The U.S. presidential election: 2020 is not 2016

2020 is different than 2016 in many respects

Published September 16, 2020 5:22AM (EDT)

Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton (Getty Images/ Salon)
Donald Trump, Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton (Getty Images/ Salon)

This article originally appeared on The Globalist.

With the nominating conventions over, the U.S. Presidential Election Race has begun in earnest.

Donald Trump trails in the ten most recent national polls by an average of 7%. Races in some key battleground states are closer, but most show former Vice President Biden in the lead.

If this sounds familiar, it should. Hillary Clinton had similar poll numbers in the run-up to the 2016 election. She lost the general election, nonetheless.

Things are different now

But 2020 is different than 2016 in many respects. The 2020 poll numbers are driven by a wholly different set of factors, which could lead to an entirely different result.

Looking back to 2016, one finds that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by 2,868,686, giving her a 2.2% margin of victory. This was well below the average of national polls leading up to the election.

Importantly, Clinton lost in the two key swing states of Florida and Ohio by margins of 1.2% and 8% respectively.

More importantly, Clinton lost to Trump in three additional swing states that were thought to be in the Clinton column prior to the election. Clinton lost Wisconsin by 22,748 votes or 0.77%. She lost Michigan by 10,704 votes or 0.3%. And she lost Pennsylvania by 44,292 votes or 0.71%.

In these three states, Clinton lost to Trump by a mere 77,420 out of 13,233,376 total votes cast!

There were a number of reasons for this outcome and looking at those reasons provides a strong indication that the outcome will be different in 2020 than it was in 2016.

Joe is not Hillary

First and foremost, Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. While neither Biden nor Clinton are particularly appealing candidates, Biden is seen as far more benign than Hillary. 

In 2016, many swing voters were turned off by Hillary, whose nomination was widely seen as a coronation. 

Her maintaining a private e-mail server when she was U.S. Secretary of State bred mistrust. More importantly, the server issue underscored a sense of entitlement that screamed "the rules don't apply to the Clintons."

Moreover, her accomplishments in the U.S. Senate were nearly non-existent and it was impossible to identify any tangible foreign policy achievements while she was Secretary of State.

Her vote to give President Bush authorization to invade Iraq and her orchestration of the removal of Libyan strongman Muammar Gaddafi were seen as sell-outs to a foreign policy establishment that Trump had already vilified back then as the "deep state."

And her insistence that people should vote for her simply because she is a woman failed to energize the party in any predictable way. If fact, it turned off many voters, including women.

And then Trump — in one of the few truths he actually ran on — was able to tag the Clintons as the chief culprits behind the mass incarceration of African Americans.

Biden gets a pass

While Biden shares some of this baggage, most notably the Iraq War vote and the Clinton crime bill, he is further removed from those realities than Hillary was four years ago. Importantly, there is no real taint of scandal attached to Biden.

In fact, the purported scandal involving Hunter Biden and Ukraine backfired on Trump and nearly got him impeached.

Of course, Joe Biden will be vilified more and more by the Trump campaign as the election approaches. But this vilification is likely to be confined to the inside of the right-wing echo chamber. There, outrage, deceit and conspiracy theories are the coin of the realm.

While this realm accounts for a stunning 40% of the total U.S. electorate, it also has hard limits. This fact significantly restricts the impact of the vilification strategy to the Trump base. It is not sufficient to get the current President re-elected.

The "other": Trump and his scapegoat machinations

A second consideration in this election is the concept of "the other," a classic Trump ploy.

In 2016, "the other" took the form of Mexican immigrants who were entering the United States illegally. In the 2020 election, "the other" is inner city blacks, as well as protesters and rioters organized around the Black Lives Matter movement.

There is a big difference between making illegal immigrants "the other" and putting that tag on African Americans.

Importantly, there was an economic element in making illegal immigrants "the other" in 2016. When combined with jobs flowing overseas, "the other" created a broad-based will to change the status quo. Simply put, "the (Mexican) other" was seen as taking jobs away from both natural born and naturalized American citizens.

While the smugly inept Clinton campaign responded to this by calling it racism, the majority of Americans, including large numbers of Latino immigrants and African Americans, saw the Trump charge as completely rational. 

They could see with their own eyes' jobs being taken away by foreigners, either through illegal immigration or ineffectual trade pacts.

And those who perceived this as an economic and rational threat resented being called racist. It bred a sense of outrage, even among many of those who would ordinarily have supported Clinton.

