Does Donald Trump’s campaign manager know how his boss won in the first place?
It’s been just under two weeks since the 45th President tapped veteran GOP operative Bill Stepien — a former aide to New Jersey Governor Chris Christie, who spent a year as White House Political Director — to put his re-election campaign back on course after a summer full of botched relaunch events and flagging poll numbers.
Privately, Trumpworld insiders acknowledge that their boss is in a tougher spot than he was in 2016, when he was a newcomer to politics taking on Hillary Clinton, a consummate DC insider who’d spent 20 of the previous 23 years in various public roles.
They know that this time, the ex-reality TV star is running for re-election to the most insider-y of all insider roles, that of President of the United States, and he’s doing so with the Covid-19 pandemic still ravaging across many of the areas from which he draws most of his political support.
And despite Trump’s frequent (and baseless) claims that public polling is nothing but propaganda designed to suppress Republican voter turnout, they see the same public polling data that everyone else with an internet connection has access to: data that shows Trump trailing former Vice President Joe Biden in many of the states he must win to retain the presidency. Some will even admit that the campaign’s own internal polling is consistent with what is publicly available.
However, Stepien is telling a different story.
Late last week, Trump’s newly minted campaign boss joined a Zoom call with reporters to offer arguments as to why the pollsters whose results consistently puts Biden in the lead both nationally and in various battlegrounds “should be bending over backwards to show that they’re not making the same mistakes as in 2016”.
As he described his view of the state of the race in a number of those key battlegrounds — including Florida, Michigan, Minnesota, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin — Stepien displayed a series of charts outlining Trump’s final margins of victory in those states, along with polling data from this time four years ago which largely showed Trump running behind Hillary Clinton.
While current public polling shows Trump’s standing in those states is worse than it was against Clinton, his campaign manager claimed that the polling is inaccurate because the polls supposedly under-sample Republicans. The president actually has an advantage in those states based on voter registration data, he said; these numbers just aren’t showing it.
But according to election experts and veteran operatives from both parties, Stepien is ignoring an elephant a porcupine in the room. Missing from his presentation to reporters was a number that was, in many states, far larger than Trump’s margin of victory back in 2016: the number of votes cast for third parties, including the Libertarian Party ticket of former New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson and ex-Massachusetts Governor Bill Weld, and Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
In Wisconsin, Johnson’s 106,674-vote haul was more than four times greater than Trump’s 22,748 margin of victory over Clinton. The number of Floridians who voted for Johnson/Weld — 207,043 — was nearly double the 112,911 voters who put Florida’s 29 electoral votes in the Republican column four years ago. And in Pennsylvania, the Libertarian ticket garnered approximately four times the number of votes — 146,715 — as Trump’s 44,292-vote margin of victory.
Stein also outperformed Trump’s winning margin in several states, including Pennsylvania (49,941 votes), Michigan (51,463 votes) and Wisconsin (31,072 votes). In addition, both third-party candidates beat the spread in states Trump hopes to take out of the Democratic column this year, such as Nevada and Minnesota.
Overall, 2016 was a banner year for third parties. With two largely unpopular major party candidates and two relatively well-known third-party candidates running for the second consecutive cycle, both the Libertarian Party and Green Party helped swing the election Trump’s way by peeling off approximately three times as large a national popular vote share as they did four years earlier.
Yet Joe Hunter, a veteran GOP operative who was Johnson’s communications director in 2016, thinks the threat of a second Trump term will send Johnson voters to the Democratic column this time around.
“There is certainly much closer to a critical mass of belief that the anti-Trump vote needs to be a Biden vote as opposed to a third-party protest,” he said.
Johnson and Weld, he explained, benefited from the relatively high name recognition and credibility they enjoyed as former Republican governors.
“With all due respect, the Libertarian ticket this time is not a Johnson-Weld ticket,” he observed.
Additionally, Hunter said polling data he saw in 2016 showed that a “respectable slice” of Democrats who’d voted for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders in the primary were leaning towards casting general election votes for Johnson.
“It was probably more because Gary Johnson is Gary Johnson than that he was a Libertarian, but that dynamic is not in play this time around,” he said.
Hunter predicted, based on a comparison of 2016 polling versus the final result, that many of the anti-Trump Republicans who cast protest votes for Johnson in 2016 would switch their allegiance to Biden this year.
“If you look at polls three or four weeks out, a [third party candidate] will poll at X, but when you actually count the votes, the result is about one half of X… because voters say ‘this is serious… I can’t waste my vote,’ and I think that’s already kicking in this time around — the anti-Trump Republicans are looking at it and saying: ‘Not again,’” he said.
University of Virginia Center for Politics founder Larry Sabato echoed Hunter’s prediction that third-party and independent candidates would garner a far lower share of the vote this year.
“We're very likely to see the total for independent and third-party candidates cut in about half. It was somewhere around 6 percent four years ago, and we expect it to be somewhere around 3 percent [this year],” he said, adding that this year’s race is “as polarized an election as America has had in the modern era”. Polarization, he explained, “almost always decreases the percentage for third-party candidates”.
However, Sabato said the voters most likely to put Biden over the top this year are those who either did not vote last time around, or who voted for Stein in 2016 because they wanted to vote for a liberal candidate who was not Hillary Clinton.
Trump’s narrow victory and the events of the last four years make those who voted for third parties last time “less likely to throw their vote away or express a philosophical objection to the two major parties by voting third-party this time,” he said. “What really makes it tougher on Trump… would be the fact that you don't have a prominent Green candidate, and that a lot of the Greens, or at least people who voted for Stein, have sworn they will not do it again because they thought Clinton was going to win handily, and they could afford to vote for the Green candidate. And now they see what we all learned, that you can never take anything for granted.”
While Sabato stressed that not all of those voters would cast their lot for Biden this time around, he acknowledged that depressed third-party vote that results from the polarization permeating the American political culture this cycle will “probably” help Biden more than Trump. But Stuart Stevens, the veteran GOP consultant who was Mitt Romney’s chief strategist in 2012, posited that third parties simply don’t have any opportunity to get oxygen this cycle because Donald Trump sucks all of it up.
“Trump just so dominates everything that he doesn't allow for any space for these candidates from third parties to take hold,” said Stevens, who is now a senior adviser to the anti-Trump Republican Super PAC known as The Lincoln Project.
“This is about Trump or not Trump, and there is no one out there… other than Biden who's emerged. So if you don't like Donald Trump, you’re either not gonna vote or you're gonna vote for Joe Biden,” he added.
James Carville, the Democratic strategist and mastermind behind Bill Clinton’s 1992 election victory, concurred with Stevens’ assessment that there is no room in the discourse for third parties this year.
“People know who Trump is now,” he said. “It’s no longer a theoretical choice.”