Given the low-level background dread that is life in 2020, picking out any individual source of anxiety can often be all-but impossible – but one obvious exception for many of us is looking towards the impending US presidential election, now less than two weeks away.
In the pit of our stomachs, many of us have a sick but certain feeling: Donald Trump is going to win again. It’s all just like last time. It’s happening again, isn’t it?
Listening to that worried, wearied voice is, by now, probably good mental self-defence. It’s a way to prepare ourselves for the worst, by treating it as if it’s already happened. It’s the mechanism of people who have been on the wrong side of some dangerously vicious politics too many times in too few years.
And yet, this time, you should not listen to that voice. Donald Trump is almost certainly going to lose the 2020 election. He’s not just set to lose it like he ‘lost’ the 2016 election against Hillary Clinton – losing the popular vote by more than three million votes while winning the electoral college – he is set to actually lose. And by quite some margin.
Yes, we heard that last time. The polls showed Clinton was ahead. We kept being told not to worry too much about Trump. The numbers showed Clinton with a steady lead. She could even be on track for a landslide. Don’t worry about it… All that means it’s incredibly difficult for us to take any real reassurance from polls this time round. Yet they really are different this time. Where polls tended to show Clinton with a three to five point lead a few weeks from the election in 2016, the range at the moment in national polling is between nine and 14 points.
This would require an error on an entirely different scale from before to see Trump cling on in the Oval Office. The 2016 contest saw the polls only very slightly over-predict Clinton’s national share, and not quite grasp the importance of her lower levels of support in key battleground states.
The polls this time would need to be wrong by a scale of perhaps five to 10 times more – again in Trump’s favour – than four year ago for us to be heading for a similar upset. That is a vastly less likely outcome.
This probably won’t feel particularly reassuring to anyone who followed the 2016 race. Part of the reason for this is due to an issue referred to as over-correcting – essentially we are “once bitten, twice shy”.
If we get something important wrong, we tend to weigh that event very heavily in our mind, to the point of leaving ourselves wide open to errors in the opposite direction. We have a very strong example of this exact phenomenon in the UK: huge chunks of the pundit class ignored all the evidence pointing towards a 2019 landslide for Boris Johnson, because of a smaller error in the opposite direction in 2017.
Having been burned by “the polls” once, many of us ignored the much clearer message they sent us in 2019 – leading us to be wrong again, this time on the other side. There are many good signs for Trump opponents in underlying numbers and electoral phenomena too. Whether you ascribe it to sexism, her political track record, or some combination of the two, Hillary Clinton was a historically divisive candidate, with poor favourability numbers.
Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. He comes across as a fairly affable, fairly moderate, fairly nice guy – with a backstory laced with personal tragedy handled stoically. His personal polling numbers reflect that story: US voters might not be deeply in love with Biden, but they certainly don’t hate him. That has, in turn, had effects on the inevitable attempts to smear him – a clear inevitability for any candidate standing against Donald Trump and the modern Republican Party.
In October 2016, a devastating Access Hollywood tape dropped showing the man who is now in name at least leader of the free world appearing to casually boast about sexual assault. “I don’t even wait,” he said. “And when you’re a star, they let you do it. You can do anything. … Grab ’em by the pussy.”
Hours later, WikiLeaks dropped – with evidence later showing coordination between Trump figures and the site – hacked emails from individuals connected to the Democratic National Committee and Clinton’s campaign. Security researchers at the time suggested the hack was linked to the Russian state, a claim later supported by multiple intelligence and law enforcement reports.
Such was Clinton’s unpopularity that despite the lack of any serious content in the emails, they rapidly came to dominate the news cycles. This year’s ‘October surprise’ was a bizarre smear story connected to one of Joe Biden’s sons, published in the New York Post and once again connected to possible Russian dirty tricks operations. The story is based on allegations that Hunter Biden helped set up a meeting between his father, when he was serving as vice president, and an adviser from a Ukrainian energy company.
The Biden/Ukraine story – suggesting influence-peddling and conflicts of interest in lucrative overseas deals – is a staple of Trumpian Facebook groups and Fox News segments which has been doing the rounds for years, but has never caught on outside these circles.
It has failed to do so once again, despite this latest incarnation of the tale landing at the most critical moment of the election campaign. Such was the public indifference to this attack on Biden himself that even much of the right-wing machine swiftly moved on to castigating social media sites for suppressing the story. That doesn’t move votes.
Yet the real cause for hope lies in early voting. It is clear Trump doesn’t plan to accept the result of this election. It is also clear he has made efforts to de-legitimise and even directly interfere with postal ballots. But it is also now indisputable that such actions have mobilised US voters on a historical level.
Two weeks before ballot day, more votes have already been cast in Texas (we do not know for who) than were cast for Donald Trump in total in 2016. Across the US, based on states reporting figures, 34 million people have already voted. Some stood in line for more than six hours to do so. If Trump was relying on voter apathy to keep him in office, he is heading for a spectacular failure.
More than anything, Trump is running as an incumbent in 2020, not some agent of change. People have had a chance to see what he really is, even if they couldn’t before. He is incapable of holding even a simple message, displaying even basic empathy, of doing the bare minimum as a national leader.
A substantial core of his base will stick with him, will ride or die. Every sign we can look to suggests that most of America will not. We have every reason to believe we are in the last days of the Trump presidency. Really.