In trying to understand what’s going on in this presidential election, we must remember, first and foremost, that trying to analyze a nation from a single poll is like trying to tell the plot of an entire movie from a single frame. What’s important is to see and digest the trends that will come together on Election Day, and that takes a longer-term perspective of the campaigns, the candidates and the critical facts on the ground that can affect people’s votes.
As elections go, this is a pretty complex one to figure out, and more voters than appear as undecided in the polls are still making up their minds, as Americans typically are extremely definite about their positions — just until they change them.
Here are what I have identified as the seven critical factors shaping people’s votes as we go into “the chute” — the period from Labor Day to the end:
- Most people do not like Donald TrumpDonald TrumpUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Collins to endorse LePage in Maine governor comeback bid Heller won't say if Biden won election MORE — only 31 percent like him personally, and huge segments of the electorate don’t like his manner and style. In 2016, the voters disliked both candidates equally, so the “likeability” factor was neutralized. That’s not the case today, with more voters indicating they like Joe BidenJoe BidenUkraine's president compares UN to 'a retired superhero' Biden touts 'progress' during 'candid' meetings on .5T plan Biden to tap law professor who wants to 'end banking as we know it' as OCC chief: reports MORE. So if character and likeability are the key factors, Biden will win overwhelmingly — that’s why the Democratic convention focused on his natural advantage here.
- If “It’s the economy, stupid,” then Trump has a clear advantage on this factor. Even in polls where Trump is losing by 7 to 10 points, he is winning on the economy by 5 or more points, which means that a fair number of voters currently selecting Biden think Trump would do a better job on the economy. This advantage is unlikely to change between now and Election Day, so the question is how successful Trump is at making the economy the central issue. As a matter of strategy, that is clearly not what his campaign is doing — the economy is not its central focus but, instead, just one of a smorgasbord of issues the Trump campaign hits daily, with more of a focus on law and order recently than the economy.
- The issue of the Coronavirus has upended American life more so than perhaps any event since World War II. Trump at first had a majority supporting his actions on the virus, and then his ratings on the virus nosedived in the Harvard CAPS-Harris poll to 41 percent when the virus flared back up; and for every point decline in ratings on the virus, he declined about a point in the polls. In recent weeks, he has regained some ground here, but his comments to author Bob Woodward will no doubt set him back and the campaign will have to spend a lot of resources on exactly what Trump did in response to the virus. Meanwhile, Biden will continue to hit the theme and blame Trump for the spread of the virus. This is not a sideshow — the course of the virus is likely the decisive issue in this campaign.
- Biden is overwhelmingly seen as the person who will bring the country together, by more than a 20-point margin. Both George Bush and Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaTo Build Back Better, improving Black women's health is a must Rahm Emanuel has earned M since leaving Chicago's city hall: report 60 years after the Peace Corps, service still brings Americans together MORE won largely on the basis of similar themes of unity. In response, the president’s campaign says he is just the kind of person we need to disrupt Washington and business as usual. Voters have typically chosen a uniter over a divider.
- Social justice and civil unrest are both big, important issues that were not at all driving factors in 2016 but that will now play a role in the outcome of this race. Biden is winning on these issues in the polls so far, but Trump is showing momentum and is closing the gap, clearly believing that it is this issue that can bring back suburban voters. Most Americans do see the country as racist and the police as flawed; however, at the same time, they do not want the police defunded. They want better policing that bridges the racial divide, and they also condemn without reservation violence in cities, demanding full-throated prosecutions of those at fault.
- There also are some key realignments occurring within demographic groups. Suburban voters are so far continuing their switch to the Democrats as they did in the 2018 midterms, while working-class voters are sticking with Trump and the Republicans — incredible developments over the last four years, when you pause to think about it. Trump is working to close the gaps in suburbia but he is not likely to win those back over completely. Yet, surprisingly, we also are seeing Trump do better with Latino voters, at least in Florida where he is poised to win them — and this also puts Nevada possibly in play. Seniors, a big Trump constituency in 2016, have shown more affinity with Biden in recent polls and are likely the key deciding voters.
- Unlike 2016, both campaigns now realize that the race is about the Electoral College, not the popular vote — so the focus and the expenditure of hundreds of millions of dollars will be on turnout in swing states. If the national polls are within 3 points, ignore those polls and focus on Florida, Pennsylvania and Michigan. If the polls are wider than 5 points, then the national vote will be hard if not impossible to overcome.
This election is not over, though it’s definitely uphill for Trump. However, everything has always been uphill for Trump who, even as an incumbent, fights like a challenger. Up until the first debate, watch closely what is happening to the virus numbers, to the economic numbers, and whether violence in cities has subsided. During this period of the campaign, those three facts and how they are trending are likely to be far more important than anything either candidate says or does — at least up until the opening statements of first debate on Sept. 29.
Mark Penn is a managing partner of the Stagwell Group, a global organization of digital-first marketing companies, as well as chairman of the Harris Poll and author of “Microtrends Squared.” He also is CEO of MDC Partners, an advertising and marketing firm. He served as pollster and adviser to former President Clinton from 1995 to 2000, including during Clinton’s impeachment. You can follow him on Twitter @Mark_Penn.