And there is, of course, nothing conventional about the conditions under which the 2020 election will be conducted. Mail-in voting is running high so far, with ballots returned by registered Democrats outpacing those returned by registered Republicans by a ratio greater than two to one. On the other hand, polling indicates that Republicans are twice as likely as Democrats to vote on election day. Democrats are counting on strong in-person turnout as well as historically unprecedented numbers of mailed-in ballots. But how the magnitude of Democratic mail-in voting might affect day-of voting is an open question—will it free up resources for more effective get-out-the-vote operations on Election Day? Or will it create a sense among many Democratic voters that the election has already happened? And how much of a difference in intensity will there be between those voters who have already mailed in ballots and those who have requested ballots but have not yet bothered to send them in? A troubling scenario for Democrats would be one in which they have already harvested the low-hanging fruit, and what’s left proves to be out of reach.
All told, the standard narrative of what the 2020 election is going to look like takes a great deal for granted: about turnout, about which states are the battlegrounds, and about voters’ psychology. The preponderance of polling shows President Trump trailing both nationally and in the contest for such big Electoral College prizes as Florida and Pennsylvania, and his numbers in places like Ohio and Georgia are discouraging for the GOP. Democrats can dream of a landslide, and the more cautious among them are still confident of a solid win for Biden. Trump is once again the underdog, a role that he’s used to, but which Americans are not accustomed to seeing presidents play. Political scientists say that presidential elections are referendums on the incumbent and his party. COVID-19 and the economic crisis it spawned would put any president’s re-election in serious jeopardy. And Trump’s razor-thin margins in the battlegrounds last time leave him with no room to fall back. This would be the toughest re-election battle of any president in over 40 years even without the peculiarities of Trump’s personality and the relentless hostility toward him from America’s leadership class. But that last point also works to President Trump’s advantage: Americans have shown a persistent and growing disaffection with the political establishment over the last 30 years, resulting in the defeat of George H.W. Bush in 1992; the GOP takeover of the House of Representatives for the first time in decades two years later; the see-sawing control of the House between 2006 and 2018; the elevation of Barack Obama from first-term senator to president in 2008; and the election of Trump himself in 2016. Joe Biden is promising a return to normal for America’s elite, but voters have chosen change over permanence more often than not in the last 30 years. Donald Trump may be the incumbent, but where government and society as a whole are concerned, he is still the candidate of change.
But is he too much change, too quickly—and of the wrong kind? Do voters prefer to hit reset with Biden and try a different kind of change four years from now? Or sooner: Rasmussen polling finds that 59 percent of Americans don’t expect that Biden, if he wins, will finish a full term. Forty-nine percent of Democrats, 73 percent of Republicans, and 57 percent of unaffiliated voters think President Biden would be less than a one-term president. That too has to weigh on Americans’ minds, especially among those who make their choice on Election Day itself. Four years as president took a visible toll on Trump, who in 2017 entered office fully eight years younger than Joe Biden will be come January 2021. Look at any recent president’s first term and second term photos—George W. Bush’s or Barack Obama’s—and just imagine what a visibly older Biden will be like. This is uncharted territory, and voters know it.
President Trump is not beaten. The variables in play in this election leave plenty of potential for him to win. He’s campaigning vigorously, and in pushing ahead with the Barrett confirmation he’s shifted the political landscape to his advantage—by just how much, we’ll know in a few weeks. How he campaigns and what policies he promotes between now and Nov. 3 can build on the opportunities that developments this past week have presented. But this election that everyone has said is all about Donald Trump will, in the end, be about the electorate itself, which once again—as in 2016—faces a choice not just between two candidates but between past and future. The younger man, disruptive and transformative, is the catalyst of change—even if this time he’s the incumbent.
Daniel McCarthy is the Editor of Modern Age. You can follow him on Twitter: @TonyAnarchist.
Image: U.S. President Donald Trump is seen reflected in the glasses of a supporter as he speaks during a campaign rally at Pitt-Greenville Airport in Greenville, North Carolina, U.S., October 15, 2020. REUTERS/Carlos Barria.