2020 has been wild: a global pandemic that infected presidents and prime ministers, a yo-yo economy that cratered but started to bounce back within months, a historic protest movement and a transformed Supreme Court. The only normal event has been the presidential election.
First, it’s become clear that not even an event as seismic as the covid-19 pandemic can break our partisan tribalism. Over the past six months, Trump has presided over the response to a coronavirus that has killed more than 230,000 Americans and sparked a devastating recession — but his supporters haven’t abandoned him, and his detractors haven’t reconsidered. Trump’s approval rating has bounced between 40 percent and 45 percent, while roughly 52 to 56 percent of voters disapproved of his job performance.
Neither Trump’s failures nor his supposed accomplishments have unsettled the stasis that increasingly defines our politics. Republicans like Trump, and Democrats (plus a few swing voters) don’t. Joe Biden could still win in a landslide — but even if he does, Trump will maintain the loyalty of a huge number of Americans.
Second, even taking the rigidity of the United States’ partisan divide into account, Trump’s attempt to win a second term is a referendum — just like so many other campaigns. When a president runs for reelection, voters typically assess their first term (albeit through a partisan lens) and decide whether a president has done a good enough job to warrant four more years. This year appears to be no different: 40 to 45 percent of the country approves of Trump’s job performance, and an near-identical 41 to 44 percent of voters support him in the average head-to-head matchup with Biden.
Some voters might cast their ballots against Biden’s platform, rather than affirmatively for Trump; some voters pick candidates for idiosyncratic reasons. But Trump doesn’t have some magical power to make the New York Times’s 1619 Project or Biden’s son Hunter the central issue in the race. However much Trump may want to run his insurgent campaign again, he now has an actual record voters can use to judge him. And they will.
Third, though the world has changed since 2016, the underlying contours of the American electoral map haven’t shifted much. Four years ago, Trump triumphed over Hillary Clinton by winning swing states such as Florida, Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. This year, those same states again may be decisive: Trump’s path to a majority is narrow without Michigan and Wisconsin, and it will be extremely difficult for him to win without Florida or Pennsylvania.
Even the possibility of a landslide Biden victory Tuesday night won’t alter those basic assumptions. Yes, Trump seems to have gained some ground with Black and Hispanic voters over the course of his term, and polls show Biden making inroads with seniors, suburbanites and the White working class. And if Biden wins in a true landslide, some red states will temporarily turn blue. But that effect might not last. Just as the unprecedented events of 2020 have left the parties intact, so have their bastions of strength remained fundamentally unchanged.
Finally, remember: Like many recent races, this contest is still relatively close. We live in an era of tight elections: No candidate since Bill Clinton has won the popular vote by more than eight percentage points. When margins are that thin, it’s impossible for pre-election polls to predict a winner with 100 percent confidence. And that’s true in 2020 too: It may be that Biden ends up winning the popular vote by more than seven points, but on Election Day the electoral college is too close to rule out a Trump victory.
Strangely enough, these terrible feelings of uncertainty, bitter partisanship and being stuck in our endless political battles should be somewhat comforting. They mean this wild roller coaster of a year hasn’t completely changed America. Both parties have devised strong, competitive strategies, giving Americans real choices. And the bedrock principle of our democracy has been preserved: If Americans dislike a president, they can toss him out. No matter what happens after (or during) the vote-counting, that precious bit of rationality is worth celebrating.
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