Slouching Toward November: Presidential Election Forecast

The 2020 presidential election promises to be both a contentious and a consequential one. With the specter of COVID-19 hovering over the proceedings and the hazard of voter disenfranchisement, the threat to a free and fair election is very real. GLG sat down with Robby Mook, the former Presidential Campaign Manager for Hillary Clinton, to discuss the impact of COVID-19 on the election, the challenge to mail-in ballots, and strategies that the Biden campaign will likely implement as November nears. The wide-ranging discussion is condensed here for clarity and space.

Given the ongoing pandemic in the U.S., how can we ensure getting to the polls, and why hasn’t the Democratic National Convention or other organizations tried to figure out a digital voting system?

The problem – or perhaps the strength, depending on your perspective – of the American election system is that voting is controlled by the 50 states. Many states delegate that power down to localities, which translates to more than 8,000 individual jurisdictions that have sovereign control of their elections. The federal government is not permitted to step in and demand uniform standards. Many people don’t understand that.

Regarding digital voting, there’s a lot of cross-pressure ideologically on this issue. The GOP tends to resist any change to voting whatsoever. Many Democrats concerned about election integrity consider a physical paper ballot the most secure voting method and don’t like digital voting either. So, it’s not likely you’ll see very much innovation in this space. People might be more open to it in the future, but considering that the attacks in 2016 came in the digital domain, you’ll likely see continuing trepidation to experiment with voting online.

COVID-19 will continue to be a concern in November, so absentee ballots will likely be essential to a fair democratic election. How significant an issue will this become? And should we anticipate efforts to obstruct or complicate absentee voting?

Absentee ballots – we should really call it voting by mail or voting from home – will be very important. There are two issues to consider.

With COVID-19, we talked about “flattening the curve” to prevent the medical system from getting overwhelmed. I think we need to take the same approach with voting. We should think about voting as a 30-day period with voting by mail or in-person voting spread out as evenly as possible over that time so the system doesn’t get overwhelmed and facilities aren’t crowded on Election Day. There should be a big public affairs push to get people returning ballots early. Sadly, I don’t see that happening, in no small part because resistance from President Trump makes it hard for some local officials to act.

The irony is, Republicans often perform better with voting by mail than Democrats in many jurisdictions. I suspect they believe many seniors vote by mail already, but they don’t want to expand or encourage vote by mail for younger people. I think this is a mistake for them, because it’s voters in rural areas who’ll suffer most when polling places consolidate to accommodate for COVID-19.

What’s also concerning is that some states are considering proactively mailing ballots out to all registered voters who have actively participated in elections in the past, making it easier for them to vote. That means that young people who aren’t yet registered and/or will be voting for the first time, or people who only vote occasionally, will have to work harder to cast their ballot (i.e., request a ballot instead of having it mailed automatically). This is where litigation is important; the courts may force officials to send ballots to everyone.

What kinds of actions are being taken to ensure that black and other minorities votes are encouraged and included?

This really falls on the Democratic Party. We’ve got to do better than we did in 2016 in achieving turnout. Biden will have to strike a balance between demonstrating how Trump has failed and providing a reason for people to get excited about voting for him versus just against Trump. That can be challenging. The fact is, the Democratic Party is significantly more diverse than the Republicans. There are many communities of color, and our voters are much younger. Biden must appeal to all of them and give them an affirmative reason to feel motivated to cast their ballot for him.

Could Joe Biden’s age be a decisive handicap? And how is he planning to overcome it?

Trump’s not exactly young himself. Nonetheless, I think Trump is going to try to turn this into an issue. Trump tends to take his own vulnerabilities and projects them on his opponents. His health is quite poor. I’m sure he’ll do everything he can to try to make Joe Biden sound unhealthy.

The bigger issue here is Biden needs to make this election about Donald Trump. If we’re spending enormous amounts of time litigating whether Biden is too old or too young, or good enough on this, good enough on that, then we’re actually losing. This needs to be a change election, and voters need to see Biden as the agent of that change.

On both sides, who are the likely candidates for vice presidency? And how decisive could that be?

When I worked with Hillary [Clinton] on this issue, we used the following framework: The most important thing is to choose someone you like and trust and feel you can work with. Ultimately, you have to believe this person is ready to serve as president of the United States. Second, it’s important to choose someone who does no harm to the ticket and isn’t going to be a problem or liability in some way. Finally, it’s worth asking if someone is going to bring value to the ticket. But I very deliberately put that at the end of this list, whereas the media will typically put it first.

This is a subjective matter, but I believe a vice presidential nominee can reinforce what you already have as a candidate. It’s harder for them to somehow transform the ticket into something it wasn’t before. A good example is Sarah Palin with John McCain. He tried to pick this young woman governor who was a little bit more ideological. And it just didn’t work well. They clearly didn’t see eye to eye, and she ended up hurting, not augmenting, his campaign. Maybe Al Gore with Bill Clinton is an example where I think he really reinforced Bill Clinton’s strengths.

Biden has said he’s going to pick a woman. I think most people see Kamala Harris as the most likely. Keisha Lance Bottoms, the mayor of Atlanta, has emerged recently as another contender. And Val Demmings, a Member of Congress from the Orlando area, has emerged as well. So it could come down to these three, but I assume this list will evolve as we get closer.

Although I think voters make their choice based on the presidential nominee – not the VP – this choice will probably be more important for Biden than it’s been for candidates in the past, because people will look for signals that he’s going to bring in a new generation and make the party leadership more diverse.


About Robby Mook

Robert “Robby” Mook is an American political strategist, who has organized winning organizations at the local, state, and national levels. Robby served as Campaign Manager for Hillary Clinton’s 2016 presidential campaign, where he built a $1 billion, 50-state, 4,500-person organization. He also ran Terry McAuliffe’s winning campaign for Governor of Virginia and Jeanne Shaheen’s first winning campaign for U.S. Senate, and led the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee in 2012, when Democrats gained eight seats. Robby is now the President of the House Majority PAC, the only PAC dedicated to protecting and expanding the Democratic majority in the U.S. House of Representatives. He is also a Senior Fellow and Lecturer at the Belfer Center for Science and International Affairs at the Harvard Kennedy School of Government.


This article is adapted from the May 20, 2020, GLG teleconference “U.S. Presidential Election Forecast.” If you would like access to this teleconference or would like to speak with Robby Mook, or any of our more than 700,000 experts, contact us.

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