You’ve heard it: What about 2016? Everyone thought Donald Trump would lose and he won. Yes, this is true. And after four years of sober reflection, for reasons that are varied and somewhat complicated, and still others that are blatantly obvious and should have been then, Trump became the forty-fifth president of the United States. But with the advantage of hindsight, there are factors this time around – not the least of which is Trump being an incumbent presiding over, and the underlying cause, of two national crises instead of a tweeting troll tossing stones at the guy in charge – that makes 2020 a very different election year than 2016. But that is only part of the story.
My colleague and friend Bill Roberts of Conservatively Speaking – a column that shared space in this paper with me some years back in the aughts and currently a staunch Trump supporter – co-wrote the post-mortem of that election with me the week after. The conclusion of Mr. Roberts, which explains one aspect of Trump’s victory, was the uncharted vote not understood in polling and mostly ignored by both parties that pushed Trump to a narrow electoral college victory, specifically in the Rust Belt. Trump’s opponent, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, although up by 2.5 points on Election Day, teetered in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan; all states that had traditionally voted for Democrats for decades. This time they swung to Trump, who won them by a razor-thin margin of approximately seventy-seven thousand votes. There are more seats in Met Life Stadium a few miles down the road from where I am writing this.
What I added to Bill’s analyses, which I have maintained for four years, is Clinton’s embrace – along with every previous presidential candidate whether Republican or Democrat – of international trade deals. Many of these deals had done damage to the Rust Belt lower-middle class high school educated voters, who had heard for years about how jobs and factories going abroad could be returned. This was always a lie, and one Trump, a champion liar, latched onto. With Steve Bannon (just arrested for fundraising fraud as I write this), the architect of the last six weeks of the campaign in which he actually disciplined Trump like never before or since, the candidate visited these states time and again, while Clinton never went to Wisconsin or Michigan, an unconscionable fuck-up that led to Trump – an outsider that wasn’t really a Republican or Democrat – to seem like an alternative. In classic Clinton fashion, she started hedging her bet on trade when she saw it was a 2016 loser, but it just fed into her phoniness and entrenched political image. That, in a nutshell, is why Trump became president.
Of course, there are many nuances to this – racism, fear of foreigners, Russian interference, Trump’s free TV time due to the interest in his clown show, his wild claims and name calling – all contributed to the upset. In the summer of 2020, as mentioned above, Trump is the status quo, and the status quo is historically shitty right now. The nation is suffering its worst economic collapse in my lifetime because of a deadly pandemic the president still does not admit is even happening. He no longer gets to say “I alone can fix it” when he is in charge and clearly can’t.
Before we leave Hillary Clinton. She is the worst candidate for any civic position I have ever witnessed. Her losses to a then neophyte Barack Obama in the 2008 Democratic primaries and later to a game show host who didn’t even want to win and would have lost if not for Bannon, are epic. Hubris and stupidity are what doomed the heavily favored Clinton, not FBI Director James Comey reopening the investigation on her emails or Russian hacking into DNC emails. That assisted, sure. But if Clinton had not avoided the press for eighty-six days that summer and actually went to states that were teetering on flipping on her, then she would be president. Hillary Clinton is not running this time.
What Obama people argued in 2016, and I ignored, was it should have been Joe Biden, who was dealing with the death of his son, Beau, not Hillary Clinton to run. But that was never an option for Biden, who was steamrolled by a Democratic Party showing its old-world idiocy (the outed emails revealed this) to get their hands on “the first woman president” angle. The party then slanted the table against Bernie Sanders when he started piling up delegates. Ironically, the Vermont Senator shared much of Trump’s anti-trade rhetoric without all the racism, sexism or queer TV performances.
But even the Sanders Movement was bullshit. For four years I had to hear about the Sanders’ youth coalition, this burgeoning progressive voter-base inside the Democratic Party. Where was it during the 2020 primaries? They didn’t show up. Sanders’ numbers were precipitously down from 2016. The whole thing is a myth. The 2016 Sanders vote turned out to actually be anti-Hillary, because many of them made Joe Biden the 2020 nominee. This adds to the notion that without Clinton on the ballot this time, this ain’t 2016. And it also skewers the Republican’s weak argument that a centrist forty-year veteran of D.C. is somehow a radical. There is a progressive wing of the Democratic Party, sure, but it is much smaller and less active than reported. The primaries settled that score. And Biden’s VP pick of Kamala Harris and not Sanders or ultra-progressive Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren underlines this.
The idea of a 2016 coronation for Clinton was a death knell because it ignored the Obama collation that had triumphed like no Democratic candidate in fifty years. Joe Biden was part of that coalition. Without President Obama’s VP on the ticket, 2016 could not be a referendum on his legacy. It was more of a referendum on the 1990s and the Clinton years. Biden connects more with the numbers in 2008 and 2012; both winners. And now with a woman of color on the ticket he has galvanized the very vote that would have bested Trump in 2016. Clinton received eighty-nine percent of the black vote in 2016. Biden is hovering at nearly ninety-one. His Latino numbers also dwarf Clinton’s, and most importantly for Biden, white suburban women, that abandoned Clinton, have returned with a vengeance. The 2018 mid-terms numbers that created the Blue Wave have increased during the meltdown of the past six months. Those three factions are enough to overcome seventy-thousand votes.
Finally, and most importantly, the difference between 2016 and 2020 is the undecided vote. While it had a volatile effect on polls in 2016, wherein anytime either Clinton or Trump became the main story there was a dramatic shift against them, is miniscule now. This is why Clinton’s 2016 poll graph looks like the blueprint for a rollercoaster, while Biden’s has been a steady hum. In 2016, nearly a quarter of the electorate was undecided into November. Trump received the whopping lion’s share of it. This time it is eight to ten percent. And without expanding his forty-percent base, Trump needs a Hillary Clinton with her forty-four percent base to leap her and win with the forty-six percent he garnered in 2016. Biden has consistently polled around fifty percent (As I write this it is an average of 51.2). Neither Clinton nor Trump ever sniffed fifty percent. Where exactly is Trump getting these secret votes?
Also, it should be pointed out that state polling, because of the anomalies apparent in 2016, has improved greatly. Those voters ignored last time are in the system and are considered. Unless some new middle-aged white guys have formed like pods all over Michigan and Pennsylvania, it is impossible for Trump to find the variables Mr. Roberts discussed in November of 2016 this time around.
So, what am I saying here? Is Biden a shoo-in? Nah, that was Hillary’s nickname and she lost and handed us this national nightmare on a silver platter. Trump, as covered here two weeks ago, is already trying to tamp down the vote with his usual bizarre rhetoric, because as he has rightly pointed out, “When people vote, Republicans lose.” But this time around the numbers are not three to four percent for a wildly unpopular Democratic candidate; they are a six, seven to ten percentage point lead for a fairly likable one. And the enthusiasm to vote against Trump, the incumbent with a terrible record, is higher than his opponent’s.
Throwing a Hail Mary touchdown pass in the final seconds worked swimmingly for Doug Flutie and Boston College once. Flutie was not asked to repeat that four years later. This is what is asked of the 2020 Donald Trump, morph back into an outsider, grenade-throwing grievance candidate. It is he who is the system now and that system is broken.
Change is in the air, and that change candidate is not the current president. The time, the numbers, the opponent, and the crises make 2020 very different from 2016.
But only the Election Day numbers can bear this out eventually, whether the president accepts them or not.