I seem to be experiencing a long, sustained, case of déjà vu.
The circumstances have changed, and one of the characters has been swapped out for another, but the 2020 presidential election shares far more similarities to 2016 than differences.
- Donald Trump is still as outrageously offensive to Democrats, establishment Republicans, and media pundits as ever.
- The DNC would again rather lose on their own corporate-friendly terms (and those of their donors) than allow a progressive like Bernie Sanders to represent the party in November.
- The now incumbents opponent is again an establishment Dem with a long history of negatives on their resume, including credible allegations of corruption – all of which must be whitewashed for the sake of “the greater good.”
- And Trump is trailing in the polls less than three months before Election Day.
FiveThirtyEight’s Election Model
What drove home just how alike the 2020 and 2016 election cycles are were a flurry of recent articles about Nate Silver’s election model.
The analytics guru is giving Joe Biden a 71% likelihood of becoming the next President of the United States, to Donald Trump’s 29%.
What did FiveThirtyEight’s model show at this point in the 2016 race?
Hillary Clinton – 71.4%
Donald Trump – 28.6%
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
Dems Hyper-Focused on Trump
Of course, Silver’s analytical models aren’t the only thing frozen in time. The approach Democrats – and their Republican allies – are bringing to this election is familiar as well. As was the case in 2016, every aspect of the contest is framed entirely around Donald Trump.
A tell I use for political betting purposes is how much a convention talks about their own candidate vs. the opponent. More time spent on the opponent is a tell they will lose. After convention night 1, so far, Dems showing they will lose.
— Robert Barnes (@Barnes_Law) August 18, 2020
In December, I wrote an article titled, “What Mumble Rappers Can Teach Us About Trump’s Re-Election Odds.”
The basic thesis of the piece was that in today’s ever-more-connected world, driven by the internet – and more specifically, social media – attention is the most valuable currency there is.
I used the mumble rapper comparison in relation to the following J. Cole quote:
“We’re in the age of trolling. These kids have figured something out. They figured out that attention is ALL that matters. The skill – who gives a [expletive]? The quality? Pfft…No, all that matters is attention. This music is just a platform for me to get attention – and what’s even more important than the music is the [expletive] that I do outside of the music. What type of wild [expletive] can I cook up or say, just to get this attention. We’re living in the Donald Trump era.”
In 2016, Hillary Clinton had substantially more money in her war chest. Her campaign outspent Trump’s by nearly double — $768 million to his $398 – in a political system where the side with the most cash wins 90% of the time.
How’d the eventual winner make up that deficit in spending?
Post-election media analysis estimates that Donald Trump received approximately $5 billion worth of “earned media” — free coverage by outlets reacting to his every move. It didn’t matter that the coverage was mostly negative – in the “attention economy,” all that matters is that they’re talking about you.
Nothing has changed in this regard since 2016. If anything, it’s gotten worse.
Having watched the Democratic National Convention this week, it struck me that Donald Trump is all they talked about. Joe Biden offers nothing in terms of policies or solutions; his entire candidacy is built upon “returning to normal” and being “Not Trump.”
If the constant media attention during the year leading up to the 2016 election was worth $5 billion, what do you think his earned media totals are up to now? $100 billion?$500b?
Sure, nearly all of the news is negative these days — and Trump’s lost some of the excitement and sense of uncertainty from before – but he’s still all anyone’s talked about for almost four years.
One thing’s for sure:
November’s election will test the limits of my “attention economy” theory. If he overcomes the negative publicity a second time, the media will be forced to seriously reevaluate their approach.
Biden’s Similar Enthusiasm Issues
Like Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden is struggling to generate any enthusiasm amongst Democratic voters. Hardly anyone is casting a ballot for Biden; they’re voting against Trump.
Every time voters said they supported a candidate because they oppose his opponent more than they support the candidate, the opponent has won. https://t.co/WgDWZB3ZB3
— Robert Barnes (@Barnes_Law) August 17, 2020
Historically, running a campaign based upon merely not being one’s opponent has been a losing venture. In a country whose electorate is so neatly divided by partisanship, elections are decided by 100,000 or so votes scattered across a handful of battleground states. Most Electoral College votes can be allocated before a single ballot is cast.
