Why did Trump almost win?

His presidency has seen many disasters. But when campaigning, Trump saw an opportunity that Biden didn't—and it proved crucial

November 10, 2020
article header image

Despite presiding over the worst public health disaster in modern US history and the sharpest recession since the Great Depression, not to mention inciting questions about his character, outgoing president Donald Trump won more votes and a larger share of the electorate than he did in 2016. With 70 million ballots cast in his favour, no sitting president has ever won as many votes as Trump.

When Trump was elected four years ago, he was a businessman and television personality with no record in government to defend. After a term in office, Americans have seen what a Trump presidency looks like—and 48 per cent of voters like it. He’s even convinced sceptics. Nearly two million people who backed Hillary Clinton in 2016 switched their allegiance to Trump.

Trump’s appeal was not enough to claim the rust belt states he flipped in 2016, but by focusing his campaign on the economy, Trump was able to persuade nearly half of voters nationwide to vote Republican. If one moment stands as the sitting president’s pitch to the nation, it could be his comments at a rally in the battleground state of Michigan. From the podium, Trump announced to women voters in the audience, “We’re getting your husbands back to work.”

Amidst a surging pandemic, which has already killed 240,000 people, Trump understood implicitly that although the public cared about controlling the spread of the virus, when faced with job cuts and an unprecedented recession, many voters’ immediate concerns were economic. His instinct was corroborated by a Pew study in August, which found that the economy was more important to his voters than any other subject, including the pandemic. It was confirmed by detailed election exit polls from CNN and the New York Times.

Not only was Trump’s economic focus popular, but it also shifted the conversation away from coronavirus—where CNN and the New York Times suggested Biden was outscoring Trump by eight points.

Loyalty to Trump on the economy stems from his record before the pandemic, which saw median household income at an all-time high, unemployment at its lowest rate for fifty years, and a thriving stock market.

A 30-year-old management consultant living in Washington DC, who voted for Trump, said: “President Trump achieved one of the lowest unemployment records in modern history before the Covid-19 pandemic. I believe this matters more than almost any other metric. Meaningful work means purpose, dignity, and a chance to provide for oneself and one’s families. President Trump’s polices put the working class and middle class first, something that it feels hadn’t happened in my lifetime.”

In addition, the US economy has rebounded much faster than predicted. According to forecasts from the Federal Reserve in June, unemployment was not expected to fall to its current level (6.9 per cent) until late next year. Trump’s critics say this is because the President prioritised the national economy over American lives.

In contrast to Trump, one of Biden’s main campaign pledges was to protect public health. But his focus on controlling the pandemic obscured his own impressive economic record. As Barack Obama’s vice-president, Biden helped steer the US out of the 2008 financial crisis, and delivered the strong growth that Trump inherited in 2017.

Indeed, some of Trump’s success in this election can be attributed to Biden’s inability to clearly articulate the economic advantages of his approach to the pandemic, and the economic downsides to Trump’s. And whereas Trump’s economic message was consistent, Biden’s was unclear. During the first presidential debate, Biden said he didn’t support the Green New Deal, a taxpayer-funded plan for tackling climate change and creating sustainable jobs, proposed by progressives in his party such as Bernie Sanders and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The climate change section on his website, however, begins by calling it a “crucial framework for the climate challenges we face."

Alongside initiatives to support the environment, Biden also proposed tax increases as part of his plans to expand welfare. For example, he campaigned to increase child benefits and pledged to quadruple federal spending on low-income housing assistance. For his critics, these programmes do little to get people back into jobs. Amy Williams is a 34-year-old from Utah who works for an international NGO. She was a single mother on welfare for five years, using food stamps and Medicaid. “That type of welfare, I believe, keeps people in poverty,” she says. “It doesn’t do anything to incentivise people.”

Amy, who used to work in local government, believes Trump’s policies will stimulate the economy. “I have seen, working for a city, the benefit of giving companies tax incentives to come and create jobs, to build your economy.”

A 70-year-old professor from Philadelphia, whose vote was also strongly influenced by Trump’s selection of originalist Supreme Court justices, agrees. “I think the economy would be much better under Trump because of the lower tax rate policy and deregulation. I’m afraid that increasing tax rates and regulation, as Biden is apt to want, will ultimately have a very depressing effect [on the economy].”

Trump’s critics, on the other hand, argue that instead of ushering through an economic plan, all Trump has done is refer voters to statistics from the pre-pandemic era of his presidency, and speak in vague terms about tax cuts. Glenn Hubbard, the former dean of Columbia Business School and a long-time adviser to Republicans, told Bloomberg, “He has no economic plan. I don’t mean that I don’t like it. It doesn’t exist.”

Trump’s economic pitch may have been sparse on detail, but it was full of promises—and his supporters liked what was promised. Even though the election took place at a moment when the rate of infection was at its peak, Trump’s message proved to be popular. Amidst the gloom of the pandemic, Trump gave his voters hope—he pitched himself as the president who offers tax cuts and who gets your husbands back to work.

Any leader today has to strike the balance between controlling the virus and mitigating its effects on people’s livelihoods. For Trump’s 70 million voters, a healthy public came second to a healthy economy. Biden’s task now is to prove it’s possible to do both.