How Trump Could Still Win (but probably won’t)
President Trump’s path to a reelection victory has narrowed but also solidified. His odds are low(recession, mismanaged pandemic, terribly managed campaign, and a candidate that struggles to stay on message/is an asshole). Still, he has a clear path — and some genuine advantages.
What’s Trump’s path?
The states that are generally considered “battleground” or potential battleground states are mostly state’s Trump won in 2016 but include some states where Republicans are on offense. Trump can afford to lose 36 electoral votes from his 2016 electoral map (see below). Here are the battlegrounds:
- WI, MI, AZ, PA, NC, OH, FL: These are 6 states that Trump won in 2016 — if any 3 of them flip to Joe Biden, we’re looking at no candidate at 270 or a Biden win.
- MN, NV, NH: Trump is on offense in these states. However, polling averages have Biden opening up an average of a 7.5% lead in Minnesota, making it unlikely Trump can pick MN up. NV is slightly closer from an average perspective at 6.3%, and New Hampshire was once thought to be competitive and is seemingly safe for Biden now with an 11.6% lead.
- TX, GA, ME-2, IA: Not as often mentioned battlegrounds that need to be considered are Maine’s 2nd District, Iowa, Texas, and Georgia (which I previously wrote about). Texas is the most important of those states with 38 electoral votes, and Trump has maintained a narrow polling lead in the state. However, Georgia may be the most likely of the three to flip.
For Trump to win, he can’t afford to lose Georgia or Texas. He needs to win Minnesota or Nevada(looking unlikely) while holding at least 4 of Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, Pennsylvania, North Carolina, Ohio, and Florida. Based on polling averages, Trump is down 7.5+ points in Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota, significantly narrowing his path.
Not flipping Minnesota and expecting to lose Wisconsin and Michigan — all of which seems very likely, forces team Trump to successfully defend the expanded battleground states of Iowa, Texas, Georgia plus PA, AZ, OH, NC, and FL. Losing any of FL, OH, NC, or PA without gains elsewhere would mean a Biden win, and Arizona flipping blue would mean an electoral deadlock if Trump can also hold onto Maine’s 2nd District for their one electoral vote(not a guarantee — 538’s polling average has Biden with just a 2.3% lead).
While the path is narrowing and the odds are against him, Trump has a very real shot at winning and would likely retain the presidency in the case of a deadlock. All he has to do is hold onto a few states — he and his campaign know this, and they’re focused on winning there at all costs.
What advantages does Team Trump have?
Republicans have some major advantages in many of the most important battlegrounds of the 2020 election that may prove decisive in tipping close elections:
- The electoral map means that while Trump is certain to lose the popular vote, he could survive an up to 8 points national loss if he can shore up support in key states.
- Rock-solid base and high approval ratings with Republicans (94% in the most recent Gallup poll) mean that the core of Trump’s support is solid. He can be very competitive in states even when losing the ad spending battle as he is in some key states. Trump’s main political skill is firing up his base, and he’s all in on doing so again in 2020.
- Excellent ground game: an underrated part of Trump’s 2016 victory was their unconventional and successful ground game. The 2016 Trump campaign excelled at targeted communications with key groups. It used an under the radar digital effort and field(knocking on doors, phone calls, canvassing events, etc.) in key states to sway and turnout low-frequency voters. This advantage has been exacerbated by Republican’s tendency to continue with field operations during the COVID-19 pandemic while many Democrats shut their’s down.
“We were plowing the fields and they weren’t out there,” said Christopher Nicholas, a longtime Republican political consultant in Pennsylvania. “The Democratic groups didn’t get back on the street until Labor Day. They were more skittish about it.”
- Improving GOP voter registration numbers in key states: One of the big knocks on Joe Biden coming out of the Democratic primaries was that he didn’t have the ground game and volunteer enthusiasm of primary opponents such as Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, or Pete Buttigieg. The Biden campaign’s decision to shut down door-knocking and other parts of their field operation for staff and voter safety during the COVID-19 pandemic further increased Trump’s ground game advantage. This had led to an edge in new voter registrations for Republicans in many key states, especially in Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania — all keys to a potential Trump victory. Florida is particularly concerning for Democrats where their lead in registered voters has lowered to the narrowest lead in state history, just a 134,242-voter advantage over the GOP out of 14.4 million registered voters.
