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The State: of the Tale of the Tape

News / The State June 26, 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.

Cody Lyon:  Every campaign is a contest between two or more opponents vying for political office.  In these contests, many factors impact the decisions voters will make.

One method to measure the opponents for a campaign or sporting event is by a “tale of the tape.”  For those unfamiliar with a “tale of the tape,” the phrase refers to making an objective comparison, particularly between two opponents. It comes from the sport of boxing where fighters are measured and weighed before a fight.

Randy Dwyer: Boxing enthusiasts call the sport “the sweet science.” It’s a term coined by British sportswriter Pierce Egan in 1813 and it’s accurate to use this term today for the 2020 presidential race, with two heavyweights,  President Trump and former Vice President Biden, preparing for the title fight for the presidency.

Each will maximize their own strengths, minimize their weaknesses and look for ways to exploit their opponent. They’re now developing strategies and tactics to win the final round. This includes messaging, reckoning with polls, fundraising, cash on-hand and the final get-out-the-vote effort - which is the knockout blow.

Cody Lyon: In this edition of The State, we examine President Donald Trump and presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden in light of a variety of key factors impacting the 2020 election.

Though history shows it’s difficult to trust, let’s start with the measuring stick most pundits use: polling.  When it comes to polling there are two key points that matter to me: key battleground states and approval/disapproval.

Michael Sistak: And I think the first thing we must do is address what a lot of people assume about polls – that they can’t be believed – unless they show your candidate in the lead!

There’s a persistent narrative out there that the 2016 polls were a disaster because they pointed toward a Hillary Clinton victory. But first, let’s remember that polling is a mere snapshot in time, not a 100% accurate prediction of the outcome.

Since 1972, presidential polling in the final 21 days of the election have had an error rate of 4.1% in national polls and 4.8% in state surveys. The national polling in 2016 was below the error rate at 3.1%, and Clinton won the national popular vote. But of course, that is not how our elections are decided.

The state polling error rate of 5.2% made all the difference in Trump flipping the Democratic “blue wall” of Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin and claiming an Electoral College victory. His victories there were by such razor thin margins that the polls missed the outcome, which makes it harder to determine which polling model will capture the true outcome.

Cody Lyon: If the polling models being used do not reflect the demographics of the voters who actually cast a ballot, then the polls will be off as they were in 2016 and 2008.

Randy Dwyer: I think the accuracy of polling is getting harder to determine all the time. Fewer land lines, more cell phones and a migration to online surveys have become the polling norm. In most cases, it takes nearly 100 calls to get one individual to complete a survey. Polls are a good guide, but, as you said, the model must be on point. 

One of the factors many strategists and pundits follow is the Enthusiasm Gap.

Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight best described it as, “When you hear the phrase ‘enthusiasm gap,’ what you should really be thinking of is the turnout gap. ‘Enthusiasm gap’ conveys the impression that it’s all about who has the most yard signs, or who is screaming and shouting the loudest, or who is most inclined to talk politics around the water cooler. But those things only matter to the extent that they affect turnout — the proportion of Democrats, Republicans and independents that come out and vote in November.”

Cody Lyon: The gap may be the narrowest in decades, according to Charlie Cook and key poll questions on this subject.  Trump voters will not be swayed and the voters who want to vote against Trump will not be deterred. 

At the end of March, an ABC News-Washington Post poll revealed that “74% of those supporting Biden are doing so enthusiastically, compared to 86% of Trump supporters.”  Maybe that is enough for Trump to get more votes than Biden, maybe not.  Enthusiasm is important so long as it is lasting and your voters outnumber your opponents.

Randy Dwyer: Just like in a boxing match, the boxers’ energy ebbs and flows during the rounds. These highs and lows are to be expected. Blows will land on both sides and voter reactions will follow suit. We do see enthusiasm with core Dem and GOP voters. All this enthusiasm will be on display when we see the presidential debates this fall.

The election winner will be the one who secures the largest percent of the independent voter bloc. They tend to be most concerned with pocketbook and social issues and the winner will turn them out to vote.

With COVID-19, social unrest, absentee balloting and reduced in-person precinct voting, it’s hard to predict how enthusiasm will translate to votes cast in the general election.

