Donald Trump might be in denial about who won the 2020 election, but his pollsters aren’t. Two of them have performed autopsies on his defeat, and those autopsies are now public. One of his pollsters, John McLaughlin, published an analysis in Newsmax in November. Another report, written by consultant Tony Fabrizio, was posted on Monday by Politico. Neither pollster blames the former president, but their numbers tell the story: Trump destroyed himself.
The autopsies identified two reasons why Trump should have won. First, based on self-identification, the 2020 electorate was significantly more Republican than the 2016 electorate. Second, public satisfaction with the economy favored the incumbent. Both pollsters found that people who voted in 2020 thought Trump would handle the economy better than Joe Biden would. McLaughlin’s analysis, based on his postelection survey of people who voted in 2020, noted that 61 percent of these voters said they were better off than they had been four years earlier. Despite this, Trump managed to lose one-third of the 61 percent. “Fully 20% of all voters thought they were better off today than four years ago and did not vote for President Trump,” McLaughlin wrote.
Fabrizio analyzed exit polls from 10 battleground states Trump had won in 2016. Florida, Iowa, North Carolina, Ohio, and Texas stayed with Trump in 2020; Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin flipped to Biden. Collectively, in the 10 states, Fabrizio computed a “massive swing” against Trump among independents (by 17 to 19 percentage points) and a similar shift among college-educated white voters (by 14 to 18 points). Likewise, in his national sample, McLaughlin found that Biden won moderates, 62 percent to 36 percent.
Trump repelled these voters, even those who were happy with the economy. In McLaughlin’s national sample, Biden was viewed more favorably than Trump. Among voters who disliked both candidates, the pollster noted, “dislike of Trump was more dominant.” Three-quarters of Biden voters cited character or personality traits as reasons for their voting decisions, and the reasons they gave were “mostly anti-Trump,” McLaughlin wrote. Seven percent of respondents said they had voted mostly “against Biden,” but 19 percent said they had voted mostly “against Trump.”
Fabrizio found similar results. In the battleground states, voters said by a four-point margin that Biden wasn’t “honest and trustworthy.” Trump’s deficit on the same question was much bigger: 14 to 18 points. The exit polls also indicated that Trump inspired millions of new voters to turn out, either in person or by mail, to get rid of him. Fabrizio noted that collectively, in the five states that flipped to Biden, Trump outpolled Biden among people who had voted in 2016. What killed Trump were the new voters. Biden won them by 14 points in the five decisive states.
Trump also misjudged the politics of COVID-19. Throughout the campaign, he focused on rapidly reopening the economy, often at the risk of rekindling the pandemic. That turned out to be disastrous for the country, but also for his candidacy. Fabrizio found that in the 10 battleground states, “majorities of voters … prioritized stopping the spread of [the virus] over re-opening the economy.” The virus “was the top issue” in these states, the pollster observed, “and Biden carried those voters nearly 3 to 1.” In the exit polls and in McLaughlin’s survey, voters said by significant margins that Biden would handle the virus better than Trump.
Fabrizio flagged two particularly foolish mistakes in Trump’s response to the virus. One was ridiculing masks. In the 10 battleground states, voters who favored mask mandates (Biden’s position) outnumbered those who opposed mask mandates (Trump’s position) by a ratio of 3 to 1. The enormous pro-mask constituency went to Biden by about 30 points, on average, in the five states that flipped to him. Trump’s other dumb move was his persistent slander against Anthony Fauci, the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases. In the five states that flipped to Biden, 72 percent of voters approved of Fauci’s job performance, and 63 percent of those voters went to Biden.
Any incumbent would have struggled with a pandemic in an election year. But Trump had everything else going for him. Despite setbacks, the economy he inherited was still strong. Congress and the Federal Reserve pumped in trillions of dollars to prop up households and businesses. Republicans turned out to vote in better numbers than in 2016. And yet, Trump managed to lose. He lost because he botched his job, picked stupid fights, and antagonized most of the country. His own pollsters have confirmed it.