Five major factors distinguish the elections of 2016 and 2020. Although most everyone favors Joe Biden, the truth is that, just three days from America’s existential election, it is impossible to say with certainty who will win. There are a few reasons for this.
American presidential history tells us that it is difficult for a president to be reelected in the middle of a negative economic cycle. The last to succeed in doing so was William McKinley in 1900. The next four incumbents in a similar position were defeated: William Taft (1912); Herbert Hoover (1932); Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H.W. Bush (1992). So at the outset, history does not favor Donald Trump’s reelection, as he is grappling with the biggest economic contraction in American history (a drop of 31% in gross domestic product in the second quarter of 2020) and an unemployment rate in October of 7.9%. (Falling from 14.7% in April, the highest in the postwar period, this decrease came only from an extraordinary federal employment support package). Add to this 225,000 dead and almost 9 million infected by COVID-19 and close to 2,000 factories closed due to the effects of the trade war with China. Even though the third quarter marks a recovery in GDP, it remains almost 4% below the numbers from the beginning of 2020. In 2016, by the end of the presidential race, the GDP had grown 3.2% in the third quarter and unemployment stabilized at 4.9%, after 76 consecutive months of job creation. Yes, the state of the economy does mark the first distinction between 2016 and 2020. However, the truth is that if a positive economic cycle could not benefit Hillary Clinton (“the candidate for continuity”), it is still possible for Trump to counter historical examples and mount a reelection effort in an unfavorable setting.
The second difference between 2016 and 2020 is the Democratic Party platform’s level of cohesion. Four years ago, after strained primaries between Clinton and Bernie Sanders, the party never achieved internal peace. Just remember the monumental whistle-blowing which Sanders’ supporters accosted Clinton with at the Democratic National Convention: dual criticism stemming from her place in the party leadership and a total lack of enthusiasm for the former secretary of state’s campaign. Those wounds never healed and were even redoubled by the defection of many Barack Obama voters who, in some swing states, abstained from voting, or even voting for Trump. Today, the picture is different. Biden secured his place in the primaries very early, helped along by the pandemic crisis, and both Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have always shown pragmatic loyalty, to which Biden intelligently responded. This strategy created diverse, functioning coalitions a month before the party’s convention, bringing together personalities from these three Democratic wings to write proposals and consolidate the political platform. This alliance has never faltered and that is one of the reasons for the extraordinary mobilization indicated by early voting. Mike Bloomberg’s millions have also provided a logistical boost that was missing in 2016.
Early voting is the third distinction between this election and the last. Eighty-two million votes have been cast by mail and in person, already amounting to 60% of the total voter turnout from 2016. Texas, Arizona and Florida have already received between 75% and 95% of 2016’s total votes. Youth participation (ages 18-29) is breaking records in states like Michigan (12 times more participation than at this time in 2016), Texas (seven times), North Carolina (four times), Florida, Arizona and Georgia (three times). These statistics only reveal the party affiliation of voters, and they show that Democrats are the majority among young voters, as one might expect. Of course, this does not mean that Trump is not competitive in early voting or mobilizing. In fact, he is, especially if we take into account the immensity of the 2016 “silent vote,” which may repeat itself. My point is not to guess the final result based on mail-in voting; it’s to illustrate yet another factor that distinguishes the election contexts of 2016 and 2020.
There are at least two more distinguishing features. One is that Biden is not Clinton. Despite decades of political experience in the Senate and the White House, Biden’s life story brings him closer to the average American than Clinton’s aristocratic and distant demeanor. Biden is much more empathetic to voters, whoever and wherever they are. The polls appear to be more reliable and honest. And, notably, Biden has over 30% more approval from independent moderates than Clinton did. Again, this does not mean an inevitable leap to victory; it just helps to distinguish political contexts and circumstances.
The other distinguishing feature is Trump himself. While in 2016 he was a newcomer on the presidential stage (as sudden as it was bizarre), today this is not a factor. Four years ago, precisely because of his lack of experience, the Democratic campaign underestimated him. That confidence was misplaced among his voters (the so-called “deplorables”) and their support surged in states that Democrats took for granted, states where Trump won by fewer than 100,000 votes. Today, no one in the Biden campaign is making the same mistake. Further, it can be said of Trump that there has been no true referendum on the president’s management skills — especially regarding the pandemic. Trump skillfully poses as an anti-establishment candidate, a nonpolitician who is fighting for the presidency again as if the position were not already his. This was true in 2016; it hardly makes sense in 2020. In any case, let us not underestimate the level of irrational identification of many millions of voters with his logic. It persists, resists and can result in another win. Handily. However, objectively, the novelty of Trump, so important four years ago, distinguishes the two electoral contexts.
