There are at least five reasons Joe Biden’s consistent lead over Donald Trump does not guarantee him a lock on the White House.
First, there are indications that Trump’s base of support — whites without college degrees — is more energized and committed to voting this year than key Democratic constituencies. And there is also evidence that polling does not reflect this.
Second, Latinos, who are key to the outcome in several crucial states — Arizona and Florida, for example — have shown less support for Biden than for past Democratic nominees. Many Hispanic voters seem resistant to any campaign that defines them broadly as “people of color.”
Third, absentee voting is expected to be higher among Democrats than Republicans, subjecting their ballots to a greater risk of rejection, a fate more common to mailed-in votes than to in-person voting.
Fourth, the generic Democratic-Republican vote (“Would you be more willing to vote for a Republican or Democratic candidate for Congress?”) through early July favored Democrats by more than 10 points, but has since narrowed to 6 points.
Fifth, the debates will test Biden’s ability to withstand three 90-minute battles against an opponent known for brutal personal attacks.
There are other factors — such as the possibility that the Republican Party will conduct an effective voter suppression drive, or that Trump and his advisers will contrive new mechanisms to pave the way to victory.
Conversely, over a turbulent year — impeachment, the pandemic, a recession and the emergence of a stronger Black Lives Matter movement — one thing has remained constant: Biden’s lead over Trump. In October 2019, nearly 12 months ago, the NBC/Wall Street Journal poll had Biden 9 points ahead of Trump, 50 to 41; just days ago, on Sept. 20, 2020 the NBC/WSJ poll had Biden 8 points ahead of Trump, 51-43.
The same pattern in national polling has held true in the nation’s suburbs which, by many accounts, are the real 2020 combat zone.
Robert Griffin, the research director at the nonpartisan Democracy Study Voter Study Group, provided data to The Times on trends in suburbia that show a very modestly fluctuating line from last January into this month. Biden’s advantage over Trump ranged from 9.7 to 12.0 percentage points.
A Democratic strategist — who requested anonymity because his employer does not want him publicly identified talking about the election — analyzed the implications of the most recent voter registration trends for me.
registration is up by 6 points through August compared to the 2016 cycle, but net Democratic registrations are down by 38 percent. That’s about 150,000 fewer additional Democrats than were added in 2016.
is up by 46 percent while registration by people of color is up by only 4 percent. That gap is made more stark when you realize that over the last four years, the WNC (white non-college) population has increased by only 1 percent in those states, while the number of people of color increased by 13 percent.
On its own, increased registration among non-college whites would have only a negligible effect on total state voting, my source pointed out, but
it becomes troubling if it reflects greater interest more generally for these voters in those states. And there are good reasons to believe that if that is the case, those additionally energized voters are very underrepresented in surveys now.
Even if white non-college turnout reached the highest expectations, he cautioned, it would not “erase Biden’s current polling leads. But it does make the races much closer.”
While Democrats have struggled for years with non-college whites, another set of problems for Biden and the party has begun to emerge this year in what many liberals had been counting on as a key constituency: the steadily growing Hispanic electorate.
As Ian Haney López, a law professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and Tory Gavito, a human rights lawyer who is president of Way to Win and the founder of the Texas Future Project, wrote on these pages on Sept. 18:
According to recent polls from Quinnipiac and Monmouth, 38 percent of registered Hispanic voters in 10 battleground states may be ambivalent about even voting. At least so far, this large group of Latinos seemingly perceives little reason to choose Mr. Biden over President Trump.
Why? López and Gavito offer an explanation based on 15 focus groups and a national survey:
Progressives commonly categorize Latinos as people of color, no doubt partly because progressive Latinos see the group that way and encourage others to do so as well. Certainly, we both once took that perspective for granted. Yet in our survey, only one in four Hispanics saw the group as people of color.
rejected this designation. They preferred to see Hispanics as a group integrating into the American mainstream, one not overly bound by racial constraints but instead able to get ahead through hard work.
eligible voters how “convincing” they found a dog-whistle message lifted from Republican talking points. Among other elements, the message condemned “illegal immigration from places overrun with drugs and criminal gangs” and called for “fully funding the police, so our communities are not threatened by people who refuse to follow our laws.”
