Election 2020

An Election Everyone Is Too Scared to Call

Only three elected incumbent presidents in the last century have lost reelection. Polls suggest Trump will be the fourth, but the memories of 2016 have made pollsters leery.

This article is part of Election 2020: America Votes, FP’s round-the-clock coverage of the U.S. election results as they come in, with short dispatches from correspondents and analysts around the world. The America Votes page is free for all readers.

Voters fill out their ballots at an early voting center
Voters fill out their ballots at an early voting center in Alexandria, Virginia, on Oct. 31. Stefani Reynolds/Getty Images

It takes an awful lot to unseat an elected incumbent president, even an unpopular one. It has happened only three times in U.S. politics in the last century—1932, 1980, and 1992—and despite Democratic challenger Joe Biden’s substantial, steady lead over President Donald Trump, pollsters and pundits alike are doubly reluctant to call this one.

That’s not just because Trump has been openly suggesting he might not accept the results—even declaring the first night of the Republican convention that the only way he could lose “is if this is a rigged election”—but also because the media and pollsters have still not recovered from their embarrassment over the titanic miscalls of 2016. There was a lot of crow eaten the week of that year’s election—even in one case a cricket gulped live on TV by a penitent pollster who had given Hillary Clinton a 93 percent chance of winning—and the bitter taste still lingers, as does concern over the damage to reputations.

Though some respected polling outfits such as FiveThirtyEight are now giving Biden almost as high a chance of winning as that 2016 prediction, TV networks and major news organizations such as the Associated Press are pledging to be restrained in their predictions and open up their data to the public. Because of the massive number of mail-in and absentee ballots this time, in part due to COVID-19 measures—and because of Republicans’ many legal challenges to them—some networks are suggesting they may not call the race by Tuesday night, as typically happens. “CNN is deploying resources to keep viewers apprised of updates on vote counts and reports, which may extend beyond November 3,” the network said in a press release.

But the odds are clearly stacked against Trump. On Saturday, FiveThirtyEight’s Nate Silver wrote on his website that Trump has just a 10 percent chance of winning and “things aren’t likely to change all that much in our forecast between now and just after midnight on Tuesday, when we’ll freeze it.”

Biden’s other major advantage may be that not only is he well ahead of polling in the national vote—indeed there is confidence on both sides he will win the popular vote as Clinton did—but that he is also ahead of where Clinton was against Trump in most battleground states at this juncture. Even so, Biden is still thought to be vulnerable in some of the same states that Democrats in 2016 described overconfidently as their “blue wall,” including Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin.

For both candidates, campaigning in the final days has focused on some of those same states, particularly those three, but also closely fought Florida, Georgia, and North Carolina. According to Politico, in the final days of the race Trump planned to be in Reading, Butler, Bucks County, and Montoursville in Pennsylvania. Next he planned to go to Washington, Michigan; Dubuque, Iowa; Hickory, North Carolina; Rome, Georgia; and Miami. On Monday, the president’s schedule had him heading to Fayetteville, North Carolina; Scranton, Pennsylvania; Traverse City, Michigan; and Kenosha, Wisconsin, before returning to Michigan to close the campaign in Grand Rapids. Biden and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, along with their spouses, were also planning to barnstorm the entire state of Pennsylvania just before the election. 

Why is this election so different? Incumbency is a powerful inducement to reelection, and it was only in extreme cases that past incumbents failed to make it back into office. The most obvious failure was Herbert Hoover’s disastrously inadequate response to the Great Depression, which turned him into a national joke—desperate millions were living in shacks in “Hoovervilles” and sleeping under “Hoover blankets” (newspapers)—and gave Franklin D. Roosevelt a landslide in 1932. Time magazine derisively called Hoover the “president-reject.”

Jimmy Carter’s come-from-nowhere election in 1976 against incumbent Gerald Ford, who had assumed the presidency after Richard Nixon’s resignation, was considered a freakish outcome of the Watergate scandal. It was a moment in history when, as in 2016, Americans were disgusted with the Washington establishment, and Ford’s pardon of Nixon didn’t help him. Then multiple crises hit—stagflation and the Iran hostage crisis, complicated by Carter’s oddly uninspiring, somewhat self-flagellating personality. The charismatic Ronald Reagan, promising a new “morning in America,” also won in a landslide in 1980.

