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10 September 2020

US presidential election 2020: Can Donald Trump cling on to his base?

To win re-election, the US president needs to unite his “red wall” core vote, while sowing doubt among Joe Biden’s.

By Ben Walker

Donald Trump is partial to military displays. In 2019 he succeeded in getting US army tanks to line the streets of Washington, DC for the 4 July festivities. And now his success or failure in the 2020 race for the White House is likely to depend on defending his metaphorical “red wall”: states that Republicans won from the Democrats in 2016 and which now comprise their most valuable core vote.

Like any conqueror, Trump has sought to remake the political map in his own image. Virginia and Ohio, once front-line states for any presidential contender, now sit as comfortably Democrat and Republican respectively – one turned off by Trumpian rhetoric, one moulded by it. The red wall emerged from this reshaping in 2016 – a result that took most of Hillary Clinton’s strategists completely by surprise.

Galvanised by his party’s national convention last month, Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden is throwing all his weight into tearing that wall down. His chances look strong both in the polling and our forecast, which puts the Democratic candidate in good shape to regain much of what was lost. 

But we are in a fast-changing environment. At the close of the Democratic convention, the New Statesman’s election model gave Trump only a 13 per cent chance of retaining control of the White House. In July, Biden was ahead in polls for Ohio and Iowa, and pipping Trump for first in Texas. At the time of writing, these three states have returned to the Trump column, and the president’s chances of winning re-election stand at near 19 per cent – the highest our modelling has seen thus far.

[See also: Will Donald Trump or Joe Biden win?]

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A Trump victory still remains improbable. It would depend on a campaign in which he can both rally his core and sow doubt among his challenger’s vital demographics. He’ll need to do both these things and ensure the media coverage campaign is fought on the issues on which he is most competitive: the economy, national security and immigration.

This latter tactic, of dominating the airwaves with favourable issues was employed to great effect by the UK’s Vote Leave campaign in 2016. It was only in the final few weeks before the EU referendum that Vote Leave went all-out on immigration, a contentious topic that galvanised many key working-class voters to participate on 23 June.

There aren’t that many routes to a Trump victory, but it’s clear from the Republican National Convention that the incumbent has sensed an opportunity. As Covid-19 becomes less of a talking point both in the US media and among voters, he is aiming to fill that void on his terms. With that in mind, it makes sense that his acolytes are repeating word-for-word the very messages and slogans employed in 2016: “make America great again – again”. 

The Trump campaign is also most comfortable when on the offensive. The president is fighting the election as if he is still the challenger to the status quo. This tactic was vital to his win against Hillary Clinton, where her insider experience proved her greatest weakness. But will this strategy be as potent now as it was then?

Disappointingly, the answer isn’t all that clear. There are a number of challenges in this election that Trump has to overcome, as well as one or two factors working in his favour. 

First, Trump’s base is shrinking. As a proportion of the American electorate, non-college-educated whites – the base most motivated and enthused by Trumpian talking points – is down on 2016. Come November, their share of the US electorate is projected to have fallen from 44 per cent to less than 42 per cent.

In terms of politically significant demographic groups it is minorities, and particularly Hispanics, who are growing in numbers, especially in Nevada, Arizona and Texas.

Trump’s base is shrinking
Non-college educated whites expected to make up a smaller share of American voters than in 2016

Another factor that makes this presidential race seem different to 2016 is that third-party candidates aren’t polling as well. For all the qualities of Jo Jorgensen and Howie Hawkins, the Libertarian and Green candidates respectively, they are in a far worse position than their 2016 equivalents Gary Johnson and Jill Stein were at this point in the race. Exit polls found third-party voters, if faced with the choice of only Clinton or Trump, more often than not plumped for Clinton. In Michigan, had third-party voters opted for one of the two main candidates, Clinton would have won the state with a 4 percentage point lead.

The demographic changes and third-rate campaigns from the third parties are not significant enough to cost Trump victory on their own, but they make it harder. An ideal Republican candidate in these circumstances would hope to expand his or her appeal to the growing demographic blocs – be they minorities or those with a college education. Such a tactic is unlikely to be profitable for Trump, who has abysmal approval ratings with these groups. As such, he is instead trying to rally his core vote, squeezing Democratic voters as a proportion of the voting population by pushing up turnout among his base.

And, with two months to go, we have enough relatively reliable polling to assess whether that strategy is working.

In Arizona, a recent Fox News survey has Biden extending his lead. Trump remains ahead with non-college-educated whites, but to a much smaller extent than in 2016.

In Minnesota, a PPP survey has Biden upping Democratic support among non-college-educated voters by 6 percentage points on 2016, suggesting that part of the problem with the Republican’s “rally the base” strategy is that Trump’s core audience seems better disposed towards Biden than it was towards Clinton.

Look east to Pennsylvania and a Monmouth poll offers a more nuanced view. Despite giving Biden a 4-point lead in the state, it was much tighter than previous polls in the series. Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute, said in his press release the election is a “game of inches”. The Trump campaign “is looking to peel off a little bit of Biden support here and a little bit there”. “It may be working,” he added.

It is important to note that the Monmouth survey was conducted immediately after the Republican convention, when media coverage was focused on the president and the Trumpian content of that event. Close analysis of the poll shows that when compared to 2016, people of colour are less sure about their vote, with the number of men committed to Trump near unchanged. 

Pennsylvania voting intention, demographic breakdowns
Uncertainty grows among non-college educated whites and people of colour

Trump was still down, as elsewhere, among non-college-educated whites. But what is especially interesting is that the gains for Biden in this particular survey are not of the same magnitude to the losses for Trump, suggesting Trump voters now unsure about their president are also unsure about shifting to Biden.

These data points should encourage a pause for thought in both camps. Trump has the task of shoring up his base and demoralising Biden’s, and on one of those he’s failing, but on another he’s, at least partially, succeeding. 

And not only that, but demographic change isn’t all bad for Trump.

The battleground state of Florida boasts a sizeable and growing share of Hispanics. But that includes a significant number of self-identifying Cuban Americans, a body who are, on average, more likely to be socially conservative than most Latino voters. A recent poll of Floridian Hispanics has borne out that inclination, where though the poll gives Biden a lead, it does so by a margin much smaller than what Clinton secured in 2016.

There are multiple explanations for this narrowing among Florida’s Hispanic population, but one sticks out more than most: Biden.

[See also: How Joe Biden could still lose the US presidential election]

The Democratic nominee has spent much of the summer appeasing his progressive base, and it appears the wider American public have noticed. A Morning Consult survey reports public perceptions of Biden are significantly different to the moderate and compromising style he is considered to have by those in DC. Voters now rate him as more liberal than ever before, even more so than Clinton. How this will play with moderate black voters elsewhere in getting out the vote is yet to be seen.

In the red wall states, be it Florida or Pennsylvania, we see two candidates who are bullish about their chances (whether based on unrealistic hopes or polling reality), but facing significant stumbling blocks. Biden’s strategy in appeasing and exciting his base while converting non-college-educated whites is working; but his shift to a more progressive platform will risk alienating those of a more conservative bent, be they middle-ground moderates or conservatives with minority backgrounds, of which there are many. The president’s strategy, meanwhile, of dividing and ruling, of energising his base while creating doubt among those unsure about Biden, is risky and requires his core to stay loyal.

In truth though, there may be no other strategy for Trump to pursue. So far, Biden’s base has proven more enthusiastic than Clinton’s, and he is also more attractive to non-college-educated white voters.

The race is tighter than it was a month ago, and may tighten yet still. But there are good reasons to think, 50 days out from the election, that Donald Trump’s red wall will fall this November.

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