The 2020 election is coming down to the wire, and millions of Americans are freaking out. They’re afraid President Donald Trump will surge at the end and win, as he did in 2016. But there are good reasons to think that won’t happen, based on measurable differences between the two elections. Joe Biden is in a much better position than Hillary Clinton was.
Biden already has more than 200 electoral votes—probably around 230—in the bag. To reach the 270 necessary to win, he just needs three states Clinton narrowly lost: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. Let’s call these the core states. If Biden loses one of them, he could still get to 270 by taking Arizona, Florida, Georgia, or North Carolina. Let’s call these the bonus states.
Four days before the 2016 election, Clinton trailed Trump in all four bonus states. FiveThirtyEight recorded these deficits in its state-by-state “now-cast,” which tracked each candidate’s average share of the vote in polls. That left her no margin for error. Any loss in the core states was enough to sink her.
Biden, by contrast, has a healthy margin. Four days before the election, he’s leading Trump in the FiveThirtyEight poll average in all seven states. He’s ahead by 5 percentage points in Pennsylvania and by 8 to 9 in Wisconsin and Michigan. That’s well above Clinton, who didn’t have a five-point lead in any of those states. Suppose what happened in 2016 happens again: In the final days—due to late deciders, polling error, or the emergence of “shy” Trump voters—Trump gains as much ground against Biden as he did against Clinton. That’s 3.8 percentage points in Michigan, 4.1 in Pennsylvania, and 5 in Wisconsin. Guess what? Biden still wins all three.
But suppose Biden loses one. In that case, he’s likely to make it up from the bonus states. In Arizona, Florida, and Georgia, Trump’s margin against Clinton on the Friday before the election, as measured by the FiveThirtyEight “now-cast,” almost exactly matched the final result. No wave of “shy” voters materialized; no polls were suddenly “unskewed.” In those states, Biden now leads by 3.1 percent, 2.2 percent, and 1.7 percent, respectively. If he wins any of them, that’s insurance against a loss in the core states.
Biden isn’t just leading in more states. Across the board, his vote share is higher than Clinton’s was. On the Friday before the election, Clinton was averaging 48.8 percent in the core states and 46.3 percent in the bonus states. Biden is averaging 51.2 percent in the core states and 48.8 percent in the bonus states. To beat Clinton in Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, all Trump had to do was pick up undecided voters. That wouldn’t suffice against Biden, since he’s above 50 in each of those states.
Could Biden lose the same ground Clinton lost, plus an extra couple of points? That’s unlikely, because his extra cushion isn’t an accident. It reflects an underlying difference: Clinton had extremely high unfavorable ratings. Most voters didn’t like her. (Many of them also disliked Trump, but they disliked Clinton enough to vote for Trump instead.) You could argue that some of the dislike for Clinton was sexist. But it proved to be an invisible ceiling—a glass one, if you prefer—on her share of the vote. She failed to top 47.5 percent in any of the seven states.
Biden’s ceiling is a lot higher. Compare their ratings in surveys taken by the same pollster at roughly the same stage of the race. In Pennsylvania, Clinton’s unfavorable rating was 56 percent, as measured by an October 2016 Quinnipiac survey. This month, the same pollster showed Biden at 43 percent. In Wisconsin, Clinton’s unfavorable rating stood at 52 percent in a Marquette survey. Marquette now shows Biden at 45 percent. In comparable surveys, Biden’s net favorable rating has beaten Clinton’s by 11 points in North Carolina, 13 in Wisconsin, 18 in Florida, 23 in Pennsylvania, and 27 in Georgia. Her average unfavorable rating across the five states was 56 percent. Biden’s is 45 percent. That’s the difference between winning and losing.
In fact, these numbers understate the gap. The last voters to make up their minds are independents, and they’re way more open to Biden than they were to Clinton. Among independents, in same-pollster comparisons, Biden’s net favorable rating has exceeded Clinton’s by shocking margins: 30 points in Wisconsin, 32 in Georgia, 38 in North Carolina, 44 in Pennsylvania, and 45 in Florida. Clinton’s unfavorable rating among independents, averaged across the five states, was more than 66 percent. Biden’s was less than 44 percent. Similar comparisons aren’t available in other states, but Monmouth polls show Biden doing 26 points better among independents in Arizona than Clinton did.
These structural differences explain, in large part, why Clinton lost and why Biden is likely to win. Even where her numbers were close to his, she was up against a ceiling. He isn’t. Trump could try to block ballots from being counted, but the number of ballots he’d have to invalidate would probably be far bigger than in previous contested elections. To win, Trump would need something that didn’t happen last time. He would need either a disproportionate turnout surge from his base—of which there’s no measurable sign—or a disproportionate failure of Biden supporters to vote. And if you’re for Biden, that’s in your hands.
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