No ambiguity in Trump's racism

In 2020, there is no ambiguity in the racism embedded in Trump's "other" strategy. And it is not resonating outside a portion of the Trump base. It fails to resonate especially among the college educated and women.

Importantly, Trump's tagging of African Americans as "the (bad) other" creates an imperative among African Americans to vote the President out of office. Anti-Trump sentiment among black voters might bring turnout back to levels seen in 2012.

Furthermore, Trump's race-based rhetoric threatens greater civil strife and does nothing to tamp down the anger that permeates both sides of the conflict. He comes down squarely on one side of the debate, a side that appeals only to a narrow segment of his most ardent supporters.

Many of President Trump's most ardent supporters constitute the dark underbelly of American society. They strike fear into the hearts of more moderate Americans of all political affiliations. 

Trump is no mystery

A third important consideration in the 2020 election is that Donald J. Trump is now an open book. And the book is poorly written.

His antics during the coronavirus briefings provided Americans over a period of six weeks an overwhelming display of incompetence. Trump lacked compassion, made science up as he went along and at times engaged in outright buffoonery.

In 2016, many voters hoped and expected Trump to rise to the occasion of the Presidency. They liked his stances of immigration, trade and foreign entanglements. Accordingly, they were willing to overlook his many flaws and give him a chance to prove himself.

However, he failed miserably in becoming a focused and inclusive President. On Inauguration Day, he laid out a dark and frightening vision of America, describing a carnage that was nowhere in sight. Today, after four years of Trump, American carnage is on display everywhere.

Since the inauguration, Trump has been relentlessly skewered in books and interviews not so much by Democrats or "the left" — but by family members, former staffers, military leaders and legions of government bureaucrats. He has been disparaged on a personal level more than any U.S. President in recent history.

And these disparagements, reported from behind the scenes, ring true to many Americans because they are consistent among all of his detractors and mirror his public behavior.


These three factors constitute major differences between the 2016 and 2020 elections. And they show up in various demographic breakdowns.

Trump continues to lead among male voters, but by a mere 2%. Among women, he is underwater by 16%. This constitutes one of the largest gender gaps in the history of U.S. politics.

Trump's lead among voters with only high school education or less remains strong, at roughly 6%. But the lead quickly evaporates as you go up the educational scale.

Trump is down by 4% among registered voters with some college experience, down 28% among college graduates and down a whopping 40% among voters with post-graduate degrees.

Trump leads among voters over the age of 65 by 6%, but that lead narrows to 2% among voters between 50 and 64 years of age. Below that age level, the President's support literally falls off a cliff. He is down by 22% among the 30 to 49 cohort and down 40% among those registered voters between 18 and 29 years of age.

Turnout matters

Turnout among younger voters will be a key determinant in the 2020 election. In 2016, many younger Democratic voters were apathetic toward a Clinton presidency, having already expressed their preference for Bernie Sanders. 

This is not the case in 2020, when antipathy toward Trump will be the overarching — and unifying — motivational factor.

Among African American voters, Trump barely shows up in the polling, with Biden showing an 82% lead. As with younger voters, turnout among black voters will be a key determinant.

After a summer of Black Lives Matter protests and with Trump coming down squarely on the side of the police brutality, it seems likely that black voters will be motivated to vote. 

In 2016, apathy among a segment of black voters resulted in an 8% decline in turnout compared to the 2012 election. In 2020, that 8% may be the determining factor in Michigan and Wisconsin.

Hispanic voters also come down heavily in favor of Biden, giving Biden a 34% lead. Trump's treatment of illegal immigrants has been seen as unnecessarily cruel and racially tinged. 

His rejection of a path toward citizenship for the DACA recipients is also widely seen as callous and inhuman. These factors could affect the outcome in the key swing state of Florida.


All of this should provide some degree of succor to anxious Democrats, disaffected Republicans and Moderates alike. But beware!

At the risk of trotting out one of the most hackneyed expressions in American politics, anything can happen in the two months until Election Day.

This article is republished from The Globalist: On a daily basis, we rethink globalization and how the world really hangs together.  Thought-provoking cross-country comparisons and insights from contributors from all continents. Exploring what unites and what divides us in politics and culture. Follow us on Facebook and Twitter.  And sign up for our highlights email here.

By Richard Phillips

MORE FROM Richard Phillips

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