At the start of the summer Donald Trump’s campaign was battered with bad news. Polling showed him underwater among virtually every group except non-college educated whites, his Senate GOP counterparts were trailing in their quest to hold the Senate and Joe Biden had come out of his primary with Bernie Sanders looking like a champ. Bogged down by his handling of the Coronavirus and feeling the impacts of a government mandated two week shutdown of the economy, the President was forced to fall back on the trope of “well, the economy was once good.”
Today, while the election might be a coin flip, that is a far cry from when it looked like Trump could suffer one of the worst electoral losses for an incumbent in modern history. Worse than (gasp) HW Bush. So, what changed? Certainly bad news has continued in spades for the incumbent. Since the start of June, GOP elites have abandoned the President. A second wave of COVID has hit. Bob Woodward’s book about Trump and COVID would have immediately sunk any candidate. There was Bounty-Gate, Soldier-Gate and the death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg. The President has “lied” repeatedly. The Trump campaign burned through almost a billion dollars with the result being trailing nationally by 10 points.
Any campaign should have wilted under this pressure. But, despite trying out so many messages it makes your head swim, the Trump team finally seems to have found a winning message on the economy. Generically, it follows the old “Democrat A is too liberal for America.” But, at a state by state level the message is hyper focused on local issues.
Just look at Pennsylvania as an example. The suburbs sharp swings toward Democrats in the last four years should assure an easy Biden win. Except, many jobs in those suburbs and in rural Central and West PA are based on carbon based resource extraction activities such as fracking. During the primary, Biden’s climate plan called for the US to have a zero net emission economy by 2050 which means, yes, he plans on banning fracking. Phasing it out is a cop-out. The Trump team’s ads and local contacts with voters have heavily emphasized these issues.
Another thing which has changed is how voters actually will vote vs. following old habits. Trump has seen his support among not just college educated whites but all whites drop. However, it seems the President, despite being racially polarizing, has actually managed to increase GOP margins among Hispanics and Blacks to compensate. Nationally, these numbers might not matter but in crucial swing states like FL, AZ, even PA, these increases will matter in razor tight margins.
What might explain this shifting? Among college educated whites, it is not hard to guess. Trump’s focus on racial issues and his lack of decorum have driven these left of center voters in droves to anybody not affiliated with the T-Man. That said, unlike Biden, who has forgotten what “working class” means and has gone all in on neo-corporatism and tried to cover it up with identity appeals, Trump’s campaign has walked a balancing act between appealing to working class voters and making their donor class happy.
One lesser but no less important reported factor are voter registration figures from key battleground states. While the majority of polls show Biden ahead they suffer from going off 2016 exit polls and assumptions about their electorate modelling which do not take into account recent voter registration figures. And those figures are a massive and significantly under-reported boon for the GOP.
While Democrats and the Biden camp have been content to wage their campaign digitally and via the airwaves, Republicans and Trump crow about contacting millions of voters in person (gasp). Further, registration figures show it paying off. In swing states where Democrats have traditionally enjoyed a registration advantage the advantage has been slimmed down or entirely eliminated.
Take Florida and Pennsylvania, perhaps the two most important states for the Trump campaign. In Florida, per the AP, “A concerted drive by President Donald Trump’s Florida campaign to register voters has helped cut the state’s long-standing Democratic advantage to fewer than 185,000 voters, a gap of just 1.3 percentage points, according to data from the Florida Division of Elections released this week.” In 2016, Democrats enjoyed a 327,000 voter advantage when they lost the election. At the onset of 2020 Democrats were out registering Republicans but COVID made the party shelter in place. As a result, and perhaps partly combined with younger minority support for Biden, Democrats registration efforts have all but stagnated while GOP efforts target the growing Venezuelan and Cuban-American populations in the state.
Pennsylvania, while having a larger Democratic registration advantage, around 800,000 is similar in the fact statewide GOP registration efforts are far eclipsed Democratic numbers. While the two places where registrations are growing for both parties is different, GOP numbers tell a story of state which is within the margin of error.
Finally, probably the best news for Trump is the economy’s rebound. People are hurting right now but it is telling how Joe Biden is talking up healthcare and COVID while the President focuses on the economy. If voters focuses on the economy Trump wins. If not, he loses. It really is that simple all things being equal.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis. It is not meant to indicate the President will win or he cannot slip up 40 days before the election. But compared to where he was at the start of the summer there is a night and day difference. With all the obstacles facing the campaign during this tumultuous time, it is amazing he is still in the running at all.