorum but have turned out to merely be defiable norms, and his debate performance modeled itself after that presidency.
I don’t think it helped him. Polls show that even if voters like him on the economy, they look for more in their president than just his economic record (much to the chagrin of economic conservatives, who cannot fathom how one could find anything more important). He has yet to recognize this array of voter interests, and this obliviousness — this failure, frankly — has set him on a losing trajectory. End of footnote.