Election 2020 Chapter 5: Towards The Homestretch…
Labor Day week is upon us and thus we are officially in what is considered by many to be the final homestretch of the campaign season. As then-Vice President George H.W Bush said as he accepted the Republican nomination for president back in 1988 while facing a massive deficit in the national polls, “Many of you have asked, ‘When will this campaign really begin?’ I have come to this hall to tell you, and to tell America – Tonight is the night.” With two months to go and both of the party conventions behind us, the gloves have come off (as if they were ever on to begin with) and the sitting president, Donald Trump, is also looking to make the sort of comeback that former President Bush did back in that fall of 1988. But front-runner and challenger, and a former vice president himself, Joe Biden is looking to close out a nearly two year journey that has put him within grasps of the White House and becoming the first man in almost three decades to do so by defeating an incumbent president. So, as we head down the final stretch of the campaign, I give my final analysis on an election that is arguably (no hyperbole this time in my opinion) the most important of our lifetimes.
Back at the start of the year I looked at the events that lead to this political moment, from Obama’s presidency shifting coalitions, to Trump’s surprising rise to the White House, and all the drama that has come with the last four years including a Democratic comeback in the midterms. Then I looked at the (then) undecided primaries, where Joe Biden, who I thought was the man to beat for the nomination, pulled off the most impressive come from behind Democratic primary win since maybe then Arkansas Governor Bill Clinton back in 1992 – incidentally the last presidential cycle when an incumbent was voted out. In the spring, I looked at how the election had become advantageous to Biden thanks to a pandemic and economic trouble, and then in the summer I analyzed the social unrest and growing frustrations with Trump that showed Biden’s lead only growing. Now we hit the fall with many things that were yet unclear becoming clearer, and a race that has become a little more competitive than the last time I sat down to write about it, but remains with the same candidate as the favorite. But two months is a long time in politics and the shadow of 2016 looms over this race for president, so let’s take a look at all the factors in play as we get closer and closer to judgment, er, I mean election day…
Part 1: The Weakest Received Conventions In Recent Memory
Just in time for the final leg of the race, both parties held their conventions under less than optimal circumstances. Thanks to the pandemic, the DNC which was set to take place from Milwaukee, Wisconsin ended up a virtual cross-country event with a hub in Wilmington, Delaware where Joe Biden was stationed. The RNC in turn, originally slated to happen in Charlotte, North Carolina, also ended up a virtual event with much of the speeches coming from Washington D.C – including a controversial and maybe technically illegal final night in front of the White House. Though the circumstances could have been better, both conventions ended up well produced with grand fireworks awaiting the final night’s acceptance speeches. Many pundits praised the Democrats’ ability to make something out of nothing, the positive atmosphere of the convention and pitch to moderates, and Biden’s acceptance speech which was even given good ratings by FOX News commentators. The RNC in turn wowed some pundits with their cohesive messaging and attempts to make the party look more diverse, while also trying to help move the embattled president’s image in a better direction – only for the president to give a long winded hour plus speech that broke records for acceptance speech lengths.
But regardless both conventions lead to two whole weeks of a ton of media attention for each campaign, a lot of it probably more positive than not. And historically conventions have led to horse-race bumps in the polling; in fact there are cases in which arguably the conventions won the election for someone in the long run as they’d leave the convention season with massive leads or reversed fortunes. Joe Biden was likely hoping for a 1980 or 1992 effect when the then challengers to other incumbents in trouble, Reagan and Clinton, came away with great leads and the messaging on their side. Donald Trump was likely hoping for a 1948 or 1988 effect, when Truman and Bush as the incumbent party’s nominees launched the start of amazing comeback victories. And after all the media, all the speeches, all the pomp and circumstance, and all the punditry hot takes, the conventions lead to…low ratings and a race that barely budged.
