WASHINGTON — At first glance, there seems little in common between red-hat-wearing admirers of President Trump and Democratic activists still nursing PTSD from Hillary Clinton’s loss. Yet these political opposites share an overriding conviction, one they are apt to invoke any time the president’s re-election prospects are questioned:
Mr. Trump’s surprise win in the Electoral College is their Exhibit A, cited repeatedly online or in real life, to counter any polls or election results or momentary events that cast doubt on the president’s electability in 2020.
Just as William Faulkner wrote about how Southerners once daydreamed about the moments before Pickett’s Charge, before Gettysburg turned the tide of the Civil War, some activists seem frozen in the post-midnight hours of Nov. 9, 2016, when Mr. Trump won and time — political time — stopped like a broken clock.
Ever since then, the assessment has been the same: Mr. Trump is a powerful, if unconventional, political force; the polls don’t fully capture his strength; and the Democrats are too complacent to win this November.
Ronna McDaniel, the Republican National Committee chairwoman, also championed the “But 2016!” way of thinking this month when she dismissed his current weakness in the polls. “The polling today is not going to be what we see on Nov. 3,” she said. “And you know who knows that better than anybody? Hillary Clinton.”
Yet as the president struggles to respond to the coronavirus, some Democrats and anti-Trump Republicans believe too many voters are taking the wrong lessons from the 2016 election, ignoring what just took place in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary and turning a blind eye to electoral trends of recent years.
In that period, Democrats enjoyed sustained voter enthusiasm, and 2018 brought the highest midterm turnout in over a century, thanks largely to voter backlash against the president — even in dozens of competitive and red-state congressional races.
“Very smart people have convinced themselves that the normal rules simply don’t apply to Trump,” said John Hagner, a Democratic strategist who calls this view “almost a religious belief.”
It’s not that Mr. Hagner and like-minded political operatives believe 2016 isn’t instructive. It’s just that they believe the lessons are different from the assumption that the president is coated in Teflon, politically speaking.
What Mr. Trump’s stunning win and Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s extraordinary comeback in the 2020 primaries both demonstrate, they say, is the crucial importance of momentum-changing events, the mood of the electorate and the ingrained perceptions of the candidates. Tactics like well-produced campaign ads, high-profile endorsements and clever one-liners at debates often matter far less, as Mrs. Clinton found.
In other words, Mr. Trump’s 2016 victory is not predictive in 2020 — not for an incumbent running for re-election amid a public health catastrophe that has killed over 80,000 Americans and caused another 36 million to lose their jobs.
“If you’re ranking the things that matter in an election, macro issues like a collapsing economy and a global pandemic are going to beat out a campaign video,” deadpanned Addisu Demissie, who ran Senator Cory Booker’s presidential campaign last year.
It’s not that Mr. Biden is a lock to win this November. In an era of intense polarization, coast-to-coast landslides in presidential elections are as much a relic as eight-track players. Further, as 2016 vividly illustrated, late-breaking events can shape elections, and Mr. Trump will go to great lengths to win. And in a close race, campaign organization can matter.
But at a moment when Mr. Biden is stuck at home in Wilmington, Del., and receiving all manner of advice from well-meaning supporters about how to break through from his basement, the suggestion that a stronger Biden social media presence would shape an election amid a looming depression is prompting some eye rolls. And not just from his own campaign staff.
“You can have the greatest machinery in the world, but if a campaign is not right for the times, it doesn’t matter,” said Tim Miller, an outspoken Republican critic of Mr. Trump.
Mr. Miller speaks from experience. Working for Jeb Bush in the 2016 Republican primary and then against Mr. Trump in the general election, he saw how rudimentary the president’s campaign infrastructure was that year — and how little it mattered.
To call Mr. Trump’s political organization four years ago bare-bones would be an insult to other bare-bones campaigns. Mr. Trump cycled through campaign managers, ran his campaign from a spare floor in Trump Tower and approached social media like a guy watching TV at the end of a bar. But it all proved less important than the structural factors that shaped the 2016 election and ultimately favored him.
First, Mr. Trump ran in a crowded and fragmented Republican field and found a strong plurality of voters for his racial grievances and attacks on the political establishment.
Then he competed against a deeply unpopular Democrat, Mrs. Clinton, whose gains in the polls often depended on Mr. Trump’s doing or saying something that got him in trouble. It was perhaps inevitable, strategists say, that many voters who disliked both candidates broke Mr. Trump’s way after the F.B.I. reopened its investigation into Mrs. Clinton in the campaign’s final days. This is to say nothing of the millions of voters who doubted that Mr. Trump would win and therefore either didn’t vote for president or cast a third-party ballot.
Mr. Trump faces a tough environment right now. After the president enjoyed an initial bump in polling, voters have soured on his handling of the virus. Surveys show that, in a contrast to 2016, voters who dislike both of this year’s nominees overwhelmingly favor Mr. Biden. And polls currently indicate that Mr. Trump is trailing Mr. Biden in battleground states such as Pennsylvania and Michigan and that the two are running closely even in more conservative states like North Carolina and Georgia.
“Democrats shouldn’t be fighting the last war when the current terrain presents a very different battle,” said Jill Alper, a longtime party strategist who said that, for starters, Mr. Biden is “not Hillary Clinton.”
Those skeptical of Mr. Trump’s chances in 2020 also point to the recent Democratic primary as illustrative about how broad political forces such as likability, momentum and public perceptions drive elections.
Just over two months ago, Mr. Biden’s candidacy was in dire shape. Yet in short order, he revived his campaign and all but ensured he would be the Democratic nominee by winning in a series of Super Tuesday states where he had never visited, had not advertised and had only a skeletal staff on the ground.
He was broadly popular among black and moderate white Democrats and was widely perceived to be the safe selection in a primary that revolved around finding a candidate who could defeat Mr. Trump.
“You can meet the moment, but you can’t really change the moment,” said Mr. Demissie, who was quick to credit Mr. Biden’s aides for positioning him as the safe choice. “It’s very difficult to change the mood of the electorate via campaign strategy and tactics.”
Be it Mr. Biden or Mr. Trump, a candidate’s performance is relevant, of course. As former President Barack Obama demonstrated with his poised response to the economic crash in 2008, how one handles a crisis can be an important indicator to voters.
But Michael Halle, a Democratic operative who helped guide Pete Buttigieg’s presidential bid, argued that Mr. Trump missed his opportunity to project resolve and has not enjoyed the polling bump granted to an array of governors, Democratic and Republican, for their leadership in combating the virus.
“Had his response been strong, he could have transcended his problems with the electorate,” Mr. Halle said.
Some Trump opponents, for strategic reasons, are not playing up his political vulnerabilities in the general election. They want to make sure their voters continue fretting about Mr. Trump’s re-election so they will be more likely to volunteer their time and money toward defeating him.
“The bed-wetting is probably useful,” as Mr. Miller confessed.
But there is one invariably blunt political observer who couldn’t help but to make an astute, if self-serving, assessment about what drives elections.
“I’ve always felt it was overrated,” Mr. Trump said of Mr. Obama’s vaunted campaign machinery. “Obama got the votes much more so than his data-processing machine. And I think the same is true with me.”