All Base All the Time Fails to Deliver

AW
November 23, 2020

One of the theories given for why pre-election polling underestimated President Trump's share of the vote was that pollsters failed to anticipate the huge surge in turnout among Trump's base. One hypothesis is that these voters presented themselves as ambivalent voters — showing less interest in voting than others — and as such, didn't make it through a likely voter screen. 

However, given the fact that the long-stated goal of the Trump campaign was to find, register and turn out every single person who fit into the Trump demographic —especially white voters living in small town and rural areas of the Midwest — the fact that these voters ultimately showed up Election Day shouldn't necessarily come as such a surprise

Regardless, the battle over 'what the pollsters got wrong' is missing the bigger picture: Trump's all-base-all-the-time strategy was a failure. 

As I'd written about a lot during the campaign, Trump had a 50 percent problem. In 2016, Trump won six states — Arizona, Florida, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — with less than 50 percent of the vote. Without a significant third-party candidate or candidates on the ballot this year, getting a plurality of the vote would not be enough to win a state. Back in June, I wrote: "Biden doesn't need to win all of these states to win. He just needs a combination of three of them to get to 270... That's why it's more important than ever to understand if Trump's vote share in 2016 was his ceiling, or whether he has room to grow."

The results show that he did grow his showing — but only slightly — and not enough to get to 50 percent in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin or Arizona. Moreover, he actually lost ground (1.1 percent) in Georgia — a state he had carried with just 50.4 percent in 2016. 

For example, in Pennsylvania, Trump got 405,000 more votes than he did in 2016 but improved his vote share by less than 1 percent. The reason: Biden found 530,000 more voters than Clinton had gotten back in 2016. In Arizona, Trump got 409,000 more votes than he did in 2016. But, Biden found more than half-a-million more votes than Clinton. That translated to a Trump bump of 1 point over 2016, while Biden surged by almost five points. Trump's most impressive showing was Florida, where he picked up almost 3 points from his sub-50 percent showing in 2016 and finished with 51 percent of the vote. 

However, the other two battleground states where Trump improved the most over his 2016 showing were Ohio and Iowa — two states that he carried in 2016 with more than 50 percent and two states that Biden didn't need to reach 270 Electoral College votes. 

All of the talk about Trump's improving margins among Latino voters in Texas and Florida has obscured the bigger, more salient lesson of this election: running a base-only strategy was a losing one for the president. Yes, the battleground states were close. But, the bottom line was that Trump's approach turned off more voters than it attracted. And, even improving margins among Latinos in the border counties of Texas didn't make much of an improvement in Trump's overall showing in the state. In 2016, Trump won Texas with 52 percent. He carried the Lone Star state this year with 52.1 percent. 


2016 Vote Share vs. 2020 Vote Share

Image: John Lamparski/NurPhoto via AP