Have I been here before?
Because it feels like I’ve been here before.
You know what. I’m going to say I’ve been here before.
The only question is, when was that? Was it 2016 or was it 2012?
A lot of political pundits have recently reached for low hanging fruit and wrote about the similarities of this current election to 2016. And, indeed, there are many. But hardly any have ventured to discuss its similarities to Obama’s showdown with Mitt Romney back in 2012. In this regard, I think there is at least one important likeness to make note of.
I’m speaking here about the polls and the various reactions to them.
Let’s start with a recap of the similarities to 2016 since that’s the most recent and the most readily transparent and gives us the most material.
As you will recall from four years ago, Donald Trump appeared to face an uphill battle against Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton. We were given this information by the polls conducted by numerous media outlets. These were all in agreement throughout the summer and fall of that year that Clinton’s lead was both commanding and insurmountable.
Indeed, these organizations not only reported these polling numbers, they also took the liberty of forecasting the outcome for us based on these numbers. Figures like “Clinton has a 95% chance of winning the White House” were reported with frequency.
But while all of this polling and forecasting was going on, there was something else happening. Something else that many on the left and in the media tried to ignore, or at the very least tried to downplay, but couldn’t. It was the Trump rallies. They were frequent, they were widespread, and they were big.
In every city and in every town he went to, regardless of whether it was a red state or a blue state, people lined up in advance to meet him. These lines, sometimes forming days ahead of time, stretched around city blocks.
Then the rallies themselves were loud and energetic. People laughed with their candidate, and they laughed at the other candidate. There was cheering and chanting of “lock her up.” Then, when it was over, people left with a smile on their face. They were confident and hopeful about the future.
And these rallies took place two, sometimes three, times a day.
Not so for Clinton.
Clinton’s rallies were somewhat more … let’s say subdued. The crowds were smaller and the rallies themselves were far less frequent. So much so that many speculated about the candidate’s health. Could she keep up the pace needed to run for President? And if not. What did that say about her ability to actually serve?
She boasted neither the enthusiasm nor the good cheer of a Trump rally. In one instance, she was caught on a hot mic at a rally telling her staff that they needed more energy in there. Her attempts at humor usually fell flat and came out to nothing more than a chance to insult the other side. She would attach a pre-fix to the word “phobic” and use that as a label for anyone not voting for her. Who can forget the infamous “basket of deplorables” speech?
Alongside these stark differences in the rallies, there was a pervasive attitude of excitement throughout the country from people who actively wanted to go vote for Trump come November. They liked what he was saying and that it appeared someone was finally standing up for them.
This was an attitude that was in no way mirrored by the Clinton campaign whose best argument seemed to be “vote for me because I’m going to win anyway.”
So, while all of the polls told us one thing, the reality on the ground spoke to something very different.
Then, in the waning days of the election season, the polls tightened up. Donald Trump surged. Sure, they still didn’t predict his win, but neither did they predict an Earth-shattering defeat for him as they once did. Then, to the surprise of the media and just about everyone not supporting him, Trump defied the odds and he emerged victorious in one of the biggest political upsets in recent memory.
Either by better campaign planning or by blind luck, Trump had achieved victory in the electoral college. Yes, Clinton still won the popular vote. But that could be attributed to her lopsided victories in the far left leaning and high population states like California and New York. Places where Trump never had a chance anyway. In flyover country, in the swing states, Trump had outworked Clinton and the enthusiasm from his supporters had carried the day.
This play seems to be repeating itself in the current election cycle. While Trump is still here, Biden has taken the place of Clinton.
Like last time, the polls have been telling us for months that Donald Trump is going down to a humiliating defeat. Not only do the raw percentage numbers of the polls say this, but the media organizations reporting them have, again, seen fit to make predictions based on these polls. On the website economist.com, it is being reported that former VP Joe Biden has a 95% chance of winning the electoral college. Likewise, it is reporting that he has a 99% chance of winning the popular vote.
Like last time, these polls don’t seem to reflect the reality on the ground. Once again, Trump is hosting large rallies that attract energetic and boisterous crowds. This time around, large spontaneous Trump parades of cars are forming in cities around the country, sometimes stretching for miles. In many places, these parades are also taking place on the water as boaters take to the waves to let their Trump flags whip in the ocean wind.
For his part, Joe Biden’s rallies seem to be (somehow) even more subdued and rare than Clintons. Like in 2016, this fact is bringing the health of the candidate into question. On the rare occasion that you actually get to see a photo or video of the crowds at one of his rallies, you see that it isn’t actually a crowd at all. Rather, it’s a group of reporters, sitting in white circles scattered six feet apart across an outdoor area. This is, reportedly, to maintain social distancing out of an abundance of caution for the coronavirus. Someone of a more cynical nature, however, might think this is tacit recognition that Biden could never draw a crowd like Trump’s and therefore he’s not going to try.
