The question has lingered over American voters ever since then-candidate Ronald Reagan posed it as a means to bludgeon the floundering President Jimmy Carter in their debate just days before the 1980 election: Are you better off than you were four years ago?
It caused wavering citizens to think hard. A tight race broke open in the final days, and Reagan won a landslide victory. And yet, when that famous better-off question was asked of voters four years later in 1984, just 44% answered that their lives had improved. Nevertheless, Reagan was re-elected with a second overwhelming victory. When Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama followed on with two-term administrations, they all similarly won re-election with less than 50% of Americans saying they were better off than when the first term began.
But now comes a recent Gallup poll providing a staggering conclusion entirely at odds with an endless string of polls depicting Trump as an all-but-certain loser on Nov. 3 (or thereafter). Even in the midst of a pandemic, 56% of the American people say they are better off than they were four years ago, while just 32% say their lives have gotten worse.
When you stop to consider the disparity between the 56% better-off figure and the roughly 44% that represents both Trump’s job approval and his average support versus Biden’s in the elite polls, something does not add up. One political truism that has stood the test of time, due to immutable human nature, is that people do not vote against their own interests. Could it be that the dozen-point differential between 56% and 44% is largely composed of those now-famous “shy Trump voters” who understandably don’t wish to share their political views with anyone? Could Trump actually cause millions to vote against their own improved quality of life strictly because of his personality?
Of course, we need to consider the accuracy — or, more precisely, the lack thereof — of the same mainstream polls that four years ago trumpeted a lead for Hillary Clinton that are looking more similar by the day to the lead Biden is showing this time around. In 2016, the polls told us that Hillary led in virtually every swing state on election eve, and yet she lost multiple states she was predicted to win and was defeated decisively in the Electoral College. The pollsters broadly admitted after the election that their methodology was broken yet have provided no evidence that they have since changed their ways. Thus, there is no good reason to believe they have become reliable again in the even more radically polarized political climate of 2020.
But there are other signs that belie what the pollsters have been reporting. The enthusiasm gap between the two candidates is more like a gaping chasm, with the president consistently registering 20 or more points ahead of his feckless challenger. In most polls, a majority of Biden supporters say they are voting against Trump rather than for Biden. Surveys over time have shown that most people vote for a candidate, not against one. Trump plays to crowds of many thousands, Biden often to gatherings in the double digits on those occasions — from time to time — when he does not place a lid on his campaign’s activities early in the day. And Biden is apparently not even trying to generate enthusiasm. He has essentially put a lid on his entire campaign, believing the fact that he is not Donald Trump will be enough, and that running out the clock and freezing the ball will lead to victory. But rarely if ever has the candidate who generates the most enthusiasm lost a presidential election, especially when the gap is wide. The backers of Reagan, Clinton, Bush 43, Obama, and Trump in 2016 were clearly more enthusiastic about their candidate than were their opponents.
Then there is the matter of voter registration. It has historically been a reliable indicator of what direction the electorate is headed. The GOP has been gaining voter registrations since 2016, while the Democrats’ voter rolls have been reduced. In the 67 counties of arguably the most crucial swing state in the election, Pennsylvania, 59 have seen a net gain of Republican voters since Trump’s election. That is 88% of counties in the Keystone State. A similar GOP pickup has occurred in North Carolina, while other battlegrounds have seen at least a decrease in the Democrats’ registration advantage.
It is also worth examining the numbers from early voting, which was unquestionably supposed to favor the Democrats and led to loud calls from Trump and Republicans to stop the widespread distribution of unsolicited ballots. And yet, with the information now available, the Democrats’ expected advantage of well more than two to one in early voting and mail-in ballots has not materialized as they had expected. With almost a quarter of the electorate having already voted, some battleground states such as North Carolina show a surprising number of GOP early voters in what by all accounts is a heavy turnout across the land.
Another issue begs the question of whether President Trump can score one more upset victory. Because of the pandemic and the aftermath of the George Floyd killing that led to the worst civil unrest in more than 50 years, the American people were distracted as almost never before during a presidential election year. They could hardly devote much attention to a political race months away with most of society locked down, millions losing their jobs, the economy tanking, and the whole country dealing with unprecedented fear and isolation. Not only did these disasters weaken Trump’s standing as they would any chief executive presiding over such troubled times, but it meant that the head-to-head contest in a preoccupied nation did not begin in earnest until Labor Day. This necessitated a compressed campaign calendar that would lead one to believe these last days of whipping up the base and stumping for votes — and one more debate — hold more importance than in most elections.
Even discounting any effect from the final debate or the growing scandal surrounding the enrichment of the Bidens by foreign actors, the reality on the ground may well be clashing with widespread predictions of a Trump defeat. When you combine the unreliability of the polls in the last election with the results of the better-off question, the massive enthusiasm gap and the pickup in GOP registration — some of the most significant metrics by which past presidential campaigns have been judged — it would be folly for Democrats to believe this race is over.
Read more from Tim Donner.