More disconcerting to López and Gavito, both liberals, was that “exactly the same percentage of African-Americans agreed, as did an even higher percentage of Latinos.”
Latinos are a major segment of the population in a number of key battleground states: Texas, 38.7 percent; Nevada, 29.2 percent and Arizona, 31.7 percent; and they are significant players in North Carolina, 9.8 percent, and Georgia, 9.9 percent. These are all states where their ballots could prove crucial to the outcome.
Compared with past elections, a disproportionate share of the ballots cast this coming November will be sent in by mail, a procedure that in most cases involves detailed requirements that can lead to disqualification for errors, large and small.
During this year’s primary elections, both The Washington Post and National Public Radio reported that more than 500,000 absentee ballots were disqualified, many for failure to meet stringent matching signature requirements, far more than in previous years.
Disqualified ballots are a bigger problem for Biden and the Democratic Party than for Trump and the Republican Party. An August WSJ/NBC poll found, for example, that 11 percent of Trump voters plan to cast ballots by mail compared with 47 percent of Biden voters.
From another vantage point, those planning to cast absentee ballots favor Biden over Trump 74-20, while those planning to vote in person on Election Day favor Trump over Biden 62-30, according to the WSJ/NBC survey.
A recent Philadelphia Inquirer story, “How ‘naked ballots’ in Pennsylvania could cost Joe Biden the election,” illustrates how even a relatively easy mistake can nullify a vote. The paper reported on a state Supreme Court decision that
ordered officials to throw out “naked ballots” — mail ballots that arrive without inner “secrecy envelopes.” Pennsylvania uses a two-envelope mail ballot system: A completed ballot goes into a ‘secrecy envelope’ that has no identifying information, and then into a larger mailing envelope that the voter signs.
In Philadelphia’s municipal election last November, the Inquirer reported, 197 out of 3,086 absentee ballots, or 6.4 percent, lacked secrecy envelopes.
What would this mean if the 6.4 percent applied to all the votes cast in 2020? Assuming that 37 percent of 2020 voters cast ballots by mail, as the Democracy Fund + UCLA Nationscape project expects, and assuming that turnout reaches or exceeds a projected 155 million, the 6.4 percent rejection rate for absentee ballots would mean that as many as 3.6 million votes nationwide would be rejected.
Taking it one step further. If, as the WSJ/NBC survey found, those voters favored Biden over Trump 74-20, that would mean roughly 2.7 million Biden votes would go uncounted, compared with roughly 735,000 Trump votes.
Despite these warning signs, Biden is better positioned than Trump with six weeks to go. Not only has the former vice president had the lead consistently, but many voters appear to be hardened in their commitments and unlikely to shift.
One of the hurdles facing Trump is the racially divisive rhetoric he has lavished on voters over nearly four years in the White House.
His use of racist and anti-immigrant themes proved effective in 2016, but, surprisingly, many voters viewed him then as relatively moderate. That perception of Trump as a moderate made his hard-edged message more palatable to centrist voters.
Harry Enten wrote on FiveThirtyEight about the 2016 election, when Trump was running for president, that “more voters viewed Trump as liberal than any incoming GOP president since at least Ronald Reagan,” persuaded in part by his backing of LGBT rights, his support for infrastructure spending and his promise to preserve Social Security and Medicare.
By July 2019, the Quinnipiac University National Poll found that just over half the electorate, 51 percent, described Trump as a “racist,” compared with 45 percent who said he was not.
This shift has clearly made it more difficult to reach center-moderate voters, especially the suburban voters he is currently focusing his attention on, as he promises to “protect” their communities from Democrats he claims are determined to build affordable housing for minorities wherever possible, or hellbent on inviting MS-13 gang members to move in next door.
Ryan Enos, a political scientist at Harvard who has studied white racial attitudes, emailed me to say that
the issues Trump is trying to capitalize on are just not very important to most voters because they are not part of their lived experience or for the lived experience of most people they know — or most Americans for that matter.
the recent protests were not violent, most suburbanites don’t have low-income people moving into their neighborhoods, most people probably have no real sense of what is the particular curriculum of schools and don’t care that much anyway.
is trying to resurrect campaign themes from the 1960s when these were real issues because racial integration was happening at a rapid pace, both in neighborhoods and schools, and the protests that happened were very destructive and widespread.
