Election 2020 – Can anyone beat Trump?

Back in 2016, we conducted a unique study into the presidential election, using our brand metrics of Fame, Feeling and Fluency to measure the strength of the candidates. Before a single vote had been cast, and with the Republican nomination wide open, we identified the strength of Donald Trump as a candidate and named him as the frontrunner for the presidency itself.

It’s election time again, and we’ve run the same exercise on this year’s field. We asked questions which treated the candidates as brands, trying to establish Fame (how readily they come to mind), Feeling (how positively people feel about them) and Fluency (how distinctive they are).

What does it tell us?

It’s Trump’s Race To Lose

Incumbents have a big advantage in American politics – it’s been 28 years since a sitting president lost an election. So it’s hardly a surprise that Trump begins ahead of his challengers. He leads the race in terms of Fame, just as he did in 2016 – it’s just now his Fame is driven by the Presidency, not by celebrity.

That may account for the more interesting shifts in Feeling and Fluency. In 2016, Fluency was Trump’s great advantage over Hillary Clinton. In 2020, he’s more of a known quantity, and while he’s still the most distinctive politician in the race, he’s run close by Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders.

On Feeling, though, Trump’s ratings have improved. He makes 28% of people feel Happiness, which might not sound like much, but it’s ahead of both 2016 Trump and any of his Democrat rivals, even if the gap isn’t wide. Just as incumbency has made Trump seem a bit less distinctive, it’s softened the hearts of at least a few people who were sceptical.

Overall? Trump leads on all three measures. His advantages aren’t so dominant as to make re-election a certainty, but he has to be the clear favorite.

The big question is – what can the Democrats do about it?

No Obvious Democratic Nominee

In 2016, both parties had open Primaries, but the outcome – in terms of Fame, Feeling and Fluency – was settled early on. In 2020, only the Democrats are seeking a nominee, and it’s a much more even battle.

One of the interesting things about this study is that it supports almost none of the narratives put forward by any candidate.

Bernie Sanders is the obvious nominee? No – he’s still one of several fairly strong candidates. In brand strength terms, Sanders and Joe Biden are both 4-Star brands, with Elizabeth Warren not too far behind on 3-Stars. (Donald Trump hovers on the 4- to 5-Star borderline). Biden’s strong Fame and solid Feeling show he’s far from out of voters’ minds, and a good showing on Super Tuesday would reignite his candidacy.

Sanders’ Democratic Socialism will put voters off? Not necessarily. It probably helps him pull away on Fluency as the most distinctive Democrat, and he’s at the same level of Feeling as Biden and Warren. In people’s verbatim responses, almost every Democrat candidate other than billionaires Mike Bloomberg and Tom Steyer get called a socialist, so while it’s definitely a negative for many, it’s not one unique to Bernie. He also easily outscores President Trump on “Patriotic” and “Stands Up For Americans”, two of the attributes in our diagnostic test.

Bloomberg’s money will help him buy the nomination? Not yet. Our survey was conducted before and after the Iowa Caucus, so Bloomberg wasn’t yet on the ballot paper anywhere. But money – so far – hasn’t bought him Fame. He’s behind Biden, Sanders and Warren on both Fame and Feeling.

One of the minor candidates – Buttigieg or Klobuchar – is gaining momentum? Nope. Both Buttigieg and Klobuchar get high neutrality and low positive feeling. After ‘Mayor Pete’ claimed victory in the Iowa Caucus, he saw a boost in Surprise, but not in the more important Happiness response. Right now, both candidates – and Tom Steyer – look irrelevant to the wider race.

None of which helps us answer the question – who’s going to be the Democratic nominee? And that’s because there’s no single super-candidate coming through. Joe Biden has a slight edge on the 3 Fs, despite his slow start, but either he or Bernie Sanders would be a strong candidate on these basic heuristics, and Warren wouldn’t be a bad pick either.

But Can They Beat Trump?

Any of Biden, Sanders and Warren would start with major disadvantages against Donald Trump – he’s the President, he’s top of mind among voters, and he inspires more positive emotion than he did four years ago.

Our study shows Trump has one big weakness, though. The negative emotions he inspires remain sky-high: 50% of people feel negatively about him, including a huge score on Disgust.

This was also true in 2016, but back then he was up against someone who inspired just as many negative emotions as he did. None of Trump’s likely opponents generate as much hostility as Hillary Clinton did – 28% see Warren negatively, and 33% apiece have a negative view of Biden and Sanders.

In a two-horse race, negative emotion can play a major part. In the 2017 French elections, Marine Le Pen beat Emanuel Macron on all three of Fame, Feeling and Fluency, but crashed to defeat in the final round because of the enormous negativity she inspired.

The negativity gap isn’t nearly as big here, but whoever the Democratic nominee is, their priority will be to build positive Feeling and Fluency around themselves, while reminding American voters just how much half of them dislike Donald Trump. Walking that tightrope could be their only path to a win. Trump, meanwhile, will be trying to create more negativity around his opponent. If he succeeds, his path to re-election will be a lot smoother.

If you’d like to have a look at the full report, you can get a copy

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