2020 is not 2016. Here’s why that matters


Rachel Culver

Searching for a resemblance between 2016 polls and the current moment isn’t an effective way to determine who is ahead in this race. After the public outrage from the first presidential debate, we need to compare how they are different and why that matters.

By Shannon Garrido, Editor-in-chief

Donald Trump supporters and Democrats have one similar perception of this year’s election: that it will follow in the steps of 2016. 

Though it appears America is heavily divided on almost every important issue on the ballot, there is similar anxiety that the polls won’t predict the real winner of this year’s election. Trump’s surprising win of the electoral college four years ago makes his low polling this year seem like a glitch in the system. Many Republicans have taken the 2016 election as a motivator for trump supporters losing their enthusiasm

Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, even championed Trump to dismiss his current weakness in the polls.  

“The polling today is not going to be what we see on Nov. 3,” she said. “And you know who knows that better than anybody? Hillary Clinton.” 

But there are too many factors at play in this year’s election. And searching for a resemblance between 2016 polls and the current moment isn’t an effective way to determine who is ahead in this race. After the public outrage from the first presidential debate, we need to compare how they are different and why that matters. 

For starters, Biden is not nearly as disliked as Clinton. In July 2016, Clinton polled 43 percent “very negative,” according to a NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll. In July 2020, Biden polled 33 percent in the same poll. This 10 difference shows less vitriol toward Biden which means that potential Trump voters will be less adverse to cast a vote for Biden. 

On that note, Trump is not as liked as he was in 2016. According to the Pew Research Center, 56 percent of registered voters who support Biden say that their main reason for supporting him is that he is not Trump. 

Just 19 percent of Trump supporters cite opposition to Biden as a central motivation for their vote. In 2016, nearly identical proportions of Trump supporters (33 percent) and Clinton supporters (32 percent) said that a main factor in their vote was an opposition to the other candidate. Opposition to the other candidate was the main factor in their likely vote choice

Similar to 2016, neither candidate is gaining popularity points. But why does this level of dislike matter? According to The New York Times, people who saw both candidates unfavorable in 2016 broke in favor of Trump. This year, Biden holds an advantage among ambivalent voters.

In a Monmouth University poll released in June, roughly one-fifth of voters who did not express a positive view of either candidate broke hard for Biden: 59 percent, compared to 18 percent for Trump.

Trump’s narrative has also changed since he ran four years ago. According to the Cambridge Review of International Affairs, the success of the Trump campaign stemmed from its effective use of an emotionally charged, anti-establishment crisis narrative, which is the kind of speech that rejects an elite that controls an organization. Trump simultaneously exonerates us from any responsibility for the state of the country by persistently criticizing the failures of American elites and portraying them as stupid. 

To distance himself from those failures, Trump pointed out that, while he once “used to be establishment…when I decided to run, I became very anti-establishment.”

Trump’s conservative critics are trying to make the case that the president has become the establishment he keeps campaigning against. According to the Washington Post, 27 members of Trump’s team have combined assets exceeding $2.3 billion. In addition, news of his long history in tax avoidance and business failures, the vote reliant on turning this establishment using his “business” mindset is crippling. 

Another key difference between the 2016 and 2020 election is that Trump won about 70 percent of the electoral votes in battleground states, and he was consistently successful in those polls. Now, a month before the election, polls in these states are in favor of Joe Biden.

Of course, none of this means Trump is on his way to a loss. Even in the face of the coronavirus, Trump polled better on economic issues than on most issues only months into his presidency.

Still, 2020 is not 2016. The standards for this election are nowhere near the same as they were four years ago. Social justice marches happening all over the country, 2018 saw the biggest voter turnout in a century, and the impact of this virus has pushed the public towards a new kind of leadership. While there is no way of knowing what will happen until a new president is elected, we cannot ignore this reality.

Shannon Garrido is a journalism major from the class of 2024. If you would like to respond to this thought piece in the form of a letter to the editor, email [email protected]. Letters may be edited for style and clarity.