“The tremendous voter registration gain by the Republicans is the secret weapon that will make the difference for the Republicans in 2020,” said Dee Stewart, a Republican political consultant in North Carolina.
- Voter suppression in places such as Georgia and Texas by Republican Governors (limiting ballot drop boxes in crucial Harris County Texas is one example) may prove decisive in limiting Democratic margins in key counties and enable Trump to hold onto crucial battleground states by slim margins.
- The conservative media apparatus is another decisive advantage for Trump, spreading propaganda for him and misinformation about the Biden campaign. Much of that information is now spreading across the country and being successfully laundered through both traditional media(to a greater extent than in 2016) and social media. Debunked conspiracy theories like QAnon and various Hunter Biden accusations may drive a wedge between Democrats and some voters.
- Mail-in voting may mean more spoiled ballots and with polling(and early returns) showing that Democrats are expected to vote early and by mail at significantly higher rates than Republicans, which may mean more spoiled ballots for Democratic voters and give Trump the slim margins he needs to win in battleground states.
- The Supreme Court: The Death of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the nomination of Amy Coney Barrett and her all but assured appointment to the US Supreme Court ensures a conservative majority on the court that will have wide-ranging policy implications in the long run and immediate impacts on the legal fight that surrounds tightly contested elections. With both sides gearing up for lawsuits around voter access, vote counting, and much more, a conservative majority on the Supreme Court ensures that should this election come down to a 2000-like Florida scenario; conservatives will have the last ace in the hole.
Taken together, these advantages mean Trump has an opportunity to win a close election: he can lose Michigan and Wisconsin, pick up no other new states, but hold the remaining battlegrounds and pull out the election. This scenario is quite realistic. All of these states are competitive. Biden's slim polling leads are safe with a ground game advantage, suppression of Democratic voters, and Trump’s various other advantages coming into play.
There may also be large structural advantages that could swing Trump’s way that haven’t exposed themselves yet; Republican voters are typically more likely to vote. What if the COVID-19 pandemic keeps many potential Democratic voters from voting for fear of infection?
Then there’s polling. Polling firms got 2016 wrong. Almost everyone thought Hillary Clinton was headed for a win in 2016, and instead, Trump turned out infrequent white voters, won over key groups, and took the presidency. Can he do it again? It’s possible, polling has been wrong about his strength with white voters before, and the GOP has been working hard to register more Republicans. If Trump’s push to increase voter enthusiasm in his base resonates, which it appears to be doing, then GOP turnout in key states could be massive, allowing Trump to outperform much of the polling.
His path is there. His ground game is better in many key states. Trump can win.
That said, he probably won’t.
Why Biden should win
Yes, I’ve just told you how President Trump could win reelection. He has a lot of potential advantages. However, the odds are against him. Biden could easily win and potentially blowout the incumbent President. Here’s how:
- WI, MI, AZ, PA, NC, OH, FL, GA, TX, IA: Trump won all 10 of these states in 2016. They’re all in play in 2020. Biden narrowly trails Trump in some and maintains leads in others — all he needs are 4 states. Wisconsin and Michigan are very likely to flip blue: if Arizona and Iowa come too, or Iowa and North Carolina, or just Pennsylvania, not to mention Ohio, Florida, Texas, or Georgia, then Biden wins as long as he holds Nevada and Minnesota. Heck, Arizona, and Maine’s 2nd District would get Biden to 270 on the dot. In presidential politics, you like to be on offense, and while Trump has a narrow path, Biden has a wide one.
