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Why The 2020 Presidential Election Is Not 2016

President Trump at a Keep America Great rally in Las Vegas earlier this year.
Jim Watson
AFP via Getty Images
President Trump at a Keep America Great rally in Las Vegas earlier this year.

Democrats are haunted by the ghosts of 2016.

Hillary Clinton led in many polls over Donald Trump throughout that election cycle, and while the national polls were pretty dead-on when it came to the popular vote, some key battleground state polls got it wrong.

So who can blame Democrats when they don't believe surveys showing Biden with a significant lead nationally and in key states? The latest NPR Battleground Map released this week, for example, shows Trump slipping and Biden expanding his advantage in the key states. Democrats are favored to retain control of the House, and Republicans are worried about losing the Senate.

"This isn't hard. Right now, Trump is losing, and the Senate is leaning towards Democrats," one GOP strategist told NPR's Susan Davis.

The Biden campaign and Democratic strategists do expect the presidential race to tighten. One reason for that is while Biden is at or close to 50% in the national polling average and his lead has doubled from 4 points in March to 8 points now, his top-line number hasn't moved.

Biden was polling at 49.7% against Trump on March 5 in the FiveThirtyEight average of the polls. As of Friday, it's 49.9%.

So what accounts for Biden's lead? Trump's support has declined. In early March, Trump was at 45.6% against Biden. Now it's down to 42.1%.

If those soft Trump voters who have slipped into the undecided column wind up seeing Trump as doing even marginally better in handling the coronavirus pandemic, the economy or race relations, they could go back Trump's way.

But there are plenty of reasons why 2020 is not 2016:

1. Trump appears to have a ceiling of 46%: More concerning for the Trump campaign than a slippage in the polls is the very real possibility that he hasn't gotten higher against Biden than the 46% of the popular vote he got in 2016.

Trump's 45.6% average of the polls at the end of February was his peak against Biden over the last 10 months. What's more, in hundreds of surveys, Trump has only reached even 47% in a few.

2. The third-party vote share is likely to be lower: Roughly 6% of voters in 2016 voted third-party, the highest percentage since 1996. That helped Trump win the Electoral College. But the percentage of people voting third-party in 2020 this fall is likely to be lower for multiple reasons, including:

  • Biden is working closely with primary rival Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and has a better relationship with Sanders than Clinton did;
  • The third-party candidates this time are less prominent and getting less attention than in 2016; and
  • Perhaps most importantly, no one is underestimating Trump's chances as some did in 2016. Democrats see him far more as a clear, present and urgent threat who very well could win reelection.
  • 3. People don't dislike Biden as much as they did Clinton: Trump and Clinton were the two of the most disliked presidential candidates in American history.

    There will probably be books written on what that says about Americans and gender in U.S. politics, but there just isn't the same disdain for Biden that there was for Clinton.

    Let's compare:

  • July 2016: Clinton 34% positive, 56% negative with 43% "very negative" (NBC/WSJ poll)
  • July 2020: Biden 34% positive, 46% negative, with 33% "very negative" (NBC/WSJ poll)
  • The fact that Biden's "very negative" score is 10 points lower than Clinton's is significant. It might not only contribute to fewer third-party votes, but also reduce vitriol toward Biden that may mean potential Trump voters will be less fired up to turn out to cast a vote (or mail one in).

    Already, the Trump campaign has tried repeated attacks, trying to tie Biden to the "radical" left and saying that crime would run rampant if Biden wins.

    Biden's voters are far more motivated to vote against Trump than for Biden, and that may be enough.

    An election with a president running for a second term is all about the incumbent after all, and those ghosts of 2016 are very real.

    Copyright 2023 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

    Domenico Montanaro is NPR's senior political editor/correspondent. Based in Washington, D.C., his work appears on air and online delivering analysis of the political climate in Washington and campaigns. He also helps edit political coverage.