It’s the question: Who do you think will win? For me, with some caveats below, almost all signs point to Biden, with a Democratic Senate of at least 52 and a Democratic House plus new seats. One scenario that will not make Democrats feel good is a 2016 repeat where Trump narrowly wins but the Dems pick up seats in the Senate. The Democrats had strong Senate candidate recruitment this cycle so they’re poised to make the most of what looks like a blue year.
Why? In 2016 Trump was elected with 46% of the vote and since then has done very little to expand his base. Happily for the President some of those votes were concentrated in key electoral states and, as everyone knows, it’s electoral votes that matter. So despite four years of grand theorizing about what Trump’s election said about the United States it may well have just been an accident of circumstances – demand for change, unpopular Democratic nominee, enough noise about scandals to sway some undecided voters, and randomness. Hold the election a few days earlier, or later, and you might get a different outcome. In other words, the President hit an electoral gutshot straight. Those hit, but not a lot. Small differences in votes in a few states and we’d be discussing the likelihood of a second Clinton term right now.
Happily for the President’s opponents, the landscape is different in 2020. For starters, President Trump has been historically divisive and unpresidential. His use of Twitter has cheapened the presidency and a president’s words and his disrespect for norms is potentially catastrophic if it can’t be reset by future presidents. And of course there is his serial inability to even try to bind up the nation’s racial divisions but instead to stoke them. So with no big third party spoilers, a 2020 Democratic nominee who not only is a plausible president but is also not as disked as Mrs. Clinton in 2016, things are breaking the Democrat’s way. There is a guessing game about what demographics Trump might make gains with in 2020 but the bigger story, it seems, is groups where he’s shedding support relative to 2016 – college educated voters and older voters for instance.
The President has some accomplishments, in the Middle East and a first step toward long overdue criminal justice reform for example. He inherited a good economy and it got better until the pandemic. In our sector his record is less compelling – especially on higher education – and except at the very margins he allowed four years of neglect of K-12 schools and policy. Thankfully, he left agencies like IES (if he’s ever heard of it) alone to pursue some good work. There is more support for his Title IX sexual assault reforms than you heard on Twitter – especially among professionals close to the problem – but you’d be hard pressed to find a worse advocate than Trump. None of this does an electoral coalition make. Overall the last four years have been mostly missed opportunities. Instead of meaningful tax reform his tax bill was a smash and grab for the wealthy. And on issues like jobs or infrastructure or helping rural America he hasn’t lived up to expectations despite enormous opportunities to help Americans in their lives.
Now, for a second term Trump’s offering no policy agenda – not even a party platform – and that’s a problem for a candidate whose personality and character even many of his supporters find hard to take. And that’s all before the pandemic. Perhaps absent that a Democrat would have still had to wrest the White House from Trump given the power of incumbency but structurally things now favor any competent mainstream Democrat, which Biden certainly is.
The polls reflect this. Polls have been pretty consistent and in the battlegrounds. Trump remains stuck around his 2016 performance and would have to outperform his 2016 underperformance in the polls to win. In other words, the Biden – Trump gap is bigger than the 2016 underpolling in key states. And unlike 2016 polls are more consistent at the national, state, and local levels and states that were lightly polled and surprised are more polled now. What’s more, while the Democrats are a fractious bunch, right now they are united in a desire to see Donald Trump leave the White House in 2021 so a centrist versus left fight hasn’t derailed focus or message. And voters who don’t like either candidate are breaking for Joe Biden, in 2016 they broke for Trump.
So, Trump started from a relatively low level of support and didn’t do the systematic work to change that. In the course of American history it represents an epic missed opportunity. There is a plausible scenario where the President could enjoy 80 percent approval right now and be cruising to reelection but his combination of ignorance, lack of curiosity, lack of empathy, bigotry, vanity, narcissism, serial dishonesty and broad personal defectiveness instead took a country with a lot of problems and fueled by social media made it worse – made us worse. He’s turned the political left into a caricature of itself, shown the Republican party to be invertebrate even in the face of an official who refuses to commit to our most basic and precious norms like the peaceful transfer of power, and left the country a powder keg.
The end result is Biden has a lot of ways to win tomorrow, Trump has a narrow path. Narrow path is not no path as we saw in 2016. But, his chances are nowhere near what they were four years ago despite the advantages of incumbency. If we do wake up Wednesday Biden is not poised to be the 46th president? Five things I think some of all will have seem to have been hidden in plain sight in retrospect:
- It is hard to miss an enthusiasm gap. Trump’s ardent partisans are fired up about him. Biden’s are excited to get rid of Trump, Biden is the means to that end.
- Related, Trump is unpopular but that doesn’t mean people are sold on the Democratic policy platform. Just like many progressive Dems, plenty of Trump voters see this is as a lesser of two bad options election, too.
- It would mean that the “hidden” Trump vote was at least to some extent real and not a marginal issue and all those voters telling pollsters they were voting for Biden but they thought Trump would win were sending a signal about what they were experiencing, not just living a 2016 hangover. (There is also the possibility of a hidden Biden vote and a landslide in the popular vote).
- It would likely mean that we didn’t pay enough attention to how, despite Covid, a lot of Americans do feel better off economically now than four years ago, and not just wealthy Americans.
- Or it might mean another polling error or that the composition of the electorate or composition because of intense voting by mail was not what analysts assumed it would be.
I would suggest that if Trump wins it means the country’s elites and leaders are even more dangerously out of touch with the rest of the country than commonly assumed – to an extent that is a bigger problem than a second Trump term. This would be next level for the old quip about not knowing anyone who voted for Nixon.
Big caveat. In 2016 I visited more than 40 states and you could feel something was afoot in the country when you got out of places like DC, New York, and Caifornia. In 2020 because of Covid I’ve been to less than a dozen states, all but a few east of the Rockies. My gut tells me not to be shocked if Trump wins, but almost nothing in the data or structural factors point that direction. Given how cloistered 2020 has been it feels like flying blind.
Closer to home, a Biden win likely portends a lot of attention to higher education at a key moment for that sector. More of a mixed bag for K-12. Investment and attention to non-academic facets of student’s lives but also intense pressure on accountability and rough going for efforts to empower poor families with educational choice whether through charters or non-public options.
Some things I’m watching: The tax referendums in AZ and CA, there are others, for instance a sin tax one in CO, but AZ and CA seem important signals. Also, affirmative Action in CA, and sex education in Washington – the latter may be a harbinger of a renewed culture war around schools – people love those! Paradoxically, it’s possible Democrats have a big election in key races but progressive priorities on various ballots go down.
The Texas state legislative races are important for that state and also for what they say about urban, suburban, rural politics, which matters to education. There are some state chief races and some governor’s races, few are close. The Peters – James Senate race in Michigan has some longer term implications for education. The Webb – Good House race in Virgina’s 5th is one to watch for a sense of just how far right the Republican Party can go, even in gerrymandered districts, and win and about the saliency of lightning rod social issues.
Standing disclosure and transparency:
I supported and raised money for Biden and Harris in this election. My wife and I also gave money to Senator Mark Warner and Cameron Webb, the congressional candidate in Virginia. But that is neither here nor there, Bellwether is a 501(c)3 and we take the letter and spirit of that seriously. Across our 60 team members you will find ideological diversity – left, right, and center as well as some apolitical types (and of course traditional partisan delineations are sort of meaningless in education – school choice is exhibit A of that craziness). That viewpoint diversity is by design, we think it makes our work better. And our mission is about education and schools, not partisan control of government.