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The Definitive Guide to Understanding the 2020 Presidential Election

03 / 11 / 2020

Long before they were ever elected to the presidency, Jimmy Carter, Ronald Reagan, Barack Obama and Donald Trump were once primary candidates who faced enormously skeptical electorates. Even worse for a couple of them, they were viewed as jokes.  

You’ve already been hearing people saying: “The Democrats can’t win!” Or: “There’s no way Joe Biden can beat Donald Trump! Just listen to him!” 

Of course, they don’t know. And I don’t know. Even when I thought Clinton would roll Trump — I didn’t know. No one knows. And that’s why we have elections.

So before we begin here, let us stipulate that no one knows who’s going to win. We’re all just trying to understand the changing dynamics of an unbelievably consequential presidential race.  

One more proviso: If you want to read something that provides a black and white, overly-simplified conclusion as to who’s going to win, this isn’t the place. Here we go deeper and try to understand what could happen — as well as what needs to happen in order to change the drapes in the Oval. 

 DEMOCRATS CLOSE RANKS 

The Democrats, a party that traditionally does not operate with anything close to ruthless efficiency, did something historic in the course of five days. And it happened for a couple of very important reasons that will matter when it comes to the general election. 

After the highest-ranking African-American Democrat in Congress, Majority Whip Jim Clybourn, endorsed Joe Biden, the former Veep crushed the field in South Carolina. Black voters — a pragmatic and critical bloc of the Democratic electorate — were most responsible for this. 

Very few people (no one) thought that the Democrats would consolidate nearly as quickly as they did (if at all). While it’s true that both Klobuchar and Buttigieg realized that the math provided no path, the real reason they jumped out before Super Tuesday was because they recognized that the math STILL EXISTED to allow Biden to win the MAJORITY of the delegates — in order to avoid a divisive floor fight at the Democratic Convention.The same applied to Bloomberg a day after he got crushed on Super Tuesday. And the same applied to Warren a day later. Three of the four immediately endorsed Biden. Warren, whose policy ideas track much closer to Sanders, is still holding her powder. Whatever her ultimate decision, it’s a bit of a no-win at this point. Timing is everything in politics.  

So Why Biden? Why an admittedly gaffe-prone candidate who is perceived as having lost the sharpest edge of his blade? Why a moderate who doesn’t seem to have a clearly defined vision for the future? Why a candidate who, while very likable, isn’t known to elicit a great deal of passion?  

It doesn’t come down to a single answer. It’s a combination of things, due in large part to Donald Trump and his upending of much of the conventional wisdom about presidential politics. Some truisms remain, and I’ll get to them. But there is plenty of old thinking that no longer applies. 

DOES THE DEMOCRATIC BASE NEED TO BE PASSIONATE ABOUT THEIR NOMINEE?  

Historically, selecting a nominee who exhilarates the base is important. Reagan did it. The first Bush did not. Clinton did. W. did. Obama did. In 2016, both bases were revved up. In spite of Hillary Clinton’s baggage and stilted presentation as a candidate on TV (away from campaigns she is humorous and charming), she still annihilated Trump in the popular vote. 

But the Electoral College is what matters, and Trump ran an inside straight of 77,000 votes in three states to win the White House. For Democrats to win it back, they’ll need their base to turn out the same way it did for Barack Obama — twice — before either flipping to Trump, voting third party, or sitting home in ‘16. 

So, you may ask: Doesn’t that require the base to have that same “passion” for their nominee? Not necessarily. Clybourn knew this. So did Klobuchar, Buttigieg and Bloomberg. Each of them wanted Democratic voters to decide that they were the star that would inspire the country. But in a crowded field where Bernie Sanders was holding an outsize proportion of support, none of them were able to break through. South Carolina vaulted Biden into the vaunted status of “consensus candidate.” 

As talented a candidate as Buttigieg was, there’s been only one genuine TV star on the Democratic side of the aisle. Whether or not you like Sanders’s positions, his natural aptitude for speaking in front of live cameras — and live audiences — is unquestionable. It’s one of the reasons why so many young people have flocked to him. Yes, many of these younger voters support his positions on free public college and overhauling the healthcare system. But they also believe him. They know he’s a politician, but they believe he means what he says. He keeps it short and simple and repeats himself over and over again with no apology. Remind you of anyone? 

Yet even though a solid percentage of Democrats support Bernie and Warren’s ideas, which are to the left of the other five candidates who made it to South Carolina, most Democrats prefer a moderate. It’s just a fact. 

