As the Democratic presidential primaries drew to a close in the spring, Laura Hubka was left wondering how she was going to sell Joe Biden to voters in her corner of rural Iowa.
Hubka, an ultrasound technologist and chair of Howard county Democrats, lamented that the party cast aside an array of more inspirational, younger and original candidates in favor of a fading politician past his prime. Personally, she backed Pete Buttigieg, the young, gay former Indiana mayor.
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Hubka couldn’t see how a candidate as uninspiring as Biden would draw support away from the president in a part of Iowa that swung heavily from Barack Obama to Donald Trump four years ago. She quietly braced herself for yet another defeat.
Months later, Biden is riding high in the polls and, if the numbers are to be believed, is on his way to a significant victory in three weeks to put an end to the most tumultuous presidency of modern times. Support for the former vice-president has surged in recent days as the White House lurches from crisis to disaster. Democrats are daring to hope they can put behind them the nightmare of losing an election four years ago that all the polls said Hillary Clinton was going to win.
Biden is up to 16 points ahead nationally on the back of Trump’s antics in the most undignified presidential election debate in history and his cavalier attitude to other people’s health after he contracted coronavirus. Suddenly must-win states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin seem safe for Biden. States that looked to be just beyond his grasp, like Florida and Iowa, and maybe even Republican strongholds like Texas and Georgia, are competitive.
But Hubka is not sure she does believe the polls.
I don’t want one person to stay home and not vote, like when they thought Hillary Clinton was 15 points ahead
“I don’t want to believe any of them, and I don’t want anyone else to believe them either. I don’t want one person to stay home and not vote, like when they thought Hillary Clinton was 15 points ahead,” she said. “I do think that there’s a few people that may have been making excuses for Trump who feel a little more ashamed or a little more like they might vote for Joe Biden. But sitting where I live, I don’t feel like there’s a 14, 15 point lead. He’s not ahead by that.”
Poll after poll nevertheless says that Biden is in a commanding position with his numbers constantly pushed up by voters recoiling from Trump’s actions. A Franklin Pierce University survey in recent days showed that far from engendering sympathy, the president contracting Covid-19 precipitated a collapse in support. Days earlier, Biden held a five point lead over Trump. After the diagnosis, the former vice-president surged to 55% while the president fell back to just 34%.
Other polls mirror those findings. Crucially, Biden has a 12-point lead among independent voters who will decide the election in key swing states.
For all that, the political analyst Larry Sabato thinks Hubka is wise to be cautious. He said Biden’s position would be much weaker if not for the president’s chaotic and cavalier handling of a pandemic that has claimed 215,000 deaths and will probably take tens of thousands more by election day. But he said the polls do not reflect what will happen when the votes are counted.
“He’s not winning by 14 or 16 points. Not a chance. We’re too polarized for that. What happened was a lot of Trump supporters became discouraged after the debate and after his hospitalization and simply wouldn’t participate in the polls. This has happened before. So I think Biden will win, probably by a healthy margin. But nothing like the current numbers suggest. It’s a sugar high,” said Sabato, director of the Center for Politics as the University of Virginia.
Republican party election organizers recognized months ago that the election was shaping up as a referendum on Trump’s handling of coronavirus and he was not being judged favorably. Hubka acknowledges that without the pandemic, Biden would be struggling to compete with the president.
“I absolutely do think if the stock market was still high and unemployment numbers were still at 3% it would have been more difficult for Joe Biden. His poll numbers would not be where they are,” she said.
But Sabato said that while coronavirus has been key in Biden’s rise, it is not the only factor in an increasingly disastrous year for the president.
“Covid changed everything. On January 1, most people in my field believed that Trump was the favorite. The economy was golden. He was the incumbent. He could take full credit the way incumbents always do, even if they had nothing to do with the economic engine. Democrats were discouraged,” said Sabato.
“Then came the pandemic and the economic collapse. Then the police shootings of blacks, and the incredible irresponsibility of Donald Trump and his key associates which has resulted in a cell of Covid in the White House. The debate was a complete disaster for Trump. This is karma, some would say.”
Trump’s attempts to delegitimize the Black Lives Matter protests after the police killing of George Floyd in Milwaukee in May helped drive younger voters toward Biden, a candidate few of them feel any great affinity with.
Katybeth Davis lives in a blue-collar community just south of Detroit that swung heavily to Trump four years ago. That shift was instrumental in delivering Michigan to the president by just 10,704 votes, providing an important part of the electoral college that put him in the White House.
Polls now put Biden eight points ahead in Michigan.
“You see Biden signs all over the place now when you hardly saw any for Hillary,” said Davis, a 36 year-old construction company supervisor who describes herself as “super mixed-race”, including African, Native American and European ancestry.
Davis was drawn into political activism by the Black Lives Matter protests, a cause she said has done a lot more than the coronavirus to mobilize younger voters who did not engaged with politics before.
“There is a huge surge in the younger voters participating, going into the lower income neighborhoods doing voter registration,” she said. “They see that everything we’ve worked for, a lot of social justice issues, are on the line with this election. We have a rightwing supreme court now. We could lose marriage equality. Women’s rights. The huge reason I believe that women are going for Joe now is because they realize that Roe v Wade is literally on the line. Immigration’s on the line. This is our diversity that’s on the line. This is racial equality, gender equality. This is literally every single value that we have.”
