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2016 vs 2020: is this really so different?

It’s starting to feel a little like October 2016. The Democratic candidate for President of the United States is polling ahead. Donald Trump, after month upon month of forceful campaigning, is well behind. Nonetheless, as Americans wake up to the realisation that this highly consequential election is just days away, there’s a simmering feeling that mutely, under the surface, things might be beginning to change. 

The response of virtually everyone, when confronted with the notion that Joe Biden might be on course for victory in this election is, “But…2016!”. Let us be clear; this is a perfectly human response, but it is not a rational one. 

Two things went wrong in 2016 with regard to election forecasting. Firstly, there was an average polling error that underestimated Trump’s vote share by three percent. Admittedly, a frustrating mistake, but given that all polls have a built-in margin of error of two percent, not the story of the century. Secondly, there was an approximate three per cent surge toward Trump in the final days of the campaign, following the FBI’s reopening of the investigation into Hillary Clinton’s emails on 28 October. The reason that Trump only had an approximate 15 percent chance of winning in 2016 was that multiple events would have had to occur simultaneously – i.e. both a polling error AND a significant political event – for him to pull off the unthinkable, and quite simply, they did. 

Joe Biden has an 87 percent chance of winning according to FiveThirtyEight. Whilst Democrats sit anxiously and Republicans sleep easy in the knowledge that all polls are apparently complete fabrications, it must be noted that 2020 is different.

The first distinction to see is the candidates themselves. Joe Biden is no Hillary Clinton; yes, he has significant experience in public office and represents the centrist wing of the party, but crucially, he has not undergone a 25-yearlong sustained character assassination by the right-wing media. People don’t chant “lock him up” or wear T-shirts reading “Trump that b***h”. Very few people adore Biden, but similarly, very few people hate him.

Trump, on the other hand, is a transformed candidate, mostly not by design. In his first run, he was an outsider. He was selling people their dreams, guaranteeing that if they vote for him, the TV-star businessman would save the day by banishing the elitist creatures of the Washington DC swamp to the garbage. In the final 2020 TV debate, Trump – clearly under pressure to upend the race – returned to these familiar lines of attack, referencing Biden’s 47 years in politics as proof that he’s “all talk and no action”. Political pundits were keen to point out that this line of argument doesn’t make sense: Trump has been the president for four years and so is now part of the DC swamp, but political campaigns are not won and lost on logic. 

I’m sure that traditional Republicans who have grown tired of President Trump and his frenzied obsession with Twitter – who might be considering voting for Biden, or a third candidate, or maybe staying home altogether – heard those arguments and were instilled with a warm nostalgia from four years ago. Trump is motivating people to vote, and he’s doing it purposefully. 

Of course, Covid-19 will play a part in voting behaviour, but not necessarily in the way people assume. The question voters will be asking is not whether Trump has performed well in this crisis, because it is evident to all (apart from Trump loyalists) that his failure to act upon scientific advice has cost lives. Rather, they will be weighing up whether Biden would have acted differently, or would do so in the future. If Biden were to view lockdowns favourably, the economy would be further hindered, and more people would be put out of work. With Trump still more trusted on the economy than his opponent, it must be understood that Biden does not ‘own’ the issue of coronavirus in this election.

Over 50 million people have already cast early ballots by mail, so election night will be different. This time, it’s possible we won’t be receiving messages just hours after polls close in block capitals from friends asking whether the BBC News Channel has mistakenly been replaced by an old episode of Black Mirror. State races could come down to the wire and potential delays in counting and closely contested results could see us return to the winter of 2000, when George W Bush and Al Gore saw the fate of their efforts in the election decided by the Supreme Court. Joy. 

Some have floated the notion that if he loses, Trump won’t go; that he will literally sit in the Oval Office on inauguration day and insist he remains the president. This is unlikely, not because Donald Trump has a record of respecting norms and traditions, but because once the secret service and court system recognise a new president has been elected, by law he becomes an orange man sitting in a building without presidential protection. He would be forcibly removed. The question really isn’t whether he will go, but rather will he concede? Will he spend his life saying the election was stolen from him by Covid or CNN or Dr Fauci? Perhaps. 

Donald Trump pulled off a political miracle in 2016, but by nature miracles don’t  happen twice in a row. The final days will, I imagine, see a concerted effort by Trump’s team to flood the system with noise about every issue possible. Why? Because when people are confused, they get angry, and when they’re angry, they vote. 

On the other hand, if Joe Biden wins this race, he will have done so because of the very nature of this tactic. After four years of drama, toxicity, and childish infighting on all sides, the American people might be about to vote for one very peculiar notion: to Make Politics Boring Again.  

Image Credits: Joe Biden via Wikimedia Commons