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During the last weeks of the 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump’s data team was obsessed with a particular subset of voters: those who disliked both Trump and Hillary Clinton. As I reported in my book about the race, Devil’s Bargain, Trump’s analysts nicknamed this group “double haters.” They comprised about 3% to 5% of the 15 million voters the campaign believed were persuadable, but they were vexing because their intentions were difficult to discern. While their voting history indicated they would likely cast a ballot, many refused to answer pollsters’ questions or declared themselves undecided.
That is, until the final days of the campaign.
On October 28, then-FBI Director James Comey announced his intention to reopen the investigation into Clinton’s disputed emails. Immediately, the double haters made up their minds and started moving en masse toward Trump. “What we saw is that it gave them a reason to vote against her instead of voting for him,” Matt Oczkowski, a Trump campaign data scientist, said at the time. “They were finally able to admit that to pollsters without feeling any guilt.”
The Clinton campaign was also tracking double haters and, to its horror, saw the same thing. “We saw those fickle, Republican-leaning voters that we’d been successfully attracting off and on throughout the general election revert back to Trump at the end,” Brian Fallon, a top Clinton official, said then. The shift to Trump proved decisive.
Earlier this week, anNBC News/Wall Street Journal poll found Joe Biden leading Trump 49 percent to 42 percent among registered voters—roughly the margin by which Clinton led Trump in 2016, once it was clear she’d be the Democratic nominee. NBC News shared data with me from the poll on voters who had negative opinions of both Trump and Biden: the new double haters. These voters were clear in their preference. Biden was winning them 60 percent to 10 percent.
The usual caveats apply: The election is months away; one poll doesn’t prove anything; the presidential race is hardly front and center in the news these days. On the other hand, it’s hardly a positive sign for Trump, and there are a number of reasons to think the disparity in support is real.
John Anzalone, who was a pollster for Clinton’s 2016 campaign and now polls for Biden’s campaign, says that last election, the widespread expectation that Clinton would win caused many people to stay home or cast a protest vote for Jill Stein or Gary Johnson. The fact of Trump’s presidency, he believes, will change that. “You’re always going to have double haters because we’re a divided nation,” says Anzalone. “But it’s different this time because they’re not going to stay home or go third party with so much at stake, and a Trump presidency isn’t theoretical anymore.”
Biden also has other advantages Clinton didn’t have. Sexism won’t be a problem for him, asit was for her. He’s perceived as a moderate. He hasn’t been the focus of decades of right-wing attacks, as Clinton was. And Trump’s attacks against him over his son Hunter Biden’s work in Ukrainehaven’t resonated with Democratic and independent voters, who don’t find Trump to be a credible messenger. As one Democrat put it, double haters dislike Biden because he’s a Democrat—but unlike with Clinton, they don’t also think he’s the devil.
Trump’s allies have been eager to change thisfor more than a year, and the fact that they haven’t succeeded is the main reason why some in his campaign areitching to attack Biden as weak on China. Trump advisers I’ve spoken to say they have every expectation that they’ll eventually succeed in sowing doubts among the type of voters who now say they’ll hold their nose and vote for Biden. If so, that would turn the race for double haters into the kind of back-and-forth pendulum swing it was in 2016.
But Trump’s shaky handling of the coronavirus pandemic andhis slippage in recent polls don’t suggest a turnaround is coming anytime soon. If Biden maintains a 50-point lead among double haters heading into the fall, Trump is probably toast. Even seeing that big a margin in April, a Republican close to the campaign told me, “is pretty concerning and frankly shocking.”
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