Election 2020 Chapter 3: The Surprisingly Interesting Boomer Election
There’s but one thing that we can say with absolute certainty regarding the 2020 Presidential Election — generational change in the oval office is going to have to wait for another four to eight years. Since 1992, when boomer Bill Clinton unseated greatest generation member George HW Bush in a three-man race with the backdrop of a recession and a hunger for change after 12 years of Republican power in the White House, the presidency has belonged to boomers. Almost three decades later, it seems like boomers will hold on to power even longer as the match-up is between boomer Joe Biden and the boomer sitting President Donald Trump. Two men in their twilight years, one who has been involved in public service for fifty-plus years and the other who has been running his brash opinionated mouth for even longer than that. Two men in their seventies and who each could remember their youthful days during the Eisenhower presidency. One man who promises the status quo of the last four years, and another who is asking for a return to normal to the years before that.
Many are bemoaning that these are the choices we’ve ended up with, including many supporters of failed Democratic candidates that could have spelled generational change in the candidate themselves or the energy of youth in their base. But it is the match-up that the party’s primary voters have foisted upon us and will likely be the final boomer versus boomer Presidential Election — hopefully. And of course, if I were to tell you that nonetheless there’s actually plenty of interesting things to watch play out with this race, you might look at me as if I’m Joe Buck trying to convince a viewer a 43-8 Super Bowl game is worth still watching in the fourth quarter. Still, in all honesty, there’s plenty of things that this race will give us some fascinating insights into — same old generational match-up aside.
In the Prologue to this on-going series of election analysis, I went through the events that lead to this political moment, from the voter shift under Obama to Trump’s stunning and unexpected rise to the presidency to the 2018 Democratic midterm wave to his four years of soap opera drama in the spotlight. In Chapter 1, I looked at the landscape of both parties’ primaries and saw no evidence Trump would be anything but a successful incumbent when it came to easily getting re-nominated, and correctly predicted the Democratic primary would come down between Biden and Sanders with the former being the man to beat. In Chapter 2, I looked back at how the primaries played out, analyzed why Biden ended up the nominee, and even gave the progressive wing of the Democratic party some advice on how to learn from Sanders’ defeat.
In this Chapter, I’ll be analyzing the preliminary stages of the 2020 match-up for president. I’ll be taking a look at historic trends for incumbents like Trump that spell victory or potential defeat, the demographic shifts that could help Biden cancel out those pesky mid-western shifts that helped Trump four years ago, the possibility of an expanding electoral college battleground in the Democrats’ favor this time around, and my case for why I believe the sitting President begins this re-election battle a moderate underdog with work to do before election day.
Part 1: Incumbent Presidents Have Been On A Roll…Is A Challenger Overdue?
For the last twenty-eight years, we have become accustomed to the idea that Presidents will win their second term. Even now as President Trump struggled in polls against Biden, those same polls show folks nonetheless think Trump will win. Since a President last got the boot from voters, we saw a President with scandals always coming up in Bill Clinton easily win re-election, a President who was dealing with a polarizing war survive a close re-election race, and a President who was treading water with voters in regards to the economy win a more competitive election than his first the second time around. I was just three years old the last time a sitting incumbent lost, and thus many folks my age or younger have no real concept that yes incumbent Presidents do lose every now and then.
But historically, Trump does have that incumbency advantage, as we do tend to re-elect incumbents. Of the 44 men who have been POTUS, 30 (Not including Trump) attempted to get re-elected or get elected to their own term after assuming the office. Of those 30, 20 were successful at winning another term – 67% of them. When you just include the post-WWII modern age, 8 of the 11 who have tried for more years in office won — 73% of them.
The numbers are clearly in Trump’s favor here.
