Misreading 2016: Joe Biden's an Overwhelming Favorite Against Donald Trump Even if Things Improve

Trump drew an inside straight in 2016; we should view his 2016 win as an anomaly in a positive year to be a Republican.

With a global pandemic, middling economy and horrendous personal numbers, Donald Trump would lose if the election were tomorrow.

To the chagrin of those that want Trump out of office, the election is still over 100 days away. And to those trying to counteract their mistaken certainty that Hillary Clinton would win the 2016 election, they’re now convinced Trump could turns things around and eek out another electoral college victory.

But that idea—that Trump could win another close election—ignores the truth: it took the perfect set of circumstances for Trump to win a close election in 2016. 2016 is not the story of Trump’s genius campaign. It’s the story of Trump benefiting from an unbelievable set of circumstances. And because those circumstances aren’t going to recreate themselves, Trump should be viewed as the underdog even if the virus and economy recover.

2016 Issue No. 1: Voters thought Hillary Clinton would win and therefore, didn’t feel obligated to vote for her

For decades, one of the best predictors of who would win an election was to ask voters who they thought would win. David Rothschild of Microsoft and Justin Wolfers at Michigan wrote in a 2013 paper that, “The first column of data in Table 1 shows that the winning Presidential candidate was expected to win by a majority of respondents in 12 of the 15 elections, missing Kennedy’s narrow victory in 1960, Reagan’s election in 1980, and G.W. Bush’s controversial win in 2000.”

But there’s a case where that belief—that a candidate will win—can backfire. Mark Warner won the 2014 Virginia Senate race by just a half a percentage point, despite leading by nine points in the final pre-election averages. Although he still won, it was a fairly awful polling miss. Nate Silver of 538 theorized, “So, what explains the result? I don’t know, but I have a theory — one that ties the race together with the ones in New York and Michigan. It’s that some voters who would otherwise be inclined to vote for Warner went for Gillespie because they didn’t think Warner needed their vote.”

Clinton’s 2016 loss fits that mold. CNN’s polling in October of 2016 found that 66% of voters expected Clinton to win. That was a higher expected percentage than Obama received in 2008 against John McCain.

In Clinton’s case, plenty of voters had three thoughts: I dislike Clinton, Trump isn’t qualified to be president and Trump’s not going to win. Per 2016 exit polling, Clinton lost the 18% of voters that disliked her and Trump by 17 points. Despite a majority of voters saying she was qualified to be president, and only 38% of voters saying Trump was qualified, she lost. In fact, Trump won 17% of voters that said he was unqualified to be president.

Joe Biden is in a different place. Biden’s lead is bigger than Clinton’s, but voters aren’t convinced he’ll win. In the most recent YouGov poll from July 5th-7th, only 40% of voters believe Biden will win. While that tops Trump by 1%, it’s a far cry from the 66% that believed Clinton would win 2016. Anecdotally, Tim Alberta wrote about a Michigan party in late June that was attended by 40 people—none of whom were voting for Trump—and, “Not a single person I spoke with at the cookout told me they believed Biden would win.”

The important takeaway is that if voters are still 26% less certain that Biden will win than they were Clinton would win—despite Biden having a larger lead in the RealClearPolitics average today than any candidate has had on any day since their database goes back to 2004—then it seems hard to believe voters will suddenly think Biden is for sure going to win.

A ton of voters just refuse to believe Trump will lose until he’s lost. That matters because we’re unlikely to get the 2016 scenario where a lot of voters expected the unqualified candidate to lose and felt comfortable throwing a protest vote his way or voting for a third-party candidate. Instead, Biden will have plenty of people convinced he’s going to lose, and those folks will not cast their vote for an outcome they dislike but see as improbable.

2016 Issue No. 2: James Comey likely thought Clinton would win, so he released the letter; Biden doesn’t face a similar revelation

Ryan Lizza, then of the New Yorker, wrote on October 30, 2016:

Think of the decision from Comey’s perspective. He could either disclose the new development now and risk being accused of influencing the election, or he could keep quiet; then, when the news of Abedin’s laptop inevitably leaked, he could be accused of caving to Lynch and her staff and keeping the information from voters. If the news leaked after the election and after Hillary Clinton was President, Republicans would turn the non-disclosure into a monumental scandal and allege that Comey played a role in a Lynch-instigated cover-up. If Clinton were President, the ensuing scandal would taint her victory, with Republicans arguing that voters were kept in the dark about a major development in one of the central issues of the campaign.

While Comey’s disclosure created many hours of breathless coverage on Friday and Saturday, the truth is that the new information is not very significant: the F.B.I. will examine some of Huma’s e-mails. So what? Most polls show that voters’ minds are made up about Clinton and the e-mail scandal. A new CBS poll of thirteen battleground states found that for seventy-one per cent of respondents the Comey revelation had no impact on how they would vote. As the Washington Post noted in a report on a new ABC News poll that shows almost two-thirds of voters say the issue will make “no difference” in their vote, the news “may do more to reinforce preferences of voters opposed to Clinton than swing undecided voters.” This isn’t surprising. For most voters, opinions about Trump and Clinton are set in stone. For those still on the fence, shouldn’t we trust them to be sophisticated enough to understand the development even if they don’t have all the information they may want? As a general rule, more information and disclosure about a candidate is always better for voters in a democracy. Besides, news stories that seem potentially game-changing in an election rarely are. They last a few days and then fade. (Remember when the video of Clinton appearing to faint was going to cost her the election?)

