Wednesday, April 1, 2020

When it Comes to the 2020 Presidential Election, Expect the Unexpected

In the securities game, there is a standard warning brokers have to give when touting a stock's history:  "Past performance does not guarantee future performance."  In other words, the fact the stock previously did well, does not mean it will do well in the future. 

The political game is not like securities.  While there is no "guarantee" in politics, what happened in past elections involving a candidate often reflect what will happen to that candidate in future elections.  The starting point in analyzing any president's re-election prospects is to first look at the previous election.  Then you build on that model by adding in factors that will be different in the upcoming election.

In 2016, Donald Trump won by a very narrow narrow victory in the electoral college.  Michigan,
Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, states he won by a total of 78,000 votes, gave Trump an Electoral College victory.  If just 39,000 people (which is equivalent to about half crowd at a Colts home game) had changed their mind and pulled the lever for Hillary Clinton, Trump would not have been elected.

While many fault the 2016 statewide polls for being wrong, the fact is the result in every swing state was within the margin of error of for polling in that state.  Polling is about establishing probabilities, not guaranteeing results.  While Trump winning key swing states to give him an electoral college victory was not probable from the polls, it was certainly a possible outcome. Using poker terminology, Trump's victory was equivalent to successfully drawing to an inside straight.

Drawing to an inside straight does not suggest skill at poker, but luck.  Nonetheless, since November of 2016, most Republican elected officials and candidates jumped aboard the Trump Train, assuming that the President is a poker player of incomparable skill when it comes to winning elections.  However, not one of the elections that has taken place since 2016, many of which were explicitly touted by Trump as a referendum on his presidency, show the President is especially adept at general election politics.  Winning primaries, yes, winning general elections, no.

MONEY AND ORGANIZATION.  But I digress.  The key to an analysis of the 2020 presidential elections is to look at what happened in 2016 and what has changed since 2020.   In 2016, the Trump campaign was underfunded and disorganized, and yet still proved successful.  In 2020, the Trump campaign is awash in money and has a strong organization.  The inevitable Democratic nominee, former Vice President Joe Biden, cannot begin to match Trump in money or organization.  Advantage Team Trump

CANDIDATES.  If money and organization were all it took, the Democrats would be nominating former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg.  In politics, though, the product being sold, i.e. the candidate, still matters a great deal.  In a campaign involving a sitting President seeking re-election, that product is the President.

In 2016, Donald Trump benefited by the fact he was up against the most unpopular presidential candidate the Democrats had ever nominated.  Given Hillary's grating public persona and discomfort interacting with voters, making her even more unpopular was not a difficult task.  A large percentage of the vote Trump received in 2016 were not people voting for Trump so much as people voting against Hillary Clinton.

Can the Trump campaign make Joe Biden as unpopular as Hillary?  No doubt the Trump folks will drive up Biden's negatives substantially in the months ahead.  But there are probably limits to how successful that will be.  Personality wise, Biden is well known and comes across as much more likable than Hillary Clinton.  But even more importantly, unlike 2016, 2020 mostly will be a referendum on one candidate - Donald Trump.  An unpopular Joe Biden won't help Trump out as much as an unpopular Hillary Clinton did.  Meanwhile, President Trump has retained enormous unpopularity through his term.  In polls, nearly 50% of the respondents indicate there are dead-set against voting for Trump.  Advantage Team Biden

ISSUES:  The issue in 2020 will undoubtedly be the Covid-19 pandemic, which issue fits nicely with the Democrats 2018 winning issue of health care.  The performance of the economy, which was to be Trump's ace card, will be long gone.  Team Trump though tout the President's improved job performance polls, demonstrating he is at peak popularity seven months before the general election. 