Michael Sistak: Going back to that snapshot in time, the energy and flow are, for now, with Biden. Nate Silver recently said that he sees so many issues with President Trump’s reelection efforts that a Biden landslide is a possibility. He noted that Biden’s lead in the average of national polls is 9%, which Silver says is unusual in modern politics, given the smaller leads that Clinton and Obama had in 2016 and 2008, respectively. But even the swing state polls paint a troubling picture for the Trump.

Nothing, of course, is guaranteed, and President Trump has certainly dug himself out of downturns and controversies before. The question now is, will a pandemic, souring economy, high unemployment and social unrest prove to be too much for him to overcome?

Cody Lyon:  Modern politics has not seen anything like the coronavirus pandemic, but this does demonstrate a factor that any elected official must be able to use to their advantage: leadership.  In any crisis, and a pandemic certainly is one, voters are looking at what their leader is doing.  While the initial pandemic-timed polls were favorable to the president and even Congress, the voters’ approval ratings of both are now dropping.

I am thankful the president stopped the disastrous daily press briefings. But he must show leadership by demonstrating he understands the crisis and has a plan to address it.  Most voters don’t want the details or have the will to understand the complexities that face the president daily. However, they need to know that their president empathizes with their concerns and is doing something about it -- and right now!

President Trump has the pulpit of the Presidency which he should be able to use to his advantage in directing the federal response whereas Biden, as the challenger, must find other ways to show leadership.

Michael Sistak: Congress as a governing body isn’t likely to get any kind of positive ratings because when do 535 people agree on anything? That’s why so many Americans look to presidential leadership in times of crisis. But the president has to thread a very difficult needle, balancing the fears that people have about the virus versus the fears they have about the economy. The average of polls shows that 63.7% of Americans are very or somewhat worried about contracting the virus, while 84.4% are very or somewhat worried about the economy. Despite concern over the economic fallout, overwhelming majorities of Americans are hesitant to rush back to normal, according to polls from the Washington Post-University of Maryland and NPR/PBS/Marist. The polls show a high level of concern, with eight in 10 Americans oppose reopening movie theaters or gyms, and nine in 10 Americans opposing sporting events with crowds. This goes against President Trump’s push to reopen as fast as possible and could explain his sinking approval numbers on his handling of the virus.

Cody Lyon: Adding to the need for leadership are events of the last several weeks, which have been challenging for our country, pushing many of us to reevaluate our personal values, beliefs and our character. We’re also looking beyond ourselves to our perception of society. The American Farm Bureau is taking its own inward look at how we as an organization can be a positive influence against racism.

In an election year, our typical first step is to look to our candidates to determine who will best be able to address the challenges that lie ahead.  The challenge for both Trump and Biden over the next five months is to address voters’ uncertainty and apprehensiveness about the future.

We are struggling through a pandemic and the severe economic struggles that come with it, including an unimaginable number of Americans suddenly out of work. Many Americans are additionally hurting because of the systemic racism they’ve had to face their entire lives. We are looking to the candidates to empathize with the pain so many people are feeling and provide a path forward.

Randy Dwyer: The window to show empathy is closing fast, both because of the pandemic and the tragedy that befell George Floyd. This proverbial window would be thrown wide opened with several strong statements or tweets of empathy. President Trump did make such remarks in Florida during the Space X-NASA launch and again from the White House. These statements of empathy were lost when Trump announced zero tolerance for the rioters as the rioting continued in major cities. He has a strong sense of what he believes needs to be done, even if it’s controversial. This bright-line approach creates division in the electorate, but you know exactly where the man stands on the issues. The question is how undecided voters will feel about his leadership when it’s time to cast their ballots.

Michael Sistak: The country overall does not seem to be responding well to President Trump’s approach. A June Morning Consult poll shows that only 32% of registered voters nationwide rate his response to the social unrest as good, very good or excellent. Breaking those numbers down, the president is especially underwater with demographics with which he was already struggling. Only 26% of suburban women, 27% of independents, 14% of African Americans and 27% of Hispanics approve of his response. More telling is that even voters from his core base of support are not giving him very favorable numbers; only 43% of evangelicals, 39% of rural Americans and 28% of non-college whites approve.

In response to a June Monmouth University poll asking voters who they trust more as president to handle race relations in the United States, 52% of respondents said they have a great deal or some confidence in Joe Biden’s ability to deal with the issue. Sixty percent of respondents said they do not have much or any confidence in President Trump on this issue.