Just as 2016, the campaign season is coming to a close with a tightening in the polls. The Investor’s Business Daily and Trafalgar polls both show Trump surging across the nation. According to former Bill Clinton political operative, Dick Morris, these two polls were the only ones to call the 2016 race accurately. For these two highly scientific polls to take these positions this late in the game says a lot. In fact, according to the head of the Trafalgar polls, Trump looks to be on pace to crack 300 in the electoral college.
So, clearly there are a lot of similarities between 2020 and 2016. But what about 2012?
While these similarities aren’t as numerous or obvious as 2016, there is abig one that is worth looking at. This is the reaction I see on the part of right-wing commentators in regard to these polls.
This came through acutely last Thursday night as I watched some of the post-debate analyses. I was watching Hannity on Fox News as he hosted a panel to discuss the debate and election in general. The guests were: Dan Bongino, Geraldo Rivera, and Judge Jeanine Pirro. During the course of the conversation, Rivera made a comment along the lines that while Trump had a solid debate performance, he is still trailing in all of the polls. To this, Bongino laughed, saying, “you actually believe the polls?” As if that was the most ridiculous thing he, or anyone, could believe at this point.
Bongino isn’t alone in this either. In a recent show, Rush Limbaugh read a lengthy piece discussing the pervading feeling that the reality on the ground told a different story from the polls. Based on this, he asserts that the polls are wrong.
These two reactions, as well as several others like them, reminded me of 2012 when Obama led Romney in all of the polls right up to election day. Many right-wing pundits then, like now, chose to reject these polls. The argument they advanced was that the polls were being dishonestly conducted. They said that these polls were oversampling Democrats by a big margin and that more Republicans would actually show up on election day than they were predicting.
According to an article in Politico, written by Mackenzie Weinger and dated Nov. 6, of that year, there were several conservative commentators who predicted a Romney victory based on this rationale. Included in that list are Newt Gingrich, Karl Rove, Dick Morris, Bill Kristol, Laura Ingraham, the late Charles Krauthammer, Sean Hannity, and Rush Limbaugh.
While many of these personalities are still around and repeating this refrain in this election cycle, perhaps Steve Cortes, a Trump campaign official, said it best. Speaking to Bill Hemmer on Fox News, he said, “I think polls matter. We pay some attention to them. It’s very critical to look at the inputs into these polls because the inputs often determine the final output numbers. And Many of these polls-I haven’t looked at this one yet specifically, but many of these polls have massive oversampling of Democrats.”
This mindset led to overconfidence in 2012. So much so that it was reported that Romney didn’t even have a concession speech ready when it became apparent he was going to lose. Here in 2020, it is my fear that history may repeat itself simply because I see this same argument about Democrat oversampling repeated so much.
While it is often the case that past is prologue, it is not necessarily the case. 2020 may end up being a repeat of 2012 or it may end up being a repeat of 2016. More likely than either of these scenarios, though, is that 2020 will be entirely unique and any similarities with these other elections is entirely on the surface.
With only a week to go, there are several things in motion that may affect both the polling and the final outcome and therefore give 2020 its own unique flavor.
First, it would be a win for the President to see positive 3rd quarter GDP results. These are expected out later this week and most expect them to be on the good side. This would bolster Trump’s claim to being the better person to lead the country into economic recovery after the Coronavirus and that we can and should reopen despite that ongoing pandemic.
Second, the ongoing Mideast peace agreements have been a huge feather in Trump’s cap and stand to get better with Sudan joining the Abraham Accords and the possibility of even more joining soon, including Saudi Arabia. Such international agreements, previously thought impossible, render criticism of Trump’s foreign policy and the criticism that he has diminished U.S. standing in the world as petty and as nothing more than criticism for the sake of criticism.
Third, the ongoing scandal of Hunter Biden’s laptop is going to continue to be a pain in the Democrat’s backside as more damaging information continues to drip into the public consciousness day by day right up to the election.
Finally, the Trump campaign is inextricably linked to down ballot campaigns in several states. This is particularly true for several Senate seats under dispute in key swing states. Good performance on the part of Republican Senate candidates can help Trump. Conversely, poor performance on their part may hurt him.
As we hit the home stretch, it is useful to look to past events to help us make sense of current ones. Both 2012 and 2016 can speak into our current circumstances and give us hints as to what might happen. However, let’s not lose sight of the events going on right now by over-intellectualizing these comparisons. While there are similarities, this year’s circumstances are unique. And if we don’t pay attention to that uniqueness, how will we be able to compare future elections to the events of 2020?
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