It was at approximately 2:30 a.m. on November 9th 2016 when Hillary Clinton knew she had lost. Minutes earlier, the fatigued yet assertive Wolf Blitzer declared that CNN was projecting that billionaire Donald Trump would win the battleground state of Wisconsin — a state that had been clinched by every Democratic presidential nominee since Walter Mondale in 1984. It was over. Donald Trump was ahead in Arizona, Michigan, and Pennsylvania — more than enough electoral votes for him to become the 45th President of the United States.
Four years later, a converse dynamic is unfolding. Leading with 10% in the national polls, competitive in traditionally Republican states like Texas and Georgia, and with 60 million votes already cast, former Vice President Joe Biden, the Democratic party’s nominee for president, is said to trounce the incumbent Donald Trump on election day.
But what has changed since Clinton’s unexpected loss in 2016?
The Rust Belt States
The pivotal states that delivered Donald Trump his upset victory in 2016 were the predominantly working-class states of Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. Although the Rust Belt states were regarded by the media as ‘battlegrounds’, they had, since 1988, consistently voted for the Democratic nominee after the Republican party’s relations with the working class were sent into a tailspin under the Reagan administration.
Donald Trump, however, deviating sharply from past Republican positions, lambasted free trade agreements that had allowed unrestrained outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs to China and Mexico, while concurrently voicing support for labor unions. In contrast, Hillary Clinton was perceived as an out-of-touch elitist by many working-class whites who had voted for Obama in 2012. She had championed the North American Free Trade Agreement in the 1990s, which resulted in the outsourcing of American manufacturing jobs to Mexico; she also negotiated the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership while she was Secretary of State, which, if implemented, would have meant American workers competing with cheap labor in Southeast Asia. These actions, combined with Clinton’s inability to turnout minorities in urban areas, culminated in her narrowly losing the 35 electoral votes in the Rust Belt that would have made her president.
Now, with less than a week to election day, Joe Biden is crushing Rust Belt opinion polls and is leading with an average of 7%. This almost insurmountable lead for Biden boils down to two major reasons: the failure of Donald Trump to handle the coronavirus crises, and Joe Biden’s ‘appeal’ to the Rust Belt voters.
The issues foremost in the minds of Rust Belt voters is the health crisis and economic devastation brought on by the coronavirus. Firstly, with over 18,000 coronavirus deaths in the region, Donald Trump’s inability to quell the health crisis has, to put it mildly, frustrated many voters.
Secondly, and perhaps most importantly, voters, for whom Trump’s economic populist message had resonated, feel betrayed by his outright refusal to deliver fiscal stimulus to struggling families and workers in the region following mass lay-offs in the manufacturing industry.
To these voters, even Biden’s frankly mundane proposal to issue a universal mask mandate, and his meagre promises to deliver a 1 trillion-dollar stimulus package seem like bold policies when contrasted with Trump’s inaction.
Joe Biden distinct appeal to the Rust Belt voters, however, goes beyond Donald Trump. Biden’s involvement in negotiating the Obama administration’s ‘Auto Bailout’ had saved thousands of manufacturing jobs in the region, as well as his birth-ties to Scranton, Pennsylvania enable his portrayal as a politician in touch with ‘main street’ to voters who had rejected Clinton’s Wall Street ties in 2016.
Erratic strategies advised by career-driven staffers, matted lines of authority, riotous group of advisors, lawyers, and friends offering conflicting advice: this was the unholy mess that plagued the ‘Hillary for America’ campaign.
Ambiguous messaging was one unfortunate outcome. Unlike the Trump campaign that fixated on few fundamental messages about the economy, corruption, and immigration, the Clinton campaign struggled to find a coherent message that resonated with voters. Taking advantage, the Trump campaign attacked Clinton for embodying a neoliberal, shapeshifting politician with a lack of vison.
Clinton’s lackluster campaign had also made gross miscalculations, resulting in strategies that had inadvertently given Trump the inside track to the White House. Instead of ginning up support in small towns in rural Michigan or stirring excitement in Philadelphia suburbs, which would have solidified support in the Rust Belt, the Clinton campaign spent the last few weeks of the election season campaigning in Republican stronghold states. This was a window of opportunity. The Trump campaign crisscrossed the Rust Belt, gaining ground with the undecided voters and even flipping lean democratic voters.
In 2020, it is the Trump campaign that is plagued with inconsistent messaging. Biden’s campaign, unlike his predecessor’s in 2016, appears to have a simplistic yet meaningful message. There is perhaps no better example of this than during convention week in August. The Democratic party honed in on a simple message: ‘return to normalcy’. In contrast, the Republican party’s array of speakers from mismatched sides of the ideological ‘right’ delivered conflicting messages. For example, Senator Rand Paul, a libertarian, cast Donald Trump as an anti-war leader, stating “President Trump is the first President in a generation to seek to end war. However, a day later, Lt. General Keith Kellogg, a war hawk, proclaimed that Trump would “challenge an ever increasing provocative and militant China”.
On the strategy front, again unlike the doomed Clinton campaign of 2016, the Democrats are the ones with a smart pragmatic approach to campaign strategy; the Trump campaign appears haphazard. The Trump campaign’s infatuation with flipping the Democratic stronghold of Minnesota has uncanny parallels with Clinton’s infatuation with flipping traditional Republican strongholds like Georgia and Arizona.
Although, on the surface, the Biden campaign appears to be making plays for traditional Republican states like Texas and Georgia, in reality, the campaign’s primary focus has been on ‘flipping the Rust Belt’. This is evidenced by the nearly 35 campaign stops that Biden and Kamala Harris have made to the region. This laser-focused strategy can be attributed to the appointment of veteran political staffer Jen O Malley Dillion as campaign manager. Unlike the tech-savvy Robby Mook who managed the Clinton campaign using data and voter models, Dillion is a fundamentalist: she prefers clear messaging and wining a few key states.
The single most defining characteristic of the 2016 election was that an overwhelming majority of the American electorate disapproved of the two major party candidates — Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton.
For most Americans, Clinton embodied the corrupt political establishment that had given crumbs to families and workers while bailing out large corporations and banks that had rigged the American economy. Donald Trump, on the other hand, was seen as a bigoted bully that ridiculed everyone from immigrants to veterans. Unfortunately for Clinton, Americans were willing to overlook the character flaws of Trump and believe in his promises of radical change and development.
After almost a term of Trump’s presidency, this change is yet to come.
Large infrastructure projects that would revitalize declining communities, a healthcare system that would serve the interest of middle-America rather than healthcare executives, and a reshaping of the American political system, are all examples of radical change that Trump’s administration is yet to deliver.
Instead, Donald Trump has brought about chaos.
A mismanaged response to a deadly pandemic; unhinged tirades against Black Lives Matter protesters; and a staggering economic recession: all these have brought a sense of uncertainty to the doorstep of too many American families.
It is only in this context that Joe Biden, in spite of arguably being more emblematic of the political establishment than Clinton ever was, is viewed favorably by over 50% of Americans. His dreary tone and simple promises of ‘listening to scientists and experts’ have convinced many American voters that Biden is a stable and empathetic leader for these dark times.
And it is this dynamic that will ultimately push Biden over the finishing line in three days.