2020 Isn’t 2016

I’m scheduled to talk about the election on WRAL’s “On the Record” with David Crabtree at 7:30 pm Saturday. The show will be available online after.

Too many people, on both sides politically, look at this year’s election through the lens of 2016. But viewing the future through the lens of the past obscures the present.

Democrats see Joe Biden leading the polls today, but vividly remember how stunned and sickened they were on election night 2016. They fear a replay.

President Trump’s supporters see the same polls and remember their joy and surprise four years ago. They relish a replay.

The fundamentals this year are very different from 2016.

This election is a referendum on Trump. 

2016 was a referendum on Hillary Clinton. She was essentially the incumbent. Trump was the newcomer and the challenger. Now he’s the incumbent. He has a record to defend.

That’s a perilous prospect amid a pandemic that has killed 215,000 Americans and infected the President and the White House and disrupted the lives of millions of Americans and caused an economic collapse that has hurt millions of people and thousands of businesses.

Bad economic times are bad for incumbents. See Herbert Hoover, Jimmy Carter and George H.W. Bush. And none of them presided over a pandemic.

In 1992, James Carville famously said, “It’s the economy, stupid.” This year, it’s the Covid, stupid.

Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton.

Fair or not, Hillary (and Bill) Clinton had built up huge negatives after 25 years on the national stage. Fair or not, Hillary inherited the fallout from Bill’s faults and failings. Fair or not – and it’s not fair, but it’s a fact – Hillary suffered from sexism and misogyny.

Biden doesn’t have those negatives. He has a united party behind him, and Clinton didn’t. Democrats didn’t, as once looked possible, nominate a candidate who could easily be painted as a radical socialist.

Hillary also suffered one of the truly unfortunate – and unfair – bad breaks in the history of politics. FBI Director James Comey’s decision to announce he was reopening the investigation of her emails, just 11 days before the election, proved deadly.

Some 18 percent of voters then didn’t like Clinton or Trump. They broke for Trump three-to-one.

Clinton may have lost because the pundits said she was sure to win. How many people voted for Trump as a protest, expecting him to lose? It might have been just enough in an election that turned on a few thousand voters in a handful of states. Trump won the Presidency because he won Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by just over 100,000 votes combined. 

There’s Trump fatigue.

People can get tired of anything. Even the most popular TV shows lose their audience after a while. Trump may have worn out his welcome.

He has governed like no President before him. He wields Twitter as a weapon. He attacks his enemies with a ruthlessness and recklessness not seen since Joe McCarthy. He calls them monsters and criminals who should be in jail. He’s unbound by the boundaries – on language, untruthfulness, invective and personal insults – that historically have governed presidential behavior.

He sows new controversy daily, even hourly. He reverses himself constantly. Last week, he torpedoed Covid stimulus talks in Congress. Then he did a U-turn and called on Congress to pass something big. 

Sometimes people get tired of chaos, combat and controversy. They want what Warren Harding called “normalcy.”

Is there a hidden vote, a “Silent Majority”?

Trump supporters say there was in 2016, and they say it will be there again this year. But for all the treasons listed above, there also could be a hidden anti-Trump vote.

This year, there seems nothing hidden or silent about Trump voters. They are loud. They proudly fly their Trump flags and hoist their Trump signs. They parade in boats, golf carts and pickup trucks.

But polls and early vote totals also show a wave of energy building against Trump. Some knowledgeable Democrats – and Republicans – sense a potential avalanche ahead.

Young voters seemed to be turned off by Trump and motivated to vote. Black voters appear highly motivated. Suburban women are breaking for Biden. Anti-Trump Republicans are vocal and visible.

Silent majorities can cut both ways.

What lies ahead?

Yes, Trump can still win. He’s close in key electoral states. For all the controversy he’s caused, he clearly has touched something deep in a significant share of the American people.

Part of it, undeniably, is racist – and contemptable. Part of it is anger toward “elites” – the media, liberals, government, the college-educated and “experts.” Part of it is a real concern about the direction of society, anxiety and fear about sweeping social, cultural and economic change. 

Whatever happens to Trump this election, that “anti” feeling will remain strong. A majority of voters may be sick and tired of Trump, but his voters still yearn to make America “great” again – whatever that means to them.

My prediction is that this will be a good election for Democrats. They will get the chance to show America a new governing philosophy, one different from past Democratic administrations. But they should not ignore or overlook the genuine – and justified – concerns of Americans who turned to Trump.

Biden says he’ll be a President for all of us. If he’s elected, he needs to keep that promise. America needs healing.

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