Recent polls suggest that if the election were held tomorrow, Joe Biden would handily defeat the incumbent Donald Trump. The last election showed the folly of trusting the polls, but this time, things could very be different. This year, the president has weathered some of the greatest challenges the nation has faced, and his countrymen have judged him harshly. Ultimately, victory or defeat will likely lie in Americans’ wallets.
Echoes of 2016
Naturally, when the polls came out, there was a collective eye-rolling among conservative pundits. Americans learned a healthy skepticism of polling numbers after President Trump’s shocking win in 2016. According to most polls, Hillary Clinton often enjoyed a double-digit lead leading up to the general election. As we all know, these inflated polling numbers led to one of the greatest upsets in US political history.
In 1948, a victorious Harry Truman happily held a newspaper with the title “Dewey Defeats Truman”. He had just won the election. The Chicago Daily Tribune, so sure of Truman’s defeat, had printed the cover story before the election results came in. A morning-after misprint is a long shot in the 21st century, but we saw the closest thing to such a blunder in the last election.
After 2016, The hubris of mainstream media was broadcast on live television. Reporters sat with mouths agape, watching the polls come in as the impossible slowly became a certainty. Ultimately, Donald Trump proved the polls wrong. Will he do it again in 2020?
Why This isn’t 2016
Americans know all too well that pollsters are not prophets. However, they also know that 2020 is not just any election year. It has the most turbulent, challenging year for American society in decades.
The collective trauma experienced in 2020 is nearly without precedent. A deadly pandemic has taken over a hundred thousand lives, and will take many more by November. Racial tension, the age-old illness of American society, has relapsed into destructive, divisive social unrest across the country. While the stock market chugs along, we walk a tightrope of falling demand, rising unemployment, and uncertainty about what the economic impact of the pandemic will be.
None of these events are explicitly the president’s fault. The demonstrations were instigated by the killing of an unarmed black man by police. The pandemic and its economic ramifications were an import from a growing adversary. However, like all presidents before him, the public will judge him for these challenges and will be harsh in their assessment of how Trump handled them.
There’s no question about it: Donald Trump faces a hard battle in 2020, certainly much harder than it looked at the beginning of the year. Ultimately, the results will likely depend on how quickly the economy can recover from the pandemic. Only one president has won reelection during an economic recession: William McKinley. Donald Trump has certainly been a unique president, but he likely wants to avoid aiming for that short list.