As such, the candidate able to expand voter turnout among the demographics with whom they resonate most usually wins.
In 2016, that surge came from rural and working-class, non-college-educated white voters throughout the Rust Belt.
Likely voters who were polled with “strong enthusiasm” for Hillary Clinton a week before the 2016 election trailed Donald Trump by eight points – 53 percent for Trump, 45 percent for Clinton.
Since becoming the presumed nominee in April, Biden has been showing similar numbers. Following Bernie Sanders’s exit from the race, strong enthusiasm for the Democratic challenger was as low as 24% — the lowest on record for a Democratic presidential candidate.
A new ABC News/Washington Post poll shows that enthusiasm for Biden has improved but remains a significant concern. 48% of his supporters are now reported to be “very enthusiastic” to vote for Joe. However, he’s still trailing Trump — enjoying 65% “high enthusiasm” amongst supporters — by a significant margin.
The President is outperforming his 2016 enthusiasm by 12 points, while Biden’s is only 3 points higher than Clinton’s. Roughly 6 million fewer people tuned in to watch Joe Biden accept the Democratic presidential nomination than Clinton’s speech in 2016.
That’s the problem with running a campaign based on negatives that utterly disregards young voters.
Twenty-four million members of Gen Z will be eligible to vote on November 3 – most of them supported Bernie Sanders in the primaries. Polling has shown that younger voters want an “activist government.”
They are overwhelmingly in favor of Medicare for All, expanded social security, a $15 minimum wage, college tuition forgiveness, legalized marijuana, and taxes on the wealthy.
Joe Biden offers them none of those things (maybe the $15 minimum wage).
While Zoomers prefer the Democratic Party over the GOP, only 53% of this generation’s likely voters have a favorable opinion of the DNC – just 23% of which express “very favorable” views.
Nothing in the history of US elections suggests young voters will flood the polls without being given anything about which to be excited.
Yes, Gen Z is mostly opposed to Donald Trump, but Joe Biden isn’t providing anything demonstrably different.
The DNC Platform Committee recently shot down everything young voters want. Then they scheduled the party’s entire convention around establishment Democrats and “Never Trump” Republicans.
Meanwhile, Democrats like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is immensely popular with young voters, was relegated to only 90 seconds of speaking time.
The DNC has been deliberate and unapologetic in signaling to whom their allegiance lies; Joe Biden’s Clinton-esque enthusiasm margin reflects that perfectly.
Catering to Moderate Republicans, Ignoring “the Left”
Corporations and the wealthy elite class own US politics. The two main parties are divided in such a way as to prevent working-class Americans from banning together and passing legislation that would distribute the nation’s wealth more evenly amongst its citizenry.
Near the center of the political spectrum (center-right, really), you have neoliberal, centrist Democrats and moderate Republicans. Both of these groups legislate on behalf of corporations almost exclusively. Their base of support comes mostly from affluent metropolitan and suburban areas.
For years, they’ve used a handful of hot-button social issues to draw a bit of contrast, lest the populous realize the country is run by what’s essentially one big center-right party.
To the left of centrist Democrats are your Bernie Sanders’s of the world. Progressives, Democratic Socialists, regular socialists, communists, and the like. In America, the Democratic Socialists have been picking up steam ever since Barack Obama left office having fulfilled none of the promises younger generations expected of him.
The leftist wing of the Democratic party primarily consists of poor and working-class voters with liberal social values. They come from ethnically diverse backgrounds and trend younger.
To the right of the moderate Republicans are libertarians and the new Trumpist wing of the GOP. Once again, this group of political “outsiders” is mostly rural and poor or working-class. There’s also a healthy dose of economically liberal, social conservatives disenfranchised with establishment politicians from both parties in this group.
For decades, the “name of the game” in Washington has been to keep the workers divided.
