vision 2020

How Much of a Cushion Does Biden Need?

It’s Biden as they approach the home stretch! Photo: Seth Wenig/AP/Shutterstock

If you follow the horse-race coverage of the 2020 presidential contest, you have probably heard a lot about two phenomena: Joe Biden’s sizable lead over Donald Trump in national polling averages (currently 8.2 percent at FiveThirtyEight with its weighted and adjusted averages, and 8.4 percent at RealClearPolitics with its raw averages), and his strong standing in states Trump easily won in 2016 (by five to ten points) like Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas.

The latter development is significant mostly because of the close and important down-ballot races in these states (seven competitive House races in Texas, three competitive House races and a close Senate race in Iowa, two competitive House races and a close Senate race in Arizona, and two competitive House races and two close Senate races in Georgia). But the truth is that if Joe Biden is running anywhere near Donald Trump in any of these states, he’s probably winning big nationally.

What really matters are the states Trump won in 2016 where Biden has a sizable lead — one that might survive a shift in the incumbent’s direction in the national landscape. Using FiveThirtyEight’s state polling averages, those would include Michigan (where currently Biden leads by 7.7 percent), Wisconsin (6.8 percent), Pennsylvania (6.6 percent), and Florida (6.1 percent). Depending on the combination of states, any of these could become the “tipping-point state” for whoever wins the presidency (in other words, the state that puts Biden or Trump over the 270 electoral vote mark).

Yes, 2016 state polling was spotty, though a lot of the pro-Clinton polls that made people ignore key states had the race within the margin of error. The quantity of battleground-state polling appears to be up this year, and relying on averages like FiveThirtyEight’s that weigh and adjust polls for quality and partisan bias can reduce a lot of the perceived risk of taking state polls seriously. But it is reasonably safe to say that Biden can probably lose half his current national polling lead and still be in a position to win, perhaps even comfortably.

Aside from the polls, it is unlikely that Trump as the incumbent president will get anything like the lion’s share of late-deciding voters this time around (which he did as the 2016 “insurgent” challenging the semi-incumbent Hillary Clinton). So for the time being, and putting aside such possibilities as a big reduction in turnout caused by the pandemic, Biden has a bit of a cushion. It’s not huge or insurmountable, but at a time when such a high percentage of voters appear to have closed off any possibility of voting to reelect the president, Biden’s in good shape.

How Much of a Cushion Does Biden Need?