“Hello from Utah, the site of tonight’s vice presidential debate,” began veteran political strategist Donna Brazile in a keynote address at CRE.Converge Virtual 2020. This is Brazile’s fourth presidential debate as a commentator and, at 27 days away from the presidential election, she says that 2020 is a year unimagined in so many ways.
“Democratic nominee Joe Biden may be leading in the polls, but President [Donald] Trump isn’t throwing in the towel,” she said. During the vice presidential debate this week, Brazile said viewers will have a greater opportunity to see how the candidates are framing the issues, perhaps more so than in the first presential debate that was dominated by interruptions.
“Over 73 million Americans watched the first debate. Biden received the biggest bump in the polls – and depending on the media outlet, that bump ranges anywhere from just a few percentage points to a much larger margin,” said Brazile. What perceptions emerged about the candidates? Brazile shared two lists – one for each candidate – developed by pollster Frank Luntz’s focus groups of independent voters. The results show words like “Nice guy, Coherent, Compassion and Leader” assigned to Biden; Trump’s descriptors were “Bully, Puzzling, Arrogant and Unhinged.”
Despite the difference in poll projections and voter impressions, Brazile doesn’t believe the election will be a landslide, but will be decided in the margins. Generation X, millennials and Generation Z comprise the largest portion of the electorate, and polling shows that they are energized, engaged and excited about this election – even if Bernie Sanders, their preferred candidate during the primaries, didn’t earn the nomination. If this group votes in high numbers, along with suburban, college-educated women, they’ll shape the race. Senior voters may have swung the 2016 election in Trump’s favor, said Brazile, but he’s struggling to capture this same group of voters this year in important states like Florida, Pennsylvania and Iowa.
Nomination of a Supreme Court Justice to replace the late Ruth Bader Ginsberg is a hot issue, with the majority of voters saying they believe that the winner of the election should appoint the new justice, and that they trust Biden to do a better job of choosing an individual.
The largest issue looming over the election is clearly the COVID-19 pandemic and the current administration’s response to it, said Brazile, as she cited that it’s one of the biggest reasons that Trump is struggling in the polls. Trump’s approval in handling the pandemic was highest when a White House Task Force pivoted to focusing on the economic recovery, but since has steadily declined as an increasing number of Americans face unemployment and serious challenges resulting from health or economic impacts.
“As of today, we have 37 states experiencing rising COVID cases, and that’s having a direct impact on the president’s ability to regain positive numbers,” Brazile said. The Biden campaign will be heavily focused on the president’s mismanagement of the pandemic during the last few weeks leading up to the election, but not neglecting other key issues, including orders issued this week in the Federal District Court in Manhattan directing the president to turn over eight years of tax returns.
Compounding the coronavirus pandemic is the consensus from American voters that the country is heading in the wrong direction. Since the 2018 midterm elections, events such as the Trump impeachment and subsequent acquittal, the murder of George Floyd, and ongoing racial unrest have increased this sentiment and reflects a significant dip in confidence in the direction of the county.
“Over 84% of registered voters report that they have already made up their minds on which candidate they were voting for in the election,” said Brazile. This results in a much smaller pool of undecided voters for the candidates to sway – although they’re trying, Brazile said, noting Biden’s recent Gettysburg speech calling for unity, and Trump’s appeal to voters as he waved to audiences from the White House balcony upon his return home after hospitalization for coronavirus.
What makes poll predictions for 2020 more accurate than those of 2016, when nominee Hillary Clinton was projected to win over candidate Biden? “Four years ago, we had a much larger group of undecided voters,” said Brazile. “Today, that number is less than 5% of voters. But this can change quickly! 2020 is the year of disruption, and I wouldn’t be surprised for the race to tighten and Trump to regain ground in battleground states.”
The results of the election might not be able to be announced on Nov. 3, warned Brazile. The amount of time it will take to count all of the absentee ballots, particularly those postmarked the day of the election that will arrive afterwards, could be significant. Brazile said she expects both campaigns to work in a bipartisan fashion with the media for two primary reasons. First, so that accurate information is conveyed to media; and second, so the media doesn’t prematurely call the election until all ballots across the country can be counted.
This election is a referendum on the current leadership in the White House, Brazile asserted. “The country has been polarized for a long time, and President Trump has not been able to bring it together on any issue,” she said. “Biden is running on two things: First, he’s not Trump; and second, that he can build back better and stronger.”
Whether or not the Electoral College will endure, Brazile noted that Constitutional framers were mindful of a balance between the states. Nonetheless, Brazile expects change sometime in this century. “Voters are not going to continue to stand for not having the popular vote winner not actually winning the election,” she said. “But it’s a constitutional amendment and a big conversation.”
“In 2016, we had four ‘October surprises.’ So far this month – as of October 7 – we’ve already seen three. So, there’s a lot of work to do and a lot of ground to cover between now and election day,” she concluded.
Kathryn Hamilton, CAE, is Vice President for Marketing and Communications at NAIOP Corporate.