Mark McKinnon began his political career working as a campaign and media strategist for Texas Democrats before befriending George W. Bush, switching sides, and helping “43” win two presidential races. Now he’s the co-creator, co-executive producer, and co-host of Showtime‘s The Circus: Inside the Greatest Political Show on Earth, After interviewing polling expert Dave Wasserman of the Cook Political Report for the latest episode of The Circus, McKinnon, with years of experience, “came away with the sense that Trump is not just toast, but burnt toast. To use a poker metaphor: In the last election, Trump won by pulling an inside straight. This time he’ll need nothing short of a royal flush—by pulling an ace from his sleeve.”
McKinnon may be wrong, but despite many uncertainties, the preponderance of the evidence suggests that he’s right. Trump is burnt toast.
The biggest wildcard is the COVID-19 pandemic, which has unsettled both election laws and voter behavior, with results that are hard to predict. Many states have greatly expanded early voting options, including excuse-free absentee voting. Democrats, more heedful of medical advice and social distancing, are voting early, particularly by mail, at a much higher rate than Republicans. This has built the Dems a healthy lead in the votes already cast, which is a huge advantage. A vote already counted is one less you have to drag to the polls on Nov. 3
The Republicans comfort themselves with the pleasing notion that they’ll have a correspondingly higher share of in-person voters. Maybe. But the COVID-19 infection rate is growing to an all-time high, which may depress the Election Day vote and foil their hopes of catching up, plus long-lines could prove a deterrent to actually casting ballots.
It’s not just early voting results that suggest that President Trump is way behind. One week out from Election Day, FiveThirtyEight and JHKForecasts both give Joe Biden an 88 percent chance of winning the presidency, while The Economist puts the odds at 96 percent. It seems that the only thing that can save Trump now is a huge polling error.
Sure, the polls could be wrong. One way they might err is if many Democratic voters simply aren’t counted because of various legal machinations. With the Supreme Court issuing a 5-3 ruling on Monday disallowing late-arriving mail ballots in Wisconsin, Democrats have a very legitimate concern that the Republicans could use litigation to squeeze out a victory in the state. Yet, there aren’t many more states that have deadline extensions for the Supreme Court to adjudicate. While tossed Democratic ballots could confound the pollsters, so could a pandemic-related drop-off in Election Day Republican votes.
What seems to be a very high turnout is good news for Democrats in many ways. Consider the turnout models the pollsters are using. Harry Enten of CNN says that robust early voting patterns are consistent with the polls showing Biden with a solid lead.
High overall turnout is often thought to benefit the Democrats, and a FiveThirtyEight model estimates that a record 154 million Americans will cast a vote in 2020. Whether this helps Biden or not, it’s likely to make the polls more accurate. As Enten explains, “A lot of problems in polling can come from trying to figure out which voters are more likely to actually turn out and vote…If turnout is higher, the likely voter universe has a better chance of matching the registered voter universe.”
What about the youth vote? If the pollster’s likely voter models are still off, it could be due to the youth vote. Young voters are underrepresented in the early vote, but that’s to be expected. U.S. Census Bureau data say only 43 percent of voters aged 18-24 turned out in 2016, even as overall participation was 61 percent. Polling models generally reflect this expectation, so lagging youth numbers are not obvious reasons to doubt the forecasts.
Yet, an Institute of Politics at Harvard Kennedy School national survey of 18 to 29 year-olds released Monday found that young voters are just as enthused about voting in 2020 as they were during Barack Obama’s initial run for the presidency in 2008. This group prefers Biden to Trump by an eyepopping 63 to 25 percent margin, so if they turn out late at a higher than expected numbers, the pollsters are underestimating Biden’s strength.
In looking for hidden factors that could help Trump exceed expectations, David Siders of Politico noted, “Republican registration has ticked up in key states at the same time Democratic field operations were in hibernation” due to concerns about the pandemic. The result is a boost of white, non-college-educated voters in the states that put Trump over the top in 2016: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan.
Does the uptick in white working-class voter registration spell doom for Democrats? Sure, there’s reason to worry. Non-college whites are essential to the GOP base. Republican registration drives naturally focus on demographics and regions where they have a big advantage. With Democrats largely shelving their door-knocking and other in-person efforts, and Republicans boosting their base, the new registrations skew toward white working-class and rural voters.
Here’s the catch: New registrants are notoriously unreliable voters. They require a dedicated Get-Out-the-Vote effort to mobilize so that pollsters may be underestimating the level of turnout Trump will get from these folks. It may take a lot of money (which the Trump campaign is short on) and effort (which is hard to gin up in the time of COVID).
Another factor that could help Trump and should concern Democrats is higher than expected support from black and Latino men, which has been detected in enough different polls to be considered a real thing. It’s the key reason the latest New York Times/Siena poll of Texas projects Trump will win there. But, if the pollsters are already factoring this in, it’s not clear how it could help Trump do better than projected.
The Democrats’ understandably remain concerned. Voter suppression could cost them, either through long lines or delayed mail delivery, that results in Supreme Court-supported trashing of legitimate ballots. There could be pressure from Trump and the Republicans to stop the counting before it is completed. But Democrats shouldn’t be too worried that the polls are off, at least as a measure of voter intentions.
If anything, it’s Trump who should worry. If the youth vote turns out at a rate commensurate with their declared enthusiasm, this will swamp any benefit he gets out of Republican registration drives. The Democrats have a big advantage in votes already cast, so the uptick in COVID-19 cases is likely to dissuade more Republicans than Democrats from risking in-person voting on Election Day. A huge overall turnout usually benefits the Democrats and makes it less probable that the likely voter universe is different from the actual voter universe.
If you’re still in doubt that Trump is burnt toast, consider where the candidates are spending the last week campaigning. Biden is visiting Georgia and Iowa, while his running mate Kamala Harris campaigns in Texas. Meanwhile, Trump is going to Nebraska and Arizona, while Pence will visit North and South Carolina. In short, Democrats have a shot at painting the map blue, and Republicans are defensively trying to preserve their red bastions.