Where Are We?

In 2016, I got it wrong. I was convinced Clinton would win. Her losing forced on some needed humility about my perspective on politics. Now, I’m routinely accused of saying Trump will lose or that I have betrayed my values by saying I’d vote for the guy. There’s not really any winning or even fun to be had by doing what I perceive as calling balls and strikes. But I want to do that anyway and give you my honest and candid take on all of this.

In 2016, I relied mostly on myself to get a sense of things. Over the past few years, I’ve spent a lot more time talking to other people actively involved in campaigns from the presidential level to state races to help shape my view of the race and where things stand. I talk to more Republicans than Democrats, but I try to talk across the aisle.

Based on these conversations, I think there is a lot of muddiness and there are a lot of unknowns, but also we can paint a bit of a picture of the race to give us a sense of it.

For example, it is not really disputed at this point that the President has higher enthusiasm than Joe Biden. The President’s voters are more fired up. You don’t see Biden’s team doing boat parades.

The President’s team is also doing door to door where Biden’s team is not, though in some states I am told there has been a fall off in volunteers over the past month in both door to door efforts and phone banking. But they’re still doing it.

At the same time, women, including registered Republican women and some who voted for Trump in 2016, have turned more antagonistic to the President over the course of just this year and there is some evidence they are turning against the GOP as a whole.

Concurrently, the President’s message has found a home in the Hispanic community at strengths no Republican has seen. The message has penetrated in ways other Republicans have failed. Likewise, a portion of black male voters are connecting to the President’s message.

While that is happening, senior citizens are drifting away from the President, particularly in the north. Additionally, voters who voted for Obama then Trump appear to be going to Biden now.

Lastly, Democrats are out fielding Republican absentee ballots this time, but that may be because of a pro-active approach to avoiding in person voting on Election Day due to the virus and not a surge of voter enthusiasm.

All of this raises important questions for the state of play.

First, do the gains from some of the new groups of voters offset the further drift of women, seniors, and Obama-Trump voters?

Second, with no major third party or independent candidates like Gary Johnson, Jill Stein, and Evan McMullin, where do the voters who voted for them go? I would think most would not go to Trump, but do they go to Biden?

Third, Trump won with 70,000 votes spread across Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all three of which drifted decisively to the left in 2018 with near presidential level turnout. Is the President able to offset, gain, or does he lose those votes?

Fourth, are Trump voters not being picked up in the polling? Perhaps, but given how enthusiastic the President’s supporters are, doesn’t that suggest the “shy Trump voter” phenomenon is now overstated?

I understand why President Trump’s supporters are confident he will win now. People like me were wrong in 2016; they have internalized an epistemological belief that polls are wrong; and there is actually a lot of evidence that many Trump supporters are in as much of a bubble as anti-Trump voters are in terms of media outlets, social media, etc.

The polling could be wrong. There’s a lot we don’t know. But there is also a growing sense among Republican strategists on the ground that something has shifted in Biden’s direction. That’s not to say it cannot shift back.

My sense from all the conversations and data is that Biden is ahead, but it is no sure thing and the race is not over. We’ll know in less than a month. I very much don’t think confidence is warranted on either side right now.

Lastly, anecdote is not data but enough anecdotes over time do shape the data and Republican voters shouldn’t be so dismissive of GOP strategists’ warning that something is happening. Yes, yes, we all got 2016 wrong, but 2018 went almost exactly as the polling and strategists said it would.

The question is whether the mistakes of 2016 were corrected, or did people just get lucky in 2018 relying on the historic data of off year elections? I suspect it was a mixture of both.