Despite what many may think, there are few things pundits enjoy less than making hard and fast predictions about an election.
Yet a quiet consensus had been forming, no doubt partly the result of Donald Trump himself and Republican messaging, that the president was set for re-election. Despite his approval rating never shifting consistently out of the low 40s, it was also believed that solid core would not budge. If the economy steadily kicked back to life, if the number of coronavirus deaths flattened, Trump with an incumbent’s advantage, was likely looking at a second terms. He remains the bookies’ favourite.
That picture was challenged this week by a prediction from a respected consulting firm, that not only would Trump be defeated, but by a landslide.
“Our national Election Model predicts Trump will lose the popular vote by a margin of 30 points – gathering only 35 per cent of the votes – the worst incumbent performance in a century,” says the report by Oxford Economics.
The report suggests in addition to losing the popular vote, Trump will be pummelled in the Electoral College by 328 – 210. It says seven states that voted for the president in 2016 – Iowa, Ohio, Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Missouri, and North Carolina – will be be flipped by Democrats.
The company, which had previously predicted Trump would win the election with 55 per cent of the vote, warns that voter turnout and the pandemic are factors that could significantly alter the outcome. Yet it says: “A deeper recession, or slower recovery from the global coronavirus recession, would represent an even larger hurdle for Trump.”
The president’s campaign was quick to reject the analysis. “2016 proved that polling is notoriously wrong and has always underestimated the president and his ability to connect with the American people,” says deputy press secretary Sarah Matthews.
“In November the choice will be clear: president Trump is the only candidate who has demonstrated that he knows how to get the economy fired up again.”
For supporters of Biden and critics of Trump, the prediction by Oxford Economics was as sweet as the rarest, unfiltered wild honey. Three-and-a-half years after after Trump stunned most observers and broke the hearts of those who believed Hillary Clinton could not lose, their wounds remain sore.
Indeed, having watched him be impeached by the House over his alleged efforts to entice Ukraine to help him against Biden, and then witnessed what many consider a faltering, faulted response to Covid-19, the desperation among Democrats to get rid of Trump has only risen. Very quickly, the report became top trending news.
For those who have come to political or civic maturity more recently, amid a divided nation in which politics has been tribal and bitter, the idea of a landslide must feel like a novelty. Having been repeatedly told that the political party battle lines had long been drawn and the number of independents reduced to a sliver, the very idea that the firmament could be shifted is by itself startling.
For those with more experience, landslides are not ancient history – they occurred in 1984, 1972, 1964 and in 1936.
One thing the model admitted it could not account for was “candidates’ attributes such as race, gender, or ‘likeability’– the last factor may be centrally important in 2020”. This was something seized on Christina Greer, professor of political science at New York’s Fordham University, who sounded something of a wake-up call to those who now believe ousting the president will be easy.
Donald Trump, she says, has not been any ordinary president. “He has already said he will do whatever it takes to stay in office,” she says. “So I am a little bit wary about all this talk of ‘Biden by a landslide’.”
But could it happen? Are the conditions and circumstances of 2020 in any way similar to those in 1984, 1972 and 1936. What lessons are to be learned from casting our eyes back?
1984: Morning in America – Ronald Reagan (R) 59 – 40 Walter Mondale (D)
In the first debate between Reagan and the Minnesota senator, there were moments when the 73-year Republican looked confused and lost. Nobody knew then about the Alzheimer’s he would be later be diagnosed with. In the second debate, he was asked whether he was up to the task.
“I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said, with just a hint of a smile. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.”
The audience erupted in laughter, as did Mondale. Jimmy Carter’s former vice president, then aged 56, said he knew in that moment the race was over. (Reagan would win 49 of the 50 states, with Mondale holding only his home state.)
In truth, he was already facing an uphill battle. Reagan, with the syrupy, sunny campaign advertisement “Morning in America” – recently borrowed by anti-Trump Republicans who produced a “Mourning in America” video – appeared to catch the mood in the country, keen to move on from the oil and hostage crises that hampered Carter. Reagan had plenty of critics of his domestic and foreign policies, but as a campaigner he was rarely matched.