Trump Has Almost Everything Going against Him, but He Can Win
But if these five factors tend to favor Biden, how can we explain why this is such a competitive presidential election, with the result still up in the air? One reason is that Trump knew how to stoke anger and fear in his base. It may not be enough to win him the presidency, but his supporters have not lost any steam. Senate Republicans are still solidly on the president’s side, as was proven during the impeachment vote and more recently with the appointment of Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court. And despite low levels of popularity among Americans, Trump has an infallible plan for keeping his base together: He ignites anti-progressive instincts with incessant patterns of cultural alarmism brought on by democratic “socialism;” he calls Biden’s character into question in order to obscure the facts that reflect poorly on the president himself; and he leverages conspiracy theories about various political and social issues to incite political upheaval among the masses.
Another reason Trump is still in the running is his official discrediting of mail-in voting, purposely associating it with voter fraud and a never-ending tally of votes. To give you an idea of the state of mail-in voting, of the 82 million people who voted early, 53 million did so by mail. However, in the last few days, there has been an accelerated growth of Republican voter registration in states like Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, the idea being to increase the Election Day count of Republican votes by as much as possible. Trump wants to announce victory on Nov. 3 so he can question the legitimacy of the mail-in votes that follow. Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania, where Biden has margins similar to Clinton’s in 2016, have particularities that often aren’t reflected in polls, such as the alarm in the automotive industry provoked by Biden’s “green economy” proposals, or support among older voters in rural and suburban areas for Trump’s law and order policy, rooted in their perception of urban, anti-police destruction. As we know, appearance can be everything in politics, especially if those perceptions are formed in a lasting, polarized and emotional moment. Even though recent studies have concluded that 93% of the more than 7,000 Black Lives Matter protests this summer were peaceful, voters’ perceptions of the protests are going to stick. Regardless, facts and science have never been a pillar of Trumpism — so there’s no reason they should be now.
Another factor that makes Trump so competitive is the type of campaign he’s managed to run in the middle of this pandemic. Rallies with hundreds or thousands of people huddled together contrast starkly with the improvised, sparsely populated drive-in events of the Democratic campaign. Trump continues to have an authentic army of believers, blinded by cultism, hypersensitive to an unbreakable axis of evil: the threat of China (exporter of COVID-19 and unemployment), deregulation and taxes (federal power being the Antichrist) and cultural conservatism. (The Democratic agenda is anti-American.) Strictly speaking, a substantial part of this agenda was already traditionally Republican before Trump emerged. What he has added is a cycle of manipulative and extreme messaging that capitalizes on long-lasting mobilization in the ideological trenches. The danger for Democrats is that this kind of support might not be reflected in the polls and will only become apparent on Nov. 3. Despite all this, unlike 2016, there is now a broad anti-Trump front, which only adds to the uncertainty.
An Existential Election
The presidential election is understood by both parties to be of existential importance. In the coming months, to more precisely capture polarization in governability and the potential to resolve a disputed election (the House can be called upon to do this, if necessary), the phrase “presidential election” should be understood more broadly to include the battle for the two chambers of Congress. For Democrats, it has come to signify their most likely shot at recovering the White House and the Senate. After the trauma of 2016, it is difficult to imagine a quick recovery in morale if they lose again. A Democratic loss would be an atrocious fumble as Trump tries to win reelection amid circumstances that should disfavor an incumbent. A Democratic loss would mean the party is not competent to send the right message and that they are unable to learn from past mistakes. It would mean that they have failed to restore decency to the executive branch, to return the political system to some level normalcy. It would in all likelihood be the end of the line for a political generation that led the transition from the Cold War era to the present day. Biden, Sanders and Warren, like Barack Obama and Bill Clinton before them, will see a new generation clamoring for space and legitimacy within the party, marking a new ideological era for the Democrats. If Biden wins (ideally with a Democratic Congress), this succession will have to wait a few years.
For Republicans, the importance of this election can’t be understated. The party abandoned its platform of conceptual and ethical respectability for a blatantly empty program and unquestioning loyalty to Trumpism, at times even acting as a loudspeaker for the president’s conspiracy theories. The party has not even brought itself to acknowledge Trump’s acceptance of white supremacist movements, the main perpetrators of hate crimes in America today. In this sense, the Party of Abraham Lincoln is dead. In another sense still, the Party of Ronald Reagan is gone with it. If Trump loses, the GOP will enter a deep existential abyss from which it will not rise anytime soon, a tragedy made worse by the potential of losing the Senate. The Republicans’ childish approach to tackling the greatest crisis since the Great Depression is still lacking any real strategy. There are no signs of any internal party opposition that might build a broad platform of domestic and foreign policies or, for that matter, institutional bridges with Democrats. Even if Trump wins, the Republican Party will only tighten its dependence on a president who has distorted it, hollowed it out and brought it to the end of its rope.
A Biden victory may be the beginning of some normalcy in American politics, but normalcy will never truly materialize if Republicans don’t reinvent themselves. And they will have to, with or without Trump. When the GOP evolves, American politics will follow suit.
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