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Sunday, May 26, 2024

The 2020 Election is closer than you think

 Polls show a commanding lead for Biden, but other trends point to a repeat of 2016

Nov. 3. is four days away and millions of Americans have already cast their vote for the next president of the U.S. But even with non-stop media coverage, many are left wondering just who has the advantage going into Election Day. Lucky for us, we have years of data available to reveal what trends might define 2020. 

This race is closer than you might think. Here’s what we know so far:

President Donald Trump is gaining with voters of color but losing college-educated white voters.

In 2016, Trump rewrote the Republican path to the White House by winning a shockingly disproportionate amount of non-college educated white voters. The general liberal consensus was that Trumpism served as a sort of proxy for white identity politics, culminating in a grand “whitelash” that acted as the dying, final resistance to a rapidly diversifying America. Like Ruy Teixeira before them, commentators have routinely followed up this argument by stating that four more years of demographic change would be enough to prevent another Republican victory in 2020. 

Now that theory is under fire. 

As the Republican Party (GOP) hemorrhages support from college-educated white voters, both suburban and urban, the Trump campaign appears to be making in-roads among minority voters. Polling consistently finds Trump hovering in the mid to low 30s among Hispanic voters, with some polls recording his support as high as 38%. This compares to exit polling in 2016 which found that just 28% of Hispanics voted for the New York businessman. Hispanic support for the president is also split along stark age and gender lines, with young Hispanic men more likely to favor President Trump than young Hispanic women.

The president’s support among Hispanic voters is likely due in part to the enormous wage growth experienced by the group under his administration. Hispanic household income grew twice as fast as the national average did in this timespan. Not to mention other factors like record low pre-pandemic unemployment, staunch anti-communism and socially-conservative tendencies among certain religious demographics, particularly among Protestant Evangelical Latinos.

Trump’s gains among Hispanic voters are also especially pronounced in key swing states. In Florida, multiple polls have the president leading former Vice President Joe Biden by several percentage points among Latino voters, with some even finding Trump winning an outright majority. For reference, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, bested Trump among Hispanic voters in Florida by about 36% in 2016, and still lost the state.

Trump’s new coalition is potentially reflective of a larger Republican transformation as a whole; the future of the GOP looks increasingly more like a national populist project than the fiscally conservative party of yesteryear. In this evolution, the GOP would offset declines among suburban whites by increasing their monopoly over rural, non-college educated whites, while also bringing significant portions of the working class Hispanic (and to a lesser degree, Black) electorate into the fold. 

For a test run of this strategy in 2020, look no further than California’s neighbor to the east: Nevada. A majority-minority state that Clinton won by just over 2% in 2016––a margin less than former Libertarian candidate Gary Johnson’s 3.3% share of the state vote. Nevada appears increasingly competitive despite its 2020 polling. Both President Trump and his surrogates have made multiple appearances in the last several weeks, just as Democrats are working to quell anxieties about the state’s potential apathy towards Biden. While non-Hispanic whites make up just 48% of the state’s population, a disproportionate share of this demographic consists of rural and non-college educated whites; the president’s personal appearances in the more communities of Carson City and Minden suggests that the campaign’s strategy is focused around increasing turnout from this group. If Trump can increase rural white turnout and ride higher Hispanic support to close the gap in Las Vegas and Clark County, then Democrats could be looking at a shock in the southwest in the coming weeks.

Of course, Trump’s gains among minority voters, Hispanic voters especially, will have differing effects in terms of his potential path to victory. For one, his increased approval among Hispanic voters is not a national trend, but is rather heavily subjected to regional and ethnic identification. First generation Mexican-American voters in a state like Arizona, for example, likely have wildly different political tendencies than eighth generation Tejanos in Texas or Cuban exiles in Florida. Trump’s Hispanic support is likely to be disproportionately felt in Texas and Florida, while Biden will likely enjoy heavy advantages among the demographic in the remainder of the southwest.

Meanwhile, older Black voters still overwhelmingly support Biden, while Trump has seen increasing support among young Black male voters. But that doesn’t necessarily mean it will directly benefit him nationally. Black support for modern Republican candidates has been so paltry that even if Trump does manage to win historic numbers of the group, it will likely have very little impact in the grand scheme of things. The more concerning issue for Democrats is depressed Black enthusiasm for Biden.

Further, white voters make up a disproportionate share of both the national electorate and states that most directly impact the electoral college tally. This means that Trump’s increases among Hispanic and Black voters are probably not enough to offset losses among white voters, especially if Biden manages to cut into non-college educated white voters.