But there are several reasons though to discount the polling bump.  First, despite the improvement, Trump remains an historically unpopular, the only President to never average above 50% in the polls. Second, the improvement in Trump's polling is at best slight and seems to be a result of the "rally around the flag" boost that all leaders temporarily get in times of crisis.  Third, Trump's polling improvement in the face of the pandemic is much less than governors, mayors and foreign leaders have received.  Fourth, very recent polling suggests the bump Trump has enjoyed as a result of Covid-19 is already fading.  Fifth, the impact of Covid-19's toll has not yet been felt by much of the United States, particularly in the red areas.  In a few months, pretty much everyone will have a family member or friend who succumbed to the virus. That personal experience will likely tarnish Trump.   Sixth, the facts are that the Trump administration was not prepared for the pandemic (despite being warned), initially lied to the American public about its impact, and has, from beginning to present, bungled the response to the virus.  People literally are going to die a result of how the Trump administration has mishandled he crisis.  While the 35% of Trump True Believers will certainly never hold Trump accountable for anything, a large portion of independent voters will put the blame at Trump's feet and vote accordingly.  Advantage Team Biden

TURNOUT:   In 2016, key Democratic-leaning constituencies failed to turn out in sufficient numbers to vote for Hillary Clinton.   Team Trump is counting on Democratic leaning voters, uninspired by "Sleepy Joe," to stay home in 2020. 

That is wishful thinking.  In the 2018 mid-terms and all the special elections that have taken place since 2016, Democratic turnout has been through the roof.  That is not because of the particular Democratic candidates or because of the issues they ran on.  It is because Democratic-leaning voters really despise President Trump and are eager to go to the polls to express that dislike.  In 2016, a President Trump was only a theoretical possibility and thus Democratic voters were not as motivated.  But 2020 will be a referendum on Trump's brand of politics and Democratic voters will be lined up to vote "no" to four more years.

That's not to say Republican voters won't be as equally motivated.  Trump is an expert at driving turnout, for both Republicans and Democrats.  In most areas though, Democratic leaning voters outnumber Republican voters.  GOP success often depends on Republicans turning out while Democrats stay home.  That dynamic is unlikely to be there in 2020 like it was in 2016.  Advantage Team Biden.

CHANGING ELECTORATE.   I am not sure why this doesn't get more attention from analysts.  The electorate changes from one election to another, and not just because of different turnout.  One of the chief factors is older voters dying and being replaced by younger voters.  That is significant in 2020 because Trump's strength is among older voters while a strong majority of younger voters harbor an extreme dislike toward President Trump.  How many of those older voters will have died between November 2016 and November 2020?  I have not been able to get the state specific numbers yet, but I am sure we're talking several thousands of voters, a situation made even more pronounced by Covid-19 which kills older people at a much higher rate.  Trump needs to replace those voters.  It is not clear how he does that as he has not expanded his original coalition that gave him a narrow electoral victory in 2016.  How many Hillary Clinton voters will be enticed by the "success" of the Trump Presidency (especially since the economic gains are gone) and this time vote Republican?  Very few, and certainly not enough to replace older voters.  Advantage Team Biden

ELECTORAL COLLEGE:  Trump squeaked out an electoral college victory in 2016 because he won three formerly Democratic states: Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.  Given the polling in Michigan, it appears that Trump will have a problem winning the state in 2016.  Of the three, Trump looks strongest in more rural Wisconsin.  Pennsylvania is more of a toss-up though, and given Biden's ties to that state commonwealth, he probably has an edge there.  I also think Trump can win Minnesota and New Hampshire (states Hillary won in 2016) and am not yet convinced the new swing states of Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina, and Texas are ready to go blue.  Trump is surprisingly strong in Florida, which used to be the swing state.  Meanwhile, analysts are too quickly putting Ohio in the Republican column.

In reviewing Trump's fortunes in the various states, there is one rule of thumb that jumps out - the more rural the state, the better Trump does.  If a state has significant population centers, then the likelihood it will go blue in November increases.  Trump is losing big cities badly and barely breaking even in many suburbs outside those cities.  That is why Ohio, which is one of the most urban states in the country, is well within Biden's reach.  In fact, recent polling shows Biden leading in that state.  Still, in terms of the Electoral College, one has to say:  Advantage Team Trump.