That’s right, an election that seems to have so much on the line, and in which a sitting incumbent is battling for his political life, lead to some of the lowest rated conventions of the modern times. Democrats seemingly barely beat out the Republicans in TV ratings and both sides go back and forth on who won the streaming war (For the record it’s unusual for an incumbent party convention to have lower ratings, but thankfully for the president convention ratings have zero predictive power). Among those who did watch, polls indicate most came away feeling more positive about the DNC than the RNC, which makes sense given the incumbent party was more in attack mode than the challenging party, which was trying to “do no harm” with a lead. But regardless, convention season for 2020 was a dud for ratings and the expected bounces barely showed with the race being Biden +8-9 going into the DNC, Biden +9-10 going into the RNC, Biden +6-7 in the aftermath of the RNC, and now Biden +7-8 again after the conventions have come and gone. And while I suspect the less glossy virtual aspects of the convention had something to do with it, I also have a theory as to why this race has become so stable and fallen into a place where Biden is no longer as heavily favored as he was during the summer, but remains a tough out for a sitting incumbent who seems to be in full campaign mode after a rough year. The answer is…unlike 2016 by this point in the race, most people have probably made up their minds already.
Part 2: An Election Most Have Made Up Their Minds About
One of the key factors in why those attempting to forecast the 2016 election ended up getting the winner wrong, was because of the fact that so many undecideds remained in the race up to this point and beyond in the race. Looking backwards to the last Presidential election, some polls showed as much as ~20% of undecideds by Labor Day. Keep in mind that’s in a race involving a well-known but unpopular reality TV and tabloid star and a former First Lady mired in scandal that everybody had an opinion on. This time around polls have been showing that in a race between that controversial celebrity turned President and a former Vice President, the undecided numbers come Labor Day are significantly lower, with up to ~93-95% of the decided claiming their minds can’t be changed. In other words, it’s hard to see much movement past the polarization tightening I expected to come after Biden’s Summer high, because most people have pretty much made up their mind on who they’re voting for. And on top of all that, third party support is extremely low versus 2016, meaning many are going ahead and taking this as a binaural choice, giving Trump less room to win by pluralities in some key and likely competitive battleground states.
Now the good news for the President is that if he can do well with last second deciders, as he did in 2016, then he might perhaps keep the race close enough that an electoral college advantage or another poll miss (More on that later) could still lead to a 2016 repeat where he barely escapes with an upset win. The bad news is that obviously there’s a smaller pool of those undecideds to pick out from and chances are that number gets even lower the closer we get to election day; and here’s the big one that I keep noting about in key state and high quality national polling – Biden keeps hitting ~49%-51% of the vote with so many little undecideds left – outrunning Clinton who in 2016 struggled to come anywhere near those numbers even with polling undervaluing Trump. There’s a possibility that Biden builds up enough insurance that even a strong finish by Trump could see him come up just short as compared to Clinton who was doomed by her inability to build up support. But with so many minds made up, the conventions were bound to have little effect past just getting each party’s partisans enthused a little more about their candidate (Trump’s approvals are now matching the horse-race numbers and Biden’s favorability has entered the positive territory in some polls). It doesn’t mean things can’t get closer for Trump’s chances to go up or that Biden can’t get back to his summer high numbers with a strong finish, but I suspect the movement we’ll see from here on out will be minimal, meaning Biden will have many paths to 270 versus Trump’s little room for error.
Part 3: Trump’s Advantages With Two Months Left
Those rooting for the president to pull off another come from behind victory can take solace in a few advantages that he still enjoys. First things first, as I pointed out back in the spring, incumbent presidents get re-elected most of the time. 67% of incumbents who have sought re-election, or their own elected term after assuming the office, have won another term going all the way back to Washington. When only looking at the post-WWII period that number increases to 73%, and we’re currently in a historically above average streak of presidents winning re-election at 28 years since the last incumbent defeat. The incumbency advantage will always be there for Trump up until election night.
