The most remarkable effect of Donald Trump’s election in 2016 is how it has distorted our sense of reality and made us question everything that we see and to disbelieve it on a certain level. I think this is partly a very sane reaction to what we have experienced in the past decade in this country and it fits with the rolling disaster that is 2020. We should be skeptical about the best news and be prepared mentally for the worst, one so that we can not be complacent and plan to overcome barriers and two, so we can be prepared to act if necessary if something truly terrible comes down the pike.
I say this is a partly sane reaction, however, because I believe that our knee jerk questioning also tends to play into the game that is being played on us. If we cannot look at objective facts and believe them, if we think that sinister forces or some kind of dark magic is preventing reality from playing out as we expect it, we give credibility to all those who reject science and claim a higher authority, whether it’s Trump, Fox News, Biblical prophesy or their own stubborn refusal to admit that their ideology could ever be wrong, as the be-all-end-all arbiter of truth.
So given this, I want to take a look at the 2020 election with less than 50 days to go and take a realistic assessment of it all. Where are we now, what are the concerns going forward and what is the real, believable risk that Donald Trump can somehow take the oath of office again on January 20, 2021?
At this moment, the Five Thirty Eight forecast of the election popular vote — which includes both national poll averaging and an algorithm that builds in some expectation of the race tightening in the weeks ahead — projects Joe Biden to receive 52.7 percent of the vote to Donald Trump’s 46 percent. This is basically the same forecast as one month ago … and two months ago … and a roughly one point closer margin than the projection in June, when Donald Trump’s popularity was at a 2020 low. Or, in other words, Donald Trump hit rock bottom in his polling three months ago and has done little more than scratch back one point of his 7.5% expected popular vote margin of defeat in that time. He has less than two months to go to close the rest of the gap.
Ok, but that’s the popular vote, elections are determined by the Electoral Vote. How has the projected share changed since June in that regard? On June 17, Biden was projected to win 336 to 202 in the Electoral College according to the Five Thirty Eight formula of poll averaging and algorithmic data projections. By July 17, that edge had closed a bit to 331 to 207. On August 17, it was even closer: 323 to 215. But today, that number has rebounded for Biden to 328 to 210. So over three months, Trump has moved only 8 electoral votes to his column and away from Biden and has actually lost ground in the past month. Again, he has less than two months to go to move another 60 electoral votes to his column.
The reason Trump is stuck in mud is that his gambit to win Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota this electoral cycle appears to be going nowhere. The Five Thirty Eight forecasted vote share has Trump down by 7.9 percent in Minnesota, 7.6 percent in Michigan and 6 percent in Wisconsin. And these results have come after all the major pollsters radically altered their demographic profiles in the wake of the 2016 polls to count many more non-college whites in their polls than they had previously. Or, in other words, these polls assume a generally weak African American turnout similar to 2016. So there’s actually upside potential in these models for bigger Biden victories.
A big reason for this shift in 2020 is Biden looking much stronger in polls with voters over 65 than Hillary Clinton did four years ago. Part of this is likely due to Trump’s handling of the COVID pandemic. There’s also some lingering worry about Trump and Social Security that Biden is working hard to exploit in advertising. But it also needs to be mentioned that older voters simply might be more sexist and simply decided to vote for Trump because they couldn’t bring themselves to elect a woman as President. Biden’s strength with older voters is also helping him in Trump pickup hopeful states New Hampshire, where Biden’s projected lead is 6.1 percent, and Maine, where Biden is now projected to win in a blowout by more than 11 points, although Trump is still projected to win Maine’s Second Congressional District electoral vote by a tiny 0.4 percent margin.
If you bake in these results, Biden is left with so many opportunities to go over the top. The most obvious is Pennsylvania, where he is projected to win by 4.4%. But Biden could also win by getting Arizona, where he is ahead by 3.2% or Florida where he leads by 1.6% or North Carolina, where he leads by 0.6% or Ohio, where he trails Trump by only 1%. That doesn’t even consider Georgia, Iowa or Texas, all of which Trump is projected to win by less than 4 percent. With the exception of Iowa, Biden can win ANY of these states and go over the magic 270 electoral vote threshold.
So it’s perfectly reasonable to be concerned about the 2020 election at this point and to feel a sense of deja vu. Perhaps just as Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania seemed to collapse out of nowhere last time, there are different and surprising time bombs this time. Who knows, maybe there needs to be more polling in Oregon, New Mexico, Connecticut and New Jersey before we can be sure that something shocking isn’t about to happen in those states.
And, of course, the whole mail ballot system could give Trump an opportunity to seize an apparent lead on election day that would lead him to declare victory and then say any ballots counted later are fraudulent and illegitimate. That is probably his game — and is the thing we should be mentally preparing ourselves for.
We need to keep it all in perspective, however. Trump continues to perform very poorly for a candidate seeking re-election. With the exception of Harry Truman in 1948, long before modern polling techniques were created, every sitting President to trail at this point in his re-election campaign has gone on to lose. So far, this election has been a referendum on Trump and that’s simply a contest, if conducted fairly, that he cannot win.