CNN commentator and broadcaster Jeff Greenfield, who wrote a book about the 1980 election, and covered the ’84 race, says the contrast between then and 2020 was like night and day. “It was a classic feel-good-about-the-country (campaign). You know, we’re content. And we don’t get a lot of those. The last one was probably 1996,” says Greenfield.
“This election is going to be – and Trump’s people have been very clear about this – making Biden utterly unacceptable. ‘He’s corrupt, he’s senile, he’s got dementia. He’s a paedophile’,” he says.
“We didn’t go near that kind of thing [in ’84.] Reagan didn’t have to. The country was happy with the leadership, and with the state of the economy.”
Could Trump be beaten in a landslide in November? Greenfield says the key question is whether there is anything that will cause Trump’s hardcore base to desert him. He says: “If Trump doesn’t do any better than 43 or 44, that suggests something like a 10-point spread for Biden which, in my view, that’s a landslide.”
Howell Raines covered the race for the New York Times and wrote the paper’s front page story that appeared the day after Reagan’s win. He would go on to become the paper’s executive. He also views the ’84 election in sharp contrast to the 2020 race.
Reagan, he says, had managed to capture “the zeitgeist”. “We saw a harbinger of it in 1980, when he was running against Carter, who was a better president than he gets credit for,” he says. “He radiated positivity in a way that Jimmy Carter did not, just by his simple, rather retiring nature. All of that built into a huge tidal wave of support for for Reagan. And if you’re out on the campaign trail as I was, you could feel it cresting throughout the [autumn].”
He adds: “If anything, I was surprised Reagan was held to 60 per cent, because it never felt like a competitive election.”
Raines also feels Trump could be defeated in November by some margin.
“The stage is set for the kind of landslide that Oxford [Economists] is predicting in general terms,” he says. “Urban America, young America, older America and minority America are all coalescing in the Democratic column.”
He adds: “I want to put in one huge caveat; the ability of the Democratic Party to shoot yourself in the foot can hardly be over overestimated.”
He says there are three elements that will lead to Trump’s defeat – the “incompetence” in dealing with the pandemic, the state of the economy and people who gave to “gamble their lives” to go to work, and that for the “first time in modern American history – allowing for the foibles of Nixon and Clinton – we don’t have a president that parents and grandparents can point to as a general role model”.
“Those three factors make it a very difficult election for Trump to win.”
1972: The burying of an insurgent’s campaign – Richard Nixon (R) 61 – 38 George McGovern (D)
There are various accounts of the 1972 race between the incumbent Nixon, a former governor of California, and his challenger, a South Dakota senator.
Few are more colourful than that by the late Hunter S Thompson – “At this point, the story becomes very slippery with many loose ends and dark shadows…” – whose reports for Rolling Stone were accompanied by wild illustrations by the British artist Ralph Steadman. Thompson’s coverage and “gonzo” style, frequently imitated but never matched, would be collected in Fear and Loathing on the Campaign Trail ‘72. Thompson killed himself in 2005, having previously requested Johnny Depp fire his ashes into the sky above a Colorado valley.
Bruce Miroff’s account of the race – The Liberals’ Moment: The McGovern Insurgency and the Identity Crisis of the Democratic Party – contains no episodes with hard drugs. Yet both share the view McGovern never stood a chance of defeating Nixon.
While Nixon also worked hard to bolster the economy going into the election, says Miroff, professor of political science at the University at Albany in New York state, his victory resulted from two key factors. One was that McGovern was considered too far to the left. A third of Democrats voted for Nixon. The second was the way in which McGovern dumped his running mate, Thomas Eagleton, after it was revealed he had been treated for depression.
“That led to a perception that he was both incompetent and kind of a typical duplicitous politician,” he says.