Polling across six swing states revealed this months before the Iowa Caucuses: In WI, MI, PA, NC, FL and AZ, a total of 32% of Democrats had favored either Sanders or Warren. That’s a good chunk. But if they’re running against ONE moderate, it ain’t enough. And that’s why the also-rans decided to get out while they knew one moderate could still get the numbers against Bernie. 

By the way, if you’re thirsting for another trenchant example of the enduring strength of the moderates in the Democratic Party, look no further than the primaries in the 2018 midterms. The Sanders-inspired “Justice Democrats” lost nearly every primary where they ran far-left candidates.  

BUT ISN’T BIDEN’S PERCEIVED ABILITY TO BEAT TRUMP A BIG PART OF HIS PRIMARY SUCCESS? 

Yes. Bigly. And while in previous elections this has been a problem for both parties — nominating someone who might seem most competitive on paper but isn’t the heartthrob candidate — 2020 is different. Again, Trump upended the models. 

The turnout thus far in several primary states tells the tale. While the media may be playing a song about Biden not eliciting passion from Democratic voters — that doesn’t mean there hasn’t been enthusiasm. We need look no further than the results and exit polls in Michigan. Biden crushed Sanders 51%-27% in the Wolverine State. This is an astonishing margin when you consider the fact that Sanders beat Hillary Clinton by 1% four years ago. People have been criticizing the “Democratic Establishment” for carrying Biden to his victories. But this is ridiculous; voters are delivering him wins. And in a largely working-class state like Michigan, Biden’s margin is even more telling.  

As well, Michigan primary voters proved that their policy priorities do not matter as much to them as does the eradication of Trump. Exit polling indicates that while voters preferred the Sanders-backed Medicare-For-All plan versus private insurance by 57%-39 — they simultaneously said that Democrats should nominate someone who “can beat Trump” over someone who “agrees with them on the issues” by 69%-29%. Those numbers tell you all you need to know about why Biden is beating Sanders head-to-head in most states. 

But maybe more importantly, the turnout in Michigan’s Democratic Primary increased by 400,000 votes. How’s that for enthusiasm? And here’s the upshot: In 2016 Donald Trump won Michigan by a paltry 11,000 votes! You can do the math. Forget about “passion” for Joe Scranton. What these numbers are screaming is that most Democrats get the stakes this time in a way that their voting did not exhibit four years ago. 

This urgency felt by Democrats is a big advantage that they hold going into the general election. For even if Trump retains every single one of his supporters, how many new voters can he actually gain after the way he’s conducted himself in office? This is an open question, but both logic and conservative-run anti-Trump efforts would suggest that the answer is “not many.” 

DOESN’T THE BIDEN CHOICE CONFIRM THAT DEMOCRATS MUST WIN BACK “SWING VOTERS” IN ORDER TO BEAT TRUMP?  

Not necessarily. The biggest potential irony of the 2020 Election is that the winner may not depend on who the Democrats nominate. I know, crazy. 

Don’t get me wrong: the Democrats had better make every effort to recover Obama voters who flipped to Trump in ’16. This is not an “either/or” strategic question for Biden. But anyone who says that every single voter who switched from Obama to Trump absolutely must return for the Democrats to win the election has not factored in other parts of the equation. 

Donald Trump won 206 counties that Obama had won twice. In the states that really matter, those county counts amounted to three in Pennsylvania, 12 in Michigan and 22 in Wisconsin. But as I wrote about recently, it’s the massive amount of Obama voters who stayed home or voted third party that could have easily swung the election to Clinton (who lost by 11,000 in MI, 30,000 in WI and 45,000 in PA). In WI for example, 230,000 voters who turned out for Obama did not vote for Clinton. 

But ever since Donald Trump was inaugurated, the tables have turned. 

Since 2016, Democrats have won governorships in all three of those states, with PA’s Tom Wolf crushing his GOP opponent by 845,000 votes (again, Trump won the Keystone State by just 45,000). 

Democrats and suburban women voted in massive numbers in Virginia last year, winning both houses of the legislature and the Governor’s Office for the first time in 26 years. And in the Virginia primary on Super Tuesday, voters set a new all-time turnout record for a presidential primary (Biden beat Sanders by 30 points). Former Democratic Governor Terry McAuliffe boiled it down: 

“We have to give tremendous credit to Donald Trump. He has been the single biggest driver to the Democratic Party of Virginia.”

