Welcome back to Bournbrook’s regular series on the state of the US presidential race, your impartial guide to the campaign and what you can expect as election date draws near.
Last time, I examined Joe Biden’s polling lead and the unique challenges it poses to Donald Trump’s re-election hopes. With the Democrats still in a very strong position, it is now time to delve deeper into what lies behind Biden’s support and what has changed for Trump since his surprise victory four years ago. But first…
The state of the race
As noted above, Joe Biden’s decisive lead in both national and state polls has held steady over the past three weeks. With a month left until the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee, the party’s presumptive nominee currently leads President Trump by 9.0 per cent in the FiveThirtyEight national polling average.
The president’s position in state polls is only slightly less precarious. In the crucial battlegrounds of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, Biden leads by 9.1, 7.6 and 7.7 percentage points respectively. Assuming Biden is able to hold on to every state won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, those three alone are enough to swing the electoral college. Such grim prospects have led to a major organisational shake-up within the Trump campaign, as the president replaced Brad Parscale, his campaign manager, earlier this week.
What changed (and didn’t) since 2016
Biden has a massive lead, but how does the composition of his current support base differ from Hillary Clinton’s? To better understand Biden’s support, we have to look at demographics and how different sections of the electorate have moved since 2016.
The first thing to note is that these shifts mostly predate Biden’s candidacy. To a large extent, Biden has inherited the national success achieved by Democrats in the 2018 midterm elections, when the party regained control over the House of Representatives. To that effect, what follows is a comparison of exit polling from both 2016 and 2018, as well as recent polling on the 2020 race.
A note on sampling error: unlike exit polls, which are conducted on Election Day and typically involve a very large sample size, polls commissioned during the campaign carry a larger margin of error. While a standard polling margin of error is about +/- 3 per cent, demographic sub-samples can go as high as +/- 8 per cent. Similarly, just as different polls produce different results with regard to overall voting intention, they will also differ in their demographic sub-samples. Keep this in mind. However, the trends noted below are well clear of standard polling error and are depicted in a variety of current polling on the 2020 race.
The gender gap (it’s huge)
Among the most fascinating features of the 2020 election is that, while Biden is ahead of Trump by a large margin overall, the two are virtually tied among male voters. The CNN poll in question has the president leading by 2 points among men, with Biden holding a gargantuan 27 point lead among women. This isn’t entirely new. Clinton won women by 13 points in 2016, who also favoured Democratic congressional candidates by 19 points in 2018.
Safe to say, this is a huge problem for Republicans, not least because women tend to be marginally overrepresented in the American electorate. Part of the issue is Donald Trump himself, who has been plagued by sexual assault allegations ever since he ran for president. Yet the Republican party at large has also consistently made decisions that have alienated women, from picking overwhelmingly male House candidates (there are only 13 Republican women in Congress, compared to 88 Democrats), to favouring hardline positions on abortion, to frequently falling afoul of the #MeToo movement (from Roy Moore to Bret Kavanaugh).
Alongside the party’s historically poor standing among people of colour, this remains a key concern for Republicans going forward. Speaking of which…
The GOP remains, predominantly, the party of white America
Since 2000, Republican presidential candidates have, on average, won 7.6 per cent of the African American vote. This is a shockingly low figure. No other demographic divide in US politics comes even remotely close, yet Republicans have now relied upon white voters for so long that barely anyone seems to raise an eyebrow.
In keeping with this tradition, President Trump won 8 per cent of the African American vote in 2016, which is essentially where polls have him right now. To that effect, his performance here is actually no worse than the average Republican nominee. As far the as Biden camp is concerned, the most important metric with this demographic is not voting intention, but turnout.
Republican standing among Latino voters is better, but still poor. George W. Bush won 44 per cent of the Latino vote in 2004, the party’s best since records began, however, subsequent GOP nominees have hovered around 30 per cent.
Conversely, Republican candidates won an average 57 per cent of the white vote in the last five presidential elections (the same proportion that voted for Trump in 2016). The extraordinary racial divide in US party politics is no accident. As Claire Malone writes (in this highly recommended piece):
‘Since the mid-20th century, the Republican Party has flirted with both the morality of greater racial inclusion and its strategic benefits. But time and again, the party’s appeals to white voters have overridden voices calling for a more racially diverse coalition’
For decades, a consistent Republican lead among white voters has translated into electoral success. However, the party may soon be running out of road. In 2000, white voters represented 81 per cent of the US electorate. In 2016, it was 70 per cent.
