Since 2000, presidential elections have been won in the margins. Some wins were bigger than others. But compared to the previous century, this two-decade period of competitive elections is a testament to how polarized the country has become.
But there is one exception to the recent rule: Barack Obama’s landslide victory in 2008. In November, Obama stomped all over Republican John McCain. Obama took 68 percent of Electoral College votes by winning states like Indiana and Virginia that no Democrat had won since 1964.
For most of that year, the 2008 presidential campaign didn’t feel like a landslide at all. Indeed, in early September national polling from reputable outlets like the Associated Press, CBS News, and ABC News all had McCain ahead of Obama. A USA Today/Gallup poll had McCain up 10 points on Labor Day weekend.
But shortly after, the bottom fell out on McCain.
It was painfully obvious and he never recovered.
In the last few days, the 2020 presidential race began to feel a lot 2008. A series of new polls imply the bottom might be falling out on Republicans again, especially for President Trump.
First some context: Unlike in 2008, only one nominee, Democrat Joe Biden, has led every national poll all year. Since the summer, he has also led in every swing state poll. All that has changed is the size of the lead.
Still, like McCain, Trump appeared to have some momentum heading into Labor Day following the Republican National Convention. Biden’s lead shrunk to an average of 7.5 percentage points and Trump was suddenly tied or within the margin of error in North Carolina, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Minnesota, a state that Hillary Clinton won in 2016.
But that was last week. And that might be as close as Trump gets to a second term.
The latest two polls out in Minnesota show Trump down 9 percentage points and 16 percentage points, respectively. In pivotal Wisconsin, a CNN poll found Biden doubling his lead there to 10 points, which, if true, would put both Midwestern states out of reach. Even in the only electoral vote Trump won in New England, Maine’s Second Congressional District has flipped to Biden, according to a Quinnipiac Poll out Wednesday that showed Trump down 9 percentage points there.
It is getting so bad that the same polling outfit showed that Trump was only winning rock-ribbed Republican South Carolina by 6 percentage points. If that poll proves to be correct then it suggests that other places that are less Republican, like Georgia, are probably headed Biden’s way for a landslide in November.
Thursday morning, after yet another poll showed Biden winning in Arizona, the nonpartisan and highly respected Cook Political Report shifted the state from a toss-up in the presidential race to leans Democrat. (Bill Clinton won Arizona in his 1996 reelection campaign, making him the only Democrat to win there since 1948.)
While every campaign is different, it’s important to note the structural similarities between 2008 and 2020.
It was during this same week in 2008 that the once-vaunted Lehman Brothers collapsed. The pain of the Great Recession followed. Republicans were in power and got blamed, and McCain was criticized for how he didn’t project leadership and have a plan.
The economic collapse was very real in 2008 and not something McCain, then a senator, had much control over.
In 2020, the coronavirus pandemic is very real. As president, critics have said there was more Trump could be doing, like following the science, being honest about what’s going on, and encouraging citizens to wear masks. He spent Wednesday in a public dispute with his own director of the Centers for Disease Control.
But supporters say a lot about the containment of the virus is out of his control.
On polls, Trump supporters may retort that everyone thought that Trump would lose the 2016 contest. That is true. However, the bottom never fell out. The key feature of the 2016 campaign was its swing between a negative focus on Hillary Clinton and a negative focus on Trump.
Once, the bottom did appear to drop out under Trump during the weekend the Access Hollywood tapes were released. But then Trump stayed on message, rarely tweeted, and in October 2016, Jim Comey announced there was more to the investigation of Clinton’s emails.
You know what happened next.
To be sure, in 2020, there are three presidential debates planned that could turn things around for Trump. But people are already voting and debates lately are much-hyped but typically have little impact on the campaign. After all, McCain had three debates to turn things around, too. But after that week 12 years ago when the bottom fell out, there was no turning the campaign around.