Anne Applebaum: The election is in danger. Prepare now.
4. In 2016, district-level polls indicated a last-minute Democratic collapse. In 2020, they indicate Democratic strength.
In early November 2016, several careful polling analysts started sounding the alarm for Hillary Clinton in the upper Midwest.
Six days before the election, The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein noted that “Clinton has not visited Wisconsin since April, and appeared just twice in Michigan from June through October.” By abandoning these key states, she was acting “like a general who has sent out a large expeditionary force and left modest forces to defend their homeland.”
Five days before the election, Dave Wasserman at the Cook Political Report tweeted a poll from upstate New York that found Trump ahead by 14 points in a district where Obama and Romney had tied four years earlier. It suggested that Clinton’s support among white working-class districts was collapsing at the worst possible time. “Five days from Election Day, it’s clear who has the momentum,” he wrote. “And it’s not Hillary Clinton. This thing is close.”
This year, those congressional polls are telling a different story. Rather than illuminating surprising weaknesses for Biden, they’re reaffirming his strengths. In some cases, the district polls are pointing to an even larger Biden blowout than the national or state surveys. Most important, Trump isn’t getting anywhere near his 2016 margins in Michigan and Pennsylvania, Wasserman observed. Four years ago, there was a quiet “Trump! Trump! Trump!” alarm going off that only congressional polling analysts could hear. This year, they’re listening closely—but no Trump alarm is sounding.
5. In 2016, there wasn’t a global pandemic. In 2020, there is a global pandemic.
It’s been four years of one “shocking but not surprising” thing after another. But this year’s October surprises have been—unshockingly, unsurprisingly—all about the plague. The president’s COVID-19 diagnosis, which overlapped with a disastrous first-debate performance, buoyed Biden at the moment when Trump needed to stage a comeback. An autumn surge of nationwide cases refocused the national media’s attention on the pandemic, which the public believes Trump has mishandled.
Read: The November surprise
No one can say for sure who will win the election. If undecideds in key states such as Pennsylvania break hard for Trump, and the president benefits from another large polling error—or smallish errors in the right places—he could eke out another victory. Or he could fight Biden to a tie and then win the ensuing legal battles that discount Democratic mail ballots. But that is not the most likely outcome.
Biden holds a solid and steady lead over the incumbent president, while the pandemic is becoming more, not less, of a story as the country heads into the final days of voting. When the president complained, once again, on Monday about the news media’s pandemic obsession, his critique usefully crystallized his campaign’s biggest problem: “COVID, COVID, COVID.” The most important difference between 2016 and 2020 isn’t about polling methodology or the opposing candidate. It’s this: Four years ago, Trump ran on the vague promise of success, and this year he’s running on a clear record of failure. Judging by the polls, Americans have noticed.