2020 Election Forecast - October 2020 Update
Since The National Watch published its first prediction of the 2020 election just three weeks ago, everything, and yet nothing, has changed. The New York Times obtained President Donald Trump’s past tax returns, revealing mountains of debt, incredible financial losses, and scant income tax payments. Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg died on September 18th after a long battle with pancreatic cancer, and Senate Republicans immediately promised to disregard their own precedent and rush forth a replacement. A presidential debate took place, the White House hosted a superspreader event, the First Lady disparaged Christmas decorations, and an ailing Trump personally ended negotiations to provide aid for Americans affected by the pandemic. So many developments have come and gone, yet the fundamental dynamics have remained the same. The novel coronavirus continues to ravage the United States, with cases and deaths remaining tragically high. Polling remains consistent (more on that later), battles over voting access continue, the candidates’ messages and strategies remain largely the same, and Congress remains intransigent. Before presenting our October 2020 projection, which comes on the eve of the Vice Presidential Debate between Kamala Harris and Mike Pence, we take a look back at the month that was, examining its impact on the final month of the campaign.
The Covid Candidate
Early in the morning of Friday, October 2nd, word began trickling out: President Donald Trump, and First Lady Melania, had contracted coronavirus. While there was the usual stream of well wishes one would expect, across the country and on both sides of the aisle, many questioned if the news was in fact true. The endless stream of lies emanating from the administration and Trump himself had taken a toll on Americans, who needed a clear, honest source of information regarding the President’s health. They would receive something quite different.
On Friday morning, Chief of Staff Mark Meadows described Trump’s symptoms as “mild”; the next day, he told Fox News host Jeanine Pirro that “yesterday morning, we were real concerned”, adding that Trump’s “blood oxygen level had dropped rapidly.” Trump posted a relatively subdued video to his Twitter account on Friday evening in which he brought less clarity and more alarm to the situation, asserting that he was doing well yet was being taken to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.
Dr. Sean Conley, Trump’s personal physician, spent the weekend dancing around questions from the media and providing answers that were equal parts vague and inconsistent. Conley stated on Saturday that Trump was “72 hours into the diagnosis”, much to the surprise of assembled media and the general public, who weren’t told of the diagnosis until just after midnight on Friday morning. Despite having read “72 hours” from written remarks, Conley, in an official memo which was rushed to print with a typographical error, claimed to have “incorrectly” described the timeline, stating that his diagnosis was Thursday, not Wednesday. He initially refused to answer questions about the temperature of Trump’s fever, his taking of supplemental oxygen, and the general seriousness of his condition.
Two photos released by the White House on Saturday night, presented as evidence of Trump’s improved condition, appeared upon further analysis to be staged, as they were taken just minutes apart in separate settings. Confusion only increased as, in spite of these rosy depictions, Conley conceded that Trump had been given dexamethasone, a medication typically used for patients experiencing severe symptoms. On Sunday, upon being asked if Trump’s blood oxygen level was ever below 90 percent, Conley responded “No, it was below 94 percent. It wasn’t down in the low 80’s or anything.” Of course, this suggests that his blood oxygen level may have dipped into the upper, or even mid 80’s, or perhaps not, but it’s impossible to discern from this answer. Unfortunately, this degree of obfuscation and uncertainty is what the country has come to expect from the Trump administration and those in its orbit, even otherwise unimpeachable experts.
The President has flouted guidance throughout the pandemic, holding large rallies and fundraisers with scant distancing or mask use. Last week, a Wednesday rally and a Thursday fundraiser, which was indoors, maskless, and included a buffet lunch, continued despite knowledge of Covid-positive individuals in the White House. After a crowd gathered outside of Walter Reed on Sunday, Trump left the hospital to be driven past his supporters, forcing Secret Service agents to risk exposure in a small, enclosed space. Mike Pence has continued in-person campaign events and the Trump campaign is referring to Joe Biden’s use of a mask as a “prop”. Americans are already horrified at the lack of information they’ve received regarding their President’s health; if the administration fails to appreciate the gravity of the pandemic and the crisis it has caused, no amount of supplemental oxygen can keep the Trump campaign alive.
Debating and Denouncing
While predictable, the scene was jarring—the President of the United States of America, in a formal debate broadcast around the globe, spending the better part of 90 minutes in a tantrum. Donald Trump routinely shouted over both his opponent and moderator Chris Wallace, seemingly driven more by petulance and grievance than strategy. When he occasionally did offer up an obviously pre-prepared one-liner, it was often a deflection from the issue at hand, and he quickly reverted to an off-the-rails stream of consciousness.
Biden, for his part, had a rather reserved response to this display of bluster. In the early moments of the debate, Trump’s overbearing approach seemed to genuinely surprise Biden, who appeared to have expected to answer questions and present policies without interruption. As the night wore on, a precious few opportunities emerged for Biden to speak, and he used them to present a clear distinction. The former Vice President blasted Trump’s reckless rhetoric and handling of the coronavirus pandemic, his failure to provide (and eagerness to repeal) healthcare, and his vitriolic impact on race relations. Substantive responses were nearly nonexistent from Trump, who opted instead for a continuous and often incoherent barrage of personal attacks throughout the evening.