The current streak of sitting incumbent victories, however, is a bit of an outlier though. For one, never in history have four straight directly elected to two-term Presidents occurred. The closest was when Jefferson, Madison, and Monroe were elected to two terms back to back to back, and the current streak with Clinton, Bush 43, and Obama each getting elected to two terms three straight times. Then when looking at the periods between Presidents winning those extra terms we get an average of just under 22 years between loses, so the current 28-year streak is actually above the median. In other words, perhaps we’re getting overdue for a President to lose re-election or maybe we’re looking at one of the unusually longer droughts for challengers like Biden? After all, Presidents these days enjoy greater party unity.
Part 2: The Presidency Is A Popularity Contest…Right?
One common saying has been that at the end of the day electing a President comes down to a popularity contest and when you translate that to the national popular vote, approval and favorability ratings for Presidents that historically does hold to varying degrees. Of the 58 previous elections for President the country has had, only four times has the popular vote winner lost the electoral college (1876,1888, 2000, and 2016) – that’s just slightly under 7% of elections (There is the 1824 election when the winner of both the popular vote and the electoral college lost the race but that’s one rare fluke) and note it has never happened back to back times. And when it comes to a President’s approval ratings, in the modern polling era every President averaging under 50% approval has gone on to lose without fail as the chart below displays. A bad omen for a President who has averaged under 50% approval in every aggregation I can find from day one of his administration:
Now before the anti-Trump voters who read this start popping the champagne, keep some things in perspective here. For one, the President is in the historical danger zone for approval ratings while seeking re-election in April, we’ve still got months before election day and some Presidents shown on this graph were in worse approval rating spots at this point of their re-election years before getting a bump as the campaign went along (Obama in 2012 was at about 48% approval at this point). The President getting his ratings up in the coming months is completely plausible. Next, while the popular vote misfiring on being won by the electoral college winner is a very rare occurrence, it’s now happened two times in sixteen years which almost doubles the historical 7% of times it has happened to 14% in that particular time frame. Trump’s path to 270 means he could lose big in blue states but win extra tight races in the swingy and red trending midwest.
Historically unless his approval ratings get to the highest point they’ve ever been at and hit 50% or above on average, the President will most likely lose his re-election battle. If he loses the popular vote (As of this writing I have Biden over the President by 5 points in my aggressive average of national polling) he’d have to hope for something that’s rare to occur and has never occurred back to back times. But with the negative and growing ultra partisanship coupled with the argument that perhaps Trump can get his approvals to ~47% and put himself in a position for a close win because of how the electoral college map arguably plays into his hands, these trends are no guarantees. Will Trump become the first President in polling history to find a way to win while not getting at or above 50% approval ratings and if he does so does he become the first two-term President never to win the popular vote?
Part 3: Is “Its The Economy Stupid” Still A Thing?
One of the most commonplace quick analyses of presidential elections involving an incumbent has been that good economies re-elect Presidents and bad ones get them booted out of office. While normally that correlation tends to happen, it can be a tad more complicated given the right reasons. Franklin Roosevelt and more recently Obama both didn’t have booming economies when they ran for second terms in 1936 and 2012 respectively, but because both were seen as men who inherited economic messes and both ran while there was steady and slow growth as economic confidence was also slowly going up, they each were able to win re-election. Then you have this case with Trump where he inherited a good economy and growing economic confidence but now must run for re-election under a worldwide recession caused by the biggest pandemic crisis in a century. Trump’s numbers on the economy were his biggest strengths going into a race where he was unpopular on so many other things, but the question remains if the country will decide to vote him out because of the economy going bad (among many other reasons of course, he was vulnerable before COVID-19) or will they be willing to be more forgiving and understand the current situation?
I think the answer is a little bit of both. We know that changes in economic confidence are good indicators on how folks feel on the economy and we know that right now it’s plummeting in the face of this crisis. However even though we’re talking record job losses that make the Great Recession’s look like a blip on the radar, confidence levels aren’t down as much as they were back then. You can probably contribute that to the fact we’re in a more negative partisanship environment but also that folks understand this crisis will pass and that it’s because of a very special circumstance. However, we also know Trump’s numbers on the economy have taken a bit of a hit, and his edge on the issue has gone down to a competitive margin between him and Biden while Biden leads on almost every other issue. On top of that, the President’s handling of the crisis saw him get a small bump only for numbers on how much blame to throw at him to start to grow. So while there’s some understanding of the reason for the economic hardship, there’s still some blame being dished out.
