As the US coronavirus death toll soared in July and the nation’s open wounds on race gushed in mass riots, the Cheshire-cat grin was finally slipping from the faces of the GOP. Trump’s poll numbers were free-falling nationwide, to use the White House resident’s own vernacular, like nothing we had ever seen. The Cook Political Report had Biden on 308 electoral college votes versus Trump’s 187 and rumours of a landslide victory for the former VP were beginning to formulate in the minds of the more optimistic Democrat strategists. But we are no longer in July. The presidential election is less than 60 days away and those who want Trump out of office in 2021 should not be getting excited. While it is still fair to say that Trump is playing catch-up, the fact remains that the ground he lost since the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic can be made up before November. Here’s why the election should still be considered a toss-up.
Hillary Clinton’s campaign – one of the worst strategic endeavours in American electoral history – famously shot themselves in the foot when they failed to engage with the Midwestern voter. Obama’s comfortable victories of 2008 and 2012 in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin meant that Clinton’s campaign team ultimately took the Midwest for granted: the former Secretary for State did not even step foot in the dairy state… an arrogance that would make even the fattest cats of the GOP blush.
The success of Obama, who managed to appeal to independents and the morally-enigmatic ‘moderate’ voter, obscured the far more nuanced voting history of the Midwestern states. While having elected a Democrat seven out of the last eight elections, the numbers are far tighter than this misleading statistic. Aside from Obama, presidential candidates since 2000 have only ever won the state of Wisconsin by less than a percentage point – you would have to go back to Bill Clinton’s 1996 victory to find a double digit win here.
So which candidate should feel better about the Midwestern swing states as things stand today? While trends will continue to oscillate until November 3rd, the Midwest can perhaps offer the Biden campaign something in the way of hope. 270towin, which collates polling data to produce a median nationwide prediction, has both Wisconsin and Pennsylvania as leaning towards Biden. Crucially for the Democrats, Biden is outpolling Trump with senior, white voters who rejected Hillary Clinton in 2016. Trump is already countering Biden’s massive advertising campaign in these states with millions of dollars worth of ads (money, after all, makes democracy go round) and has already begun dishing out stanzas of fear-inciting rhetoric to try and coax the older white voter back into his camp. While polls do not suggest his attempts to link Biden to the protests in Kenosha are bearing fruit, only time will tell if feelings of white ‘vulnerability’ will draw this group of voters back to the Trump camp.
The Achilles heel of the Trump administration seems to be white voters in general: ironic if you consider the white supremacy that drips from his varicose veins, inevitable if you remember the high ceiling of white support that voted him into power in 2016. Trump’s once infallible popularity among non-college educated white voters (when did you last hear a Republican endorsing free education?) has declined since the last election. In an unexpected twist of fate, their poor economic prospects were not solved by banning Muslims and locking migrant children in cages. In states like the Midwest, this will hurt Trump unless he can claw back support from this demographic. As Drew Savicki points out for 270towin, Trump’s decreased support from both non-college educated and college-educated white voters in small towns means the 2020 battle for the Midwest will largely play out in the more affluent suburbs.
The Latino vote
As much as American liberals love to think that Trump’s anti-Mexican rhetoric means no Latino will ever vote Republican again, this has never been the case. In 2016, Trump secured 28% of the Latino vote and recent nationwide polls has the current White House resident with an increased Latino vote share of 33% (apparently El Paso never happened). This is a problem for Biden, who failed miserably in getting Latino voters to rally behind him during the primaries, while his rival Bernie Sanders lapped up half of the Latino Democratic vote (yes, there are Latinos who don’t mind socialism).
Biden’s Latino problem may not sound dramatic when the alternative is Trump – but as both 2016 and current polls show us, this could cost him dearly in states with a high Latino population. Take Florida – the Cher of swing states. So unpredictable is the Florida vote, that even The Cook Political Report had to revise its audacious forecast for Florida to lean Democrat down to the more familiar ‘Toss-Up’ category. And it is not just nail-biting, sweat-inducing swing states like Florida that could become problematic for Biden if he fails to increase his Latino vote share. While much focus is given to the swing states snatched by Trump in 2016, states Hillary Clinton barely won like Nevada are worth a moment’s thought. Nevada – once considered ‘Likely Democrat’ – has now been downgraded (or upgraded if you’re into reelecting a white supremacist) to ‘Lean Democrat’ and will realistically be a tightly-contested state. With Latinos making up nearly a third of the state’s population, Biden’s chances of building on as opposed to squandering Clinton’s vote share will partly rely on his ability to galvanise their vote. As things stand and given his performance historically with Latino voters, a last-minute surge looks unlikely – but can the former VP increase his miserly share at all? The Trump campaign will be feeling cautiously confident that he cannot.
And then – the final meander of this year’s labyrinth – there is COVID-19 to consider. Despite the stream of propaganda from Kim Jong-Trump, no one really knows how a pandemic will ultimately affect the vote in November. At least 84% of American voters will be able to cast their vote using absentee ballots and the process has already begun across the country. Whether this will facilitate an increasingly pro-Biden senior white vote to turn out, or instead lead to a pro-Trump rural backlash remains to be seen. But something that is already becoming clear is the impact on the Democratic offensive the pandemic has had – and it is not a positive one.
Not only has the pandemic prevented Biden from capitalising on his forte by interacting with the public but it has also thrown a spanner into the cogs of the Democratic campaign machine. Traditional campaign activities such as voter registration drive-ins have been rendered impossible under social distancing. Indeed, many of the groundwork exercises typical of a presidential candidate looking to replace an incumbent leader are not being employed by the Biden team. If there is one thing Democrats (and ‘democrats’) want it is high voter registration. The closely-contested state of Nevada is reporting tight numbers between Republican and Democrat voter registration since March, a result that the Biden campaign would not have expected in an election build-up without COVID. Even if the Democrats have overall leads in battleground states, they are by no means of giant proportions (North Carolina: >50,000, Florida: <60,000, Arizona: >10,000).
Of course, as we saw in 2016, small numbers repeated widely enough can give massive results. However, as is often the case among liberals and the centre-left, there is a tendency today to get lost in the rush of excitement that comes with promising circumstances. And though it is true that Donald J. Trump has never been weaker politically as he heads into November’s election, the idea that four more years of a Trumpian America is just a pipe dream for sexless conservatives is beyond shortsighted. Don’t think I relish in this prospect – I’m just a socialist waiting for the revolution to arrive.