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With seven weeks to go, the US election is Biden’s to lose: Part 2

A continuation of yesterday’s post, analysing polling in the lead up to the 2020 United States presidential election.

This post is a continuation of yesterday’s post, providing an overview of the state of play in the 2020 presidential election. 

Swing states where Biden or Trump lead by less than 5 points:

  • Florida: 2.7 points to Biden
  • North Carolina: 1.4 points to Biden
  • Texas: 0.8 points to Trump
  • Ohio: 0.9 points to Trump
  • Georgia: 1.5 points to Trump
  • Iowa: 1.6 points to Trump

These are six states that could go either way in 2020. All were won by Trump in 2016. 

Ohio and Florida are swing states par excellence. Results in Florida are reliably close and this year looks like no exception. Since 2000, Florida has not been won by more than 5 points by any party. Biden has consistently led in state polling since April but the gap has narrowed in recent weeks.

Ohio is also a consistently competitive state, although it swung strongly behind Trump in 2016. It has a remarkable history as a bellwether: it has been won by the winning candidate at every presidential election since 1964, and has sided with the winning candidate all but once since 1944! Ohio’s status as a bellwether may come to end this year: despite Biden’s national lead of over 7 points, Trump leads in Ohio by just under 1 point.

Iowa is another of those mid-western states (like Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Ohio) that has been shifting to the right over the last decade. Obama won Iowa by 10 points in 2008; Trump won it by 9 points in 2016. 

In terms of its political lean, Iowa has often sat in the middle of the Midwestern states over the last couple of decades: it has not been quite as strong for Democrats as Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin but it has been consistently more Democratic than Ohio. However, Iowa’s shift to the right in 2016 was large and even now Trump leads in the state by 1.6 points. 

North Carolina and Georgia are Republican leaning swing states. North Carolina has only been won by Democrats once since 1980 (by Obama in 2008) but results are often close. Biden is currently leading by a bit over 1 point.

Georgia has not been won by Democrats since Bill Clinton’s victory in 1992 but demographic changes have seen Georgia slowly shuffle to the left – the 2018 election for state governor was very close. Part of the reason Democrats have not yet had a breakthrough in the state is because Georgia is one of the least elastic states in the country – that means that there are very few swing voters. The state’s troubled history of racialised politics means that many voters are either rusted on Democrats or Republicans. In 2020, it looks like Biden will have a decent chance of picking it up – Trump is leading in the polls by just one and a half points.   

Finally, Texas looms as one of the most interesting contests this election. Trump currently leads in the state polls by less than one point as demographic changes shift this formerly staunch Republican state to the left. Although Texas is unlikely to be decisive in determining the election winner (Biden will be elected if he wins just the four states where he is already leading by more than 5 points), a Biden win in Texas would have a seismic impact on the electoral map. Texas has not been won by any Democratic nominee since 1980, and it is the only large state that Republicans can consistently rely on winning. Without Texas, there are far fewer paths to a majority for a Republican nominee.

All in all, these six states are unlikely to be the tipping point that determines whether Biden or Trump wins the election. But they will determine whether Biden wins narrowly or by a landslide. 

If Biden only gains the four states where he leads in the polls by more than five points (Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Arizona), he will win the electoral college 289 to Trump’s 247. But if he also wins these six states, Biden’s win becomes a massive landslide: 409 to 125. That’s because these states are big and have a lot of electoral votes – with the exception of Iowa, the other five states in this category are all in the top ten most populous states in the country. 

States where Trump leads by 5-10 points:

  • Missouri: 6.5 points to Trump
  • South Carolina: 6.7 points to Trump
  • Montana: 8.4 points to Trump
  • Kansas: 9.2 points to Trump
  • Alaska: N/A

I will briefly mention the states where Trump is leading by five to ten points: Missouri, South Carolina, Montana, Kansas and Alaska. I have intentionally not called these states ‘swing states’ because all traditionally vote Republican.

In all likelihood, Biden will probably not win these states. But the fact that Trump’s leads in these states are so weak is a clear sign of the trouble he is in. Trump won South Carolina and Alaska by over 14 points in 2016, Missouri by over 18 points and Montana and Kansas by over 20 points.

Not even in Obama’s landslide victory in 2008 did Democrats win any of these states (although he came extremely close to winning Missouri). South Carolina, Kansas and Alaska have been won by Republicans at every election for the last forty years, and Montana has been won by Democrats just once (in 1992). These are most definitely not swing states. 

A Biden victory in these states may be unlikely, but just as a major polling error could endanger Biden’s leads in Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona, so too a polling error could endanger Trump’s leads in any of these five states.

There have not been enough polls of Alaska for FiveThirtyEight to produce a polling average but the few polls that do exist indicate a competitive Republican-leaning race. 

Why Trump could still win

The polls paint a good picture for Biden’s chances. But he definitely doesn’t have it locked up. There are still at least three reasons that Trump could win:

  • A narrowing of the polls. They say a week is a long time in politics. Well, we are still seven weeks from the election, so there is still time for Trump to reduce Biden’s leads in key swing states. Nonetheless, the stability of Biden’s polling lead, the relative lack of undecided voters this year and Trump’s apparent inability to course correct for a sustained period of time means I am pretty skeptical this will eventuate. Oh, and Americans have already started voting.
  • A sizeable polling error. Polls are not perfect – they are a snapshot of a group of voters at a particular point in time. Polling is a very useful tool but it is perfectly normal for polls to be a few points off (and even more on occasion). This means that it is possible Trump is doing better than the polls suggest. But this cuts both ways – a polling error is just as likely to benefit Biden as it is to benefit Trump. The polls may have had a 3.2 point bias to Democrats in 2016 but they had a 2.5 point bias to Republicans in 2012 (for a more detailed explanation of polling error, see here).
  • Election shenanigans. US elections are often accompanied by minor and occasionally major scandals, with issues around ballot admissibility and election administration par for the course in a country where one major party knows it can only win elections by excluding some voters. But this year, with so many voters voting by mail, with the possibility that the election winner will not be known on the night of the election and with President Trump explicitly suggesting that he may not respect the election result, there is more uncertainty than usual this year. This is the real wildcard.

So while Trump’s re-election remains a distinct possibility, Biden is in the box seat. Biden’s polling lead has been large and stable for so long, I find it hard to see Trump winning unless something changes soon. Time is fast running out for Trump to bridge the gap.

All poll numbers used in this post were sourced from FiveThirtyEight’s presidential polling averages on Sunday 13thSeptember.

For an overview of each state’s voting history in presidential elections, see here.

To see an interactive map of which states Biden and Trump need to win the presidency, check out 270towin.com.

For a cool visualisation of how the partisanship of swing states has changed over the last 20 years, see this 538 article.

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