It turns out that letter probably tipped a very close election. Nate Silver believes it did:

Clinton’s standing in the polls fell sharply. She’d led Trump by 5.9 percentage points in FiveThirtyEight’s popular vote projection at 12:01 a.m. on Oct. 28. A week later — after polls had time to fully reflect the letter — her lead had declined to 2.9 percentage points. That is to say, there was a shift of about 3 percentage points against Clinton. And it was an especially pernicious shift for Clinton because (at least according to the FiveThirtyEight model) Clinton was underperforming in swing states as compared to the country overall. In the average swing state,3 Clinton’s lead declined from 4.5 percentage points at the start of Oct. 28 to just 1.7 percentage points on Nov. 4. If the polls were off even slightly, Trump could be headed to the White House.

Biden does not face a similar background scandal. Yes, some might counter that Biden has been around Washington for 40 years, but we knew about the Clinton email scandal heading into November. There isn’t a similar scandal the FBI has been investigating with Biden. There’s not a lurking scandal that can suddenly shift Biden’s pull numbers.

2016 Issue No. 3- Making a Candidate as Unpopular as Hillary Clinton is Difficult

Hillary Clinton had a 40% favorability rating and a devastating 56% unfavorability rating in the final RealClearPolitics average on November 7, 2016.

Excluding Trump, no other major party candidate had numbers close to that bad. Romney was at 45% in 2012. John McCain had a +11 split in 2008. Even Barry Goldwater, a man who lost 44 states, managed to have a 47% disapproval rating, per Gallup, in 1964.

To even approach Clinton’s favorability, Biden would need to be 11% more unfavorable in four months. In the RealClearPolitics average on July 12, Clinton was 39-55. She ended up more positive and less negative in their final average. So it’s not like Trump destroyed Clinton over the summer and late in the campaign. She was deeply unpopular in July and deeply unpopular in November.

Clinton was pilloried by the right for decades. Whitewater, Travelgate, Vince Foster, cow futures, Lewinsky, Benghazi, Clinton Cash, emails and paid speeches all were framed as major scandals. The right spent 25 years attacking Clinton. Biden’s been in public for decades, but he’s not been hammered for years. While Trump voters might counter that means he can still be defined because of Hunter Biden or some other issue, it matters that he hasn’t faced a barrage of accusations for decades. Even when it turned out there was nothing there with many/all of Clinton’s scandals, eventually there become so many that it overwhelmed evaluation of her; Biden doesn’t have that same issue.

There’s a bevy of evidence Biden doesn’t motivate opposition like Clinton. Sarah Longwell of the Bulwark has found in her focus groups:

In my focus groups, Biden had consistently outperformed all other Democrats among the female Trump voters who were souring on the president. In hypothetical head-to-head matchups, almost none of the women would take Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren over Trump, but a handful would typically (if not enthusiastically) pick Biden over Trump.

It cannot be overstated how much better of a candidate Joe Biden is for attracting disaffected Republican voters—especially women—than any of the other Democrats who ran this cycle.

2016 Issue No. 4- Holding the White House for Three Terms

2016 was a good year to be a generic Republican. Democrats held the White House for the previous two terms, and Clinton attempted to be the second candidate to extend their party’s presidential streak to three terms since George H.W. Bush in 1992.

Even in good times, three straight party presidential wins are tough. In 2000, Al Gore—running on a booming economy and a peaceful end to the 20th Century—lost a close race to Bush (and even if you credit the popular vote victory, it was narrow). Hubert Humphrey couldn’t win for Democrats in 1968. Richard Nixon lost in a fine environment for Republicans in 1960. And Franklin Roosevelt faced much greater opposition in 1940 than he had in his 1936 blowout victory over Alf Landon.

Alan Abramowtiz of Emory developed a model that factors in how long a party has held the White House. Based on his model (it also uses the incumbent party’s approval rating and has a newer variable for partisanship), Trump should have won 51.4% of the two-party vote.

Trump did not win 51.4% of the two-party vote. He received 48.9% of the two-party vote. So Trump ran behind his environment, which provides more evidence that a neutral environment goes against him.

Why 2016’s Framing Matters

One popular claim is that “Trump would lose right now, but if things return to how they were before the pandemic, he can win just like he did in 2016.”

But 2016 featured four unique factors that made any Republican a massive favorite. Just like America is currently far from normalcy with the protests, virus and weak economy, 2016 wasn’t a normal election for a Republican.

It’s a giant mistake to view Trump’s 2016 win as normal. Trump had the best hand imaginable in 2016. He got to run against a historically unpopular Democrat that was seeking a third term for her party. And in a miracle, that unpopular opponent was just unpopular enough that voters were willing to vote for Trump because they thought he had no chance of winning. Even that wouldn’t have been enough though. Had Comey not shared the same belief that Clinton was going to win, he probably would have never released the letter, and Clinton would have won.

Even if the virus goes away, or the economy improves, Trump didn’t prove in 2016 that he could win a neutral election. He proved he could barely manage to win with everything breaking his way. Getting back to normalcy isn’t enough for Trump to win. But that hope—the desperate desire that things can be different than the reality show of the last four years—is enough for him to be a serious underdog regardless of where the virus and economy are on November 3rd.

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