Three weeks from election day, Donald Trump is trailing in the polls and some Democrats are plotting for the next four years under a Democratic president. That was the scene in 2016 and it’s shaping up to be the same in 2020, as Joe Biden’s solid, sustained lead in United States polls has increased in the last week.
Not so fast, President Trump’s campaign officials say. They are quick to remind how his candidacy was written off by virtually everyone, including many Republicans, four years ago this week, as he dealt with the fallout from the release of tape filmed behind the scenes of the US TV show Access Hollywood, in which Trump was recorded making vulgar remarks about women. Yet due to a unique political environment and a late-October surprise when the FBI reopened and then quickly closed its investigation into candidate Hillary Clinton’s emails, Trump was able to eke out victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, delivering him an improbable victory.
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The world has changed enormously in four years, as has the political situation in which Trump finds himself. Instead of railing against the establishment as an agent of change, Trump is now in charge and is being blamed for mishandling a once-in-a-century pandemic that has rocked the country and has directly affected him, hospitalising him and sidelining him from a week-and-a-half of crucial campaign travel.
That makes the ‘Look what Trump did in 2016’ a poor argument for why he may or may not still have a chance this year.
That being said, despite the massive momentum Biden seems to have and the political corner Trump has painted himself into, there are still small glimmers for Trump and his team, if he can successfully shake things up in these final three weeks.
Biden’s large, consistent lead
While Hillary Clinton regularly led Trump throughout the general election in 2016, Joe Biden is currently holding a historic lead in national polls, finding himself in the best position for a challenger to an incumbent since 1936. Biden hasn’t trailed in a national poll since he clinched the nomination this spring. He has only polled below 50 percent in one national poll (out of 11) this month. And he currently holds a 10.6 percentage point lead over Trump in the RealClearPolitics average of polls.
Even in battleground states, Biden is leading or statistically tied in all of the ones Trump flipped in 2016, including Michigan, Pennsylvania, Ohio and Wisconsin. In addition, Biden is giving Trump a run for his money in some states that he won easily or that traditionally vote Republican, like Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas.
Among specific voter groups, Biden has increased his share of support over Hillary Clinton among independents, older voters, women voters and suburban voters.
Voters are enthusiastic
Enthusiasm among Democrats is shaping up to be off the charts. Eighty percent of Democrats say they are more enthusiastic about voting compared to previous elections, a 26-point increase over 2016 (75 percent of Republicans say the same, 23 percentage points higher than 2016). A key part of the Democratic base – African Americans – saw a turnout drop in 2016 for the first time in 20 years, ultimately hurting Clinton in the three battleground states Trump won by slim margins.
Although voters don’t express a lot of enthusiasm for Biden, there is a ton of energy among Trump opponents to vote him and his fellow Republicans out of office. Democratic candidates’ fundraising is breaking records – Biden raised a record $365m in August, and proceeded to break that record in September.
Voters have been casting votes early in record numbers. The pandemic has changed voting rules across the country and in states that track voters by political party, more than twice as many Democrats than Republicans have voted already.
But a majority of Republicans have said this year that they will vote in person on Election Day on November 3, adding a layer of uncertainty and suspense to how things might shape up, and also giving Trump’s campaign significant hope that they can turn out enough voters late in the game to bridge the seemingly widening gap between him and Biden.
Trump is no longer the outsider
Pew Research Center polling shows that Americans’ negative feelings towards the federal government have remained consistent for the past five years.
Railing against the federal government was a staple of the Trump 2016 campaign and almost certainly played a part in his victory. However, Trump is now the face of the federal government and he’s had a hard time making this race about anything other than about his job performance.
For months, a majority of Americans have disapproved of Trump’s handling of coronavirus, the top issue in most polls. Simultaneously, more say Biden would better handle the pandemic. Trump’s overall approval rating has been stuck in the low-40s throughout his presidency. And he has been at a loss for words when asked on multiple occasions what is on his second-term agenda, if he’s re-elected.
All of this adds up to being a far cry from his effective “Make America Great Again” argument against the “swamp” in Washington, DC that was personified by longtime Washington insider Hillary Clinton.
Voters in 2016 were willing to take a chance on an outsider who promised to change how business is done in the US capital. In 2020, even though he’s up against the ultimate Washington insider in Biden, Trump, as president, is no longer a newcomer.
Does Trump still have a chance?
Gallup recently asked voters the age-old question: Are you “better off now than you were four years ago?” A majority, 56 percent, said they are better off, compared to 32 percent who said they are worse off. Amid Trump’s overwhelmingly glum polling situation, this is a result that has given his team hope.
In the meantime, the Trump campaign also feels that their get-out-the-vote effort is dwarfing Biden’s and that it will pay off on November 3. Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien told reporters Monday that Republicans are outpacing Democrats in voter registrations in battlegrounds such as Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. Stepien pointed out that these “voter registration trends … are not being caught in polling that’s being done right now”, suggesting that the surveys in those states are underplaying Trump’s standing.
That combined with an aggressive door-knocking campaign – 2.8 million in the last week, Stepien noted – compared to the exponentially smaller ground game from Democrats, who have dialed back in-person campaigning due to the pandemic, are why the Trump camp feels like it is in a better position than conventional wisdom gives it credit for.
There is still time for Trump, but there’s also no question he needs to figure out a way to significantly change the dynamic of the race or hope for a major twist that boosts his chances or hurts Biden’s polling numbers.
If the election were today, it would be hard to argue against Biden’s chances of victory. But as Trump’s opponents know all too well, the election is still three weeks away, and as the old saying goes: “It ain’t over until it’s over.”