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26 Nov 2020 13:55
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  •   Home > News > International

    Donald Trump is rolling out 2016's greatest hits. Will that work at the 2020 US election?

    In the dying days of the 2020 election, Donald Trump has settled on an album of greatest hits played to a key slice of voters. Will it work?

    His biggest opponents have labelled it a "farewell tour".

    And just like an ageing rock star selling out concerts by promising that: "No really, this is the last time," the fans have been turning out. In force.

    On the final stretch of the 2020 US election campaign, some familiar flavour has been on high rotation at US President Donald Trump's flurry of campaign rallies.

    Chants of "lock him up" have erupted in the crowds. The President has assailed his opponent as "corrupt".

    "As far as I'm concerned, the Biden family is a criminal enterprise," he told a crowd of supporters in Las Vegas.

    A widely discredited story — one the US intelligence community is warning is likely to be an attempt to spread disinformation by Russia — even has the President raising the spectre of bombshell emails that will supposedly torpedo his opponent's campaign

    In the face of indicators that show he is on track to lose the White House in November, Trump has settled on a mixtape of his greatest hits, played to a key slice of voters in swing states, as the way to win a second term.

    The reason Trump's hits worked in 2016 isn't what you might think

    In the post-election interrogation of why they "missed" the result in 2016, media organisations travelled to so many diners across the US Midwest to meet Trump voters that it became a cliche.

    And the prevailing narrative that emerged was one of a people left behind in America's manufacturing heartland. Forgotten by a political class and driven by economic anxiety into the arms of a candidate who was the ultimate political outsider.

    But people are complicated. And as Robert Griffin, a research director at the Democracy Fund Voter Study Group, later discovered, fitting a single narrative onto Trump's 2016 support base was "destined for failure".

    Which is not to say that no-one voted for Trump because of the economy.

    But in studying Trump's 2016 support, Griffin found many of the reasons people supported the President were the same reasons voters supported the Republican Party more broadly.

    [Hearken Pic Teaser]

    "So the question is that if a lot of the things essentially kept working the same, what started looking different?" Griffin said.

    "They start looking like attitudes around race, attitudes around immigration, and potentially attitudes around gender.

    "You had people hearing that immigration and racial attitudes and potentially gender attitudes were really, really important. And they think that because Trump took the knob on those issues, turned it up to 10, snapped it off, turned it to 11."

    In his research, Griffin summarised that voters who "held views of immigrants, Muslims, minorities, and feminist women as the undeserving 'other' were particularly susceptible to Trump's appeal".

    And Trump stood opposite the perfect foils in 2016 as he campaigned against a black president and a female Democratic nominee.

    "Nobody takes all the risks Hillary Clinton took unless they're trying to cover up massive, massive crimes," he told a rally in 2016.

    Along with amplifying the racist "birther" conspiracy theory, Trump also claimed that Barack Obama was "the founder of ISIS" in the closing months of the 2016 election.

    Professor Diana Mutz, a political scientist at the University of Pennsylvania, similarly found that economics wasn't the most likely reason a voter chose Trump in 2016.

    Mutz found that education levels were key.

    "Trump's support came almost exclusively from poorly educated men," Mutz said.

    "One of the things we know about education levels is that it's a strong predictor of your attitudes culturally in this country, and of your attitudes toward diversity of all kinds."

    We know quite a bit about the people voting for Trump in 2020

    Heading into 2020, Pew Research found that more than anything else, partisanship was "the dividing line" when it comes to determining how Americans form their political attitudes.

    That is, which party an American supports determines how they are likely to vote more than age, race, education or gender.

    Because people rarely defect from their party loyalties, at any given election candidates are only fighting for 5 to 7 per cent of American voters, Mutz said.

    "A small percentage of people are actually movable."

    So the easiest answer for who will vote for Trump in 2020 is … Republicans.

    More research from Pew found that 94 per cent of registered voters who supported Donald Trump in 2016 would support him in 2020. And that group is predominantly older, whiter, less-educated men.

    "It's really about a reaction to cultural change that's going on in the United States. Where the dominant cultural groups like whites, men, Christians, all the groups that kind of held the most power in our society, are having to share," Mutz said.