In the 2018 midterms, the Democrats won 41 seats — more than at any time since Watergate. Moreover, the turnout was historic for a midterm election at 51% — the highest since 1914. (Three of those seats that flipped were in VA — despite the state’s congressional districts being gerrymandered by Republicans the same year!) 

The one person who forecast those 41 seats on the nose was Rachel Bitecofer, an analyst who has come into recent renown for relying on and promoting the political concept known as “negative partisanship.” Bitecofer explains it this way: 

“The idea behind negative partisanship is simple, harking back to Henry Adams’s definition of politics as the ‘organization of hatreds.’ The determination to vote out the opposition — and the broader trend of acute polarization within the American political system — has altered virtually every facet of our political life. Negative partisanship is affecting the behavior of voters and reshaping the voting coalitions aligned behind each major party.”

This strength of negative partisanship has been growing for years. In fact, I outlined some of its causes five years ago when I wrote Unlock Congress. 

Donald Trump threaded a needle in 2016 brilliantly. Whether he thought it would actually work is a separate question. But what Trump did was stoke partisanship on the right and the existing hatred for Hillary Clinton to maximize the base vote — while at the same time pulling additional votes from folks who just wanted to blow up the system.

But it was really the high partisan turnout for Trump versus the disappointing stay-at-home Democrats and third party-voting Democrats that decided that trio of swing states. 

The vaunted “independent” voting bloc in presidential elections is an overrated concept. It is often estimated to be a third of the electorate, but when Pew Research asked those folks whether they lean in their voting toward one party or another, the remaining number of true Independents is closer to 7%. Meanwhile, an average of 90% of both Democrats and Republicans vote for their own party’s candidates in most elections. 

The really salient point that Bitcofer makes regarding “Independents” is that they are a fluid concept due to turnout: 

“Much of the movement in vote share between parties from one cycle to the next is thus driven not by the shifting preferences of a relatively fixed pool of voters, but by the movement of voters into and out of the electorate. Of course, this steady churn through cycles of participation also includes the entrances and exits of independents.”

The places where there has been a surge of Independent-leaners away from Trump have been in areas where the demographics favor Democrats (women, Latinos, young voters): the SUBURBS. And Republicans know it. Just four months ago in Texas, a secretly recorded tape was released where the GOP House Speaker Dennis Bonnen said: “With all due respect to Trump, who I love, he’s killing us in urban, suburban districts.”  

But even for true Independents — that 7% — Bitecofer’s research indicates that they, too, are moved by negative partisanship. And there’s no question that this was part of the reason why the Democrats won in many districts where they ran moderate “Blue Dog” candidates. 

The windup is that the suburban areas that have been trending more and more Democratic — and which fueled the party’s epic wins in state elections and the midterms since Trump took office — are highly unlikely to all of a sudden switch and vote for Trump. Many may have stayed home in 2016 due to anti-Hillary sentiment or complacency, but don’t count on it again. If those folks do come out the same way they did int the midterms, Trump is toast. 

Again, this doesn’t mean the Democratic nominee shouldn’t court the real Independents. Every single vote matters and this is about driving a coalition. The same goes for trying to recover Obama-to-Trump voters. Kyle Kondik from the University of Virginia Election Center estimates that if Trump loses even 10 to 20% of his Obama converts, “that’s enough to flip these states where you saw pretty significant overall swings from Obama to Trump.”

But the first priority for Democrats is to turnout all of their own voters. The numbers are on their side. As Trump’s former chief strategist Steve Bannon recently affirmed: “Anger and fear is what gets people to the polls.” 

BUT COULDN’T BIDEN’S GAFFES TURN OFF TOO MANY VOTERS FOR HIM TO WIN? 

I was quoted on this question by a Chicago Tribune columnist the day after Biden told a Michigan construction worker that he was “full of shit” and threatened to slap him. I was asked if Biden’s gaffes and misstatements are going to really matter? 

My answer was no. Are there things that Joe Biden says sometimes that sound silly? Or odd? Or inaccurate? Sure. And he usually comes off far better when he’s reading a speech off a teleprompter. But to be clear, there’s no equivalency between Biden’s handful of misstatements and Trump’s 16,000-plus documented falsehoods in just over 1,100 days.

With that context in mind, it’s hard for me to imagine that Biden’s miscues would constitute a difference-maker for people who are still trying to decide whether they should vote for Trump or someone else. 