- No Clinton: Hilary Clinton was a historically unpopular candidate who had been the target of 30 years of concerted Republican attacks and smears. She’s also not on the ticket in 2020 . Instead, you have America’s nice old Uncle Joe Biden, relatively popular despite a hyper-partisan 2020 election environment, with a stellar personal story and no misogyny against him. Sometimes, you need a white dude to talk to white dudes. Biden might be the exact right messenger to convert enough folks in Wisconsin, Michigan, Arizona, and elsewhere to flip those states.
- The money advantage: Early in the campaign, it appeared that the Trump campaign would have a massive cash advantage, enabling them to outspend the Democratic nominee on advertising and hiring more field staff in crucial states. While Team Trump definitely has an on-the-ground field advantage, they’ve squandered their cash advantage, forcing Trump to leave the battlegrounds to fly to California to fundraise with just weeks before the election. Meanwhile, Biden has turned into a fundraising juggernaut, raising a staggering $383 million in September alone. This has led to a major spending advantage for Biden in most key battleground states. This Democratic donor enthusiasm is also showing up in the US Senate races, further fueling Democratic ad spending in North Carolina, Georgia, Texas, Iowa, and elsewhere. This cash advantage for Democrats in 2020 could prove decisive in turning out and swaying voters.
- COVID-19: Donald Trump has completely mishandled the coronavirus pandemic. The economy has tanked. At least 221,000 people have died — and counting. Over 8.28 million infected. And Trump lied about it, as the Woodward tapes have shown. COVID is a giant anchor around Trump’s election chances, and it's showing up in every facet of the campaign.
- Voter registration in key states: yes, Republicans have gained in Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania, however in Arizona, democrats have gained in voter registration vs. Republicans, and Georgia, Texas, and elsewhere, Democrats have made massive registration efforts since 2018 and 2016. In Texas, democratic energy is building, and Texas Democrats set fundraising records and engaged in an unprecedented scale voter registration effort this summer. In Georgia, 49% of the more than 800,000 voters who have registered since 2018 are people of color, according to Fair Fight, the organization founded by 2018 Democratic Gubernatorial nominee Stacey Abrams.
“Those are Democratic-leaning voters,” Ms. Abrams said during an appearance last week with Jill Biden, Mr. Biden’s wife, in suburban Atlanta, where early-voting turnout is setting records.
- Early voting trends: Democratic enthusiasm to elect Biden and be rid of Trump shows up in early voting trends in key states, with extremely high early voting turnout reported across the country. This may be a case of Democrats enthusiastically getting their votes in early but turnout tapering off, however with the massive enthusiasm among Democratic donors, anti-Trump animus, and early signs of even infrequent voters voting early, I suspect that 2020 turnout will be exceedingly high overall, and lean more heavily towards Democrats than many expect.
On Saturday, October 17th, more than 26 million people had voted, more than six times the number of votes cast by the same point in 2016. With massive Democratic turnout in early voting(in part due to Trump’s near-constant false claims about mail voting fraud), Democratic field organizers and advertisers can focus their Get Out the Vote and persuasion efforts on less frequent voters.
- As I highlighted earlier, the polls could be wrong: The polls could be wrong, and Trump could outperform. However, there are also signs that polls could be wrong in the other direction as the electorate may skew heavily more democratic and anti-Trump with infrequent and new voters, leading to a potential Joe Biden landslide.
We see signs of this in the aforementioned early voting data — in the states that register to vote by party, more than 16.5 million people had voted by when I accessed the database at 6 pm Eastern Time October 20th, more than 8.7 million of them registered Democrats to a little under 4.2 million Republicans. In crucial Florida, 1,447,99847 registered Democrats had voted compared with 966,106 Republicans and 583,943 with no party affiliation. Black voters, who skew heavily towards Democrats, are also making up a larger percentage of early votes than in 2016. More than six times as many Black voters have voted early this year than at the same point in the 2016 election, per data firm TargetSmart’s analysis.
When combined with Trump’s historic unpopularity and his collapse in both internal and external polls with key demographics such as women, seniors, and suburbanites, it’ll be a tall order for Trump to win this election. He could do it: but I’m betting against him.
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