The last victim of the rare incumbent curse was George H.W. Bush, who despite winning the Gulf War in 1991 had been hit by a serious recession and, worst of all, an unexpectedly powerful independent challenge from Ross Perot. Bill Clinton got in largely on the strength of diversion of votes from Bush—who was not fully trusted by the Republican Party base, especially after he broke his “read my lips” pledge not to raise taxes—to Texas magnate Perot.

For Trump, of course, the prospect of losing the White House can be mostly ascribed to the COVID-19 pandemic and its dramatic slowdown of the economy, which unlucky for him struck at a time when many pundits were predicting Trump’s reelection on the strength of a soaring economy and a few foreign-policy victories. Trump is still rating well against Biden on the economy—typically the key factor in second-term victories—despite the pandemic shutdowns. 

But COVID-19 has trumped all that, and Trump’s much-criticized response to the pandemic has undercut his reelection bid in a way nothing else has. Three days before the election, on Halloween night, Oct. 31—in what almost amounted to an October surprise move—the Washington Post published a devastating interview with Trump’s top infectious disease specialist, Anthony Fauci, in which the celebrated doctor castigated the administration for its response to containing the pandemic. 

“We’re in for a whole lot of hurt. It’s not a good situation,” Fauci told the newspaper on Friday, the same day the United States hit a record high number of confirmed daily coronavirus cases, tallying more than 83,000. “All the stars are aligned in the wrong place as you go into the fall and winter season.” Fauci, who until now has mostly avoided politics, also harshly criticized Scott Atlas, a neuroradiologist who has taken a leading role in advising Trump on the virus and promoting the president’s tactic of downplaying it. But Atlas, said Fauci, is “talking about things that I believe he doesn’t have any real insight or knowledge or experience in.” 

White House deputy press secretary Judd Deere later slammed Fauci for deciding “to choose three days before an election to play politics.”

The surprise Fauci interview was somewhat reminiscent of the moment in late October 2016 when then-FBI Director James Comey announced that he had revived his investigation into Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s emails only 11 days before the election. The Comey revelation was a body blow that slowed Clinton’s momentum just as she was putting questions about her character and culpability behind her.

Trump is still hoping for a last-minute surge. But some experts suggest that the biggest difference between 2020 and 2016—one that plays to Biden’s favor—is that there are far fewer undecideds in this election, and the polling is more solid than it was in 2016. Asked what he thought the most telling difference between both races, Matt Bennett of Third Way, a centrist Democratic think tank, emailed that this time “it won’t break towards Trump at the very end. No third parties and very few undecideds.”

Even so, perhaps the main reason election experts and pollsters are reluctant in the extreme to count Trump out is the utterly unprecedented nature of his presidency. A non-politician who had never won office before, Trump has appeared to break all the rules and has manipulated facts in the most cynical way. He bullied his way through the primaries by endlessly making fun of his establishment opponents and overturned nearly every Republican orthodoxy, playing to populist anger over immigration and decimation of the middle class at the altar of free trade. Despite the obvious abuses of power that led to his impeachment last year, he has turned into a kind of cultural hero for many voters, particularly white voters—claiming over and over that Biden would turn the United States into a socialist nation, even turning the COVID-19 issue into a cultural fight over imposed mask-wearing and business shutdowns. 

In what was perhaps Trump’s strongest moment at their last debate, the president said that Biden would shut down the economy again, raise taxes on everyone, and his election would cause “a depression the likes of which you’ve never seen. Your 401(k)s will go to hell and it will be a very, very sad day for this country.” At a rally on Sunday in Michigan—a crucial battleground state where the Democratic governor, Gretchen Whitmer, has been criticized and even made the target of a kidnapping plot for imposing strict lockdown restrictions—Trump again declared that Biden’s plan for coronavirus lockdowns is to “imprison you in your home.”

Those allegations reflected very little of the reality of Biden’s positions—the former vice president has said only that he would raise taxes on the very wealthy and would try to reopen the country as quickly as possible—but if there’s another thing we’ve learned since 2016 it is that facts often don’t matter a whit in the electoral politics that brought Trump to power. 

Then there are all the constitutional questions that could come into play if Trump refuses to concede a Biden win, alleging voter fraud that could tie up the election for weeks or months, even possibly ending up in Trump’s new 6-3 conservative majority Supreme Court. 

“Never in my 60 years around politics have I encountered this many people so tense, so full of dread and foreboding about an election—and what comes afterward,” tweeted the veteran political expert Larry Sabato on Saturday night. 

Michael Hirsh is a senior correspondent and deputy news editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @michaelphirsh

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