America senses Trump is set to return to power but the facts reveal his Democrat rival is favourite, writes Lorcan Nyhan
The phoney war is over. The consequential battles have begun. Six months from now, we’ll know the results of the 2020 US presidential election.
The campaign started in earnest last week with the American president rolling out a week of adverts touting his success in tackling the Covid-19 pandemic and organising a live Fox News town hall event under the Lincoln memorial.
Current perceived wisdom has President Trump in the White House for another four years as the most likely outcome of the contest. But this is a flawed analysis that ignores the facts. All current evidence suggests that Joe Biden is actually the front-runner. An overreaction to the results of 2016 and a possible overcorrection in reading polls have skewed rational thinking.
Most Americans still think Trump will be re-elected. Some 55pc of voters believe a Trump victory will occur in November – even though only 42pc intend to vote for him.
Most American voters don’t want a second Trump term, but they can’t wrap their head around the possibility that he could lose. They’ve decided that pulling off an upset in 2016 makes it inevitable that he’ll find a way to win in 2020.
But the truth is that Trump is a weak candidate. He is one of the weakest incumbent presidents since 1933. He is completely beatable. If he is not ousted from the White House, it will be a missed opportunity – with the blame shared equally between the Democratic party and Joe Biden’s team.
The former US vice president has never not led Trump in head-to-head national match-ups, and recent polling of the six most important states has Biden leading in five and tied with Trump in the sixth.
To believe that a Trump victory is inevitable is to fall into the same type of groupthink that led to most believing his 2016 success was impossible.
Trump may have a remarkably stable base of supporters but that base is relatively small. He has never had an aggregated approval rating of over 50pc – the only president since modern polling began with that asterisk by his name.
Joe Biden is currently leading Trump by an average of six points in the national polls. But as was shown in 2016, Trump can lose that popular vote and still get to spend another four years tweeting from the Oval Office. To get an accurate picture, you need to look at the polling in potential swing states.
The states likely to decide the election are Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, North Carolina and Arizona. Biden is eight points ahead in Michigan and three ahead in Florida; he’s six ahead in Pennsylvania, five ahead in Wisconsin and three ahead in North Carolina. A recent poll even has him nine points ahead in Arizona – a state Democrats haven’t won since 1996.
Worried about putting too much stock in these numbers? Even Trump’s internal polling has him trailing Biden in these key swing states. (The Washington Post reported how that news ignited an incredulous “I’m not losing to Joe Biden” rant from Trump.)
This trend is supported by the hard fact that in the last national election in the US – the 2018 midterms – the Democrats performed exceptionally well.
The vote had the highest midterm turnout since 1914 and, led primarily by an insurgence of white, suburban, female voters, the Democrats achieved an overall 8.6pc victory over the Republicans.
Much has been made of the fact that the polling situation for Hillary Clinton was similar to Biden’s at this stage in 2016. A few key differences surface in the dissection, though. Trump-ism is no longer a brand new or unknown political force. Biden is also a wildly different candidate to Clinton.
At this stage in 2016, Hillary Clinton had a net favourability rate of minus 15. Biden’s current rating is minus 1. Whatever this says about America, voters don’t actively dislike Biden in the way they took against Clinton.
Voters aren’t exactly giddy to have Joe – but Clinton had to contend with decades of relentless Republican and non-Republican attacks on her character and, not unrelated, voter sexism.
Significant research shows that women in, or running for, positions of power are held to a different and more unforgiving standard than male counterparts. The former first lady’s approval levels with voters always plummeted when she was actively running for a position, going from the high 60s as secretary of state to the low 40s when running for the US senate or presidency.
A sense of complacency existed last time out, exacerbated by Clinton’s negative favourability rating. Voters in 2016 had been convinced that the actual risk of a President Trump was minimal.
We vote because of how it makes us feel. Voters vote for emotional, not logical reasons. For voters who hated Trump, but disliked Clinton, the easy option was to not vote (or vote for a third-party candidate from the Green or Libertarian parties who didn’t stand a chance).
At this stage of the 2016 campaign, a relatively large number said they were undecided or were going to vote for one of these candidates. Today, polling is showing a much smaller number in both areas.
This time around, though, complacency won’t be a factor. Turnout will be. Victory for the Democrats in 2020 hinges on turnout. And turnout is influenced by perception.
Research by Eyal Winter and Esteban Klor, professors of economics at the University of Jerusalem, shows that US election turnout is higher when the race is seen to be close, but you still feel your candidate has a slightly higher chance of success. Predicted landslides can drive either complacency or a sense of futility.
To turn out and vote, potential Democrats who failed to vote in 2016 need to feel Trump’s defeat is likely but not inevitable. They don’t right now – this matters because Biden’s voters aren’t exactly overflowing with enthusiasm; meaning that Democrat turnout will have to be driven by motivation to oust the Donald, not put in Biden.
Trump’s base is stable and they absolutely adore him. Some 54pc of Trump’s supporters are highly enthusiastic about voting for him. Only 24pc of Biden’s feel the same for their candidate – a 20-year low for Democratic candidates.
The Trump base is small – but it’s going to show up in huge numbers. The Democrats needs to run a campaign that achieves the same. Because to fail to beat a president who is currently behind in all of the six essential swing states, has a consistent approval rating of 43.3pc and has just presided over thousands of deaths, would be a monumental failure of political strategy.
None of this is a prediction for November. That would be wildly premature. The campaign has only just begun in earnest. And nothing is clear cut, either way. We’ve yet to see if Biden has a coherent plan to defend against Trump attacks (which will look exactly like his attacks on Clinton).
We’ve yet to see if the Democratic standard-bearer will take the fight to the president in time to convince the electorate that Trump can be challenged effectively. And we’ve no idea of the real impact of the pandemic on Trump’s brand and the US economy.
But, for now, Biden is the favourite. To deny it is to ignore the current evidence.
The game is only just afoot. The Democrats could easily let this slip. But they are starting a few inches in front.