The final day of an extremely tumultuous American election season is here. US President Donald Trump’s first term has seemed to many, including supporters, like a never-ending roller coaster, full of twists and turns, dramatic developments and popular unrest.
And 2020 has been even more volatile than expected.
Trump was impeached by the US House of Representatives for abuse of power, only the third president to have faced that ignominy. Then the country was hit hard by the Covid-19 crisis, which led to more than 9 million cases, 230,000 deaths and a president who kept trying to insist that there was nothing to see, suggesting at one point that injecting bleach into the body might solve the problem.
The economy saw its worst-ever Gross Domestic Product drop, shrinking at an annual rate of 32.9% in the second quarter of the year. And the police killing of an unarmed Black man named George Floyd in May led to large-scale protests against systemic racism, resulting in violence and unrest after the president responded with heavy-handed deployment of security forces.
As if that were not enough, a Supreme Court Justice died, resulting in Trump making the deeply polarising decision to upend the precedent set by his own party in the final year of President Barack Obama’s tenure, and nominating a judge to fill the empty seat just days before the election.
Then, in October, Trump himself contracted Covid-19, as the White House turned into a hotspot for the virus.
That is the quick version of the events of the year, which has been so full of previously unfathomable moments that one of the key selling points of Trump’s opponent, Democratic candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden, is that he will bring some peace and quiet to the news cycle. Biden is the calm candidate.
Which is why these two charts are so surprising.
First, the election forecast put forward by FiveThirtyEight, a website that carefully tracks the various national polls conducted over the course of the year.
The second is a set of graphs that compares the approval ratings received by Trump to recent American presidents from the day they took charge.
Another version of this chart comes from Pew Research.
In a presidental tenure – and especially, a final year – filled with as many twists and turns, as many dramatic moments and u-turns as Trump has overseen, maybe the most surprising thing of all is simply how steady his numbers have been.
Trump’s national approval numbers have been stable, moving up and down within a small range, for the entirety of his term. And the forecast for Trump’s chances of winning the US election have remained remarkably consistent all through 2020, despite the protests, the pandemic, the debates and his attempts at delivering a last-minute surprise.
This says nothing about whether Trump will win or lose. The FiveThirtyEight projection gives him a 10% chance of winning, less than the 30% in 2016, but still very plausible.
What it says is that despite the dramatic events of the last year and the three before, Trump’s popularity or his chances of winning have remained steady.
Saying “inject bleach to get rid of Covid-19” did not tank his numbers just as much as helping sign a historic deal to normalise relations between Israel, Bahrain and the United Arab Emirates did not lead to a spike. Refusing to condemn white supremacists at a debate with Biden neither turned the public against him in a major way, nor did it boost his chances.
This is unusual, as the chart above comparing his favorability to other presidents shows. Compare the FiveThirtyEight chart to the “chance of winning” forecast it had for the 2016 election, which saw much bigger swings.
Regardless of the outcome, what is clear is that the 2020 race has been remarkably stable despite all the apparent volatility.
Why is that so?
One answer is that Trump has been unpopular from the very beginning. Unlike other presidents who often have a “honeymoon period”, when their popularity tends to be high among a wide swath of the populace, Trump came into the White House having lost the popular vote and maintained the polarising, misinformation-filled rhetoric that he used during the campaign.
As Philip Bump pointed out in the Washington Post, Trump’s numbers have remained steady with Republicans, Democrats and – crucially – even independents over the course of the last four years.
The other clue, connected to this, comes from polarisation. Trump’s approval numbers have not only been stable, they’ve also reflected the deepest polarisation for any US president, with a giant gap in those who approve of his performance versus those who don’t, based on their political preferences, according to Pew Research.
Amina Dunn adds one important point to this: “While his ratings are also the most polarised along party lines in the modern era, this divide represents a continuation of a trend seen in assessments of recent presidents, including Barack Obama and George W Bush.”
Explaining this is the thesis of Vox co-founder Ezra Klein’s 2020 book Why We’re Polarized, which argues that American democracy has over the last few decades systematically led to more polarisation, not just political but social as well. One of Klein’s arguments is that “as polarisation goes up, American politics becomes more stable in terms of people’s preferences because the decisions are clearer for them”.
In other words, with American politics becoming more polarised, it doesn’t matter what Trump or, in fact, his opponent does. Trump could endorse white supremacists, put an end to the Syrian civil war, encourage people to treat viruses using household cleaning liquid, or spread wild conspiracy theories and a section of Americans will still approve of his actions and say they will vote for him.
Klein’s book goes to some lengths to explain how the US has become so polarised, but on a recent podcast, he expressed surprise at how accurate the thesis has been in predicting outcomes this year.
“If you had told me a year ago what was going to happen over the next year – coronavirus, 200,000 Americans dead, the kind of economic volatility we’ve seen, George Floyd and the national protests –
I would not have predicted that one year later his approval rating would be up by 1 point,” Klein said.
That doesn’t mean the 2020 outcome will be the same as 2016. The electorate is different, turnout has been different, and America’s complex system means that small numbers of votes in swing states matter much more than which candidate gets more votes nation-wide.
But it does say something interesting about the American political system, and what may be in store for the country, whether or not Trump is re-elected.