With the news mostly about COVID-19, it’s easy to forget that we will have a presidential election in five short months.
Like nearly everyone, I was surprised when Donald Trump was elected president in 2016. Robeson County voted for a Republican presidential candidate for the first time in recent memory. Looking back, there were signs along the way, but the media missed them. As I write, Biden leads Trump by 5.3% in the average of polls. That is typically a comfortable lead. Trump, though, has broken many patterns in the past, so we shouldn’t get caught off guard if he does it again. In the rest of the column I’ll list some of the signs that are visible now, so that if Trump does win in November, we won’t be surprised.
First, a Washington Post-ABC News poll from June 2016 found Hilary Clinton with a 12-point lead over Donald Trump. Presumably, polling is more accurate now, and Trump is more of a known commodity, Biden’s 5.3% lead may be more safer than Clinton’s was. Having said that, Trump’s campaign in 2020 will be extremely different from 2016. Campaign contributions can be counted in a variety of ways, but the Washington Post estimated that Clinton had nearly twice the $400 million Trump had his disposal in 2016. Obama had even more in 2012. There is quite a bit of fundraising to go, but recent totals by NPR show Trump about $275M, Biden, $178M, and Obama $240M at this point in 2012. Moreover, this time, 64% of Trump’s contributions come from small donors, well above his 2016 26% and shattering Obama’s record of 32% contributions from small donors. So, the Trump campaign will be on completely different financial footing in 2020.
Campaign funding also leads to “ground game,” paid or volunteer staff who work to excite and turn out voters. Trump famously had “no ground game” in 2016 (although the RNC did), a dynamic that will flip dramatically with the finances now available.
In a name, Kanye West. I knew something was afoot when working at Fayetteville State University in 2016 and saw more interest in Republican candidates, and ultimately Trump, than I had ever seen on a campus before. Shortly after Trump’s victory, I predicted the African-American vote for Trump would be higher in 2020 than 2016. Several events, not least Biden’s “Ain’t Black” comment have worked against Biden for 2020. Kanye West, Diamond and Silk, and several other prominent African-Americans supporting Trump will likely make a difference.
News commentators often focus on why Trump’s approval ratings are not higher. As I write, though, Trump’s ratings are actually higher than Obama’s at this point in 2012 and Bush’s at this point in 2004.
Trump was famous for his campaign rallies in 2016. Perhaps, the pandemic will prevent any more, but the ones held prior had a very interesting demographic. These weren’t Trump die-hards — at the last three rallies, 32%, 19%, and 26% of the participants reported that they didn’t vote in 2016. So, new people seem to be coming into Trump’s fold.
Finally, all political commentators agree that election success depends mostly on turnout. No one knows what November holds, and special elections aren’t always predictive, but the recent election in Staunton, Virginia, resulted in a doubling of turnout by Democrats. However, the Republican turnout soared even higher, resulting in seats that had gone liberal in recent years flipping to conservative. The California special election for a U.S. congressional seat in L.A. county ended up in a double-digit victory for the Republican, the opposite of the blue wave that occurred there in 2018.
Finally, like Obama in 2008, in 2020, Trump is the candidate of hope, while his opponent’s message during the pandemic has been one of fear and despair.
If I were a betting person, I would still bet on Biden being elected, but this time, I’m not going to be surprised if Trump is.