Trump’s electoral college advantage has also seemed to not go away if the very polls showing him as an underdog are right. It is estimated that potential tipping point states are right to the nation by as much as 2-4 points, so if the President can get the national average down to Biden +~3-5 points, he may have a shot to get another electoral college/popular vote split in his favor – even more so if you assume another 2016 type miss in the polling. So, if he can finish strong, even if he finishes still behind, he can still pull off another close victory thanks to the quirky system we use to elect Presidents. And he’ll need that advantage as history says whoever is down after the conventions will lose the popular vote, and Trump himself has become the first Republican nominee for President since Bob Dole in 1996 not leave an RNC with a lead in national polling. After stopping the bleeding of an incredibly tough Summer for him, Trump is within reach of the electoral college bailing him out again.
And finally, the president strangely enough has the Economy on his side. In a strange twist, even with a recession directly linked to the pandemic (for which he gets poor marks in his handling of), Trump’s average approval ratings on the Economy are in the positive territory. Furthermore, the massive Great Depression sort of unemployment numbers from the summer have slowly but surely started to dip nationally, whereas of this writing they’re back down to 2012 levels. And on top of all that, a third quarter GDP report which will be released right before election day will likely show a record-breaking growth versus the second quarter’s record breaking low. So, if any issue helps Trump, even in the middle of an objective recession, its actually the economy – and it is currently healing the closer we get to election day.
Part 4: Biden’s Advantages With Two Months Left
That being said, the former vice president is objectively the moderate favorite to win this race going into the final stretch of the campaign. He isn’t as heavy a favorite as he was in the summer, but I wrote back then I was expecting the race to tighten a bit the closer we got to election day, so I’m not surprised. Biden’s advantages are much more numerous to Trump’s (though admittedly the advantages I mentioned for the President are nothing to sneeze at.)
Yes, incumbents get re-elected most times, but those who don’t are usually unpopular as Trump is. Yes, Trump has an electoral college advantage, but back to back electoral college and popular vote splits have yet to happen, as those tend to occur when a candidate gets caught flat-footed in states that were trending away from them – this time Biden knows how important those big three mid-west states are versus Clinton back in 2016. Yes, Trump has good economic approvals, but he had those even before the election campaign and the recession – and he was still unpopular and still polling behind Biden at least nationally. Biden also leads among 2016 third party supporters, not surprising as they backed Democrats in 2018. However, Biden also leads with Independents (in most polling at least) and with “double haters”, groups Clinton struggled with. And Biden is seen as more moderate between him and Trump, something that, you guessed it, was not the case with Clinton. But wait, there are even more Biden advantages for me to mention!
Biden’s paths to 270 are also much more numerous than Trump’s in the electoral college. Trump must do well in the competitive rust belt while also making sure the dam doesn’t break in states like Arizona, Florida, Georgia, North Carolina, or Texas – all states the president has had a tougher time than 2016 in holding so far. Trump could also go for reach Clinton states like Maine, Minnesota, New Hampshire, or Nevada – but the president remains a moderate to sizable underdog in those. Biden for his part has everything from flipping the big three, to winning two of them and getting to 270 with one of the four states I just mentioned. He even has paths were a would be 269-269 tie is broken by Nebraska’s 2nd congressional district going his way – a real possibility given the trends and the polling in the district. And yes, there is a statistical possibility the dam breaks and Biden gets over 400 electoral votes whereas Trump’s best case scenario is still a pretty close win in the electoral college while still losing the popular vote. Now of course that doesn’t mean Biden can’t end up coming up short, Trump has his paths to 270, but it leaves him with much more ways to get him there and in a better position than Clinton was going into the final two months back in 2016. Historically, when a party flips the White House, they win at least one state they didn’t win the last time around that they flipped the White House; so if Biden wins, don’t be surprised if he pulls in an Arizona or maybe even a Georgia or Texas alongside the tipping point states we’re anticipating.