History tells us that numbers as bad as we’re seeing with the economy right now should lead to a Democratic landslide of the order of Biden having a shot at over 400 electoral votes but even the most bullish of forecasts for Biden don’t foresee it getting that ugly for now, and I think the special circumstances could mean heavily economic-based forecast models could way understate Trump’s margins for November even in a defeat for him — the same way his unpopular image cost him to under-perform certain academic-based models in 2016 that even predicted his victory. I would keep an eye out for this and I know for a fact some major models have and are working on finding a way to account for it.
Part 4: A Historic Or Problematic Turnout?
Since Trump has become President, we have seen a surge in voter engagement as Democratic-leaning voters have found a renewed interest in coming out to vote while Trump’s base has remained engaged as well. This lead to a historic turnout in the midterms when half of the eligible voters came out to vote for a cycle that typically sees around forty percent turnout. Polling and primaries have indicated that excitement from both sides has remained, with the former showing record numbers for voters paying attention as much as they were this early on and the latter seeing some turnout surges on the Democratic side of things but even some impressive turnout from Republicans for a foregone conclusion. This lead some turnout experts to believe we could be seeing turnout this November for up to as much as sixty-five to seventy percent, numbers not seen in modern elections for us.
But now we have COVID-19, and there’s very serious questions as to how this could affect electoral turnout. We could see a situation where we have about the typical turnout of around sixty percent or even a bit lower because the virus tempered some of the engagement. The Spanish flu is among one of the reasons blamed for a big change election like 1920 seeing such pitiful turnout. But we do have the choices of mail voting and most swing states have some system in place for it though there remain questions as to whether they’re prepared for a larger pool of them. Not to mention the surprisingly good turnout recently in local and party primary Wisconsin elections amid a Republican push to get voters to have to come out to the polls even with the virus not hitting its peak yet.
There have also been questions as to whether higher or lower turnout helps Trump or Biden? The answer is probably a little bit of both. Analysis has found that in the midwest non-voters showing up to vote would likely help Trump, while nonvoters showing up to vote in the sunbelt would probably help Biden. We know that if turnout goes up nationally, it’s probably going up everywhere and especially in swing states so I would be very wary of anyone who thinks higher or lower turnout helps one candidate over the other in today’s highly polarized politics. I’m more interested in whether we still get that modern record busting turnout or if this virus will stop that from happening.
Part 5: Swing Voters Do Exist…But Are They Enough Anymore?
There’s a new hot claim out there, even among some smart academics I respect, that we may be seeing the days swing voters don’t matter. I have to quibble with that. Yes, turnout has become more important in a heavy partisan age, yes negative partisanship can be a powerful driver of backlash driven electoral results. But we do know that true independents, albeit their numbers have shrunk, are still out there and that Trump won them in a competitive 2016 race, and we also know those independents backed Republicans down the ballot as well before turning on them and backing Democrats in the 2018 midterm wave. We know these nonpartisan voters also have given Trump bad marks on his job performance and that now polling suggests Biden is in a position where he can win them. And it’s not just these voters, we also know that voters who disliked both Trump and Hillary went to Trump by landslide margins and now polls show voters who dislike both Trump and Biden this time are in the Biden camp by large numbers. But wait there’s more. We actually have some data that, while they remain leaning towards one partisan side overall, Trump’s doing a little better with younger voters while Biden is outperforming Hillary with older voters. We have enough data that shows us that regardless how much attention we keep giving Trump’s un-moving base, there’s still some movement happening with some voters and sometimes even to Trump’s benefit and not everyone’s choice in 2020 will match their 2016 choice.
