At a time when Joe Biden is enjoying comfortable leads in both national and battleground-state polls, it’s a good time for us all to remember the most fundamental lesson of what happened four years ago: Hillary Clinton lost the presidential election while winning the national popular vote by 2.1 percent, or more than 2.8 million votes. The current Republican skew in the composition of the Electoral College (or if you prefer, the “wastage” of “excess” Democratic votes in noncompetitive states like California) has not gone away, as David Wasserman noted last year:
The ultimate nightmare scenario for Democrats might look something like this: Trump loses the popular vote by more than 5 million ballots, and the Democratic nominee converts Michigan and Pennsylvania back to blue. But Trump wins re-election by two Electoral votes by barely hanging onto Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, Wisconsin and Maine’s 2nd Congressional District.
With that possibility in mind, it’s useful to look at the analysis of recent battleground-state polls (taken in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Texas, and Wisconsin) conducted by Geoffrey Skelley for FiveThirtyEight. According to the data Skelley assembles, Biden leads in six of them (all but Georgia and Texas). But here’s the thing: In just one of them does Biden’s lead match his national polling lead.
There are two big takeaways here. One, Biden is in an enviable position in many of these battleground states. However, the second takeaway — which is the caveat we mentioned earlier — is that all of these battleground states save Michigan are more Republican-leaning than the national average. In other words, most of the states that will decide the presidential election are to the right of the country as a whole, and that speaks to Trump’s advantage in the Electoral College.
And that means Democrats shouldn’t get at all complacent about Biden’s national polling lead:
Should Biden continue to hold a sizable lead, the chances of an Electoral College-popular vote split will probably be low. But if the polls get closer, the odds will increase because the eventual tipping point state is almost certainly among these eight states. But as it stands now, if Trump carries Arizona along with every state that’s more Republican-leaning in those recent polls, he would almost certainly win the presidency.
The other reason Biden needs a big national popular vote win is that he really needs a Democratic Senate to accomplish anything legislatively as president, and to the modest but very real extent he may have coattails, it could be crucial in close Senate races. That obviously matters in battleground states with Senate races, like Arizona, Georgia (two races), Maine, Michigan, New Hampshire, North Carolina, and Texas. But it could matter even more in red states where a narrower-than-2016 presidential loss could be the key to a Democratic Senate win, such as Iowa, Kansas, Montana, and perhaps even Kentucky and Alabama.
One advantage Biden has over Hillary Clinton in managing a polling lead is that Democrats are almost certainly going to refuse to be overconfident this time around. Uncle Joe may have to be up by 20 points before they relax for a moment. But in any event, he needs to go big or go home.