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The fog of the 2020 elections — nationally and in Minnesota

The key groups to watch in national and state polls between now and November are suburbanites, women and racial minorities.

REUTERS/Emmanuel Foudrot

Have the outcome of the 2020 elections in the nation and Minnesota ever seemed murkier? No, we are in uncharted waters.

Consider the unprecedented circumstances of the moment. Never before in U.S. electoral history have elections loomed in an environment with three such crises afflicting the nation: racial unrest and turmoil, an ongoing pandemic restricting many normal activities, and widespread unemployment.

The last comparable pandemic was the Spanish flu of 1918. Unemployment has not reached recent levels since the Great Depression of the 1930s. The most recent election years featuring major racial turmoil were 1968 and 1992.

The uncertainties for the November 2020 elections can be summarized in fraught questions. Will the pandemic, racial unrest and unemployment improve, deteriorate or remain about the same by Nov. 3? What other unpleasant surprises lie in wait for us in the five months until the elections?

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The impact of racial unrest

Consider the potential impact of racial unrest. In 1968, riots in American cities helped the more conservative candidate, Republican Richard Nixon, eke out a narrow victory over liberal Democrat Hubert Humphrey. But in 1992, unrest after the videotape of police abuse of Rodney King, combined with an economic recession, helped sink Republican George Herbert Walker Bush’s re-election.

photo of article author
Steven Schier
Is it 1968 or 1992 for Trump, national and state Democrats and Republicans?

The key groups to watch in national and state polls between now and November are suburbanites, women and racial minorities.

The suburbs decide many national and state elections. How will they respond to this remarkable combination of unpleasant circumstances? Women have been strongly Democratic in their leanings so far, but will the unrest move them toward the GOP?

Surprisingly, racial minorities have been more pro-Trump in national opinion polls than their past behavior would suggest. Is this a polling problem or a real trend that will manifest itself on Election Day 2020?

Polling data — and cautions about them

Present national polling indeed looks good for Joe Biden and Democrats. Biden in mid-June enjoys a lead of eight points over the president in the RealClear Politics polling average.

Democratic pollster Doug Schoen warns us, however, that the presidential race is likely closer than that. He notes that recent polls have oversampled Democrats, often giving them a 7 percentage point lead in party identification over the GOP when the margin was only 3 points on Election Day 2016.

Schoen also notes that current polls record preferences of registered voters – only about 80-85 percent of them actually vote – but surveys of likely voters tend to boost GOP support. This may well be the case this year because Republicans report more enthusiasm for voting this year than do Democrats.

Both presidential candidates, Schoen notes, have problems with groups of voters. Biden needs to boost enthusiasm among his partisans and shore up support with racial minorities. Trump lags with independents, suburbanites and older voters.

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Minnesota: uniquely uncertain

Minnesota is a state uniquely afflicted with uncertainties because of the many dramatic events of recent weeks. Will the Twin Cities suburbs continue their Democratic trend in congressional and state legislative races in the wake of the devastation from the protests? Perhaps they will reward Gov. Tim Walz’s response, but perhaps not.

There may be an adverse reaction to the protests in national and state politics, but its scale, geographic characteristics, and impact on the 2020 elections and on governance are impossible to judge. Perhaps the pandemic and weak economy will shrink that reaction.

Who knows? What if the next five months are as surprising as the first six months of 2020? The smart money is placing no November bets now.

Steven Schier is Congdon Professor of Political Science Emeritus at Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota.

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