Biden is up in the polls, but so was Clinton four years ago. Why is this election different, and what does it mean for the Democratic challenger this time around?
Well, this is it. We’ve dropped our final episode before the 2020 presidential election, and this is the last blog post before the big day.
Why do we still vote on a Tuesday? Read more to find out!
To stay election-focused—hopeful but vigilant, we’ll call it—we decided to dig into the most bizarre and tragic escapade of the 2016 election cycle. No, it wasn’t when our now President mocked a reporter’s disability in front of a laughing crowd. It was James Comey’s Oct. 28th letter to Congress announcing a renewed investigation into Hillary Clinton’s fabled emails.
Listen to our latest episode here:
As our guest Devlin Barrett recounted the lead-up to the election, we felt a familiar sense of panic building up in the back of our heads. As soon as the interview was over, we rushed to read the latest polls before remembering how badly they failed us in 2016.
The 2020 election is different from four years ago, right?? Right—and here’s why.
1. Joe Biden is Not Hillary Clinton
In the last election cycle, the Democratic nominee represented a fantastic political breakthrough: America’s first female President. Unfortunately for Democrats, she also represented a lot of other things. For conservatives, she was as close to a living anti-Christ as it gets, and her decades of high-profile politicking from her time working on healthcare reforms as First Lady to serving as a senator for New York and Secretary of State left her with a fair amount of baggage and detractors.
There were emails, an alleged and unproven scandal involving the Clinton foundation and a Uranium stockpile, the mountain-from-molehill Benghazi snafu, and older controversies stemming from her time as First Lady. These perceived scandals contributed to a dismal approval rating. Four years ago today Clinton had a 40% approval rating, while 35% of Americans approved of Trump. Her national polling lead five days before the election was 2%.
In addition to her political weaknesses, her campaign made a series of significant blunders, like not investing more in Wisconsin or Michigan, or ignoring key congressional polls that found Donald Trump with significant momentum in critical counties.
Five days from Election Day, it’s clear who has the momentum. And it’s not Hillary Clinton. This thing is close.— Dave Wasserman (@Redistrict) November 3, 2016
Joe Biden, on the other hand, currently holds an average 50% approval rating with recent polls trending higher, something Clinton never achieved. He’s now got a 7.4% national lead in polling averages—a 5.4 point lead over Clinton at the same time four years ago. Additionally, he is much less of a lightning rod candidate than she was. With the hilarious collapse of the right’s Hunter Biden “scandal,” he doesn’t have a political or familial fiasco hanging over his head.
2. The Polls and Models are Better in 2020
2016 was a gut-punch to liberals because they were so sure of Clinton’s chances. The NYT gave her an 85% chance of winning, and Nate Silver’s 538 placed the odds at 72%. Why did things go so fabulously awry? Election forecast models and polling had something to do with it.
National polling was roughly correct about the final vote tallies: Clinton was up 3.2% on Election Day and won the popular vote by around 2%. However, regional polling was less accurate. It’s now conventional wisdom that Trump’s base consists mostly of non-college-educated white voters, but in 2016 we were only starting to figure that out. Conversely, college-educated Americans are more likely to participate in surveys. Pollsters hadn’t connected these two dots yet, which gave Clinton a 6.2% lead in Wisconsin in the days before the election. She went on to lose the state by seven-tenths of a percent.
In 2020, pollsters have fixed their mistake and are now weighting those voters without a college degree. Polls in crucial states like WI, MI, and PA are now more accurate than they were four years ago.
3. Voters Know Trump Now
In 2016, Clinton was a known political quantity. Trump was not. He had a (shoddy) record of business success and used his status as a political novice as well as his reality TV star fame to his benefit, picking off voters by promising to ‘drain the swamp.’ Voters didn’t know Trump’s administration would put children in cages, burn through employees at a staggering rate, cozy up to dictators like Kim Jong-Un and Turkey’s Erdogan, worsen relationships with almost every ally, and, most importantly, bungle a pandemic response to the point of near-anarchy.
After four years of Trump rule voters are aware of his actions, and they’ve made up their minds. In the 2016 election, 13% of voters were still undecided on Election Day. When they did decide, they went hard for Trump, and the election results reflected their decisions. Undecided voters in Wisconsin and Michigan voted for Trump 59-30%, 55-38% in Florida, and 54-37% in Pennsylvania. These late-breaking additions to the election map handed Trump 75 electoral colleges votes and the keys to the Oval Office.
This time around, things are different. According to USA Today, 95% of voters say they’ve made up their mind, which spells trouble for the President’s reelection bid.
4. We Missed an October Surprise
The 2020 election is divisive, fraught, and high-stakes, making it a perfect place for a last-second bombshell or October Surprise. If you aren’t sure what an October Surprise is, check out this quick explainer we put together with Devlin Barrett.
Last election, James Comey delivered potentially the most devastating October Surprise of all time, announcing a new FBI investigation into Clinton’s emails on Oct. 28th. Nate Silver attributed Trump’s win to the letter, and it’s undeniable Clinton’s poll ratings collapsed with the announcement. Barrett explains that Comey had his reasons for the ill-fated missive, but the damage was swift and brutal for the Clinton campaign. The news, combined with Clinton’s mixed political reputation and previous campaign mistakes, tipped the scales in favor of Trump, and we’ve lived with the consequences ever since.
This year, despite dire predictions and a President who will stop at nothing to win the race, we’ve been relatively free of October Surprises. The most surprising thing that happened this October was that Trump had coronavirus. While his illness certainly hurt his reelection chances, it was a self-inflicted wound and thus not a traditional October Surprise.
5. Turnout is Off the Charts
In 2016, 128,824,246 Americans voted, representing 60.1% of eligible voters—less than 2008, but more than 2012. This year, more than 84 million people have already turned out for early voting, with 3 days left before Election Day. In the last election, only 47 million voted early, and although the pandemic caused an early voting wave, experts think 2020 could shatter records. Texas has already surpassed its 2016 vote totals and Montana is not far behind. It’s unclear who will benefit most from a massive turnout, but traditionally Democrats do well when more voters show up at the polls. Republicans are aware of this, as their desperate attempts at voter suppression indicate. With more voter turnout and fewer undecided voters, this year’s election result could be more decisive than previously thought.
We’re a different nation than we were four years ago. The COVID-19 pandemic ravaged the country both in lives lost and a severely damaged economy, and voters are raw about Trump’s response. On the other hand, Republicans recently succeeded in railroading their latest nominee, Amy Coney Barrett, onto the Supreme Court, giving them a firm conservative majority should the election be decided in court as it was in 2000. The Supreme Court can only decide the election if it’s close—so make sure you and everyone you know is voting as if their rights and future depend on it—because they do.
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