Parsing the Presidential Election: Will Trump Draw Another Inside Straight?

By: Randy Myers

If President Trump prevails in the November 3 election, says Republican political consultant Whitlow Ayres, he will have defied long odds for the second time.

Pundits strain for sufficient superlatives when describing the 2020 presidential election, which has inflamed passions on both sides of the political aisle and seems likely to result in the highest voter turnout in U.S. history. It comes amid a year marked by social unrest and a pandemic that has cost lives and claimed center stage in the political campaign. Speaking at the SVIA Fall Forum in mid-October, Ayres, founder and president of North Star Opinion Research, called it “the most bizarre and head-spinning presidential election certainly of my lifetime and maybe in many, many, many lifetimes.”

To understand how daunting Trump’s path to a second term was looking less than three weeks before the election, Ayres said, it helped to look at how he won his first in 2016. He did it by pulling what Ayres likened to a rare inside straight in poker, winning three Rust Belt states “by the narrowest possible margins: 0.7% in Pennsylvania, 0.2% in Michigan, and 0.7% in Wisconsin. That’s a grand total of 77,744 votes—the size of any good football stadium on a pre-pandemic Saturday afternoon, or 0.006% of the (national) vote.”

Another under-appreciated reason Trump prevailed in 2016, Ayres said, is because 5.75% of voters—8 million in total, or more than the population of 38 different states—voted for third-party candidates. In Pennsylvania, the number of people who voted for someone other than Trump or his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was 5 times more than Trump’s margin of victory. In Wisconsin it was 9 times more, and in Michigan it was 26 times more.

There are no strong third-party candidates in the 2020 election, which Ayres said should benefit Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden. But other trends are working against Trump’s reelection, too. In the 2018 midterm elections, for example, Republican dominance with white college-educated voters collapsed, particularly among women, ending the party’s long dominance of the suburbs. Today, Trump’s approval numbers look challenging for him, too. In a poll taken during the first full week of October, Ayres noted, only 27% of those surveyed strongly approved of Trump’s job performance, while 45% strongly disapproved. Perhaps even more troubling, independent voters disapproved of his job performance by a 2-to-1 margin. “He is the first president in the history of polling to never reach 50% job approval,” Ayres noted.

Biden had strong momentum in the national polls in mid-October, leading Trump by 9 to 10 percentage points, on average. More importantly, Biden also was leading in most of the key swing states, where it will be critical for him to do well if he’s going to win not just the popular vote, as Hillary Clinton did in 2016, but also the Electoral College vote, which Clinton did not.

“What’s also amazing now is that red states—states that Donald Trump won handily in 2016—are now virtual dead heats,” Ayres continued. “States like Ohio and Iowa and Georgia. We’re even seeing numbers out of Texas that are bizarre from the perspective of a Republican. Republicans had just assumed that Texas was, of course, in the Republican column.”

However the election plays out, Ayres warned that Wisconsin and Pennsylvania could be setting themselves up for a national embarrassment. In a year when many more people are voting by mail, those states were still planning to wait until election day to start processing mail-in ballots, potentially leading to a days-long delay, or worse, in reporting final results. “You could very well have Donald Trump ahead in those states on election day,” Ayres explained. “But then when they get around to counting all the mail ballots Joe Biden could pull ahead, and that will be a recipe (for Trump and his supports) to allege fraud.” That could happen, Ayres noted, even though there is little history of fraud in the five states that have a long used mail-in voting, including two that are reliably Republican. Trump has been telling his supporters for months that the only way he could lose is if Democrats cheat.

One possible early clue to how the election will play out, Ayres said, is Florida. “They count their mail ballots ahead of time,” Ayres said. “If Florida goes for Joe Biden, it’s going to be very difficult for Donald Trump to put together the 270 Electoral College votes he needs. On the other hand, if Florida goes for Donald Trump, there are still a number of other routes for Joe Biden to get to 270 electoral votes.” On the other hand, he said that if Florida, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Ohio are all called for one candidate on November 3, “it will be pretty well over.”

Ayres observed that Trump’s weakened standing among the electorate also has damaged prospects for Republican candidates further down the ballot, with Democrats running strong challenges against eight incumbent Republican senators—in Arizona, Colorado, Iowa, Maine, Montana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Georgia. That could put the Republican party in jeopardy of losing control of the Senate, where it currently has 53-47 majority. It could be January before we know the final results, however, due to the possible need for a run-off election in George if, as is widely anticipated, neither candidate for one of the Senate seats open there garners more than 50% of the vote in November. As for the House of Representatives, now controlled by Democrats, Ayres said Trump’s political weakness has obliterated any chance of Republicans taking over there.

Looking beyond the election, Ayres mused about how the Republican Party might go forward after electing the first populist president in the nation’s history. Assuming Trump loses, Ayres said, the party’s challenge will be to accommodate populist sentiment in a more positive message. Among those who are trying, he said, are Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida, who gave a speech last year about “common good capitalism,” in which employers have as much obligation to their workers as they do to their shareholders, and Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri, “who has talked about working-class Republicanism that relies more on labor unions and blue-collar workers.”

However the election plays out, Ayres warned that much of the country may be unhappy when it’s over.

“I’m concerned that if Donald Trump pulls it out, there will be a whole lot of Democrats who’ll feel like the election has been stolen from them again,” Ayres said, noting that it could be the third time since 2000 that the loser of the popular vote, in each case a Republican, won in the Electoral College. (George W. Bush won the presidency over former Vice President Al Gore without winning the popular vote in 2000, and Trump did it over Hillary Clinton in 2016.) In fact, Republicans lost the popular vote in six of the last seven presidential elections, yet still won three of them.

“On the other hand, if Joe Biden wins, I fear many Republicans will believe it was stolen—that the only way that Trump could possibly have lost was if the Democrats stole it,” Ayres said. That, he added, would present problems for the perceived legitimacy of a Biden presidency.

Ayres concluded by observing that the nation’s political system is undergoing a stress test. “If it can make it through this year and this election without massive social unrest, without the system coming apart, I will have even more respect for our Founding Fathers,” he said. “And I’ve had a lot of respect for the Founder Fathers so far in my life.”