Demographic change now threatens to turn historic GOP strongholds into marginal battlegrounds, Arizona and Texas most prominent among them. The prospect of a Democratic Texas is a particular nightmare scenario for Republicans, as the Lone Star State’s 38 electoral college votes are alone enough to flip the 2016 election result.
While this remains an unlikely prospect this year, demographic change may prove decisive should the race tighten. According to Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report, if turnout and voting preferences were to remain the same since 2016, Joe Biden would still flip Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin based on demographic change alone, easily winning the election.
Education, education, education
From America to Eastern Europe, age and education are fast becoming prime indicators of voting behaviour (usually at the expense of social class). In 2016, Clinton had a 10 point lead among graduates, whilst Trump led by 7 points among non-university educated voters. In 2018, the Democratic lead with graduates had extended to 20 points. Crucially, the two parties were now tied among non-graduates, still a majority of the electorate.
So far, Joe Biden has successfully maintained the coalition which won Democrats’ the House in 2018. He has also made substantial inroads into Trump’s core base, non-university educated whites. Trump won this group by some 37 points in 2016, but this lead has shrunk to about 16 points today.
This should not necessarily cause surprise, as Joe Biden’s relative strength with white, non-university educated Americans played a large role in his victory over Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary. It also suggests a dramatic improvement over 2016 with regards to rural voters (who are substantially overrepresented in this group).
While ‘down the ballot’ races will be covered in-depth in a later feature, this does not bode well for dozens of Republicans contesting marginal House seats this November.
What can Donald Trump do?
In 2013, as Mitt Romney’s presidential hopes lay in ruin, the Republican Party published the ‘Growth and Opportunity Project’, a one-hundred-page report into why it lost and how it could hope to win back power. It is a deeply thorough and remarkably frank autopsy. Here are some highlights:
‘The GOP today is a tale of two parties. One of them, the gubernatorial wing, is growing and successful. The other, the federal wing, is increasingly marginalizing itself, and unless changes are made, it will be increasingly difficult for Republicans to win another presidential election in the near future.’
‘Public perception of the Party is at record lows. Young voters are increasingly rolling their eyes at what the Party represents, and many minorities wrongly think that Republicans do not like them or want them in the country.’
‘The perception, revealed in polling, that the GOP does not care about people is doing great harm to the Party and its candidates on the federal level, especially in presidential years.’
‘The nation’s demographic changes add to the urgency of recognizing how precarious our position has become… If we want ethnic minority voters to support Republicans, we have to engage them and show our sincerity.’
‘If Hispanic Americans perceive that a GOP nominee or candidate does not want them in the United States (i.e. self-deportation), they will not pay attention to our next sentence. It does not matter what we say about education, jobs or the economy; if Hispanics think we do not want them here, they will close their ears to our policies.’
The report made a number of recommendations. In short, the Republican Party had to engage seriously with ethnic minorities, women and the youth. That would involve, among other things, moderating the party’s tone on immigration and calling for comprehensive immigration reform, developing a real presence within community organisations, promoting women and younger people to leadership roles and encouraging them to run for office.
Then came 2016. To the initial horror of the GOP establishment, the party nominated Donald Trump, an old, white, immigration hardliner with a string of sexual assault allegations. It then proceeded to win the presidency and both houses of congress anyway.
However, the long term demographic trouble for the GOP has not gone away. In fact, it continues to get worse. Donald Trump faced the most unpopular Democratic nominee in all of recorded history and still lost the popular vote, just as Republicans have lost the popular vote in six out of the last seven presidential elections.
The party’s core base, non-college-educated whites, is shrinking every year. In a few more election cycles, Texas will likely become a real swing state and the Republican advantage in the electoral college will all but disappear.
Is there anything which Donald Trump can do? Unfortunately for Republicans, the kind of measures outlined in the party’s 2013 report would need years to implement. Demographic re-alignment, meanwhile, is a process that takes decades. Trump has months, and perceptions of him are mostly fully formed. That is not to say that he cannot win with his 2016 coalition. This would involve reversing his current polling deficit by at least 5 points, winning over most remaining undecideds and converting at least some current Biden voters. He could moderate his tone. He could encourage Congress to pass a second comprehensive stimulus package. He could replace Mike Pence with a moderate, possibly a woman of colour.
As things stand, however, Joe Biden will most likely win unless at least one of the following three things happens:
- The economy rebounds far better than is currently expected.
- The COVID-19 pandemic largely fades away, possibly with the help of a vaccine.
- The Biden campaign implodes amid a major and as yet unforeseen scandal.
The bad news for Trump is that all three are largely outside of his immediate control.
Photo by Marc Nozzel on Flickr.