vision 2020

Biden Maintains Electoral College Lead, But It’s Fragile

Biden and Trump head for the home stretch. Photo: Digital Vision./Getty Images

Now that we are in the stretch drive of the 2020 presidential election, polls are coming in hot almost every day, and on any given day there’s some good news for both Biden and Trump. The big picture is a bit ambivalent: Biden continues to enjoy a broad advantage in the battleground states that will determine the Electoral College winner, but his margin for error remains small.

Biden’s lead in national popular-vote polling is slowly eroding but remains formidable compared to past Democratic candidates, particularly given the fact that most pollsters have already begun applying likely voter screens that usually benefit Republicans. In the FiveThirtyEight polling averages, Biden leads Trump 50.3 to 43.5, or by 6.7 percent (down from a peak of 9.1 percent on August 29). At RealClearPolitics (which averages raw polling data without the weighting and adjustments FiveThirtyEight deploys), Biden’s lead is down to 5.8 percent (likely because a new Rasmussen poll shows Trump actually leading, the first in RCP’s database to show that since February). One national survey that’s been getting a lot of attention is the USC-Dornsife tracking poll, the only major national pollster that consistently showed Trump ahead just prior to Election Day in 2016 (though that meant it was even more inaccurate than some others, since HRC did win the popular vote by 2.1 percent even as the final USC survey showed Trump up by three points). As recently as last week, USC-Dornsife showed Biden with a double-digit lead, but its latest numbers have cut that to under seven points. It does seem to have a pattern of regularly oscillating pro-Biden and pro-Trump trends.

But it’s state polls that have drawn the most attention this week, and they provide relatively good news for Biden, as Nate Silver explains in a handy graph showing recent polling trends in all the competitive states:

As Geoffrey Skelley explains, the Arizona and Minnesota numbers are particularly significant if they hold:

Biden’s improvement in Arizona is particularly noteworthy as Arizona is a cornerstone of most Electoral College maps in which Trump wins. That is, if Trump carries the state, he wins the election 59 percent of time, according to our forecast; but if Biden wins Arizona, Trump has less than a 7 percent chance of winning overall …

Meanwhile, Biden’s improvement in Minnesota is also bad news for Trump, as the campaign has long viewed Minnesota as a potential target to expand the map — the president only lost the state by about 2 points in 2016. However, Minnesota seems to be steadily moving away from Trump.

Arizona remains close, though: A new Monmouth survey released after Skelley wrote about the state showed Biden up by just two points (48-46) among likely voters if turnout is higher than in 2016 (more likely than not), and tied with Trump at 47 percent if turnout drops (e.g., because of fresh COVID-19 concerns or voter-suppression efforts).

Florida’s the most important state providing relatively good news to Team Trump in the last few days, with Biden’s lead in the RCP polling averages declining to 1.4 percent (it’s at 2.1 percent at FiveThirtyEight) and two recent polls (from Florida Atlantic University and NBC News–Marist) showing the race tied. The megatrend in Florida is that Biden is overperforming with the senior voters who went heavily for Trump in 2016, while Trump is posting big margins among South Florida’s intensely anti-communist Latino communities. Florida Democrats took a big hit late last week, however, when a federal appeals court upheld the state GOP’s efforts to halt implementation of a voter initiative reenfranchising ex-felons.

The big picture remains: Trump’s Electoral College advantage (as illustrated by his relative standing in battleground state as opposed to national polls) means Biden starts losing a lot of states if his national lead drops to below, say, 3 percent. Above that level, he has a lot of ripe targets in states Trump really must carry.

Biden Maintains Electoral College Lead, But It’s Fragile