Social issues are typically the means with which to accomplish this goal. Whether it’s gay marriage 20 years ago or trans issues and “defunding the police” today, these cultural topics drive a wedge between the voter blocs who share a class interest.
Since Bill Clinton in 1992, Democrats have won by continually moving further right on economic issues and crushing the party’s left-wing. Then, the progressives have a choice to either stay home, vote Democrat, or support whatever new, existential, “worst threat to the country ever” is representing the Republicans.
The GOP holds their own working-class in place by pointing to the “destruction of family values” and “social degeneracy” being peddled by the Democrats.
Trump’s win was the first time in ages the establishment Democrats and Republicans have lost control of the country. Unexpectedly, Independents and Sanders supporters tired of the usual centrist march towards oligarchy abandoned the DNC to support a political outsider.
Now, the political establishment and their army of suburbanites are striking back. Since 2018, moderates from both parties have put their social differences aside to eliminate the threat of Trump.
Joe Biden won the Democratic primaries when hordes of Republicans – without a primary challenger for the President to occupy their time – showed up to eliminate Bernie Sanders and nominate the most conservative Democrat available.
The Democratic Primary has been cultivating this relationship ever since. However, they do so at the expense of their most enthusiastic bloc of voters. Each overture to the Republicans sacrifices the support of progressives. Meanwhile, recent congressional primaries show that the left is sick of the establishment wing of the party.
If Joe Biden loses in November, it will be because the party built its platform around attracting the wrong crowd.
As the economy worsens and wealth inequality widens, Americans’ voices are growing louder in support of stronger social programs and workers’ rights.
Trump may not be offering those things, but neither is Biden.
The Democrats are relying on an increasingly large and active portion of their party to visit the polls this Fall motivated by nothing but their dislike for the incumbent.
It didn’t work in 2016 – maybe it will this time?
Attacking Trump in the Wrong Ways
The problem with never accepting the realities of their humiliating 2016 defeat – blaming the outcome on bigotry and Russians instead – is now, the Democrats are stuck fighting Trump with several ineffective strategies.
At the Democratic convention, party officials thought it wise to roll out one 90s-era Republican after another in a misguided effort to show voters:
“See? Even his own party hates him!”
But Donald Trump didn’t win in 2016 by being the most beloved figure among GOP loyalists; he did the opposite.
His popularity was built upon the foundation laid by the Tea Party before him – the campaign took on an anti-establishment appeal.
Yet, the Democrats continue to flaunt all their Bush-era Republican endorsements. The same goes for their cozy relationship with The Lincoln Project – a collection of sorry GOP hacks that expertly capitalize on liberals’ anti-Trump hysteria to enrich themselves and revive their careers.
Rather than proudly highlighting every prominent figurehead and deep state official who comes out against Trump, they should do the opposite.
After running on “draining the swamp” in 2016, how many populist measures did he actually enact? How many manufacturing jobs returned to our shores?
Shine a light on those types of failures and his tax cuts for the wealthy, and you can Trump him where it hurts!
They also attack him from the wrong side of his biggest strengths, such as foreign policy.
It’s ridiculously unwise to routinely trumpet the opinions of foreign policy hawks who criticize the President for refusing to escalate military interventions against Iran and Venezuela. Or knock him for being too soft on other global superpowers like Russia. People saw Hillary Clinton’s hunger for more war as a massive negative.
Working-class Americans also principally agree with Donald Trump’s trade war against China and his beliefs on immigration.
Before very recently, limiting the influx of illegal immigrants coming across the southern border was considered a leftist position, because they drive down wages for citizens. People want tariffs on Chinese products to encourage “buying American” and to incentivize bringing back manufacturing jobs.
It’s not enough to instinctively react to every position and opinion uttered by the President by taking the opposing view and calling him every “-ist” word imaginable.
There are legitimate, tangible criticisms worth levying. There are numerous campaign promises from 2016 he’s failed to keep.
