No, 2020 is not 2016.
President Trump wants to believe that it is, and he's now tearing around the country, desperately trying to reignite the spark of excitement that carried him to victory four years ago.
That's not an impossible goal: Website FiveThirtyEight, which carefully tracks public opinion, still gives Trump a 12% chance of winning. And his campaign manager Bill Stepien confidently told The Washington Post, "There are striking similarities to the president's campaign in 2016 -- a tight race, an enthusiasm advantage, and clear momentum down the stretch for Donald Trump. It just feels right again."
But the differences between then and now are far more striking than the similarities, starting with Trump's opponent. Simply put, Joe Biden is a far more difficult target to demonize than Hillary Clinton ever was.
On the eve of the 2016 election, Trump's negative rating was 22 points higher than his favorable rating, according to an ABC/Ipsos poll. But Clinton was almost as unpopular, with a rating that was 14 points underwater. She energized Trump supporters while enervating a lot of Democrats.
Today, Trump has exactly the same negative rating -- minus 22 -- but Biden is 1 point in positive territory, which is a full 15 points more popular than Clinton four years ago. "Sleepy Joe" doesn't have nearly the same resonance with voters as "Crooked Hillary."
Biden is a pallid figure who won the Democratic nomination by default, and normally his blandness would be a crippling defect. But this year, at this moment in history, it turns out to be a huge advantage. He's the Anti-Trump: unswerving, not unsettling; safe, not scary.
"There's not anybody who doesn't like ol' Biden," former North Carolina governor Jim Hunt told the Washington Post. "Maybe they don't love him, but they like him."
Those feelings lead to a second major difference from four years ago: Democratic party unity. Bernie Sanders supporters felt so bruised in 2016 that 1 in 5 of them failed to back Hillary in November. But that's not true this time around. Some voters who would have preferred a more progressive candidate have formed a group called "Settle for Biden," and those words reflect a widespread mood: You don't have to love Joe, but consider the alternative.
As Gov. Phil Murphy of New Jersey put it in the Post: "There was just a maturity, a moment when our party -- for better or worse -- looked in the mirror and said, 'Wait a minute. We must come together at all costs.'"
A third contrast with 2016 is simply fortune. Trump got all the breaks four years ago, including the damaging announcement by FBI Director James Comey that he was reopening an investigation into Clinton's emails 11 days before the election. This year, the biggest wildcard of all, the outbreak of COVID-19, has bedeviled the president for the last eight months.
If this election had been held last February, Trump could have run on a soaring economy. Instead, the coronavirus has infected -- and affected -- everything every American does every day. In the ABC/Ipsos poll, 78% express concern that they, or someone near them, will contract the virus. And by a margin of 61 to 38, they disapprove of Trump's handling of the pandemic.
Trump's repeated attempts to change the subject -- to "law and order," or China, or Hunter Biden's business dealings -- have all failed. As a final blow, the daily count of new infections across the country twice topped 80,000 last weekend, making them the worst days since the pandemic began. And the outbreak was particularly bad in swing states that could well decide the election.
All these factors have helped fuel a fourth change from 2016: a far more skeptical and aggressive press corps. Fact-checkers at outlets like the Post and CNN have carefully documented countless Trump untruths. Reporters and headline writers now regularly use words like "lie" and "racist" to describe the president's actions. Interviewers like Savannah Guthrie at NBC and Lesley Stahl of CBS have pressed the president for answers and pointed out his prevarications. Investigators at The New York Times have unearthed Trump's taxes and documented his business failures.
Finally, the president has been deprived of a core argument he made in 2016: that he's an outsider, an amateur, a non-politician. He's none of those things today, and the voters know that. Just like they know that COVID-19 is not about to "disappear."
Perhaps the biggest difference between today and four years ago is simply reality. No Trump tweet or tantrum can make it go away.