On social media, accusing someone of having failed to grasp the lessons of the 2016 election is a common but witless rhetorical feint. (A variant is claiming that 2016 clearly proves whatever point you’re trying to argue.)
The central problem with the claim is that the election of a wildly unqualified, bigoted reality-TV star was like the crash of a modern jetliner in that multiple systems had to fail. The race was decided by a razor-thin margin, and whatever factor you choose to focus on as the reason Trump won just reflects your own political orientation. One can blame Hillary Clinton for her flaws–real or perceived—or neoliberalism or Wikileaks dribbling out her campaign emails for the final six weeks of the election or the media’s relentless focus on her dubious scandals or Bernie Sanders fighting until the bitter end or James Comey’s announcement that he was re-opening an investigation into her email server practices or people voting for Jill Stein.
The reality is that all (or most) of those factors contributed to varying degrees to Donald Trump winning the Electoral College despite losing the popular vote by a large margin. Fewer than 80,000 votes in key battleground states broke the wrong way. It’s pointless to argue about which one thing proved decisive.
But more broadly, this whole conversation—which often comes up in relation to the Democratic primaries–is an example of fighting the last war. The reality is that this election cycle is really dissimilar from the last one in so many important ways. Here are five of them.
Donald Trump is an incumbent
This alone—this one factor—represents a monumental difference between 2016 and 2020.
Not only does incumbency have inherent advantages, but as the Ukraine scandal shows, Trump has shown an eagerness to use the federal government—including the Department of Justice—to advance his reelection campaign. (He’ll also have a lot more money and professional staff than he did last time.)
In 2016, Hillary Clinton pitched her candidacy as Obama’s third term, but Obama wasn’t on the ticket. In 2020, Trump is, and this election, like 2018, will largely be a referendum on his performance in office.
There can be no illusions about Trump
In 2016, Trump was a well-known reality TV star, but as a politician he remained an unknown quantity. Some thought he’d grow into the job if elected, or that he’d be constrained by advisors or by Republicans in Congress. Trump has shattered those illusions over the past three years.
Perhaps the most significant difference between this cycle and last is that it was widely believed that Trump couldn’t win in 2016. Two weeks before election night, The New York Times election forecast gave Hillary Clinton a 93 percent chance of winning; on the day of the vote she had an 85 percent chance. This belief helped shape the media coverage of the race and led some voters who opposed Trump but weren’t fond of Hillary Clinton to conclude that they could safely stay home or vote third party. In 2020, it’s undeniable that Trump can win, and all signs point to a potentially record-setting turnout next fall.
The Democrats have no dominant frontrunner
In 2015, Hillary Clinton entered the race with an almost incumbent-like level of support within her party. No prominent Democrats came forward to challenge her. In the beginning of July, she led Bernie Sanders 63-15 in FiveThirtyEight’s polling average, and while Sanders would close enough of that gap to give her a run for her money, he only trailed her by less than double digits for 28 days–six days in February and 22 in April–over the course of the primary campaign.
This cycle features a weak front-runner in Joe Biden, who’s trending downward, and a large, fractured field that includes a number of viable, big-name candidates.
The establishment isn’t coalescing around any single candidate
In 2016, Hillary Clinton dominated Bernie Sanders in a key metric: endorsements from elected officials and party activists, AKA the Democratic establishment. As I wrote in August, according to FiveThirtyEight’s endorsement tracker, which assigns a points score to endorsements based on the endorsers’ prominence, Clinton beat Sanders by a lopsided 523-15 margin.
While they tweaked their methodology slightly this year, the 2020 tracker reveals a race among elected officials and party activists that’s still very fluid. Biden leads Kamala Harris in endorsements at this early stage, but not by a significant measure. Cory Booker, Amy Klobuchar, Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders all have a decent amount of support from elected Dems as well.
The 2016 primary campaign began with one overwhelming favorite and several also-rans, one of whom would rise to make it a competitive race. That’s a very different race than one in which multiple high-profile Democrats with some level of establishment backing are duking it out to be the party’s standard-bearer.
2016 Was a black swan event
Whatever concrete lessons can be learned from 2016 probably have been. It’s a safe bet that the Democratic nominee’s campaign will pay more attention to cybersecurity. If The New York Times says the Dems have an 80 percent chance of winning, people won’t just assume it’s in the bag this time. The political press may not acknowledge their role in obsessing over Clinton’s scandals and hardly covering Trump’s, but media watchdogs are going to be much more sensitive to that kind of reporting in this cycle. The Democratic National Committee has cleaned house, turning over its entire staff and leadership team and passing a number of reforms that progressives demanded.
And whether you love or loathe Hillary Clinton, there are only superficial similarities between her and every other candidate who has run for president, including those currently in the field. She was a two-term first lady before becoming Secretary of State and the right had been going after with dark conspiracy theories for 25 years by the time she made her second run for president—accusing her of, among other things, serial murder. By the time they finished prosecuting her for Benghazi and her emails and Uranium One and all the rest, she was the second most unpopular presidential candidate in history behind Donald Trump.
Trump may well get William Barr to launch a contrived criminal probe of the Democratic nominee, but there’s little chance of all–or even most–of the factors that delivered Trump to the White House converging once again in 2020.