While Nixon trounced McGovern, who won only Massachusetts and Washington DC, his second term was notoriously cut short. As the Watergate affair grew public, Nixon became more paranoid and angry. In 1973 a grand jury investigation was launched into the administration’s dirty tricks campaign against Democrats. In 1974, the Supreme Court ordered the release of White House tapes that revealed Nixon’s involvement.
Congress prepared articles of impeachment – just the second president to face them at that point – and in August 1974 he resigned. “By taking this action, I hope that I will have hastened the start of that process of healing which is so desperately needed in America,” he said, before departing the White House by helicopter.
Does Miroff see any parallels between 1972 and 2020? He says he remains sceptical of the idea Trump could lose by a landslide. So far, he says, polling shows voters do not blame him for what has happened to the economy as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
But what if unemployment reached 25 per cent and the number of people dead reached 150,000? “That would create a grim mood in the country,” he says. “When the public is in a grim mood, they don’t tend to reelect presidents.”
He says he feels a landslide is not likely, but is possible. While Trump had never been popular, he had never faced a crisis of this nature. He says the Democrats’ best tactic would be to challenge Trump’s record not on the economy, but his response to the pandemic. In such circumstances, he could envisage Biden winning by 10 points
“That would create a sense of ‘Why should we reelect somebody who’s presided badly over such a terrible time’,” he says. “And add to that the pre- existing view of so many people that Trump is not competent, that he’s dishonest.”
1936: We will keep our sleeves rolled up – Franklin Delano Roosevelt (D) 61- 37 Alf Landon (R)
The most important thing about the election that saw FDR first reelected, says historian Si Sheppard, is not that unemployment at that point stood at 17 per cent.
Rather, it was that when he took office four years earlier it been 25 per cent. “The key point to bear in mind about that was the question of trajectories. The trajectory of the economy under administration,” says Sheppard, author of The Buying of the Presidency? Franklin D Roosevelt, the New Deal, and the Election of 1936.
“When Roosevelt ran for reelection in 1936, the unemployment rate was actually 17 per cent, which under normal circumstances would have been disastrous for an incumbent. But relative to what happened when he took office, that was an improvement.”
He adds: “So he had that kind of tailwind behind him. So it’s a question, not of the overall record of an administration, but of the trajectory hitting into a reelection year”.
Sheppard says a similar trajectory helped Reagan in ’84. Unemployment in November 1984 was higher than it had been when he first ran for office in 1980. But because the recession had peaked in 1982 and the economy was recovering, voters had a positive impression.
In a key speech, Roosevelt told voters: “For nearly four years, you have had an administration which instead of twirling its thumbs, has rolled up its sleeves. We will keep our sleeves rolled up.”
Sheppard, a professor of history at New York’s Long Island University, says in 2020 the economy will likely play a huge role. While it is possible for a president to lose reelection when the economy is good it is all but impossible to win when it is bad. “My big concern for this election, is that the situation will repeat from 2016 that Trump could lose the popular vote, but still wins with the electoral college.”
Sheppard says he sees no evidence Trump’s hardcore base of support is going to abandon him.
Another scholar of the 1936 election, Laura Smith, agrees one of the similarities between that election, which came after the Great Depression began in 1929, and the one in 1984, was a sense of optimism evoked by the winners.
Smith, who teaches American politics at Canterbury Christ Church University in Britain, says Trump too has sought to portray himself as a cheerleader for the nation.
“He says he likes to be a cheerleader, even though it doesn’t represent the facts of the reality … It’s something Reagan was really well known for, “the Great Communicator” and all that,” she says.
Smith says there is much unknown about the way politics will play out over the coming six months – will there be conventions, will people be safe to vote in November – that makes predictions even harder.
“We’re dealing in 2020 with a reality of economic deprivation that real Americans, especially agricultural Americans, are feeling,” she says. “Will it matter to Trump’s diehard supporters? Probably not, they probably will continue to have faith in him.”