Cody Lyon:  One are that the Trump campaign has excelled and could negate some of these other issues: money.  The president’s campaign and the Republican National Committee have really never stopped fundraising, which is why Trump has more than $265 million in the bank.  This amount is impressive!  More so when on June 14, President Trump’s birthday, $14 million was raised.

Trump’s advantage here is clear but Biden’s efforts over the past few months have been impressive too.  What does Biden need to do to lessen the cash-on-hand gap?  Have fundraisers with former President Obama! On June 23, President Obama joined a Biden campaign event for the first time — a virtual fundraiser that instantly became the campaign's biggest single haul, with 175,000 guests and $7.6 million in donations. 

Fundraising shows support for a candidate.  As we know, if a group or an individual contributes to a candidate, it shows support and, by extension, votes.

Even with this monetary advantage, the focus shifts to how the money is spent and that means strategy and tactical implementation.  If the Trump campaign can use the dollars wisely in the right place and at the right time, the concerns over polling cold be erased. 

In essence, Trump’s monetary advantage could be a great equalizer to other areas where the campaign is struggling.

Randy Dwyer: Exactly. Let’s assume – and I know what happens when assumptions are made – that after Labor Day President Trump is down in the polls in key states. Quite possibly down by 5-7+ points in all key states. His cash will have to be turned into social media messaging and voter identification. His campaign has this underway now, but as we well know and saw in 2016, it’s the undecided voters in many of the key state suburbs who will decide the outcome. This is where the focus will be.

Michael Sistak: Impressive is an understatement. The president and the RNC have built a cash juggernaut! But that machine has yet to even be fully turned on. With less than five months to go until Election Day, some of the President’s allies are worried about his standing in battleground states and why he hasn’t done more to define and bury Biden. That could be difficult against the backdrop of coronavirus, the economy and social unrest.  Additionally, given Biden’s years as a high-profile U.S. senator, then eight years as vice president, he’s a known quantity. Also, Biden is starting to catch up in the cash game now that he has consolidated the party behind him. In May, Biden outraised President Trump, picking up $80.8 million to Trump’s $74 million. Trump and the RNC still have that cash advantage though.

Cody Lyon:  Finally, let’s talk demographics.  Political scientists and campaign strategists love to examine the microdata of demographics.  But, for me, it’s the trends that are worth noting.

First, President Trump has not seemed interested in broadening his base — only in mobilizing it and growing it by targeting and turning out as many Trump-friendly non-voters as possible. In states like Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan, where non-voters are more likely to be white and working class, the theory is that Trump can win by expanding the pool of Trump partisans, rather than trying to win back (or win over), more traditional and frequent voters.

Randy Dwyer:  This is a risky but necessary two-step strategy. It involves the need to keep the voters who voted for Trump in 2016 and engage a universe of people who seldom vote at all. All this points to the slim margins out there. Unfortunately, key demographic trends are showing worrying signs for the president. 

As Mike mentioned, in March nearly 80%t of white evangelicals said they approved of the job Trump was doing, according to the Public Religion Research Institute poll. But by the end of May, with the country convulsed by racial discord, Trump’s favorability among white evangelicals had fallen 15 percentage points to 62%. That is a sharp fall in two months. 

It is consistent with declines that other surveys have picked up recently. Among white Catholics, the same poll also found that his approval has fallen by 27 points since March.

Michael Sistak:  In addition to that key demographic, there is the slipping support among voters over age 65. Trump won that age group in 2016, but his handling of the virus — a virus that disproportionately harms older Americans— may be turning off some voters.  Support from this demographic in 2016 was 49% and polling today indicates it’s at 43%.

On the Democratic side, Joe Biden is more popular among older voters than Hillary Clinton was.  Biden enjoys 52% support versus 44% for Clinton in 2016.

According to the 2020 Almanac of American Politics, many of the most important swing states (Arizona, Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida) have at least slightly larger shares of 65 and older residents than the national average. If Trump loses this high turnout demographic in these states, it’s difficult to envision a path to 270 electoral college votes for him.

Cody Lyon:  For the 2020 election, these are just some of the key factors that will determine the outcome.  Over the next several months, the assessment of the two candidates can and will shift among the voters, who make ultimate decision in the 2020 election.

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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