    In the final stretches of the 2020 campaign, Trump is returning to those voters who helped him squeeze out a win in 2016.

    And to woo them, the President has settled on an album of remastered classics, rather than new material.

    The 2016 hits might work in 2020

    Senior fellow at the Hoover Institution of Stanford University, Victor David Hanson, wrote a book called The Case for Trump.

    He believes that because Trump has been able to return to full rallies, "he'll do very well in the election".

    Hanson said the images of packed rallies beamed into American homes via television were crucial in Trump's 2016 victory.

    "It was the TV viewer who said, 'Look at that.' You know, said to his wife, 'That's what I'm telling you. We're not alone. Look at those people, there's thousands of them. They love this guy.' That gave them confidence they weren't crazy," Hanson said.

    And the crowd numbers at Trump's rallies are growing, despite the United States nearing a third coronavirus peak with daily cases surging towards an average of more than 70,000.

    At the final presidential debate last week, pundits marked one particular line as being among Trump's most effective. Once again, it was familiar to anyone who watched in 2016.

    "Just a typical politician when I see that. I'm not a typical politician, that's why I got elected," Trump said, mocking an attempt by Democratic nominee Joe Biden to change the subject.

    Hanson said that image of the outsider — one who didn't change himself for anybody — was what endeared Trump to voters in 2016. And it's what could see him once again defy the polls in 2020.

    "He had his suit on, his red tie, his hair, his orange skin, that Queens accent. And whether he was in Youngstown, Ohio, or somewhere in Iowa or in Manhattan, he was always the same. And he had that ability to say anything at any time," Hanson said.

    "He may be a Manhattan wheeler-dealer, but what you see is what you get. He is not like Mitt Romney or McCain or Obama or the rest of them."

    Griffin points out that the scenario Democrats should be "worried about" is one where Trump makes gains among those non-college educated white voters. The same ones that hold the keys to crucial swing states. The same ones Trump's strategy is targeting in the final days of this campaign.

    "White non-college voters is a coalition that has been slowly leaving the Democratic Party since the 1950s. So if that were to continue, that's not the craziest thing in the world," he said.

    "[They are] still a really substantial portion of the electorate, larger than any other group you could pick out."

    Trump's three-point problem

    But America is changing. Or rather, America was already changing.

    The US is on a slow, inexorable march to becoming a more diverse, more educated nation. Add to the 2020 mix that for the first time, millennials and generation Z will make up the same share of eligible voters as baby boomers do.

    Griffin says that's a problem for a candidate like Trump who is looking for victory in 2020 by trying to replicate his 2016 success.

    "Succeeding [in 2016] meant losing the popular vote by 2 million and then squeaking by the skin of your teeth to get through the electoral college," he said.

    And the story of those white, non-college educated voters in states like Pennsylvania and Wisconsin doesn't make for pretty reading for Trump.

    "They're probably about 3 percentage points smaller than they were back in 2016. And that's a natural change that's occurring in the United States," Griffin said.

    Analysis from the New York Times found the voters that make up Trump's coalition have shrunk dramatically since 2016 in seven of eight key states at this election.

    And while Trump has seen some gains within the Latino population that is a huge part of the demographic shift happening in America, he is losing ground with another important group — seniors.

    Americans have a dim view of the President's handling of the COVID-19 pandemic, a crisis that has affected older Americans more than most.

    Griffin said losing seniors meant losing a voter group that reliably turns out to the polls, one that could have helped Trump offset expected record enthusiasm from young voters.

    "It just creates a more narrow set of conditions under which Trump could probably thread the needle here," he said.

    And threading the needle with a return to his 2016 strategy and rhetoric is indeed what the President is looking to do.

    His schedule for the final days of this campaign only features rallies in key swing states like Michigan, Florida and Wisconsin.

    Rallies where his biggest fans can turn out to chant "lock her/him up" one more time, boo at every mention of "emails", and buy a t-shirt or a MAGA cap for the memories.

    Because who knows? Maybe 2020 will actually be the last time.

    © 2020 ABC Australian Broadcasting Corporation. All rights reserved

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