This is among history’s most bizarre presidential elections. Conducted during a pandemic, the campaign has lacked the tempo, form, content and volume we’ve come to expect. The race is so unsettling in part because it doesn’t feel and hasn’t played out like a normal presidential election.
For one thing, there’s less activity. Normally, having secured his party’s nomination after the South Carolina primary, Joe Biden would have paused briefly, then spent the next five months until his convention frantically traversing battleground states and hitting coastal money pots. All the while, he’d make speeches, frame his narrative, answer questions from the national press, and make spirited attacks against his opponent. Then, after an August convention extravaganza, Mr. Biden would go on a nonstop whirlwind tour to make his case in every hamlet in every up-for-grabs state.
Instead, mostly crickets. Mr. Biden retreated to his Wilmington, Del., basement, leaving the spotlight on President Trump. Even now, Mr. Biden is off the trail almost more than he’s on it. His campaign declared a “lid,” meaning no activity, starting Monday morning and continuing all the way until Thursday night’s debate, ostensibly so he can prepare. The lack of campaigning has left voters with less information about Mr. Biden, while they’re inundated with coverage of Mr. Trump.
This explains why more Biden supporters are voting against Mr. Trump than for the former vice president, and why more Trump supporters are voting for the president than against Mr. Biden. It also helps explain why the election has been more of a referendum on Mr. Trump than a contrast between two candidates. Both competitors should worry about the implications.
Then there are polls. Burned in 2016, many Democrats are wary of believing that Mr. Biden leads in national and battleground-state polls and nervous that Hillary Clinton was further ahead in Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin at this point in 2016 than Mr. Biden is today. And the Trumpistas would say, paraphrasing Shakespeare’s “Henry VI”: The first thing we do, let’s kill all the pollsters.
Polling is broken: The golden age, when everyone had a phone at home and picked it up, is over. It is now far more difficult and expensive to poll, and surveys in the same state at the same time often produce very different results. There’s also the “shy Trump” factor: It’s real, but how big is it?
Campaigns increasingly rely on modeling as a substitute for polling, using big data to define each voter’s predisposition and then run simulations. It sounds so scientifically precise, but I shared a stage the day before the 2016 election with a co-chairman of Hillary Clinton’s super PAC, who said she’d won 93% of some 60,000 simulations they’d just run and would be elected president on the morrow.
The hostility of the press toward Mr. Trump and its benign approach to Mr. Biden is also a difference. The national press corps is generally antagonistic to, or at least deeply wary of, any GOP presidential candidate. Still, the animus of reporters and their outlets toward Mr. Trump is gobsmacking. We’re in an era of an openly partisan press, dominated by the left. That makes two against one: Mr. Biden and the media against Mr. Trump.
Changing patterns of voting are also hard to fathom. The pandemic has caused many people to vote using different methods, some for the first time. We have no baseline to make sense of what’s happening with mail-in, early and in-person Election Day voting, especially with the intense partisan reaction to voting by mail vs. going to the polls.
On voter registration, the conventional wisdom is that Democrats should enjoy a big bump over Republicans. Yet in Florida, Republicans cut the Democratic registration advantage from 330,428 voters in 2016 to 134,242 today and in Pennsylvania, Republicans reduced it by 215,421 since 2016. The reason? Republicans quietly mounted huge registration efforts. I helped with one run by American Crossroads that has added 858,559 new registrants in 16 states so far.
Finally, money: Since Barack Obama blew up public financing of presidential elections in 2008, they’ve gotten dramatically more expensive. Mr. Biden raised a staggering $383 million in September, more than five times the $74.6 million both George W. Bush and John Kerry were each allowed to spend in 2004 under public-financing rules.
In less than two weeks, the voting will end. We all have our guesses as to what will happen. But with so many of the normal markers broken or unavailable, so much new and unknown, we’re in largely uncharted territory. That’s an argument for modesty rather than certainty from us all.