Pre-Arguing Conventional Wisdom
In 2016, a bunch of conventional wisdom got locked in. People believed that Hillary Clinton lost the women’s vote, despite winning it by 12%. (She lost the white women’s vote, which is a very different story.) They believed the polls were wrong, despite Trump having a lead during the conventions and the polling indeed showing significant tightening in the final stretch. They believed she ignored the middle class, economic anxieties drove the election, and a flawed electoral strategy is why she lost. Each of these has been disproven with data, but the conventional wisdom persists.
2020 is going to be much crazier. So I’d like to refute some conventional wisdom early, just to get a head start on every political conversation I expect to have over the next ten years.
“Trump only lost because of Covid”
He’s the least popular president in modern history, and his numbers are remarkably consistent. Look at the orange disapproval line hitting his all-time best score of 50%. That was when Covid hit. Americans were ready for him to succeed. He did not, the American people noticed, and he went back to his normal poor approval numbers.
His approval rating has stayed locked between 40% and 45%. He ended up with 46.9% of the popular vote, which is less than the 50% you’d expect to win an election. Biden got 51%.
Covid actually boosted Trump’s chances, like it did with several incumbents running for office this year. The difference was Trump did a poor job.
“Joe Biden campaigned from his basement and got lucky”
It’s true, the Biden campaign noticed there was a pandemic and took care not to pack too many people into enclosed spaces. But the “basement strategy” was exaggerated. Joe Biden was all over the airwaves, raising money over Zoom, doing podcasts, issuing statements, and giving speeches. His team adjusted his approach to the moment, like a smart team does, and ended up rope-a-doping Trump and his one trick pony of a campaign. As hard as it might be to believe, Joe Biden’s team executed one of the best campaigns in modern history.
Strategy, preparation, and execution ain’t luck, although I’d love for his opponents to believe it was. I’d prefer they keep losing against him, and the easiest way for that to happen is to misunderstand how he did. So yeah, sure. I’m happy to let people think his team had nothing to do with it.
“Donald Trump got more votes than any sitting president in history”
This one is true. But there’s some important nuance to discuss. First, the population of America is growing, so Biden getting “the most votes ever” and Trump getting “the second most votes ever” is muddying the waters a bit.
For example, Reagan won 49 states with far fewer votes, so we can’t look at the size of the pie to understand popularity. Instead, we need to study how the pie gets divided. So let’s look at the share of eligible voters since 1980:
Going for a second term is always a referendum on a sitting president, but this one drove so much passion it broke turnout records. In a three way race between Trump, Biden, and “didn’t vote,” Trump got dead last. (Biden 34%, Didn’t vote 33.8%, Trump 31%) That’s a big deal, historically speaking.
How Trump actually could have won
Covid helped incumbent politicians this year, as long as the voters believed they were taking Covid seriously and doing their best. So if he had done that, cut back his rallies, and stopped spewing so much hate, he would have barely won a second term, despite historically low approval ratings. Not despite Covid and increased turnout, but because of it.
All he had to do was be presidential, which is to say, not like himself.