Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

How The 2020 Presidential Election Differs From 2016, According To NPR's Domenico Montanaro

Joe Raedle, Drew Angerer
Getty Images
A final NPR Electoral Map analysis has Vice President Joe Biden going into Election Day with an edge over President Donald Trump. But Trump still has a narrow and possible path to reelection.

A final NPR Electoral Map analysis has Vice President Joe Biden going into Election Day with an edge over President Donald Trump. But Trump still has a narrow and possible path to reelection.

While some may be looking to the 2016 election for signs of what’s to come, pollsters and analysts are being overly cautious when it comes to making predictions. NPR’s senior political editor and correspondent, Domenico Montanaro says there's significant potential for new ground and trends that will shape this election compared to 2016.


Taking margins of error into account, Montanaro says the trend lines are what's most important to watch.

Polls in 2016 had Clinton leading Trump, but a number of key battleground states got it wrong. With an overall decline in local media, state polling wasn't as good or frequent as it should have been in 2016, which led to changes, according to Montanaro.

"They really underappreciated how many voters for President Trump there would be, especially in the upper Midwest. ... This time around, we've seen more surveys, we've seen better polls, we've seen national organizations pay for more state polls. But polls are what they are. They're snapshots. They're not necessarily predictive," Montanaro says.

Another significant group in favor of Biden is white, college-educated voters in particular, along with suburban and senior voters across key states and nationally. “[This] would be a new coalition for Democrats if they’re able to win over a higher percentage of whites than they have in the past,” he notes.

At the same time, Black and Latino voters are lagging in their share of voter turnout compared to their numbers for Hillary Clinton back in 2016. But Montanaro says ultimately, “it’s really important to take polls with a grain of salt.”

Voter turnout

The 2020 election is showing a lot of energy and pushback against Trump's reelection, which has also created a deep well of support for Republicans, according to Montanaro.

"All signs are pointing to record turnout this year, so I do think that overall, it's not just Democrats, it's also Republicans," he says. "We've seen that in the early vote totals already so far, and what turnout experts predict is a turnout rate that's probably going to be the highest since 1908."

Currently, voter turnout is expected to be 65% or higher, with about 155-160 million Americans casting votes in total. 

>>The Most Consequential Election In A Lifetime (And This Time They Mean It)

Third-party influences

Overall, there are far fewer undecided voters in 2020 compared to 2016. The latest NPR &PBS News Hour Marist Poll shows only 5% of people who were either persuadable or undecided.

"You're talking about a very small number of people who don't have an opinion about this president," says Montanaro. "That's essentially what it comes down to — you either love him or you hate [Trump], and that's really what's driving a lot of the turnout here."

In 2016, there were also a lot of people who thought that Trump simply couldn't win. The third-party vote was stronger amongst the Progressives and people participated in a protest vote against the major parties. But Montanaro says there are smaller chances of that happening in 2020 because major leaders like Bernie Sanders are working with the Biden campaign and Democrats aren't taking election results for granted anymore.

Biden vs. Trump

Montanaro says Joe Biden is better liked, especially in the Midwest, than Hilary Clinton was in 2016.

"You see his favorability ratings have actually gone up during the campaign, which is surprising because most of the time they become much more polarized and contracted," he notes. 

Biden has also had a pretty consistent lead in the polls, at 50% or above since April.

"And why that's important is because that means not only does President Trump have to win over those undecided late-breaking voters that he did in 2016, but he also has to win over some people who have said, 'Alright, I'm not just undecided, I'm voting for Joe Biden,' " says Montanaro. 

One big difference in 2020 compared to 2016 is that President Trump is no longer a political outsider. He's now an incumbent with a record to defend.

"It's one thing to say that you're an outsider throwing stones at the glass house. It's another thing to say that you're in the house and you're trying to run it and ... things aren't going so well for a lot of people in the country, especially as it relates to coronavirus," says Montanaro. 

Trump doesn't have a clear second-term agenda or a concrete plan on handling the coronavirus. He already has a high disapproval rating when it comes to how he's handled the pandemic. Montanaro notes that there's also no health care plan at this point to replace the Affordable Care Act and "that is a difficulty for him."

"But President Trump's base is certainly convinced that he's doing the right things and looking out for them," he says.

Swing states

One of the biggest criticisms of Clinton's campaign in 2016 was that she neglected to visit Wisconsin, but Montanaro says Democrats have made a much stronger push here this time around. He says Wisconsin is 57% whites without college degrees, which is "a huge number" and one reason why the Biden campaign continues to say the race is tighter here than public polls show. 

"I think that that was a huge lesson. Their idea this time around is to rebuild that blue wall — Wisconsin, Michigan, Pennsylvania — and they feel like Democrats can win the White House as well as focusing on new sunbelt states like Arizona, Georgia, Florida, and North Carolina. And not to mention who knows what happens with Texas," Montanaro adds.

As we draw nearer to Election Day, it's probably best to continue to keep modesty in predictions. 

"Predictions are always a terrible idea," says Montanaro. "I think it's probably best for people to do the things that keep them healthy and sane like go for walks, exercise, eat right and get some sleep. Because there's nothing you can do between now and then unless you voted or tried to get others to vote."

Audrey is a producer, host and reporter for Lake Effect. She is involved with every aspect of the show — from conducting interviews, editing audio, posting web stories and mixing the show together.