Polling heavily favors Biden. But other indicators point to another surprise Trump victory.

It’s no secret that Biden is ahead in the polls. As of Oct. 29, the RealClearPolitics average has Biden a 7.7-point advantage nationally, while FiveThirtyEight places him at a 8.9-point lead. Even the friendliest of Trump pollers like Rasmussen have the incumbent president’s best performances at two or three points behind Biden, potentially enough for an electoral college victory, but still far from comforting. 

Skeptics will point to 2016 as evidence of poller’s widespread fallibility. But to simplify like this would be wrong. For one, even though polling in 2016 heavily favored Clinton, there were still significant periodic shifts in the data. In late May, for example, Trump led the former Secretary of State by 0.2 points, before Clinton regained a commanding lead. Trump eventually closed this gap as the polls tightened in late October and early November, which suggests that at least some firms were closer than they’ve been given credit for. This year, there have been no such lead changes, and Trump has only moderately cut into Biden’s lead. Even now, with the conclusion of the presidential debates and any October surprises out of the way, Biden still enjoys a larger national lead than Clinton did at this same point four years ago.

But there are still a number of trends that point to another Trump victory in November.

For one, Trump’s polling averages in a number of key battleground states are higher than they were at this point in 2016, when he narrowly defeated Clinton in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Trump also enjoys an enormous enthusiasm gap, with one Pew Research poll finding 66% of Trump supporters say that they “strongly support” their candidate, in contrast to just 46% of Biden supporters saying the same. And when it comes to that infamous question then-candidate Ronald Reagan asked American voters in 1980—Are you better off today than you were four years ago?56% of Americans say they are, the most since Gallup first began asking the question in 1984.
Voter registration is also shifting in favor of the president, especially among a number of key states. In Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, Republicans have out registered Democrats over the past several months. Their gains in these states have also expanded beyond just rural districts, with the GOP garnering net gains in heavily-Latino districts like Miami-Dade County in Florida and Maricopa County in Arizona. Predicting electoral outcomes based purely on registration trends, however, can be troublesome, and the problem may be particularly apparent for the Trump campaign given that many of the new Republicans may merely be traditionally Democratic Rust Belt voters who voted for Trump in 2016 and are just now adjusting their registration.

And finally, Trump’s approval rating within the GOP remains astronomical. Pew Research places his intra-party approval rating at 87%, the highest for any president since Dwight D. Eisenhower in the ‘50s (Trump is also the least favorable ever among the opposition party). Meanwhile, resistance from within the GOP has primarily come from establishment, neoconservative types, like those at the Lincoln Project, who enjoy billionaire connections and favorable media coverage, but who also have very little traction among standard Republican voters. And with all due to respect to former U.S. Rep. Joe Walsh, there were no serious attempts at primarying Trump à la Buchanan vs. Bush ‘92.

So what does it all mean?

Unsurprisingly, most election aggregates see Biden as the clear winner this fall. As far as these aggregates go, The Economist puts Biden’s chance of victory at 95%, while FiveThirtyEight gives the former Vice President an 87% chance. Betting websites, which tend to be more friendly towards Trump’s odds, still have Biden as the favorite by about a 2:1 ratio. These models aren’t infallible, but they do reveal just how much Biden is dominating traditional data metrics.

That said, many of these forecasts don’t account for factors beyond pure polling results or economic data. As noted before, the structure of the electoral college, as well as differences in regional voter tendencies, are likely to favor President Trump. Combine this with a potential shy voter phenomenon, empty college campuses, disproportionately-Democrat rejected mail-in ballots and heavy Republican insistence on in-person, Election Day voting, and Americans could be waking up to four more years of Donald J. Trump.

Written by: Brandon Jetter –– brjetter@ucdavis.edu 

Brandon Jetter is a senior at UC Davis double-majoring in Political Science and History. He was formerly a weekly columnist for The California Aggie.


  1. Will be interesting to re-visit this after Election Day. I honestly think 2016 broke people – the national polling was not really that off. They had Hillary up +3 pts, which turned out to be true! The state polling however was a bit off and Trump won those 3 states by tiny margins – I simply cannot in good faith say that Trump is “going to win” with all the information we have. 538 forecast gives him a 15% chance to win, last year he had a 30% chance to win which is honestly not too bad odds, I just think this year is different. 2016 had many undecideds who broke for him, 2020 does not – people have seen his leadership and I believe the opinions against him have turned. I say this as a former Trump voter in 2016 who won’t be voting for him again, but ya


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