Another big Biden advantage is his favorability numbers; they’re mediocre compared to historical candidates, but they look Obamaesque compared to Trump’s and Clinton’s. Historically the gap between favorability is a predictor of the margin of presidential elections, and Biden’s gap with Trump on favorability is pretty sizable which means if that holds going into election day, Biden could end up with a high single digit win nationally, which in theory should be enough to survive both a 2016 type poll miss and Trump’s electoral college advantage. On top of this Biden is also beating out Trump on various questions including who has more cognitive ability and who can best unite the country and deal with the social unrest – issues the president believed would be to his benefit but haven’t seem to be.
There’s also a lot fewer forecasts bullish on Trump than in 2016. Yes, the polls overestimated Clinton in 2016, and yes there were some forecasts that were ridiculously stating 99% odds for Clinton, but there were also a few academic models that were bullish on Trump then that are more bullish on Biden now. These sort of forecasts are controversial among some, and there are going to be a lot of questions on how they deal with such a strange election involving a pandemic created recession, but I personally believe keeping an eye on them shows that this is a little different than 2016. Some of these models are probably pretty off on the likely final margins, but I think they’re on to something on the fundamentals of a race that seem to point to an anti-incumbent result.
And finally, arguably Biden’s biggest advantage is Donald Trump himself! Trump’s inability to not get heat on himself and into negative news cycle after negative news cycle continues to hurt any time he can get positive attention or when a bad Biden news cycle rarely shows up. For example the RNC gets praise from some pundits – and then his acceptance speech gets low marks. Kenosha, Wisconsin happens allowing him a chance to look like a uniter, and he ends up on television refusing to denounce some of the violence. The unemployment rate drops by ~2% and the news of the day is instead about potential disgusting remarks he made about fallen soldiers. And anyone who tells you Trump’s character hasn’t gotten in his or his party’s way should look to electoral results – even with good economic approvals and a good economy, his party has lost more than won under his presidency; and even when he won back in 2016, he under-performed some historical trends-based models that pegged him as a likely winner and his party had net losses in both chambers of Congress as well. Biden not being Trump, and Trump being Trump is a big factor in a race where even someone as polarizing in image as Biden is nowhere near as hated as Clinton is.
Part 5: The Shadow Of 2016 Won’t Go Away
Of course, we all remember what happened in the last presidential election when Clinton also seemed like the favorite going into election day and still lost. The shadow of 2016 will always loom over any talk of Biden being favored until he actually wins the race (or he also comes up short). It doesn’t matter how much data I throw your way, how many words I jot down about said data, or how big Biden’s leads are, 2016 will always be in the back of our minds. I recently wrote an opinion piece on my cautious optimistic belief we’ll likely get more expected results than unexpected ones this year; but I also mentioned in that piece that as data minded as I am, I too find myself unable to get 2016 from the back of my mind.
But I’m going to try and tackle some questions in regard to another 2016 repeat anyways. For one, we do know most (unfortunately not all, looking at you Marist) high quality pollsters are now weighting for education – the popularly diagnosed factor in why 2016 polling was as off as it was. This means that Biden’s leads in mid-western states should translate to much less errors now than Clinton’s in 2016, and in fact in 2018 polling in those states was pretty good (save for some really bad polling in Ohio). Also keep in mind that even a 2016-type miss could be survived by Biden IF this sort of lead persists or even grows. Forecaster Electoral Polls has a version of their model that assumes a 2016 miss, and Biden has so far lead in the odds for that model from start to present day. And as I mentioned earlier, low undecideds and less third-party support means Biden’s leads are in better shape than Clinton’s if they hold by election day.
Also keep in mind that, unlike in the UK where polling almost always seems to be biased against Conservatives, polling errors in the U.S are less predictable and there is an off-chance that the polling errors break Biden’s way. In fact, I have a theory the polling showing Biden underperforming with non-whites could (not saying it absolutely is, just theorizing here) be off and that could matter if Biden does as well with whites as polls tease he will. And finally keep in mind this isn’t the pollsters’ first test since 2016. They polled races in 2017, 2018, 2019, and in 2020 primaries; and for the most part pollsters have done rather well. So while I can see as a fellow human being why 2016 is in the back of all of our minds, my data driven mind also gives reason to be optimistic the polling will be better than 2016, even if things turn in Trump’s favor in the final two months.
