President Donald Trump is hoping to repeat his upset victory over Hillary Clinton with an electoral map that looks like 2016. His problem is that the map is looking a lot more like it's 2008.
With Barack Obama at the top of the ticket, the Joe Biden of 2008 was elected vice president with votes from women, a record number of Black voters as well as White voters in the economically suffering industrial Midwest and fast-changing states in the West and South. Clinton wasn't able to recreate the so-called Obama Coalition four years ago.
Now, Biden's path to victory could look remarkably similar to 2008.
As with most campaigns for re-election, the 2020 race is largely a referendum on Trump's first term—his combative style, his response to the coronavirus and the economic turmoil that's come with it.
With eight days until the election, Biden has what appears to be a formidable advantage. The RealClearPolitics average of national polls had him with a nearly 8 point lead as of Friday. He's maintained a huge fund-raising advantage over Trump that gives him the ability to run wall-to-wall ads in battleground states. And FiveThirtyEight, the political statistics site owned by ABC News, gives Biden an 87% chance of winning the election.
The polls are closer in critical states like Florida and Ohio.
In addition to the polls, early voting data is encouraging for Democrats. In states where voters register by party, Democrats have requested 10.1 million more ballots than Republicans—and have already cast 5.5 million more, according to the U.S. Elections Project.
Of course, Clinton also had an 87% chance of winning at the same point four years ago. The lesson from 2016 is that polls and prediction models are only as reliable as the assumptions they're based on.
Still, there's reason to be skeptical that Trump can pull off the same feat in 2020.
"It's a very very different environment," Republican strategist Whit Ayres told Bloomberg Television. "Donald Trump is playing defense now in states he won very comfortably in 2016, like Iowa, Ohio, even Georgia and North Carolina. Maybe even Texas. All I'm saying is that it would be even more of an upset if Trump pulled it out than it was in 2016—and it was a huge upset in 2016."
Trump's hopes of a win now rely on an increasingly unlikely combination of events: a game-changing news event, winning over undecided voters, and a deluge of support from "hidden" supporters. Trump's debate performance last week was better than his first in late September but perhaps not strong enough to sway voters who are not among the roughly 53 million who have already cast ballots.
And his attempt to weaken Biden with unsubstantiated claims of corruption involving his son, Hunter, have not taken hold with voters not already committed to Trump.
Biden's lead in national polls is three times larger than Clinton's was at this point in 2016. He's above 50% in most national and many battleground state polls, meaning undecided and third-party voters won't be decisive.
A Trump popular vote victory would require polling errors of historic proportion—larger even than those that resulted in the storied "Dewey Defeats Truman" headline in 1948 that mistakenly said Harry Truman had lost re-election. In that election, polls were off by 5 percentage points.
The fabled "Shy Trump" voters of 2016—if they ever existed at all—aren't shy anymore. They have a voting history that pollsters can account for.
So Trump needs an "October surprise" to fundamentally upend the race.
"People keep asking me about the October surprise, what will it be?" said pollster Frank Luntz. "Donald Trump got Covid and he ended up in Walter Reed for three days. That's not an October surprise? They canceled the second debate which we've been having for decades, that's not an October surprise? The economy. Everything that happens every single day is worth a month in any other election, so anything can happen."
With public opinion of Trump calcified, even good news on the coronavirus or jobs front would be unlikely to change minds or votes.
And the news hasn't been good.
Last week's jobless claims report showed weekly applications for unemployment insurance in regular state programs are slowly decreasing, but recent reports have also come with fresh signs the pandemic-driven downturn will leave lasting economic scars. Americans are increasingly exhausting their unemployment benefits and moving onto a federal program that provides additional aid.
And Covid-19 cases are rising across the country, including in almost every battleground state. The seven-day moving average of confirmed new cases hit an all-time high in Minnesota, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Ohio last week.
The pandemic is unprecedented in modern history. But this isn't the first time Biden's name is on the ticket in the midst of an economic downturn.
Still, the economy of October 2020 is starkly different than that of October 2008. Then, the unemployment rate was rising. Now, it's falling.
But like the last downturn, the number of long-term unemployed is growing. The depth and length of joblessness caused by the last recession led Congress to pass a wave of unemployment benefit extensions that ultimately provided up to 53 more weeks of benefits on top of regular state benefits and the permanent Extended Benefits program.
This time, Congress extended benefits by up to 13 additional weeks in the initial legislation, a measure that will expire at the end of the year if lawmakers cannot come to an agreement on a stimulus package. The supplemental $600-a-week payment also provided by that legislation expired in July despite both parties agreeing on the need for more support.
For Trump, the economy remains the one issue where he's not underwater in the polls. A New York Times/Siena College poll last week showed voters essentially tied now on who is the better economic steward, Trump's one consistent bright spot with voters until the pandemic. The unemployment rate was at a 50-year low in February.
Some of the states hit hardest by the Covid recession are the states Trump can't afford to lose. In Ohio, the unemployment rate is more than a point higher than it was in October 2008. It's about 2 points higher in Pennsylvania, and three points in Texas, where the pandemic coincided with a collapse in oil prices.
The Obama electoral map included states that had voted Republican for decades. Some, like Colorado, New Mexico and Virginia, have seen demographic changes that are likely to keep them in the Democratic column for the foreseeable future.
Others, like Florida and Ohio, remain battlegrounds.
But the most surprising feature of Trump's 2016 win was his narrow victories in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin.
Biden also has a chance to win North Carolina, a state Obama won in 2008 but lost in 2012. And his stretch goals include states that would have been unthinkable for Democrats a decade ago: Arizona, Georgia and Texas.
Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien said requested ballots aren't a true measure of participation—"the lesson here is ballots don't return themselves"—and that even the returned ballots were largely "cannibalizing" Election Day voting.
"You're getting in the bank early," he told reporters last week, "but there's no electoral impact to that strategy."
At a rally in North Carolina this month, Trump said his voters were waiting until Election Day to vote, when they would create "a big, beautiful red wave" that will propel him into a second term.
Democrats, chastened by their 2016 loss, aren't taking anything for granted.
Biden campaign manager Jen O'Malley Dillon told supporters in a memo this month that the race "is far closer than some of the punditry we're seeing on Twitter and on TV would suggest."
"If we learned anything from 2016, it's that we cannot underestimate Donald Trump or his ability to claw his way back into contention in the final days of a campaign, through whatever smears or underhanded tactics he has at his disposal," she said.
Disclaimer: This article first appeared on bloomberg.com, and is published by special syndication arrangement.