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26 August 2020

US election 2020: Do not be fooled by the polling. Donald Trump could very well win a second term

There are three key reasons to question the new consensus that Joe Biden will become president. 

By Emily Tamkin

Judging by the numbers, Joe Biden is going to win the presidential election on 3 November. He is currently leading Donald Trump in every poll in the country. Among those likely to vote, he is ahead by 52 per cent to 42 per cent. While he did not get the traditional bounce in voting intentions after the Democratic National Convention (DNC) concluded on 20 August, his net favourability (a related but distinct metric) did rise from -3 to +5.

After Trump’s unexpected win in 2016, some might question the accuracy of the polls. But this year they are likely to be more precise, as they should have corrected for the unexpected turnout in the north-eastern rust belt that took the president to victory over Hillary Clinton four years ago.

The headline numbers that are predicting a Biden win aren’t necessarily wrong, but they do not tell the whole story. Three numbers in particular cast November’s election in different lights, and should caution against the now common idea that Biden is set to become president. 

The first number is 50 per cent. That is approximately the share of white voters who say they would vote for Trump if the election were held today. To put it another way, today, with more than 170,000 dead and millions unemployed from a pandemic that Trump has comprehensively mishandled, half of white voters (even when given the option to say “don’t know”) would respond: “Four more years!”

That, too, is the response of 45 per cent of male voters, 42 per cent of Midwestern voters, and 35 per cent of independent voters (not loyal to any one party). All of which is perhaps not surprising, given that some two-thirds of Republicans and a third of independents approve of Trump’s handling of the pandemic. But it is a reminder – particularly for those who, living on the liberal east and west coasts, or outside the US, rarely encounter Trump voters day-to-day – that the president retains an electoral base that will support him no matter what.

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The second figure is 40 per cent. That is the share of young voters in battleground states, such as Michigan and North Carolina, who have yet to be contacted by the Biden campaign. It underscores the concern in parts of the Democratic Party that it is failing to reach out to the progressive left.

Young Democratic voters are typically, though not always, more left-leaning than older Democrats. Some in the progressive wing were enraged by the DNC after their most eloquent tribune, the congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“AOC”), was allocated a mere minute to speak, and at which none of the other prominent left-wing congresswomen – Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib and Ayanna Pressley – spoke at all.

AOC and Bernie Sanders have endorsed Biden, and in swing states 87 per cent of Sanders supporters plan to vote for the Democratic candidate (compared with 4 per cent for Trump). But the question remains: will followers of Sanders and AOC really go and cast their ballots for a centrist candidate like Biden on election day?

“I think the party is assuming the left will turn out,” fretted one senior Democratic Congressional aide I spoke to. “We did that with Hillary and lost.” Biden’s inner team, and the wider campaign, cannot afford to assume things will be different this time. “The party needs to be doing a lot more than it’s doing” to win those voters, the aide said. “I’m not confident at all.”

The last, and most important, number is one million. That is roughly how many people voted by mail in Georgia’s presidential primary this past June. By contrast, in 2016 the number was 36,000. Millions more ballots this year are expected to be submitted by mail. Printers are already warning about what will happen if demand for ballots exceeds the amount requested by local election officials: voters could be left without their ballot papers. Whether those people would then physically go to the polls during a pandemic is unclear.

“Are pollsters asking them, ‘Are you willing to wait in line for six hours?’” one former Capitol Hill staffer wondered. “I’m afraid that when a lot of voters realise how the lack of poll workers will dramatically increase their wait times to vote, they’ll just say, ‘Screw this.’”

Donald Trump, who himself votes by mail, has already tried to delegitimise postal ballots, citing baseless concerns about fraud. In a bid to prevent universal mail-in voting (where ballots are automatically mailed to voters), he wants to fend off plans to provide extra funding for the post office.

There are worries about a shortage of poll station workers, many of whom are older and so more likely to stay at home. Trump has pledged to deploy law enforcement officials to guard polling stations, which could keep some voters away. Democrats also fear that hate groups will try to intimidate black and brown voters on election day. “There’s ill will here that I don’t think ever existed before,” the Democratic strategist Mustafa Tameez told me. “We’ve never had an environment where you have an incumbent and allies who are actually trying to undermine the electoral process.”

None of these factors means that Biden will lose. The election is still 70 days away. As another Democratic strategist put to me: “Polls are irrelevant to Biden’s campaign. They will keep campaigning like it’s a dead heat until 3 November.”

But it does mean that the US is in unfamiliar territory. We have a president for whom part of the electorate will apparently vote regardless; we have disgruntled young and progressive voters who may not vote; we have a pandemic that makes it complicated for Americans to cast their ballots; and a president determined to stop as many as possible from doing so by mail. Add all this together, and it could yet amount to a winning combination for Trump. 

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