Part 6: The Possible Down-Ballot Implications?
Going into 2020, the expectations were the House would likely stay Democratic and the Senate would likely stay Republican. I was among those who believed that, as flips in a Congressional chamber are much rarer in presidential cycles than midterms. The House hasn’t flipped in a presidential year since the Eisenhower landslide of 1952, and the Senate hasn’t flipped in a presidential year since Reagan’s 1980 landslide (The Democratic flip of the Senate after 2000 came after the election). However, the sudden shift on the issues around the presidential race, with a pandemic, recession, and social unrest has led to many (including me) seeing a chance for things to change in Congress after all.
The House seems favored to stay Democratic, but the Senate has become competitive. With Biden pushing Trump to tough races in places like a Texas or a North Carolina, and Republican Senators like Collins in Maine or Gardner in Colorado having trouble getting away from Trump in blue states, the Senate could flip with the right margin of victory for Biden. However, if Biden does win, there’s still a chance Republicans can hold on to the Senate if the coattails aren’t there in a closer victory. And of course, a Trump win most likely ends up in the GOP keeping the Senate.
I should point out that while polls show voters backing Biden over Trump, they’re much more even in who they believe will win. In 2018 we saw something similar when Democrats lead the Generic Ballot by big margins, but Republicans were considered favored to hold the House in some polling, nonetheless. Studies have found the expected winner in a presidential race can lead to strategical voting down the ballot as moderates might want a check on the incoming president. In 2016 the expected Clinton win lead to Republicans down the ballot outperforming Trump as a check on her. With voters unsure of who they think will win, a Biden win could still mean a lot of Democrats might benefit from him not being a clear favorite in would be split-ticketers’ minds.
Part 7: Prepare For An Unusual Election Night
Given this will likely be my last word on this campaign until election day, I feel I should give a word of warning on how differently election night might play out even in the case of a big Biden victory. Because the way people vote this year has become polarized and politicized, most of Biden’s votes will come from early and mail voting while Trump will likely get most of his votes from the day of. In some states mail voting can take forever to figure out, meaning you’ll see some strange Trump leads in states he might end up losing. One of the best cases for being cautious with election day returns before the mail voting comes in, was the Pennsylvania and Georgia primaries from earlier this year when it looked like the GOP had won the turnout battle but mail voting afterwards showed a strong shift towards the Democrats.
Luckily for us my home state of Florida is a fast counter that dumps mail and early voting data the night of the election. This means we might very well know who wins the state on election night, especially if they win it by a pretty clear margin (which in Florida is anything by two to three points). If Biden, who as of this writing is a slight to moderate favorite in Florida polling, wins the state and we know he has by election night then we’re likely looking at a race where he has won over 300 electoral votes at the very least. However if he wins the state by margins of four to five points as some polls have teased, then it likely means we need to keep an eye on places like Georgia or Texas because he’s doing really well and could end up over-performing elsewhere. However, if Trump wins Florida by two to three points, we’re likely looking at a 2016 repeat and should see him as the favorite as we await other states’ results. If he does win Florida, but it ends up being as close as say the 2018 statewide races were, then you might wanna get ready to wait a few days to weeks because we’re likely looking at a pretty tight race either guy can still win.
Either way, I advise you prepare yourself for an unusual election night than we’re used to even if polls end up being right about the results. Do not make the same mistake certain journalists did in similar circumstances in the primaries. Even in a normal election night impatience can be problematic. Early Florida returns in 2016 had the Trump campaign practically conceding the race in a press release, in 2018 early GOP holds in some key House races and over-performance in statewide Florida races lead to a panic the polls were pulling another 2016, and in both 2004 and 2012 early exits had some thinking the incumbents were in more trouble than they ended up being. So whatever you do, wait and see because even when things are running normal people make fools of themselves with early night of predictions that blow up in their face – ask the twitter conservatives in 2018 who thought McSally has won the Arizona Senate race before the mail ballots had come in.
