- - Thursday, October 22, 2020

President Trump winning reelection would be a bigger upset than his 2016 election. Democrats believe they have done everything necessary to lock up 2020. Yet Mr. Trump is an extraordinary escape artist, and there appears to be the narrowest of openings; it may prove to be all he needs. 

Democrats could not have scripted 2020 better. Actually, Democrats had scripted the year’s beginning by impeaching Mr. Trump in the House as 2019 closed. It is hard to imagine a worse way to kick-off reelection than facing a Senate trial with your presidency at stake. Improbably from there, things got worse. 

Almost immediately after his weeks-long trial, COVID-19 hit. The lockdowns following in its wake turned a global pandemic into economic pandemonium. April’s crushing economic numbers were followed by George Floyd’s horrific killing in May. The mayhem in Minneapolis, Minnesota, spread and became America’s throughout the summer. 

As bad as Mr. Trump’s 2020 has been, Democrats’ year has been good. Democrats faced just a 1-in-20-plus shot of having their least-left candidate preventing further-left candidates from winning their nomination and dooming their November chances. Despite the odds — and never being exciting, never winning a debate, frequent miscues, and looking beaten early — Joe Biden did. 

In contrast to 2016, the Democratic Party’s ascendant left became recumbent, falling placidly into line behind Mr. Biden early. This allowed Mr. Biden to effectively hibernate for half the year, emerging only to read his acceptance speech to an empty room. 

Mr. Biden’s poll numbers reflect the Democrats’ good fortune. According to Real Clear Politics’s averages on Oct. 19, Mr. Biden led by 8.9% in the national polls and 4.1% in battleground state polls. His odds of winning were 60% to 40%. 

So, what possibly could be Democrats’ concern? They have the opponent they wanted, the nominee they needed, the year they dreamed of, and solid polling leads. In a word, Democrats worry remains 2016. Specifically, in one key variable they are worse off than they were four years ago. In battleground states, the only place that matters, Mr. Biden’s lead is 0.7 percentage points less (4.1 versus 4.8 percentage points) than Hillary Clinton’s at the same point. 

Publicly, Democrats argue that the two elections are completely dissimilar. For one thing, Joe Biden is not Hillary. In 2016, everyone who was not a Democrat disliked Hillary. Democrats’ problem in 2020 is that no one — even within their party — really likes Mr. Biden. If they do not have a nominee who drives people to their opponent, they still do not have a nominee — like Barack Obama once did — who draws them to the polls. 

Democrats will also argue that Trump 2020 is not Trump 2016. Four years have weathered him, taking him from political unknown to political overload. Essentially, he has traded places with Hillary; now the race is about Mr. Trump’s record, while Democrats have successfully buried Mr. Biden’s. 

However, Mr. Trump’s support has proven remarkably resilient through four years of unrelenting press and partisan negativity and 2020’s gut-punches. They will turn out. As evidence, Republicans have won every special election (usually a forewarning things are going badly) over the last two years, except Maryland’s overwhelmingly Democratic 7th Congressional District (the former Democrat had last won with a 55-percentage point margin). Also, Judge Amy Coney Barrett’s news-dominating U.S. Supreme Court nomination has been a home run for Mr. Trump — and a timely reminder to Republicans of this election’s stakes. 

Democrats also say Mr. Biden is not making Hillary’s mistake of ignoring battleground states. Yet, even for all her purported neglect of battleground states, Hillary’s advantage there was bigger than Mr. Biden’s now. Somehow Hillary’s vanished. Nor does Mr. Trump need to win all the battleground states to win reelection. 

It is also not clear that Mr. Biden is not repeating Hillary’s mistakes in battleground states. Mr. Biden is not campaigning extensively and not in front of crowds. Mr. Biden is using dollars as surrogates, but Hillary had a big dollar advantage, too. Money only goes so far; there is only so much to spend them on in three weeks. In the end: Cameras do not vote, people do. 

According to conventional standards — polling, press and purse — Mr. Trump only has a sliver of a chance. Yet in 2016, it looked the same when he went from “Who?” to Houdini. Like Houdini, Mr. Trump seemingly enjoys making his escapes more death-defyingly difficult. A 2020 escape, against seemingly improbable odds, would be all the more exhilarating for Mr. Trump and Republicans — and all the more devastating for Democrats, who have paid big money to see him fail. 

• J.T. Young served in the Office of Management and Budget and at the Treasury Department. 

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