• Fri. Apr 16th, 2021


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Why Things Are Different This Time

Hi. Welcome to On Politics, your guide to the day in national politics. I’m Lisa Lerer, your host.

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Joe Biden leads in the national polls. He leads in swing states. He leads the money race. And his party has a big head start in the record-breaking early voting returns.

By all the measures that political strategists, pundits and operatives use to forecast elections, Mr. Biden should be heading toward victory on election night.

And yet, there’s that nagging feeling. That still, small voice that whispers: But 2016 …

Enough already. Say it with me, friends: 2020 is not 2016.

For four years, many Democrats and Republicans have assumed that President Trump has near-mythical political powers, able to rally hidden supporters who defy measurement in polling.

But as I wrote in today’s paper, the reality is that the 2016 election was a matchup between two of the most disliked and polarizing presidential candidates in American history.

Mr. Trump’s inflammatory and divisive rhetoric fueled much of that dynamic. But the particulars of that race also stemmed from how voters saw Hillary Clinton, a candidate who was already tarred by decades of Republican attacks and was also grappling with the sexism that would inevitably face the first woman with a serious shot at the White House.

Mr. Trump pulled off an upset against Mrs. Clinton, but again: 2020 is not 2016.

Take the accounts of focus groups from both elections told to me by strategists from the Clinton and Biden campaigns.

In the Clinton groups four years ago, voters agonized over their views of the candidate. They struggled with Mrs. Clinton’s ambition, finding her willingness to set aside her goals to serve in President Barack Obama’s administration more appealing than her own policy accomplishments as a senator and secretary of state.

Keep up with Election 2020

Winning over female voters entailed walking a tortured path, the Clinton aides told me. Younger women condemned her decision to remain married to her husband after his marital infidelities became painfully public. Older women said that they couldn’t relate to Mrs. Clinton because they didn’t believe in their own ability to break barriers.

She had to be extraordinarily experienced, voters said, but also relatable. Highly qualified but not too ambitious, even as she pursued the biggest job in American public life.

As for Mr. Biden? Well, voters see him as a “decent guy,” said Steve Schale, a veteran Democratic operative who ran focus groups on Mr. Biden after the primary campaign this year. They don’t know a lot about his accomplishments — like his work shepherding the 2009 stimulus bill — but they think he’s “nice” and a good family man.

This difference shows up in the polling: By the time she ran for president in 2016, more than half the electorate had a unfavorable view of Mrs. Clinton, and her “very unfavorable” ratings were 10 to 15 percentage points higher than Mr. Biden’s this year, according to Democratic polling and public surveys.

Only about a third of voters saw either Mr. Trump or Mrs. Clinton as “honest and trustworthy” in 2016, according to Gallup — but 52 percent of voters saw Mr. Biden that way last month, as opposed to 40 percent for Mr. Trump. Mr. Biden is also doing better than Mrs. Clinton in polling among groups that made up key parts of Mr. Trump’s coalition four years ago — white voters without a college degree, older voters and suburban white women.

So do these differences mean that Mr. Biden will win the election? Not necessarily!

Election models are based off results from previous “normal” elections. Correctly modeling deep electoral uncertainty — extraordinary events like a ranging pandemic, widespread voting by mail and record-shattering early voting — is really, really hard.

I suppose I can offer one tiny reassurance about the polls: If all the forecasts are wrong again, it won’t be for the same reasons.

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NAZARETH, Pa. — Lorin Bradley is a registered Republican who voted for President Trump in 2016 mostly because he didn’t like Hillary Clinton. But he has already voted for Joe Biden this year.

Mr. Bradley, 56, said he regretted his decision to vote for Mr. Trump shortly after the last election, and had been dismayed by Mr. Trump’s management of the coronavirus pandemic.

“I think he should have taken it more seriously,” said Mr. Bradley, a human resources manager at a pharmaceutical company. “That’s just another example of his many lies. He should have not downplayed it as if it was just another bout of the flu.”

Mr. Bradley predicted that the surrounding Northampton County in eastern Pennsylvania, one of only three counties in the state to vote for Mr. Trump in 2016 after backing President Barack Obama in 2012, would swing back to the Democrats this time because voters were “tired” of Mr. Trump. “He’s worn people out,” he said.

But Bill Schwab, a retired beer wholesaler and a registered independent, said he would vote for Mr. Trump again because he liked the president’s tax policies, and he was worried that a Biden administration would be too liberal.

“I’m afraid of the other side, what they’re going to do once they get in, as far as taxes and that type of stuff, and just the way they want to give away the farm,” Mr. Schwab, 65, said in an interview outside the post office in Northampton County.

Mr. Schwab said he was not happy with the president’s management of the pandemic, although that would not affect his voting decision. “It’s a pandemic, he shouldn’t have acted like it was going to go away,” he said.

In a county that Mr. Trump won by less than four percentage points in 2016, voters on both sides predict this year’s result will be close. But Democrats’ hopes were buoyed on Oct. 6 by a Monmouth University poll showing Mr. Biden leading by 53 percent to 42 percent in the 10 Pennsylvania counties — including Northampton — that were the most closely decided four years ago, when Mr. Trump narrowly won Pennsylvania as a whole.

Janice McGrogan, a Democrat who said she and her husband had already voted by mail for Mr. Biden, thought Mr. Trump would again win the county, which she said was dominated by Republicans who harassed Biden voters.

Wearing a Biden-Harris face mask outside a supermarket, Ms. McGrogan said she had been warned by a health worker not to wear the mask when she took her husband to a hospital appointment. “She said if you want your husband to have good medical care, do not wear this mask in the doctor’s office,” said Ms. McGrogan, 63, who worked in the county prison until she retired.

Deb Hayes, 64, a retired schoolteacher who voted for Mr. Trump in 2016, said she would like to vote for him again because she opposes abortion. But she is concerned about the way he has behaved as president, and said she was undecided.

“I don’t like his leadership,” Ms. Hayes said. “So many times, I’ve kind of thrown up my hands and thought: ‘What is he thinking?’”

This item was part of a series of short Battleground Dispatches our reporters have been filing from swing states, offering an in-person snapshot of what it’s like to be on the ground in New Hampshire, Arizona and elsewhere. You can read all of the dispatches here.

The existential dread of a global pandemic is pervasive. … But every day, there is also Thelonious, a chipmunk who sits down to eat in a world without a doomful election and a deadly virus.

Can chipmunk restaurants save us all? Bon Appétit explores.

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