As Joe Biden was preparing to give his presidential nomination acceptance speech Thursday night, for me like so many others it was a time to reflect on where the race stands. I was thinking about the the Hans Christian Anderson fable “The Emperor’s New Clothes,” which many have cited in writings and cartoons criticizing President Trump. Each has put a slightly different contemporary spin on the 1837 story, in which a pair of swindlers convince a vain king that they could weave fabulous clothes for him with a magic fabric that could not be seen by anyone who was stupid or incompetent. The king commissioned the faux-tailors to make him a suit of clothes, checking on their work, watching the pair at their looms as they pretended to weave, not letting on that he could not see the fabric, lest people think him a fool. Once presented with the “clothes,” he strutted through the streets wearing nothing, no one letting on that they, too, could not see the clothes. Finally, a young boy cries out, “But he has nothing on!”
I think about the story in the context of this election, but not in a way that compares Trump to the king. Rather, I think about it in terms of the political analysts, pollsters, and pundits who refuse to state publicly what the data plainly show: that it is very, very unlikely Trump will win 270 electoral votes and the election.
Blame the election of 2016. Virtually everyone but the most die-hard Trump backers that year felt he would lose. Few forecasters thought it was possible for a candidate to lose the national popular vote by over 2 percentage points (nearly 3 million votes) and still win enough states to reach 270 electoral votes. You had to go back to 1876, when Samuel Tilden won the popular vote by 3 points yet lost the electoral vote 185 to 184, to see a similar scenario play out.
Between 1876 and 2016, the popular vote and the Electoral College diverged only two other times: in 1888, when Grover Cleveland won the popular vote by eight-tenths of a point but lost to Benjamin Harrison, and 2000, when Al Gore won the popular vote by a half-point but George W. Bush won the electoral vote on a 537-vote win in Florida.
But there was Trump, winning Michigan by two-tenths of a point, the first Republican to win there since 1988. He repeated the feat in Pennsylvania—again not won by a Republican since George H.W. Bush in ‘88—in this case by just seven-tenths of a point. Wisconsin was another seven-tenths margin, making him the first Republican to carry that state since Ronald Reagan in 1984.
And where were the polls off in 2016? In those very states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Postelection studies revealed that, nationally, there was a slight over-sampling of whites with college degrees and a slight under-sampling of whites with less than four-year degrees. Since then, most pollsters have begun to correct for that, weighting white voters by level of educational attainment. Just this week, Pew Research released a report to guide state-level pollsters how to weight samples to correct for education.
Go through the top-line results of high-quality polls such as those from ABC News/Washington Post, CNN, Fox News, and NBC News/Wall Street Journal, to name just four, and you’ll find that majorities of voters do not like Trump personally, they do not approve of his handling of the job overall, and they disapprove of his entire approach to the coronavirus. When asked about personal attributes, Trump fares poorly in most surveys and trails Biden in most of the categories when the two are compared. He trails Biden by about 10 percentage points nationally in the higher-quality surveys and is behind by at least 5 points in all 20 states that Hillary Clinton carried (plus D.C.), as well as Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Those states alone total 307 electoral votes.
Yes, there are things that could tilt this race: shenanigans at the Postal Service, voter confusion about how to vote, states' inability to process and count ballots on time, to name a few. But the race has to get much closer before these can possibly make a difference in a few key states.
Trump was the candidate of change in 2016. Now, Americans are very unhappy with where the country is and how he has handled his tenure. How does an incumbent prevail in the face of this? I just don’t see how the reasons why Trump was underestimated then still apply now. This shoe is on a different foot. So I am going to be like the kid saying that the emperor has no clothes.
A focused and disciplined incumbent president could climb out of this hole. But not one who too often seems to be his own worst enemy.