Maybe it is a bit trite to point out that 2020 is a different year than was 2016. There are however a significant difference in this year’s presidential race: favorability. In 2016, Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton were historically unpopular. That unpopularity led to a significant third party vote and Trump carrying those who disapproved of both candidates. In 2020, things are different based on current polling.
Throughout the post-convention stretch through election day 2016, Hillary Clinton maintained a negative favorability rating. While there were a few points where Clinton was viewed less unfavorably, her final numbers from Gallup were 52%. The 2016 exit poll was a little worse for her at 55%. Recent 2020 polling shows Biden’s unfavorable number in the mid to upper 40’s. While a fairly polarized electorate, Biden has maintained an unfavorability rating under 50% in most polls since Super Tuesday.
The same can be said about Donald Trump’s own numbers. In 2016, the final Gallup poll showed him with 61% of American adults viewing him unfavorably. The 2016 exit poll showed him with a similar 60% among the electorate. While the president has been unable to get his unfavorability to where Biden’s is at under 50%, he has been able to keep it below the 60% he had in 2016.
A second reason why 2020 is a different ball of wax is ideology. In a 2016 Gallup survey, more voters (58%) viewed Clinton as liberal than viewed Trump as conservative (47%). Nearly one in five voters viewed Trump as liberal. The same poll found that 49% viewed Clinton as more liberal than they were while only 35% indicated that they believed Trump was more conservative than are they.
In a recent Morning Consult poll, voters placed Biden at a 2.8 on a 1-7 (1 being very liberal, 4 being moderate and 7 being very conservative) scale while they put Trump at 5.8. Similar splits can be seen in a recent Economist/YouGov poll. In that poll, 15% of voters view Trump as moderate while 32% say the same about Biden.
The third major difference to point out has down-ballot implications. Simply put, voters currently view Donald Trump as having a good chance of winning in November. A recent Pew Research survey shows Biden with an 8-point edge among vote preference, while voters believe Trump is more likely to win by a 2-point margin. In a 2016 ABC tracking poll just before the election, Clinton lead by 1 point in the two-way race, while 56% of voters believe that she would win. 31% of voters in the poll expected that Trump would win.
In 2018, Democrats made significant gains in Congress by selling themselves a check on Donald Trump. The key to those incumbents winning again in 2020 may depend on voters believing that Joe Biden is not the inevitable favorite. In 1996 when it appeared Bill Clinton was well on his way to reelection, the NRCC ran a television ad specifically campaigning against allowing Democrats to have control of the House, Senate and White House. The strategy may have worked for the GOP in 1996. While Clinton won by 8.5 points, the GOP held both the House and the Senate. That year the GOP lost the South Dakota Senate seat, but picked up seats in Alabama, Arkansas and Nebraska.
There are still nearly two months remaining before election day, though as things sit now in early September with early voting beginning: 2020 is shaping up to be a cycle unlike 2016.
Aaron Booth (@ActorAaronBooth) is a contributor to Decision Desk HQ.