As the saying goes, you never fight the last war. So can everyone please stop talking about the 2016 election?
Yes, election night four years ago was a jaw-dropping moment. In a data-driven culture, the data all pointed to Democrat Hillary Clinton winning — and then she lost. It shocked everyone, even, reportedly, Donald Trump.
The 2016 election will stick with us all forever. Trump mentions it at nearly every campaign stop, talks about it with foreign leaders years later, and it certainly might go down as the single most important election in our lives.
So with two days before the 2020 election, Republicans are using “because 2016” as a refrain to explain why they feel good about their chances despite every poll showing Trump losing. Democrats, of course, see the same static, strong polling in Democrat Joe Biden’s favor but have reached a new level of anxiety that Biden will somehow blow it “because 2016.”
But just as the heartbreaking Red Sox loss to the Yankees in the 2003 playoffs foretold nothing about what happened the following year when Sox both beat the Yankees and won the World Series, there are differences.
Here are four major reasons why this election is different.
1. Biden’s lead is larger than any presidential race in the last 20 years
In the final weekend in 2000, George W. Bush led by 2 points in an averaging of national polls before he won. In 2004, Bush lead by 2.3 points before he won. In 2008, Barack Obama led by 6.4 percent before he won. In 2012, it was a narrow half percent before he won again. In 2016, Clinton was ahead by an average of 2.9 percent nationally, which was still within the margin of error, before she won the popular vote but lost the Electoral College. Biden, according to the FiveThirtyEight election analysis, is up 8.6 percent.
No, national polls do not tell exactly what is going to happen in the Electoral College and thus who will win the White House. The presidential race is a state-by-state contest. After all, in 2016 Clinton did win the popular vote by 2.1 percent, making the national polling both spot on and totally irrelevant.
But the general rule of thumb is that if a presidential candidate is winning by at least 5 percent nationally then the state-by-state analysis is largely academic. In 2008, the polls were spot on predicting Obama’s eventual 7.2 percent win. That netted him 365 electoral votes and winning states that no Democrat had won in a generation, including Indiana and North Carolina. Who cared about Florida polls then?
Biden’s lead in the closing days in 2020 is not just significantly bigger than Clinton’s in 2016, it is bigger than Obama’s in 2008.
One more time to emphasize: Biden’s lead in national polls right now is stronger than Obama’s was in 2008 when he won big.
2. There are, more or less, no third parties to gum things up
The biggest structural change to 2016 is not discussed enough. Third parties — specifically the Green Party and Libertarian Party — had banner years in 2016. It made sense. Trump and Clinton were the least liked presidential nominees in modern American history and voters were looking for alternatives.
That is not the case this year. In 2020, third parties are basically irrelevant. Few Americans could probably even name who is running on these tickets. And consider this: In 2016, the Libertarian ticket featured two serious former Republican governors. In 2020, the Libertarian ticket involves a South Carolina part-time psychology professor with a running mate who is a podcaster that rose through politics as the running mate earlier this year to satirical candidate Vermin Supreme of Massachusetts.
In 2016, Green Party candidate Jill Stein got more votes in Wisconsin than the difference between Trump and Clinton there. She was also a factor in Pennsylvania. This time, the Green Party and Libertarian parties are getting such a small level of support that vaunted polling organizations like the NBC News/Wall Street Journal collaboration didn’t even ask about those candidates, but lumped them into the “other" category.
If you dive into the polling numbers in 2020, you will find that three developments have gone Biden’s way in polling. First, white working-class women have moved slightly away from Trump over concerns about health care. Second, the number of seniors backing Trump has dropped due to COVID-19. Third, that basically, all third-party voters in 2016 are backing Biden as the alternative to Trump.
3. Early voting has changed how we should feel about 2020
Unlike 2016, there are simply fewer question marks about the Democratic vote in 2020. That’s because of how we vote now.
Due to the pandemic, every state has allowed some form of mail-in voting. Democrats, in particular, have decided to use this route. That means there is less guessing if people will vote. We know, with tangible evidence, that they are voting at record-breaking amounts. We know that Democrats are turning out. Democrats also know which groups are disproportionately not voting at the same levels as everyone else in 2020, like among the Latinx communities, so they are able to dispatch Kamala Harris, Julian Castro, and Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez to attempt to rally Latinx voters.
Clinton could do none of that in 2016. If she could have, maybe she would have showed up in Wisconsin. She famously never did.
Now all the question marks are about whether Trump can close the gap.
4. There are no October surprises
The 2016 election toggled back and forth between whether Trump had bad news and bad poll numbers or Clinton did. It was a game of hot potato. After former FBI director Jim Comey announced days before the election he was reopening an investigation into Clinton’s e-mails, Clinton was left holding the potato.
But there is no toggling back and forth in the polls between Biden and Trump in 2020 and there isn’t a potato.
Noting has moved the polls in a big way since March except for the status of the coronavirus. A Supreme Court opening did nothing. Trump’s positive COVID-19 test did nothing. Unfounded allegations about Hunter Biden did nothing. And last week, as the nation received very good news about the country’s economy, the news was swallowed up by record-high levels of COVID-19 cases.
The 2020 presidential race hasn’t really changed in eight months and Biden’s lead is large. There is no data point anyone can credibly point to that suggests 2016 is going to happen again.