Attack his relationship with hated neocon figures like Paul Ryan and Mitch McConnell – the very Republicans his initial platform railed against.
Joe Biden already has the affluent suburban liberals and moderate Republican ballots in the bag.
Since the Democrats aren’t going to offer anything material to anti-establishment progressives on the left, you must disrupt Trump’s working-class support.
That can be done by painting Donald Trump an “insider in disguise,” who never delivered on his populist promises and went to war with the wealthy business interests. Not by announcing that President Bush’s intelligence officials – who oversaw one of the worst chapters in US intelligence history – are endorsing Biden.
Democrats are managing to make an anti-establishment outsider candidate out of the sitting President, which feels like it should be impossible!
By offering nothing but empty platitudes about “unity,” calling Trump “unfit for the job” in a million different wordings, and playing up the existential threat he poses to a system that’s already abandoned the vast majority of Americans, the Democratic Party is playing right into the incumbent’s hands once again.
Maybe those same messages play differently when a pandemic and economic depression plague the country – maybe people will gladly take a return to normal, however disenfranchised they may have already been, after four years of 24/7 Trump panic.
But just because the current approach might still work, doesn’t mean there weren’t more effective ways to secure this election – and by a much wider margin.
Trying Not to Overreact to 2016
All of that said…it’s crucial not to overreact to what happened in 2016.
It’s extraordinarily challenging not to after such a monumental upset, but it’s still possible the last election was a fluke. We’re working with a sample size of “one.”
Looking back at FiveThirtyEight’s election model – Silver’s projections may very well have been correct.
Donald Trump had a 29% chance of winning, and the dice rolled his way that time.
Just because they favored Hillary Clinton and she lost doesn’t mean their methodology or prediction is flawed.
Now, the President is looking at another 29% likelihood of victory. Will the probability gods shine down on him once again? Stranger things have happened.
Furthermore, you can’t overstate how different the conditions in which this year’s elections will occur.
Even with all the other similarities, a pandemic and economic turmoil are massive game-changers.
In 2016, a Trump administration was an unknown commodity. Lots of his support came from voters sick of the usual candidates and – as Michael Moore once put it – wanted to “throw a Molotov cocktail at Washington DC” in the form of Donald Trump.
What are the chances he’s lived up to their expectations?
After eight years of Obama in office, in 2016, leftists were as disillusioned with American politics as ever. The great hero of 2008 oversaw enormous corporate bailouts, started more wars, never closed Guantanamo Bay, and was just another corporate Democrat in the vein of Bill Clinton in every way. A chance to shake things up was worth the risk.
Will voters still feel that way?
Some polls suggest Joe Biden’s sleepy promise that “nothing will fundamentally change” is what people want now. They’ve been dragged through four years of nonstop outrage and manufactured scandals. They’ve watched their President tweeting in all caps every day.
Maybe trusting an “outsider” candidate was a one-time thing. Perhaps Americans are willing to accept their incremental exploitation at the hands of the corporate elite if it means the news will go back to normal and stop showing the “orange” guy.
Just because he rose from a similar polling deficit, against a similar opponent, representing the same establishment interests one time doesn’t mean Donald Trump will automatically do so again.
2020 Presidential Election Odds
Sensing the gap narrowing between Joe Biden and Donald Trump and observing the comparisons to 2016, political betting sites have been shifting the odds accordingly. You won’t find Trump at 3-to-1 odds this time!
Most oddsmakers are setting their Trump betting lines between even-money and +115. Biden, who was cruising between –190 and –160 for the past couple of months, is now closer to –135.
If you’re backing Donald Trump, there’s a lot to like about his current situation. Beyond all of the similarities, he’s facing an arguably a weaker opponent – especially during the upcoming debates.
He’s also dealing with multiple crises and must defend an actual resume; he’s lost the benefit of being an unknown commodity.
There’s still some betting value in taking Donald Trump to win the 2020 presidential election, but it’s been decreasing in a hurry. If you’re a fan of reruns that copy every beat of the original – like Hangover 2 – you better make your wagers soon!