Of course there’s also the possibility that while these swingy voters exist, that perhaps their numbers have shrunk down enough that polarization and turnout are more important. Again I find myself skeptical of such. Don’t get me wrong, turnout matters A LOT, but that doesn’t mean you don’t try and focus on those swing voters either. In 2016 the race was so close that while Trump’s performance with white working class rural voters was a big factor, I think him winning independents and winning voters who disliked both major candidates while doing worse than Romney nationally was probably a big help too. So if come election day the President has gotten his numbers better with these voters or if they’ve stayed where they’re at, I have a feeling that, in really close states, these voters could be what determine the margin of victory or defeat for the President.
Part 6: The Electoral College Map Might Be Changing Again…
The electoral college advantage for Trump is something that has been written about to death by many and no doubt, it exists. Biden’s ability to connect with white working class voters, something other Democratic candidates were polling to have troubles with, is something that no doubt was in strategic primary voters’ minds as they thought about the electoral college. However I do think the fact the map is changing again is also understated. Now don’t get me wrong, it could be that the map doesn’t shift enough in time to give Biden a victory, but it is shifting and trends we’re seeing for this November could end up continuing into 2024/2028 even if Trump wins.
While the mid-west continues to trend towards Republicans and Biden could conceivably end up the last Democratic nominee with real appeal there, the sun belt is now shifting towards Democrats. Arizona, which would complicate any Trump strategy of just needing to hold Wisconsin in his three tipping point states from four years back, shifted from an Obama loss there by nine to a Clinton loss there by just three even as other states were shifting right. The President has been unpopular in the grand canyon state and Democrats have made down ballot gains there under him, and polls suggest Biden actually begins a favorite to flip the state. There’s Texas where Obama lost the state by sixteen points but Clinton lost the state by nine points before Senator Cruz found himself sweating out a close three-point race in the state two years after. And Georgia and North Carolina have also shown signs of potential reach states for Biden if things start to get real ugly for Trump.
I’m not saying this is going to be the year those states start going blue for President. In my opinion, Arizona is the most likely to flip with others like Texas probably a cycle or two away from finally flipping. Still, these are genuine shifts in the map that are happening and how much they shift towards Democrats in November will be very interesting to see even in a Trump victory scenario. Don’t forget that the midwest shift in 2016 actually started to show in the 2010 midterms and even in 2012 when the region shifted away from Obama the most compared to the slight shift away elsewhere.
I’ve added a consensus battleground map of the electoral college below. As you can see the possibilities are currently ranging from another close Trump win to Biden getting a clear victory. The ceilings and potential for either result have their limits for either side and Biden’s ceiling is currently the highest, but his floor still could be a close Trump victory:
Part 7: Polls, Models, And Forecasts — What About 2016?
Of course throughout all of 2020 I will hear the same question: “Yeah but what about 2016? You guys said Hillary was going to win in a big landslide!” I’m not going to go into breaking down the already beaten to death analysis about 2016 but again polling was less bullish than the pundits, showing Clinton as the favorite but a weak one and Republicans were still favored to hold the U.S House and were even-odds favorites to hold on to the U.S Senate. In 2017 polling actually underestimated Democrats in Virginia’s gubernatorial race, in 2018 it did about as well as expected and correctly predicted a Democratic flip of the U.S House and Republicans keeping the U.S Senate, in 2019 they showed Democrats ahead on average in the Kentucky gubernatorial race that came down to the wire, and in the 2020 Democratic primaries they showed the very real Biden strength in South Carolina and then beyond. Look, I’m not telling you that polls and forecasts don’t have a very real chance to once again have a 2016 event happen in which Biden could end up a small favorite on election day and lose a close election when results come in like Hillary did. There’s also the possibility of what we saw in the UK last December, where everyone obsessed over where the error went in 2017, but when results came in, not only did the expected result polls happen, but the error went the other way than it did previously. These things are obviously not infallible, but as I always say at the very least, you rather be in the person ahead’s shoes than the person behind especially the wider the gap is in predicted margin and odds.
