Four years ago, my brother and I headed to the Ship Tavern in the Brown Palace to watch election results roll in across the country. We didn’t want to attend a “victory” party for either side and knew we could get good Scotch at the bar.
I kissed my wife goodbye, reassured my fretting step-daughter that Donald Trump would not win, and headed out. Obviously, she had a better grasp on the situation than I did.
I still remember sitting in the plush leather chairs, sipping on a single malt, eyes glued to the various television screens as election results began tilting the election to Trump.
A two-point win in Florida.
Edging out Hillary Clinton in Pennsylvania by less than 50,000 votes.
Michigan teetering into Trump’s column by just over 10,000 votes.
And, finally, just over 20,000 votes in Wisconsin, sealing Trump’s victory.
Going into Election Day, it seemed to be a foregone conclusion that Clinton would trounce Trump, declare an early victory, and become the first female president. Polls and professional prognosticators agreed, the outcome was not in doubt.
That made Election Night 2016 with my brother, Teo, one of the most shocking moments in my life. Utter disbelief seems to be an understatement. The memory falls somewhere between Buster Douglas beating Mike Tyson and Sept. 11 stamped into my mind’s registry of startling events.
Fast forward to Election Day 2020.
The only talking heads not adopting a cagey wait-and-see approach to election predictions are those who have tossed out a marker hoping to capitalize on an “I called it” moment.
Democratic operatives have adopted “Remember 2016!” as a battle cry while feverishly working to turn out voters during a pandemic and amid apathy bred by polling data showing Joe Biden blowing out Trump. The idea that the same overconfidence in the electoral result could lead to a second Trump term of office has likely induced multiple ulcers among progressive activists.
However, it is difficult to ignore the overwhelming electoral lead Biden currently appears to have over Trump. The Real Clear Politics “no toss up states” map, based on aggregated state-by-state polling data, puts Biden at 345 electoral college votes to Trump’s 193. Wining requires 270.
Refrain: “But 2016!”
The biggest difference between 2016 polling and 2020 polling is the ability of pollsters to re-weight their polling samples and change methods of contact to reach voters missed four years ago. That makes it much less likely that so many polls will miss by such wide margins.
And the underlying dynamics play differently this year than four years ago. Biden is not nearly as unpopular as Clinton; fewer voters were undecided heading into the election; unprecedented absentee and early voting has favored Democrats. Most importantly, Biden’s leads in specific states have been larger and steadier than Clinton’s ever were.
The resulting paths to victory present a very narrow set of circumstances for Trump to repeat his 2016 electoral feat. He essential needs to run the table among swing states, including those where he has trailed by 5-plus points throughout the entire year.
It isn’t impossible for Trump, just highly improbable. At least outside any prolonged legal battle over absentee ballots in states like Pennsylvania or Wisconsin.
Because 2020 is 2020, I will not be back at the Ship Tavern this year to watch as commentators begin tallying Electoral College votes into columns. With my step-daughter now in Idaho and my brother in Massachusetts, I will not be making ill-fated assurances in person either.
What I will be doing, though, is sitting on my sofa sipping on a good whiskey (Laws from the San Luis Valley is my current go-to) and watching returns pour in. As the blue and red tallies slowly build, I’ll be hoping for a little less late night drama and an early bedtime.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq