The State: of the Known Unknowns

News / The State September 16, 2020

Through a series of articles we call The State, the American Farm Bureau Federation’s Advocacy and Political Affairs team is providing analysis related to "the state of" various aspects of the 2020 campaign season, including the race for the White House and key elections around the country.

The 2020 campaign is entering the home stretch with the post-Labor Day frenzy of campaigning in battleground states and anticipation of the debates. 

Over the next several weeks, the candidates will be battling over the airwaves and digital screens as the fall campaigns appear inclined to negative messaging that portrays partisan opponents as threats to fundamental democratic institutions and freedoms.

The strategies of both Donald Trump and Joe Biden are becoming clearer, but so are the “known unknowns,” to borrow the famous (or infamous) quote of former Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. According to Rumsfeld, "there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know." This is a good description of the campaigns’ current state of affairs. 

The multiple “unknown” influences at play in this election are the same as in other presidential elections and down-ballot races. They include the economy, and the candidates’ debate performance. Unique to 2020 is the impact of COVID-19 on the overall election and the issue of justice and law-and-order. 

At the top of the list for every election are pocketbook issues, or simply, the economy.  We’ve seen the economy dip dramatically as large and small businesses have taken a huge hit and unemployment grew to double digits – and we’re only two months until Election Day. Despite recent signs of optimism and growth, the economy is unlikely to recover to pre-pandemic levels.

A recent NBC News/WSJ survey suggests that the economy is the main issue on people’s minds, as it typically is in both good and bad times.  It may be an old political adage, but “What’s the price of pork bellies on Election Day?,” is still a valid question – one that will carry weight much sooner for the states that are sending out ballots and allowing mail-in ballots starting in September (more on that below).

So, the known unknown here is to what degree voters will hold President Trump responsible for the state of the economy. Up until the pandemic, it was his strongest issue. But now, according to a new Morning Consult/Politico poll, President Trump has only a slight lead in the overall economy and even on jobs and economic recovery from COVID-19.

The second major factor in the election is the impact of COVID-19, which has created many, if not all, of the economic shockwaves. However, there are other reasons the pandemic will influence how voters cast their ballot. 

The 2020 campaign may be defined as a referendum on Trump’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic as it’s a question of crisis management.  The administration continues to struggle with how to defeat the virus and its impact on the entire country.  From mixed messages to contradictory recommendations, the administration cannot seem to find a straight answer.  We’re seeing it already in campaign ads.

The polling, which had him with favorable numbers early on, now has him under water on this issue by a wide margin.  Several polls show that most Americans trust private companies to better handle the pandemic than the government.  This is a major hurdle for the Trump campaign.  Time is running short to turn this perspective around, but a vaccine on the horizon would be a game-changer.

It’s not just Trump either. The entire Republican brand could be damaged by COVID-19. As the chart above shows, there is a wide gap in support for the president’s handling of the pandemic. When it comes to who voters trust more, not only is Joe Biden widening the margin, but so are congressional Democrats. Republican governors are struggling as well. A July Gallup survey showed that in the 26 states with a Republican governor, the share of adults who say that their governor cares about the health and safety of their community has fallen by eight points to 53%. Meanwhile, Democratic governors as a group hover around 65%. In some swing states, it is even worse for the sitting governor. In Arizona, Doug Ducey went from a net +22 approval rating in June to a net -28 disapproval in July. In Florida, Ron DeSantis has 53% of Floridians saying he is doing a somewhat or very bad job. While neither Ducey nor DeSantis is up for reelection in 2020, the negative ratings for Republican leadership makes a known unknown – what consequences does this have down-ballot in states like Arizona and Florida? This has implications for control of state legislative chambers.

On a related note, the third unknown factor is how COVID-19 will alter voting.  This is an extremely important question. Every candidate up and down the ballot is working hard to make sure their supporters vote. Prior to COVID-19, voter enthusiasm was polling extremely high, leading to expectations for voter turnout to be near or above historical highs. Now, the question is how each state will manage their voting process to ensure that everyone who wants to vote has the opportunity. We know each state is different and new COVID-19 safety guidelines are being put in place for precinct workers to manage in-person voting. But we also have states looking at absentee voting, early in-person voting, mail-in ballots and much more. If the primary election season is any indication, then two factors are certain: mail-in ballots will reach an all-time high and close elections won’t be decided for many weeks after the polls close.

In all, 42 states and the District of Columbia will allow for no-excuse absentee voting, which means most voters will have the option to vote absentee.  Election Day isn’t really on Nov. 3. It’s more like election season, which started on Sept. 4 in North Carolina. So, most voters could cast their ballots well before November, meaning Democrats and Republicans have only about a month to fine tune their message to undecideds and start turning out their supporters. Though we aren’t likely to know the final results on the night of Nov. 3, the decisions could have actually been baked in well before.  Steve Schmidt, a former advisor to Sen. John McCain, once said, “People vote at a moment in time.” And if that has already started in key states, there's a lot to do, and little time to do it.

As the nation discusses the economy, state and federal governments’ COVID-19 responses and voting, the debates, our fourth unknown, become the wild cards. They always have been and always will be. They’ve proven to be lifelines for candidates who were sinking fast.

This year, we expect the three presidential debates and one vice presidential debate to have tremendous viewership.  The debates are likely to be lively, providing exciting political theater and good round-for-round television. But how likely are the debates to move or sway voters?  The percentage of undecided voters is small, with some estimates around 15%.

Here’s what the calendar looks like in terms of the schedule: The first presidential debate is Sept. 29, followed by one a week through Oct. 22, the date of the third and final debate and only 12 days before Election Day. That’s four consecutive weeks of debates and spin. All the while, many undecided voters will be watching and making up their minds.

What is important to these voters could be the fifth unknown, candidate performance.  Debates are likely to showcase a candidate on a grand scale that will be replayed and analyzed for days.

The goal is to maximize a candidate’s attributes, minimize their weaknesses and avoid making mistakes. Since we’re talking about the presidential campaigns, it’s fair to say that President Trump has made more than his fair share.  In our opinion, the biggest opportunity for either Trump or Biden to make glaring mistakes that could damage their campaign is during their face-to-face presidential debates. These debates will bring both men together to go head-to-head – three different times – providing voters a chance to compare the candidates side-by-side and answer-to-answer.

How Trump and Biden handle each of these unknowns and the degree to which voters approve of how the candidates do that will go a long way toward determining the outcome in November.

For more analysis on the 2020 Election click here

Cody Lyon is AFBF’s managing director of advocacy and political affairs.

Randy Dwyer is AFBF’s director of advocacy & grassroots development.

Michael Sistak is AFBF’s director of grassroots program development.

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