CONCLUSION:  I don't buy that Trump will be going the way of Herbert Hoover due to Covid-19 and its effects on cratering the American economy and killing hundreds of thousands of Americans.  Trump has a solid base that won't let him fall that far, even under the worst circumstances.  At this point though, one has to say Biden is a modest favorite to win the 2020 election, though circumstances may change in the months that follow.  One thing that could well happen is Biden or Trump, or both, could get Covid-19 before the election.  While Biden is clearly in better shape physically than Trump, both are well into their 70s and are at very high risk.   In this age of politics, one needs to expect the unexpected will happen.


leon dixon said...

Aside from looming dementia, a general lack of any desire of the people to elect an old has been, there is the matter of
his corruption and that of his family and of the Obama Administration. Trump and the able Republicans (few though they are) have kept the gloves off of Biden. They let him flail and fail, do not respond, basically ignore the poor we all should. He will have no coat tails, there is no grass roots support for him. He has not much in his years of "service" to recommend himself to anyone. What is looming is a wipeout. Think of Indiana Democrats who died on the hill of Right to Work. It made for R supermajorities and the death of the party who wore out their kneepads sucking union made dildoes. When they fled to illinois the people noticed and the R's, the stinking R's got a windfall. Joe is not leading anything but a one car parade. AOC has the wheel and that icon of nancy P is in tow. Can you imagine any good reasons for anyone voting for left wing loons?

Paul K. Ogden said...


It was until I got to the middle of your comment that I realized you were talking about Biden and not Trump. Corruption...seriously? There still is no evidence of Biden's "corruption" but there are semi loads full of evidence of Trump corruption. Trump is easily the most corrupt President in my lifetime and I lived through Nixon. No one but the Trump cult is going to be persuaded if Trump decides to run a campaign focusing on corruption.

As far as "looming dementia," that might be a good issue for a younger, more mentally astute presidential candidate, but for Trump it would be the pot calling the kettle black. You think Trump hasn't had a cognitive decline? Try listening to interviews he gave 25 years ago and then compare them to today. Of course, even if Biden had full blown dementia, he's still would be a heck of a lot sharper than President Trump is even on his best days. Of course, Trump never was a bright man (I am not sure you would even dispute that fact) and that he's clearly lost several steps mentally makes it even worse.

While Trump might be able to eek out a victory, while losing the popular vote by as many as 5 million, thanks to the nuances of the Electoral College, clearly the Republicans aren't going to win back the House since Sanders won't be the nominee. And while the seats up favor Republicans in the Senate, several key GOP Senators in tough races are running behind. Trump is not popular in those states and their tying themselves to him have not been helpful. At best, I think the Republicans can hope to win back the Alabama senate seat (which is almost certain), and then hold losses in other races down to maybe 3. That would give the Rs a 51-49 edge which I think is probably the best they can hope for.

Anonymous said...

You're forgetting about one group - the true socialists who only vote for Bernie Sanders and will not come out to vote for Biden. 2016 these "Feel the Bern" voters were in the margins. This time Bernie had a larger ground game and looked like they could send the DNC into a brokered convention for the first time since the mid-20th Century.

Paul K. Ogden said...

Anon 10:43, actually Bernie was a lot more competitive in 2016 than he's proven to be in 2016. He did have a brief moment after the early races in 2020, but since then he's not been remotely competitive with Biden. In 2016, Bernie was competitive with Hillary all the way to the end, and won several states. The only significant state Bernie won since South Carolina in 2020 is California and that was by a much closer margin than expected. I'm not aware of Bernie leading in any other states who haven't yet had primaries.

Sure there were a lot of Bernie Bros who wanted to burn the house down in 2016, but there seem to be less so in 2020. Two reasons: First, they really hated Hillary, and don't dislike Biden nearly as much. Second, they've had a chance to see what Trump would be like as President and don't want to help him out as much by staying home as they did in 2016.

Having said that, there is considerable overlap between the mentality of Trump and Bernie voters. They're a lot alike and there is significant crossover, but I think even that will be less than in 2016.

Paul K. Ogden said...

First line, I meant proven to be in 2020.