Opinion polls show that not only are voters under 30 overwhelmingly more likely to back Biden but the number who say they will definitely vote is up to 63% from 47% four years ago, according to a Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics poll.
Biden also has a consistent and widening lead in another prize state, Florida. If he were to take it, that would almost certainly block any hope of Trump winning the election, although Biden is still doing worse with conservative Latinos there than his Democratic predecessors.
Trump supporters routinely dismiss the increasingly alarming polls for their man as flawed or faked, and claim that Biden is doing no better than Clinton who was polling similar numbers and still lost.
“It’s not true,” said Sabato. “Biden is doing much better than Clinton, mainly because he doesn’t stir the negative emotions that Hillary did. Some of it was just pure gender bias but a lot of it was with her personality, and dislike for the Clintons. So I think Biden is in a much better position. He’s relatively inoffensive.”
Other underlying trends in the polls look good for Biden. There has been a significant shift to the former vice-president among older voters, some of them recoiling from Trump’s lack of respect for the decorum of his office. For the first time in at least two decades, a majority of voters over 65 back a Democrat for president with Biden winning 60% support.
Women have also shifted to Biden in significant numbers. He commands a huge 27-point margin among female voters, nearly twice that for Clinton four years ago. Biden is even gaining among middle-aged men who overwhelmingly favoured Trump in 2016. Support among black voters is as strong as always for Democratic presidential candidates but the key will be turning out African Americans to the polls after they stayed home in large numbers when Clinton ran.
All of this matters most in the handful of states that will decide the election. Wisconsin is among the most crucial after Obama’s significant majority there in 2012 vanished when Clinton lost the state by only about 23,000 votes even though the polls put her ahead by about six points. Now Biden is consistently five to 10 points in the lead.
Charles Franklin, director of Wisconsin’s respected Marquette poll, said that is a reason to be cautious but there are important differences. For a start, the proportion of voters saying they are undecided in Wisconsin is about half that of 2016 so there is less room for Trump to pick up additional support.
In addition, four years ago the polls showed a lot of people really didn’t like Clinton even if they didn’t like Trump either so many of them stayed at home. Biden is regarded much more favorably, making it easier to vote against Trump.
Franklin’s latest poll also shows an increased determination to vote this year, and that is likely to benefit Biden.
“It suggests that we will be very close to a record for turnout in a presidential year when the state saw a fall in turnout in 2016,” he said.
“Most of the drop-off in votes four years ago was on the Democratic side. Hillary Clinton got close to 250,000 fewer votes than Obama got (against Mitt Romney in 2012). But Trump only barely exceeded Romney’s total. Given the way Democrats feel about President Trump, I don’t expect to see a similarly one-sided drop-off this year. I think Democrats generally are very positive to Joe Biden, but they are extraordinarily negative to Donald Trump. So in many ways, Trump is the Democrats’ greatest get-out-the-vote argument.”
It is difficult to see how Trump overcomes any surge in turnout for Biden in Wisconsin and other swing states. While the president’s base remains loyal, he does not appear to be picking up significant numbers of new voters who have come on board because they are happy about the way things have gone over the past four years. Instead he is struggling to hold on to those he won over in 2016.
As much as Hubka would liked to have seen her fellow Democrats chose a different presidential candidate, she thinks Biden turned out to be a fortuitous choice at time when significant numbers of voters appear to have retreated from their craving for change and now “just want an end to the crazy”.
“I don’t find a lot of people jumping for joy that it’s Joe Biden but they’re glad that it’s him because they feel like he can win. He can reassure Republicans who want to get away from Trump. They know that he was with Obama and they can look at him and say, ‘At least he can fill this space and do the job and I can sleep at night, not wondering what crazy thing is going to happen next,’” said Hubka.
Still, Americans are acutely aware that this is 2020 and there are more than three weeks to the polls, an eternity in a month that has already seen its share of political drama. Democrats see the president’s attempts to disrupt the election, such as his attacks on postal voting, as an implicit recognition that he is losing and only expect him to get more desperate.
Trump’s calls to mobilise militias to ostensibly monitor the vote, which Democrats interpret as a call to intimidate voters in areas likely to back Biden, alarms Hubka. So does his endorsement of the white nationalist militias during the debate, particularly after the FBI exposed a rightwing militia plot to abduct the governor of Michigan.
It’s all part of a pattern of increasingly erratic behaviour, including Trump berating his own cabinet last week for not prosecuting his political enemies, that has Democrats on edge whatever the polls may say.
I feel a little more confident that Biden can win but we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next day
“I feel a little more confident that Biden can win but we don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow or the next day,” said Hubka. “I’m fatigued. Every day I wake up worrying about what craziness Trump’s going to bring. I don’t know that I’ve ever felt this uneasy about all sorts of different things that are happening right now. I can’t get a good feel of it. It makes me nauseous, actually, just thinking of what’s he gonna do to win.”
Davis is more relaxed.
“I’m not nervous. I don’t think there’s anything that Trump could do right now that would save him. Even if he has a vaccine before the election. I don’t even think a big stimulus package is going to help either. To be honest, I think the Republicans have even come to terms with it. I just want it to be over with. I really do,” she said.
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