Trump failed, repeatedly, to paint Biden as a radical and anti-law candidate, laying bare his own lack of a coherent message or strategy. At one point, Trump attacked Biden’s son for a drug addiction, falsely claiming it led to a dishonorable discharge from the military. Biden’s response: grace and compassion, again. He expressed pride in his son’s perseverance to overcome drug abuse, connecting his personal struggle with that of the countless Americans who have been impacted by addiction. Voters in the Midwest and South, ground zero for the opioid epidemic, were given a massive contrast.
Attacks against Biden’s sons, along with his ridicule of Biden’s mask use, were simply preambles to the most appalling moments of the night. Trump finished the debate by telling a white supremacist group to “Stand back and stand by” (a mantra co-opted by the group immediately thereafter) and railing against voting itself. Post-debate, many of those polled felt that their opinion of Biden remained relatively unchanged, and his message wasn’t entirely clear to them. What was clear was the implosion of his opponent, who wasn’t only angry and grating, but altogether unelectable. Trump presented no plan, no vision, and seemingly no purpose on the debate stage. It was as if he existed only to lob petty insults and baseless accusations into the ether, never stopping to wonder whether voters really wanted a live reenactment of his Twitter feed.
Back to where it all began: the Rose Garden. While difficult to confirm, especially given Trump’s propensity for unmasked mingling, contact tracing suggests that the September 26th Supreme Court nomination ceremony for Judge Amy Coney Barrett was a superspreader event. Three Senate Republicans, who could be vital in securing the simple majority needed to confirm Barrett, tested positive, two of whom attended the nomination (numerous other Republican officials, as well as members of the White House press pool, have also tested positive as a result of the event). Mitch McConnell, despite announcing that the floor of the Senate would not hold business while the three GOP senators recover, insisted that the confirmation hearings would go ahead. The benefit of prioritizing a politically motivated appointment over pandemic relief is unclear, but the repercussions are predictable.
From an electoral standpoint, the choice of Amy Coney Barrett to fill a Supreme Court seat doesn’t make a whole lot of sense, especially in an unprecedented rush before November 3rd. Barrett’s primary appeal appears to be to pro-life/anti-healthcare conservatives, a group that is both in the minority and already overwhelmingly supportive of Trump. Polling in July found Americans opposing the overturning of the Affordable Care Act by a 15-point margin, 53 to 38 percent, while a majority of Americans have been consistently pro-choice over time. Moreover, the other woman believed to have been considered for the nomination, Barbara Lagoa, is a first-generation Cuban American, currently serving on the bench in swing state Florida. A federal judge appointed by Trump, she is the bilingual daughter of refugees who fled Fidel Castro’s regime. For a candidate determined to foment rage and fear of a faceless “radical left”, this seems like the ultimate missed opportunity. Perhaps Lagoa’s promise to follow the precedent set by Roe v. Wade struck fear in the Trump campaign, which can’t afford to lose its base, but Barrett certainly won’t expand the coalition.
Polls Remain Steady
For the most part, the general thrust of national and state polling has remained stable since The National Watch presented its September 2020 prediction. Two of the three polling sites referenced in September (FiveThirtyEight and 270toWin) still predict the same six states to be within a 3-point margin: Florida, Georgia, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas. The third site, RealClearPolitics (RCP), agrees on four of those six states (Florida, Georgia, Iowa, and North Carolina), but includes Arizona as well. For RCP, this represents a shift, as Ohio and Michigan polled within 3 points in September but have since moved in Biden’s favor, while Biden’s lead in Arizona has shrunk.
All three sites still favor Trump in Texas, but the good news ends there. Iowa, which Trump led by an average of around 1.5 points in September, is now polling as a dead heat. Worse yet, Ohio, which Trump led in a majority of polling averages less than a month ago, has shifted to a roughly 2.5-point Biden advantage. Similarly, Georgia was in the Trump column across all three polling sites in September; the opposite is true today. While North Carolina remains relatively even and some small gains may be appearing in Arizona and Florida, this isn’t enough. In September, we predicted Trump victory in all three of these states, as well as Iowa and Ohio. Trump not only cannot afford to lose any of these states, all of which he continues to trail in, but he must gain serious ground in the Midwest. Biden holds strong leads in Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania, and his grip on the region does not appear to be slipping.
Only two states have changed hands in The National Watch’s electoral prediction since September. Both Ohio and Iowa now appear poised to go blue in November, giving Joe Biden a decisive Electoral College victory. As in our previous prediction, those states polling within 3 points are outlined in gold.
Trump has consistently trailed in the 2020 race, leaving his campaign in desperate need of a major win. It hasn’t delivered one, and none appear in sight as October begins with an infected candidate and reeling poll numbers. An incoherent, bullying outburst on the national stage and the rushed replacement of an American icon have likely set Trump back, and time continues to dwindle. As of October 7th, in-person voting will have begun in 19 states, with six more set to begin in the next week. Over 30 states have sent out absentee/mail-in ballots to voters.
While it’s clear that his handling of the epidemic has hobbled him immensely with voters, Covid-19 is doubly damning for Trump. In light of health concerns, millions of Americans are increasingly likely to vote by mail or vote early to avoid chaos and crowds on Election Day. Health-permitting, by the time the second debate is broadcast on October 15th, all but one state, heavily blue Washington, will have mailed out absentee ballots to voters. Over half of states, including every swing state but Florida, will have begun in-person early voting. Droves of voters will have cast their ballots, and the window for making a better impression will have closed, permanently.