Ben Roback is Head of Trade and International Policy at Cicero Group.
There are 13 days until the election and 54 days until the Electoral College meets. All available polling and data currently points to only one clear outcome – a victory for Joe Biden and his running mate, Kamala Harris.
There is no doubting that Biden is in a formidable position. He has a lead of 8.6 percentage points nationally, according to Real Clear Politics.
His campaign’s finances are in far better health, having collected a record $383 million in donations in September; up on its $365 million tally in August and Hillary Clinton’s $154 million in September 2016. So the Democrat challenger now has $432 million to play with in the remaining days of the campaign – a figure so large that experts said they were unsure how it could all be spent.
But while the national picture is interesting, the polling in key swing states is what matters most. In eight of the most competitive battlegrounds – Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin – Biden has a lead in all but one of them.
In some of those states, the polling has begun to tighten, but with only one presidential debate remaining, Donald Trump is running out of opportunities to reverse the current trend.
Why is the Trump 2016 playbook not working in 2020?
Trump was such a spectacularly maverick candidate in 2016 that literally no one knew how to cover him, let alone run against him. Cable news didn’t want to give him hours of endless free coverage, but his rallies were so unpredictable and entertaining that they had no choice but to cover them in full.
In the primaries, Republicans couldn’t work out whether to take the brash businessman seriously or laugh off his latest hot take.
When the election campaign proper finally arrived, the Democratic Party machine didn’t want to break the rules of engagement, but the Trump campaign had such little interest in convention or courtesy that traditional campaign tactics became null and void.
But his year, the 2016 playbook has been less effective. There are three good reasons why.
First, the president has tried to recreate the notion that he is campaigning against a criminal opponent who is part of a wider anti-Trump, anti-American enterprise.
Leaked emails claiming that Joe Biden’s son, Hunter, used his influence to broker business meetings with his father, are being used by Trump as the new smoking gun – in the same way that Trump deployed Clinton of using a personal email to conduct government business against her.
But to date, “lock him up” has not had a comparably transformative effect. The President has demanded that the Attorney General investigate Joe Biden’s son before the election. Bill Barr is loyal to the president, but appears unlikely to take such an aggressive step.
Trump campaigns well when his loyal and at times obsequious base have a common enemy. But this year, he has failed to make accusations or insults against Joe Biden, Hunter Biden and Kamala Harris stick.
Second, Trump rallies in 2016 became a hallmark of his campaign and visual displays of voter enthusiasm. At times they had to be seen to be believed. Having allowed a Covid-19 diagnosis to only momentarily sideline his roadshow, the President’s rallies have resumed, but mass gatherings of thousands of chant-shouters and sign-wavers looks deeply irresponsible at a time when the percentage of coronavirus tests coming back positive is rising across the country.
Record numbers of Americans will vote by post rather than by physically going to a polling station this year. That suggests the Trump campaign’s insistence on mass rallies is deeply out of step with the concern harboured by Covid-weary voters.
Third, the President’s attempts to bully and beat the press and digital media into submission are not working as well, although that is not to say they have failed entirely. Twitter has begun censoring the President’s tweets when they violate its rules, performing a delicate dance between the roles of platform and publisher.
The presidential debates in 2016 gave Trump free rein to follow Clinton around the stage, interrupt her and impose his will on the room entirely. The first head-to-head debate this time around was a basket case of shouting and disruption ,and the second was scrapped in favour of side-by-side town halls.
The third, taking place tomorrow, will curtail the president’s instincts by muting the microphone of one candidate to allow the other to make an uninterrupted two-minute introduction at the start of each 15-minute discussion point. After all these years, it turns out the only way to keep Trump quiet is to literally silence him.
A major question looms large – what if the polling is wrong?
So Biden is ahead in the national polls, swing state polls and his campaign has more cash in hand. Even accounting for the same polling error in 2016 in battleground states in 2020, he is still be on-track to secure the required swing states to win the election. It would take a specular mass failure of the polling industry to get this one wrong.
But we are human beings and not computers. We find it inherently hard to shake off the errors made in previous electoral upsets. The EU referendum and 2016 presidential election surprised many. The polling industry took a reputational thumping.
With that in mind, heads are beginning to turn now that Trump is chipping away at Biden’s lead around the country.
Take Pennsylvania – a crucial swing state on both candidate’s potential paths to election, which Trump won by less than 1 point in 2016. A new Reuters/Ipsos opinion poll put Biden ahead by just four points. A Washington Post-ABC poll found Biden and Trump in a dead heat in the battleground state of North Carolina. Those headline figures have begun to dent confidence in the overall polling picture we see nationwide.
If the polling is proven wrong and the President wins re-election, the polling industry will be plunged once again into crisis. And yet, analysts will turn again to polling data at the next election because it remains the best tool of analysis at our disposal. It is imperfect and sometimes inaccurate, but not sufficiently challenged by a viable alternative.
What seems certain is that, irrespective of the current polling outlook, both sides are planning to act once the result of the election are announced.
Trump has urged militias like the Proud Boys to “stand down and stand by”. Clinton has pleaded with Biden to “not concede under any circumstances”.
The worst-case scenario for election day and the weeks that follow is illegal and armed militias imposing themselves on polling stations and state capitols. The US Conference of Mayors warned in a statement: “There is significant concern that we may see voter intimidation efforts and protests, some possibly violent, in the days leading up to November 3, on that day, and on the days following”. Local government and law enforcement could become the unexpected heroes of the election.
Do not be entirely discouraged by the dire warning signals flashing in the land of the free. Spencer Cox and Chris Peterson may be well known in Utah, but they are far from household names across America.
But in a rare shared campaign advert, the two competing candidates for Governor of the Beehive State reminded Americans that they can debate the issues without hating each other. There are political points to be scored in bucking the trend of aggressive negative campaigning. Just don’t expect it any time soon in the 2020 presidential election.