Obviously, Trump has set a new low for disgraceful behavior both as a presidential candidate and as president. For those of us who revere presidential history, as well as common decency, it has been an incredibly painful thing to watch. 

That’s not Joe Biden. Not even close. Even most folks who don’t favor Biden acknowledge he’s a good man. Not so for Trump. In fact, millions of Trump voters support him despite the fact that they don’t think he’s a good man. 

Again, negative partisanship will be the most powerful thing in this race. Voters who have strong anti-Trump feelings are not likely to reverse their votes due to uncle Joe’s errors or discomfiting responses. 

WILL ENOUGH SANDERS SUPPORTERS VOTE FOR BIDEN?  

This is the question of this election. In a way, it always has been. Not that Sanders was ever out of the running for the nomination. And it’s still not official. But even before election returns were fully in on the night of March 10th, my social media feeds were blowing up with Sanders folks already vowing not to vote for Biden. 

For Trump-opposers who have not been supporting Bernie Sanders, this is the nightmare scenario. And plenty will tell you that it’s exactly what cost the Democrats the White House in 2016. 

Of course, as we know, losing that election was not due to one, single thing. But as I’ve also outlined, if even a proportion of the Democrats who stayed at home or voted third party had instead voted for Hillary Clinton, this article wouldn’t even exist. 

Exactly how many of those third-party voters and non-voters were originally Sanders supporters? And exactly how many of the Sanders supporters who now vow not to support Biden no matter what really mean it? How many will not vote for Biden and be okay if the result is another four years of Trump? 

No one knows. No one.  

The better question is one that is playing out right now in front of our faces: How will Biden come to an agreement with Sanders on policy that they both can accept? That’s the first and only question that matters right now. 

Assuming that they do strike an ideological deal when it comes to what legislation Biden will support, the question of whether that will make a difference to Bernie’s supporters will not really be known until Nov. 3rd. 

I do believe that if he does indeed lose this primary, Senator Sanders will sing the praises of Joe Biden like no one has even been able to even imagine. Whether he decides to do it next week or at the convention in Milwaukee, the Senator will clear his throat in a way he did not even come close to in 2016. 

Senator Sanders has fought since the early 1960s — for six decades — for a more just and equitable society. Forget the “socialist” label and all the other crap. He has always tried to help people. He also knows how politics works. All too well. As Sanders was getting badly beat on March 10th, one of Bernie’s biggest endorsers, Dr. Abdul El-Sayed, said the following on CNN: 

“He is an exceedingly pragmatic man…He recognizes the existential threat of Donald Trump. He won’t do anything that would limit our ability to take Donald Trump out of office.”

CONCLUSION 

Like him or not, Donald Trump blew up American presidential politics in 2016. The historic 2.8 million votes he lost by in the popular vote should have been humiliating. Instead, due to the Electoral College, he was able to win the White House by a Carpaccio-thin margin of 77,000 votes in three states.  

Setting aside the wisdom of the E.C. in the 21st Century, those same three states loom largest for 2020: MI, PA and WI. And if you look at the totality of recent head-to-head polls, Biden is either winning or competitive in almost all of them. 

That said, there are alternate routes. And with Wisconsin looking to be the most challenging Rust Belt state to recapture, Democrats may need another way. 

If Biden lost Wisconsin but won Arizona, he would still take the Electoral College. 

If he lost all three Midwestern states but flipped AZ, Georgia and North Carolina, he’d still get to 270. If you pair AZ with a Florida wins, it achieves the same result. 

On the outside chance that Texas goes blue, Biden could lose MI, WI, PA, AZ, FL, GA and NC and still win the White House. 

The point here is there are a number of combinations that are possible. Trump has generated a ton of anger in a country that was already pretty irritated with its politicians, political parties and government in general. 

Joe Biden has plenty of critics. Every presidential candidate does. It’s kind of a hard job. But he also has real advantages. 

Biden is extremely experienced. And just as importantly, he’s immensely likable — especially when he gets the chance to speak personally and sincerely. It may be annoying that this matters in electoral politics. But it does.  

When he’s not saying goofy things, he’s fairly uncontroversial. If not a visionary who inspires deep loyalty and excitement — like Bernie — he does represent a more stable leadership quality. 

With a near (or real) bear market, the scare of a novel Coronavirus, collapsing oil prices, continuing dangers of foreign interference in our elections and a Justice Department that a ton of Americans have lost trust in, Vanilla Joe could easily be the flavor that Americans choose in 2020.    

Turnout is the hinge. Vote.