As for how things seem to look at this moment, polls indicate that on the outset Trump is behind by anywhere between 4-7 points nationally depending what model or aggregate you’re looking at (Again my personal average is at Biden up five). That’s within the range of an electoral college defeat being less likely than if Biden were up 3-4 points nationally like Clinton was by election day 2016. Economic based models were very bullish on Trump, but one must think that’ll change once the current economic woes get factored in. Historical trends based models which were more bullish about Trump four years ago seem less so now – with Professor DeSart’s long range model showing Trump clearly behind and Professor Lichtman’s keys to the White House model having enough information to argue he’s the underdog at the moment. Polling based probabilistic models I follow currently range from one showing Biden a slight favorite to one showing him a pretty moderate sized favorite. Polling aggregates show Biden up by a nice margin in the electoral college but swing states still within range for Trump to take the lead. Handicappers like Cook, Sabato, and the like show an electoral college still up for grabs but with Biden seemingly having the higher ceiling as seen in the above consensus forecast. Overall I’d say the forecasting shows us a race that isn’t finished (And its April so of course it’s not), but I’d argue one where we have an obvious favorite and underdog at the moment — and for the first time since arguably 1948 that underdog is the sitting incumbent.
Part 8: The President Sure Looks Like The Underdog…For Now
I am a data-driven guy and that’s helped me more than not when looking ahead to an election. I look at the fact the President is unpopular, he likely needs a historic back to back electoral college misfire, he’s running in the background of an economic recession, his challenger is so far making some inroads into some parts of his base (independents, older voters, voters who don’t like either candidate) and his electoral college winning map (Arizona, Michigan, Pennsylvanian). He’s behind in the polls nationally and in swing states, and even models and forecasts that were on his side four years ago are more bearish on him this time around. You take this and many other things into account, and the only strengths I see the President currently having is that we typically re-elect incumbents and that he can always hope for another 2016-like poll error in his favor if he keeps it close enough by election day. I understand why some are hesitant to declare this given how early we are into this (and this thing is just getting started) and 2016 is going to be a shadow that will be cast over this campaign from start to finish, but on the outset I am of the belief the sitting President of the United States is an underdog for re-election. He’s not done for obviously, but if he’s going to win this thing he and his team have some real work to do and while Biden is favored he and his team should not have any misplaced cockiness that this can’t slip away from them either in the coming months because they are trying to beat a sitting incumbent who might not need to be popular to squeak to victory and because they saw what happened to the last ally of theirs who underestimated Trump — but then again Trump and his team should note how many have been burned by underestimating Biden so far.
Of course, we are living in some unpredictable times and as I always say “barring incredibly unforeseen circumstances”, a phrase that means so much more after the way 2020 has taken a turn. With two men in their seventies running, what if one of them is stricken by the virus? What if Trump somehow turns the public opinion to his side and looks like a hero saving the country from the virus? What if Biden’s fortunes just get better as the economic woes worsen, and the virus keeps getting mishandled? Look I get it, it’s a boring match-up on paper between status-quo versus the previous status-quo of two men from the same generation. But when you look at all the factors of questions this election can answer, of where the results could be pointing us to the future even in a Trump victory, etc I’d argue this is actually quite the interesting boomer election match-up to follow.
9: Recommended Analysis
Like with my UK election piece from last year, I’ll leave you with links you’ll want to keep in your back pocket to follow the forecasting for this race. Not all election sites have their stuff up yet so i’ll just add that you should bookmark Five Thirty Eight, The Economist, Daily Kos Elections, Red Racing Horses, and PollyVote for likely future forecasts from them. Also, it’s fair to say other forecasts and academic models are out there besides these and they’re either not on this list because I haven’t discovered them yet or because I have reason to think they’re not too reliable given their track record. Ultimately it’s up to the individual as to what forecasts they’re willing to trust and follow but these are my recommendations. So that said here are the current active Presidential forecasts (In no particular order) I’d keep bookmarked until election day, just click on the name to be taken to their handicapping of the race: