Almost every election cycle, someone on one side or the other is claiming that this is the most important election in their lifetime.
Well, this one actually probably is — and it appears voters think so, too.
The election is already setting records for turnout, and perhaps no two candidates are more at odds over the future of the country and the direction they want to take it in. This election is fundamentally about what it means to be an American.
One thing is clear: Whoever wins could shape what America means for generations to come through social policy, the courts and by their own example.
Voters are turning out
This election is expected to have the highest voter turnout since 1908, north of 65% of eligible voters turning out, according to Michael McDonald, a turnout expert at the University of Florida who runs the U.S. Elections Project.
It’s on track for that and possibly more, considering the sky-high early voting totals. So far, more than 93.1 million people have voted early. That’s about 68% of the total votes in 2016.
In some key contested states, the totals are even higher than that. Take Texas, for example, where more people have cast a ballot already than in the entire 2016 election. More Texans have now voted in the 2020 presidential election than in any election ever by about 700,000 and climbing, as of Sunday afternoon.
There’s a similar trend across the country — North Carolina has hit 95% of its 2016 total, Georgia 94%, Florida 91%, Nevada 91%, Arizona 87%, according to the Elections Project.
A referendum on Trump
These numbers are all about President Trump. He has inspired deep devotion and intense repulsion, and that is translating to sky-high enthusiasm for voting — whether that’s in person or by mail because of the coronavirus pandemic.
As is the case with most presidential reelection campaigns, this has been a referendum on the president’s first term. Trump touts what was a strong economy before COVID-19 shocked the country, his tax cuts and trade deals, as well as reshaping the Supreme Court in a conservative direction.
Democrats — and many independents, according to the polls — see a president who takes pride in not playing by the rules, has inflamed racial division, is untruthful, mishandled a pandemic, damaged the country’s image around the world and is an existential threat to progress and justice.
As one candidate in this race might say, and that’s not hyperbole, folks.
“You’re the worst president America has ever had,” Democratic nominee Joe Biden, a former vice president, told Trump during their first presidential debate.
The president’s counterpunch
Trump, for his part, has tried to deflect the focus from himself onto Biden. Trump and his campaign have recognized that they needed to try and make Biden so unacceptable that those wavering 2016 Trump voters will stick with the president.
They have warned that Trump is the only thing standing between America and
“socialism,” claiming Biden is too inept to prevent being taken over by a radical left that wants to defund the police and bring crime to the suburbs.
“No one will be safe in Joe Biden’s America,” Trump said this summer. “I can’t even call it Biden’s America — the guy doesn’t even know he’s alive.”
It’s something he’s repeated many times, even claiming Biden “doesn’t know where he is” or “what office he’s running for.”
So far, surveys have shown that attack hasn’t stuck. Biden has maintained a wide lead in an average of the polls and consistent, if smaller, leads in many of the states key to the Electoral College, which determines who will be president.
Voters have also said consistently that Biden would be better to handle the coronavirus, race relations and even crime, despite Trump casting himself as the pro-police “law and order” candidate. Trump continues to get a slight edge on the economy.
Voting groups to watch
Trump has done little to reach out beyond his base, who still strongly support him. The Trump campaign’s theory of the case is that there are more untapped eligible voters out there who were open to Trump’s message in 2016, but didn’t turn out at the polls.
One of Trump’s strongest core groups are white voters without a college degree. And it’s true that there is room to grow with them. Trump won a record margin with the group in 2016, but they turned out at a 58% rate that year, lower than in some recent past presidential elections.
This group is worth watching, but the negative environment for Trump’s presidency and the absence of Hillary Clinton on the ballot (Biden is better liked) casts doubt on its motivations for voting this time. Especially if these voters didn’t turn out in 2016 when Trump was fresh and new as a candidate.
What’s more, 2016 wasn’t just a base election. Trump won persuadable voters. He won voters who decided in the last month as well as a big share of those who said they didn’t like him or Clinton, according to exit polls.
Trump also won independents, suburban voters and seniors in that election, too. And those groups are telling pollsters this year that they have largely abandoned him. He really can’t afford to lose any voters, considering he won by fewer than 80,000 votes in the three key states that put him over the top — Wisconsin, Michigan and Pennsylvania.
All that said, Trump remains within striking distance in the key swing states. The Trump campaign had hoped Trump’s chances would get better if there was news of a potential vaccine for the coronavirus on the horizon or COVID-19 cases declining in the country. But neither has been true.
For Trump to win, there would have to be an even bigger polling error than in 2016. He would have to win every toss up state and one leaning in Biden’s direction currently. That’s possible, given the toss-up states are all polling within the margin of error and they certainly could all break in one direction.
But bigger than what the keys are to this election, the outcome will likely have consequences for how politics is practiced and how Americans conduct themselves for generations to come.