Part 8: What I’m Willing To Predict…And What I’m Not
Well this ended up a monstrous piece, but my focus with this series has been to give some non-partisan perspective on the election and the public opinion data behind it. I do everything in my being to keep my personal opinions out of these so that anyone who reads these will leave feeling as if they understand the race a little more than you would just riding the roller coaster of punditry and ever changing news cycles. I am always data driven when analyzing elections, whether I like what the data says or not. And yes, the data has betrayed me sometimes (2016 obviously) but these pollsters and academics really are trying hard to get a proper measure of public opinion and voter trends. Following an election’s polling and forecasting can be exhausting even for us poll junkies and we’d like to see that it’s worth it when results come in and validate said data. But we also need to learn from instances like 2016, and I believe a lot of folks involved in gauging this race have, and that’s why I am optimistic we won’t see too many surprises on election day versus 2016. However, that doesn’t mean you ignore 2016’s warnings and you must keep an open mind on the possibilities of error and incorrect data.
So, with this likely being my last Election 2020 piece until results are in, barring a dramatic shift in the race, what am I willing to predict? Well we’re two months out and there’s still a room of error in that so let me get out of the way what I won’t predict…at least as of this writing. I won’t predict who wins the electoral college and thus becomes president, while Biden remains the clear favorite, and I stated plenty reasons in this piece as to why, he also doesn’t have this in the bag just yet and the debates and the likelihood of undecideds shifting one way or the other are still ahead of us. I think the range of possibilities is anywhere from a close Trump win to a Biden landslide which means Biden probably wins, but a Trump win is still a statistical possibility, nonetheless. I also won’t predict who wins the Senate; I’d rather be in Democrats’ shoes as of this writing, but this is close enough that until election day arrives I would just keep an eye on polling. I too think the range there is anywhere from the GOP barely holding on to a moderately sized set of gains for Democrats. I also won’t predict whether election night won’t see chaos or Trump will do something wild like claim victory before a Biden win starts showing up in the count, but as I wrote in my last piece, I am cautiously optimistic such chaos won’t happen.
What I will predict today is that the House will stay in Democratic hands even if Trump wins again. The generic ballot has remained in high single digits for the blue team since 2017, and I don’t see much appetite for Trump-skeptic suburbanites to vote out moderate blue dog Democrats – some who are getting endorsed by the usually more GOP friendly Chamber of Commerce even. I also will predict today that Joe Biden will win the popular vote. In 2016 Trump had much more going for him even as an underdog going into Labor Day than he does today, and he still lost the popular vote to a much more hated candidate who nonetheless still came close to winning the electoral college. Even if Biden finds a way to lose the electoral college, I really like his chances to win the popular vote which means I am predicting Democrats will go 7-1 since 1992 in winning the most votes for president – meaningless on who wins the race but an interesting trend nonetheless. I will also predict today that we will in fact see record modern turnout between 62% among the eligible voting population to maybe as much as 65% if not even higher. I was cautious after the pandemic to think that the trend started in the big midterm turnout would continue, but we’ve seen evidence that the pandemic has not done much damage to voters’ willingness to have their voices heard. And finally I will predict today that polls will do better than they did in 2016, if Trump wins it’ll come with a shift in polling that will produce less error than 2016 did versus the final results; of all the predictions I make today this might arguably be the most ballsy.
We are a little under two months away, but some states are already sending out mail ballots, some early voters have even already sent back absentee ballots; so technically election night is in a way already underway. In the next two months the President will either pull off a comeback we will never forget, one that makes his 2016 victory look like a piece of cake; or we will see Joe Biden finish off a half a century career in federal politics by achieving the highest office in the land. Either way, the prediction I am most confident in making today is that history will be made.
Now go and vote.