Right now, the polls show Trump behind by double digit figures. His approval ratings, now hovering around 40%, are lower than they have been since December 2017 after passage of the so-called “tax-reform” bill when they dropped to a record low of 35%. Overall, support for Trump has declined substantially even among a number of key states that voted for him in 2016. From numbers like this, it would be easy to predict a Democratic landslide in the electoral college. But beware of overconfidence. Biden’s win is anything but guaranteed and there are several pitfalls along the way between now and November 3.
First, bear in mind that at this time in 2016, Hillary Clinton led Trump by 5 points in the polls1 and continued to lead right up to the election – and lost the election in the electoral college while winning the popular vote. Some people claim that because the electoral college favors rural states, Democrats must win the popular vote by nearly 10 percentage points.
Second, American voters tend to vote along party lines. In the U.S., voters are nearly equally split between the two major parties with 31% claiming to be Democrats and 30% claiming to be Republicans while 36% claim to be independent and 3% claim other party affiliations. Among independents, Democrats lead Republicans by roughly 46% to 35% while the remaining 19% claim to have no preference. If we include the leaners in the party affiliation, Democrats would lead Republicans 48% to 43%2 giving Democrats an edge of 5 percentage points which, depending on other factors, may not be large enough to overcome the electoral college bias.
Third, the largest block of voters in the U.S. are the non-voters. They make up about 60% of the voting eligible population and seldom or never vote. A recent poll among non-voters indicated that most were simply disinterested or believed their vote didn’t count. Those who expressed some interest tended to favor Democrats by a very small margin so that an increase in voter turnout of the non-voters could go either way depending on many factors. However, given their history, it is not likely that a large number of non-voters will make it to the polls.
Fourth, Republicans have trifectas3 in 22 states and control the states’ legislatures in 29 states. While gerrymandering is not a factor in presidential elections4, party control of the state determines who manages the states’ election boards who, in turn decide on voter registration policies, voting locations and hours of operation, election officer training, ballot handling, tallying and accounting procedures, absentee voting periods and procedures, and many other policies. In particular, if the pandemic continues into November and there are not enough volunteer election officers due to illness or fear of infection, these officials will determine which polling stations remain open and which will be closed. This could result in some voters having to travel to inconvenient locations and waiting in long lines to vote. By selectively closing polling stations, politically appointed election officials could easily bias the election in their party’s favor. As we have seen in the past, election officials can be very instrumental in determining the outcome of presidential elections5.
Fifth, Trump has a tremendous advantage in campaigning for re-election. As president, he has free access to all media and can even name the date, time and location for his press releases (which he uses mostly for political campaigning), and he can travel anywhere (in luxury) at public expense. As president, he has everybody’s undivided attention.
In addition, there are several intangible factors that are hard to predict just how they will affect the election.
- Public confidence in our election system is being undermined.
- President’s constant claims of fraudulent voting
- President’s opposition to mail in or alternative voting during the pandemic
- President’s support of voter suppression
- Personality factors:
- Trump is clearly a charismatic with a strong following
- There are very strong anti-Trump sentiments
- Biden is not inspiring and expresses little or no vision for the future
- COVID-19 factors:
- Number and locations of poll closures due to election officer illness or reluctance to volunteer
- Poor voter turnout due to illness, fear of contagion, long lines due to poll closures
All that we can conclude from this is that Democrats have a small advantage over Republicans in terms of voter preference. If all other things were equal, this would assure the Democrats win. However, all other things are not equal so that small advantage is not very comforting. What I fear most of all is that those who want to see Trump defeated will look at the polls and become so confident that they forego voting if doing so appears too inconvenient. Over confidence in winning is the surest way to defeat as any sports team coach will tell you.
1 Many people said “it was Clinton’s election to lose and she succeeded in losing it”.
2 With the remainder having no preference or being affiliated with other parties.
3 Control over the governorship and both houses of the state’s legislature.
4 Gerrymandering only affects the selection of U.S. Representatives and state legislators.
5 Witness the Florida presidential election in 2000 that decided the vote in favor of George W. Bush.