For the very small number of voters who remain undecided, “these issues will take a distant back seat to the issue of coronavirus,” in Enos’s view.
William Frey, a demographer and senior fellow at Brookings, was more declarative: “Clearly Trump’s messaging about the suburbs, made of ‘white’ suburban housewives, is several decades out of date.”
White non-college women in the suburbs fall from 31 percent to 20 percent. And all white non-college suburbanites — both men and women — decline from 58 percent to 40 percent. Racial minorities grow from 18 percent to 32 percent, and white college women from 11 percent to 15 percent.
We are looking at suburbs where white women are hardly the majority, and not likely to be scared by “city violence” or interactions with non-white racial and ethnic groups. And among whites, white college women — those who are least approving of Trump — are growing.
Joel Kotkin, presidential fellow in Urban Futures at Chapman University and executive director of the Houston-based Urban Reform Institute, argues that in other circumstances, the Trump themes might be effective. Referring to densification — a strategy to create affordable housing — Kotkin argues that people of all races and ethnicities generally “do not like density” and oppose
what the gentry wants — that is to take the poor out of the cities and impose them on the middle class. Many minority communities see this as well, and they were critical in defeating forced densification here in California.
A strategy designed to capitalize on these views, Kotkin continued, “would work better if the president was not Trump.” To many people, “he is an offensive character with a déclassé base.”
Even though “Trump is better organized” than he was last time “and the riots and the strident B.L.M. rhetoric rubs even many old liberals the wrong way,” Kotkin concluded, “my sense is that the Dems hold their suburban edge, but perhaps not by as much as 2018.”
Trump is still the underdog, but attentive observers like Michael Moore, C.N.N.’s Richard Galant, Susan Milligan of U.S. News, The Los Angeles Times’s Doyle McManus, and The Washington Post’s Philip Bump are willing to entertain the possibility that Trump could win.
In June 2013, when Donald Trump was at best a political afterthought, Sean Trende, the senior elections analyst for RealClearPolitics, wrote a prescient essay, “The Case of the Missing White Voters, Revisited,” that in many ways anticipated the 2016 election.
While the 2013 consensus view, in the wake of Barack Obama’s decisive defeat of Mitt Romney in 2012, was that the Republican Party had to move left and win over minorities, Trende argued that the key factor in the 2012 defeat was a failure to turn out white voters.
“From mid-2008 to mid-2012, the census estimates that the number of whites of voting age increased by 3 million,” which should have translated into 99.1 million votes, when in fact there were only 93.0 million, Trende wrote, noting that “when you account for expected growth, we’d find 6.5 million fewer whites than a population projection would anticipate.” On the assumption that Black turnout would decline without Obama at the top of the ticket, Trende concluded:
The next Republican would win narrowly if he or she can motivate these “missing whites,” even without moving the Hispanic or Asian vote.
This Sept. 17, Trende revisited his argument in “Trump’s Path to Victory,” in which he asked “What’s the best case to be made now for how Trump is re-elected?”
His answer is threefold. First, Trump’s job approval rating has to rise to at least 46 percent. It is currently 45.0 percent:
Presidents tend to get the votes of those who think they are doing a good job, and maybe a hair more.
Second, the economy has to improve. Trump currently has a 50.5 percent approval rating on the economy. Third, “the spate of recent stories suggesting that Biden is having difficulty generating Latino and, to a lesser extent, Black support” has to prove true on Election Day.
Biden at 67 percent support among Black, Latino and Asian voters — far ahead of Trump but below the usual Democratic consolidation of voters of color. Hillary Clinton won the same demographics, 74-21 percent, in 2016.
None of this is to be taken as a prediction as such — this is a race that could go either way, and I still view Biden as the favorite. With that said, the story line sketched out above is perfectly realistic.
Finally, there are many Americans who do not believe that Donald Trump, or the modern Republican Party, will allow a fair election. The opportunities for disruption, in a year of rampant coronavirus, are legion. The Atlantic, Slate and USA TODAY have all published plausible articles under variations on the headline, “How Donald Trump Could Steal The Election.” Many other individuals and media outlets are speculating on that possibility. If Trump is losing ground, as poll watchers increasingly suspect, it will be difficult for him to resort to anything other than his habitual fallback: cheating.
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