US election: Four reasons to pause before declaring Donald Trump cannot win

Ben Riley-Smith
·6-min read
Despite trailing Democrat Joe Biden significantly in the polls, President Trump is still in with a shout of retaining the White House - Robyn Beck/AFP 
Despite trailing Democrat Joe Biden significantly in the polls, President Trump is still in with a shout of retaining the White House - Robyn Beck/AFP
US Election Article Bar
US Election Article Bar

The 2020 election is not the 2016 election. That is worth establishing from the off. Donald Trump is the incumbent. Bashing the status quo and running as an outsider when you are president is much harder.

Joe Biden is not Hillary Clinton. He is viewed more favourably than she was before the least election. There are also fewer undecided voters and third party candidates are polling less than 2016.

All of these are reasons to believe that the poll lead enjoyed by Mr Biden, the Democratic presidential nominee, is firmer than the one Ms Clinton had before her defeat four years ago.

But with that said, this too must be pointed out: Mr Biden’s lead in the polls does not guarantee victory. The race is not done and dusted. His win is not written in stone.

Mr Biden may well secure the landslide predicted by many. He may win by whisker. Or - still a possibility - Mr Trump, against the odds, could get a second term.

If the president does that there will be a slew of “the signs were always there” articles. Given this, perhaps it is worth dwelling on what those signs could be. Here are four of them.

1. The Economy

Battleground state polling for The Telegraph has shown that the economy is consistently top or joint top of the issues Americans are considering when they vote.

Mr Trump, despite the steep downturn triggered by the coronavirus lockdowns in the spring, continues to be better trusted to lead a recovery than Mr Biden.

This is a reflection of how deeply baked in his ‘business genius’ image is after decades as a property tycoon personality and Apprentice star, as well as the pre-Covid booming economy.

During my trips to four battleground states - Florida, Pennsylvania, Nevada, Ohio - the financial pain and anxiety caused by the pandemic keeps on coming up again and again from voters.

They want to feel safe, absolutely. But they also want jobs. Eight million positive tests for Covid-19 have been logged in America. More than 50 million people have filed for unemployment.

Whatever the wisdom of their respective coronavirus policies it is Mr Trump, with his unrelenting focus on reopenings, rather than Mr Biden who more often speaks to that concern.

Read more: Trump vs Biden policies

Despite the odds, Mr Trump could still win a second term in office - Alex Brandon/AP
Despite the odds, Mr Trump could still win a second term in office - Alex Brandon/AP

2. Enthusiasm

The Trump campaign’s strategy has been no secret: Fire up the president’s existing supporter base so much that they turn out in record numbers to get him over the line.

Strategy may be the wrong word - Mr Trump’s comfort zone, whether by instinct or design, is running as if it was the Republican primaries again. The rallies are a core part of that.

It is an approach not without sense. There are hundreds of thousands of non-college educated white Americans - the heart of the Trump base - in the swing states who are not registered to vote.

Time and time again Trump campaign officials have briefed that their lead on enthusiasm - the fact that Trump voters are fired up to vote for him - is the reason they will win.

There are signs it is working. In Nevada, a swing state, Republicans registered more voters than Democrats in July, August, and September.

They had not beaten the Democrats there in registration in a single month in a presidential year since 2004. They have also narrowed the gap in registration in Florida and Pennsylvania.

There is doubt about its significance. Doubt too about whether long-time non-voters will actually turn out - just ask Jeremy Corbyn, who dreamed of a historic student voter surge in 2019 that never fully materialised.

But if Mr Trump gets over the line, huge turnout for his base could be the reason.

3. Delegitimising Biden

All year, from the top down, the Trump campaign has been pushing a ruthless strategy trying to make Joe Biden impossible to vote for in the eyes of the electorate.

Some of this has been on policy: Suggesting that he is merely a puppet for the Far Left who would release a “radical” socialist agenda on the country once in office.

Some of it has been personal: The not-so-subtle allegations, made without citing medical evidence, that Mr Biden may be suffering from dementia, or at least fading mentally.

And some has been much darker, namely the unsubstantiated rumours, speculation and smears pushed by Far Right groups and Trump supporters online about the Democratic nominee.

It is in this framing that the Trump campaign’s late push on Hunter Biden, Mr Biden’s son, and the newly emerged laptop purportedly belonging to him can be seen.

Mr Trump has dubbed it “corruption” and called Mr Biden a “criminal”. Mr Biden has dismissed the claims as “smears” and pushed back in the strongest terms.

Anecdotally, during my trips to battleground states, voters have surprisingly often mentioned some of these issues. Whether voters believe the attacks remains to be seen, but they are being heard.

Mr Trump has consistently attacked Joe Biden's mental acuity - Tom Brenner/Reuters
Mr Trump has consistently attacked Joe Biden's mental acuity - Tom Brenner/Reuters

4. Voting process

If Trump critics have read the above, believe it is already factored into the race and the polls and are still certain of victory, it is worth considering one final thing: Voting in a pandemic.

It is possible that we have only begun to understand the impact that the major changes in how people are voting during Covid-19 will have on the make-up of the 2020 electorate.

Record numbers of people will vote by post. Will that mean more of one type of voter will turnout than another? And if so, which demographic - one that helps Mr Trump or Mr Biden?

What happens if - as expected - a large number of those postal ballots are completed inaccurately and voided? Will that be a large proportion? Which party loses out then?

And what about in-person voting? Huge queues are already being seen at polling stations, with 9-hour delays reported at some. Will that put off voters on polling day?

Covid-19 cases are rising again in America. What happens if polling workers, mainly the elderly, pull out due to health concerns and more polling stations close? Or voters themselves planning to cast a ballot in person feel on the day they would rather not?

And then, if it is close, there are issues on counting. It could take days if the result is in the balance. Will there be legal challenges? And then what?

None of the answers are known on this, only the questions. There are no models for how a once-in-a-century deadly pandemic impacts voting behaviour.

These points, to be clear, are not a prediction that Mr Trump will storm to victory. Far from it. They are just factors anyone certain of a Biden blowout win should bear in mind before putting it all on blue.

Read more:

Sign up here for our US election WhatsApp group for exclusive updates and behind-the-scenes access.