How 2020 Isn’t 2016

The four key differences between this election and the last one.

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“The polls were wrong then, and they’re wrong again now.” If I had a dollar for every time I’ve heard this recently, I could have paid Trump’s $750 dollar federal tax bill.

Democrats shouldn’t blindly follow the polls. Polls aren’t perfect — pollsters will tell you that. Even scientific surveys with scrupulous sampling are just snapshots in time. Polls can only tell you how people view something a few days ago or last week. The predictive aspect of polling is less certain.

There are distinct differences this time around, however. This isn’t a repeat of 2016 in many respects.

1. Biden is up more — and more consistently — than Clinton was.

With just three weeks to go, Biden leads Trump nationally (although national polling means less than state polling in our weird, electoral college system.)

Let’s compare where Biden is vs. Trump and where Clinton was vs. Trump at the same time in their respective campaigns, courtesy of Real Clear Politics polling averages:

Today (Three weeks before the election):

Biden: +10.0

Clinton: +7.1

50 days before election:

Biden: +7.1

Clinton: +0.7

100 days before election:

Biden: +9.3

Clinton: Even

Biden’s lead is larger and more constant than Clinton’s lead over Trump. Biden’s polling average, dating back to over a year, has never dipped below a four point advantage. Clinton actually lost her polling advantage to Trump twice — once in the spring of 2016, and another time in late summer.

On election day, Clinton was up three points nationally and wound up winning by two points. The polls were off by one to two points — better than in 2012, when they were off by 2.7 points, according to Nate Silver.

2. Biden has higher favorability ratings than Clinton did.

Believe it or not, the 2016 election came down to one group of voters: the “neither/nors.” This pivotal swing group had unfavorable views of both Trump and Clinton. I wrote about this mystical group in a recent column,

…there are the “neither/nors.” These are the voters that dislike both Trump and the Democratic nominee. In 2016, this group accounted for 14% of the total vote share, and they broke for Trump by 54 (!) points. Had Clinton just broke even with this group, she would have become president.

Trump isn’t repeating his magic with this group, however. Among voters who dislike both Trump and Biden, the president is losing by 17 points. The Trump campaign’s labeling of Clinton as “Crooked Hillary” allowed Trump to clean up in this category four years ago. The problem for Team Trump is that Biden isn’t viewed as unfavorably as Clinton was four years ago. In just one election cycle, this cohort of voters swung 71 points in favor of the Democrat.

Let’s compare Biden’s favorability with Clinton’s favorability at the same time in their respective campaigns, according to Harry Enten:

Clinton: 42% favorable, 53% unfavorable (-11)

Biden: 53% favorable, 41% unfavorable (+12)

“All Trump needed to do (in 2016) was win the group of voters who didn’t like either candidate, he won that group (in 2016)…right now, even if Trump wins the voters who don’t like either candidate, that won’t be enough because Biden’s favorable rating is over 50%,” Enten added.

3. Third party candidates won’t save Trump this time.

About 6% of all ballots cast in 2016 went to third party candidates, the largest vote share since 1996. In Michigan, about a quarter million ballots were cast for third party candidates in 2016. Trump carried the state by about 12,000 votes.

Michigan isn’t alone. Third party candidates won more total votes than the margin of victory for Trump in the following states: Wisconsin, Arizona, North Carolina, and Florida.

However, third party candidates generally perform worse when an incumbent is on the ticket. Trump is running for reelection, and his presidency is certainly…polarizing. Voters view reelection campaigns as a referendum on the incumbent, and are generally more hesitant to cast a protest ballot for a fringe candidate. In 2012, when Obama was running for reelection, third party candidates received just 1.7% of the votes. Current polling has Libertarian nominee Jo Jorgensen trailing Gary Johnson’s 2016 pace.

Why is this a problem for Trump? Because of a magic number — 46%. That number represents the percentage of votes he received in 2016. It also represents the stubbornly low ceiling he has run up against over the last four years.

Trump surpassed 46% approval once — to 49% — in the immediate aftermath of the coronavirus outbreak, a phenomenon called the rally ‘round the flag effect. In fact, Donald Trump is the first president in Gallup’s history to never clear 50% approval once in his entire term.

Trump oscillates between 39% and 46% approval. This is only enough to win the presidency a second time if there was another considerable third party effort. If the third party voting share were to drop from six to three, and Trump can’t overcome his low ceiling, the rest of the votes would be funneled to Biden.

4. Trump is losing on issues/qualities, unlike in 2016.

Do you want to know something absolutely wild?

On the issue of honesty/trustworthiness, Trump led Clinton 45% to 41% at this time four years ago. Yes, telling the truth was a political winner for Trump at one time.

Fast forward to today and it’s a different picture. Biden currently leads Trump on the same issue of honesty 58% to 33%.

If you examine issues between Clinton and Trump, you noticed that voters thought each candidate would do better on certain problems. What’s remarkable with this year’s polling is Biden leads on virtually every single issue:

Bring the country closer together: Biden +20

Handle the public health impact of the coronavirus outbreak: Biden +17

Make good decisions about foreign policy: Biden +9

Select good nominees to the Supreme Court: Biden +6

Effectively handle law enforcement and criminal justice issues: Biden +4

Make good decisions about economic policy: Trump +1

Conversely, in 2016, Trump led Clinton on many issues, including deficits, regulations, guns, taxes, employment, and the economy generally. No such advantage now exists for Trump.

There are definitive differences between the 2016 election and this year’s contest. All signs point to a better landscape for Biden and his fellow Democrats. The only risk is complacency, but given the memory of last election, I expect a more engaged Democratic electorate.

Written by

political science researcher. former valedictorian. reader/writer. host of “Politics Mostly” podcast.

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