WASHINGTON — If Democrats seem worried that Donald Trump will win another term in the White House even though most voters believe he is incompetent, it’s because they’ve seen this exact movie before – four years ago.
That fear has shown up in polls for the past year, with voters indicating their desire to replace the president but their expectation that, somehow, he will win again anyway.
“Political PTSD,” said Steve Schale, the Democratic consultant who ran former President Barack Obama’s successful Florida operation in 2008 and now works for a super PAC supporting Joe Biden.
“Dems are totally snake-bit. Too many are convinced the evil one is going to pull it out again,” said Joe Walsh, a former Republican congressman who unsuccessfully ran against Trump for the 2020 nomination. “It’s understandable, but they’re wrong.”
That anxiety was addressed directly in a new poll in Pennsylvania Wednesday that shows that voters generally, but Democrats particularly, now believe there is a “secret” vote for Trump that polls are missing, leading to a 46-45 split among voters asked whether Trump or Biden would win the state. The same poll, meanwhile, finds Biden with a 13-point lead, 53-40.
“The media consistently reports that Biden is in the lead, but voters remember what happened in 2016. The specter of a secret Trump vote looms large in 2020,” said Patrick Murray, director of the Monmouth University Polling Institute.
Indeed, candidate Trump was every bit as unpopular heading into the 2016 election as President Trump is today. A full 63% of voters casting ballots thought he did not have the temperament to be president; 64% did not think he was honest or trustworthy.
About that same figure, 61%, did not think he was qualified to serve as president – and yet 17% of that group voted for him anyway. The numbers were nearly the same in key swing states where he narrowly won, meaning that Trump’s margin of victory – 77,744 votes across Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – was provided by Americans who did not think him qualified to do the job.
“There were two choices,” said Anthony Scaramucci, a financier who backed Trump in 2016, briefly worked in his White House, but now opposes him. “I am a Republican. I went with the GOP choice and tried to be supportive.”
In 2016, the matter of Trump’s competence and whether it would impact America was speculative. We have a record now about how it has ― 138,000 dead. Amanda Carpenter, former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas)
That Trump benefited from 2016 Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s own unpopularity is clear. She was nearly as disliked as Trump, but voters gave Trump the benefit of the doubt when choosing between them.
Nationally, 47% of voters thought she was not qualified. But among those, 88% voted for Trump and only 5% percent for Clinton.
Of the 15% who thought neither was qualified, 66% voted for Trump and only 15% for Clinton. That four-to-one break carried across the key swing states, except in Florida, where it was 81% for Trump and 11% for Clinton.
Amanda Carpenter, a former top aide to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), said while some of that may have been sexism, it was more about Trump being fresh to politics.
“It was a change election and she wasn’t change,” Carpenter said, adding that voters’ views of Trump’s fitness for the job today will be much harder for him to overcome.
“In 2016, the matter of Trump’s competence and whether it would impact America was speculative. We have a record now about how it has ― 138,000 dead,” she said. “Schools shut down across America. Families who can’t see each other. Millions of people forced out of work. All because he incompetently denied the threat, existence, and deadliness of the virus.”
Contributing to Clinton’s unexpected loss may have been that so many Americans expected her to win. A CBS News poll released the day before the 2016 election found that 55% of voters believed Clinton would win, compared to just 31% who thought Trump would.
That general assumption, political strategists believe, likely helped depress turnout among her lukewarm supporters — and led some to cast ballots for third-party candidates or even Trump himself as a protest vote.
That is not going to happen this time around, Trump’s critics, both Democrats and Republicans, agree.
Sarah Longwell, a Republican consultant who publishes the anti-Trump website “The Bulwark,” said Trump’s mishandling of the pandemic is likely to cost him some of his own supporters.
“People are experiencing the personal consequences of his incompetence. It’s not as fun to own the libs when you can’t own a house or car because Trump’s mismanagement of the pandemic is killing the economy,” she said.
For months, the Trump campaign has tried to turn the focus away from Trump’s management of the pandemic and onto Biden. “Doubts about Joe Biden’s competency are raised every time he speaks,” top aide Jason Miller said.
Trump himself, meanwhile, is actively selling the notion of a “secret Trump vote,” citing as an example the parades of boaters displaying Trump 2020 flags in Florida. He said his supporters frequently prefer not to take questions from pollsters.
“I think a lot of people don’t want to talk about it. I think they’re not going to say, ‘Hey, I’m for Trump. I’m for Trump.’ They don’t want to go through the process,” he said Tuesday during an hour-long Rose Garden campaign speech. “I think you have a silent majority the likes of which this country has never seen before.”
Democrats, for their part, say they are fine with their voters remaining nervous about the possibility of Trump winning again.
“Of course Democrats are scarred by the 2016 experience. This is a good thing though,” said Josh Schwerin, with the Priorities USA Action super PAC. “Trump might be in a tailspin but we need to ignore the polls and treat this like the close race it very likely will be in November. The best way to lose is by taking the race for granted, so having a fear of unexpected failure is very healthy and productive.”
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This article originally appeared on HuffPost and has been updated.