There's only so much room for divergence from the data.
I’m Isaac Saul, and this is Tangle: an independent, ad-free, subscriber-supported politics newsletter that summarizes the best arguments from across the political spectrum — then “my take.” You can read Tangle for free or subscribe for Friday editions, and you can reach me anytime by replying to this email. If someone sent you this email, they’re asking you to sign up. You can do that by clicking here.
Today’s read: 10 minutes.
Where does the election stand with two weeks to go?
Joe Biden has a healthy lead heading into the home stretch. Will it hold? Photo: Gage Skidmore / WikiCommons
What D.C. is talking about.
The home stretch. We are 15 days from election day. This is the third time Tangle has done an update on “where the race stands,” and we’ll do one more on election day morning.
More than 27.9 million Americans have already voted, according to data compiled by the U.S. Elections Project. That represents more than 20% of the total turnout from 2016. FiveThirtyEight gives Joe Biden an 88% chance of winning the electoral college and gives Democrats a 74% chance of winning the Senate. There is a 38% chance that Joe Biden wins in a landslide, according to the FiveThirtyEight model.
Other barometers at this point in the race also show Biden with a strong lead. RealClearPolitics’ polling average has Biden up by 8.9% nationally. But the RCP average has much less separation amongst the battleground states: 4.3%. Democrats and Joe Biden are easily outraising Republicans and Donald Trump and head into the final stretch with more cash on-hand for advertising.
At the same time, Republicans have closed the voter registration gap heading into the final stretch. In many battleground states, there are generally more Democrats registered to vote than Republicans. But that is less true this year than in 2016 after a Republican surge in registration, while many Democrats were purged from voter rolls due to inactivity.
In North Carolina, the total number of registered Democrats went down 6.17%, while registered Republicans went up 3.47%. In Pennsylvania, total registered Democrats went down 1.7% while registered Republicans went up 3.7%. In Florida, total registered Democrats increased 5.8% while total registered Republicans increased 9.6%.
For many, the 2020 election looks, sounds and feels a lot like the 2016 election. Democrats are still licking their wounds from that experience, when Hillary Clinton appeared to have the race won in a slam dunk but ended up losing narrowly — by around 77,000 votes — across three of the most important swing states in the election (Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin). This time, Republicans are holding out hope that the polls are wrong, or at least wrong enough that pathways open for the president’s reelection, and they remain laser-focused on the battleground states that could carry him to victory.
What the left is saying.
Don’t rest. Democrats are enthusiastic about the polls, and the forecasts, some of which indicate Biden could win in a landslide victory. But given what they’ve been through already, many Democrats insist there is no room to take their foot off the gas pedal.
“Biden is not out of the woods,” Thomas Edsall wrote in a decisive New York Times piece on how Biden could lose. “Four of the six states Trump won by fewer than five points in 2016 allow voters to register by party: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina and Pennsylvania. In recent months, there have been substantially more Republicans added to the rolls than Democrats in each of them except for Arizona… More worrisome for Biden, the Pew survey shows modestly weakened support among Black women, a key Democratic constituency. Black women supported Clinton over Trump 98 to 1; this year they support Biden over Trump 91-6.”
“Democratic strategists are also worried about how well their voters will perform in properly requesting, filling out and mailing in absentee ballots,” Edsall added. “More than twice as many Biden voters as Trump voters — the actual ratio is 2.4 to 1 — plan to cast ballots by mail, according to polling by Pew. So far, however, Democratic requests for absentee ballots have not reached the levels that surveys suggest will be needed for the party to cast votes at full strength on Election Day.”
In The Washington Post, Philip Bump said pundits may be overreacting to mistakes made in 2016. It’s “not an apples-to-apples comparison,” he argued, to look at polling from Michigan or Pennsylvania and claim that they are the same as they were in 2016, when Trump won.
“First, the race in both states has been much more stable than it was four years ago,” he said. “Shortly after the Republican convention that year, Hillary Clinton’s lead in each state vanished. Over the next few months it swelled and contracted. This year, Biden’s lead has been much more stable. Second, that polls in each state were off the mark — by 3.3 points in Michigan and 3.8 in Pennsylvania, relative to the FiveThirtyEight averages — has added scrutiny to the numbers this year. Pollsters who underestimated Trump’s support in 2016 are aware that they did so. It is safe to assume that poll results have therefore been calibrated to avoid a similar mistake and, therefore, to better estimate Trump’s actual support.”
In CNN, Harry Enten argued that Joe Biden is making states competitive that Trump won easily in 2016, including Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas. While that doesn’t mean he will carry those states, “Biden is leading in the national polls by about 10 points,” Enten wrote. “That's 8 points better than Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote by in 2016. And remember, Biden's lead is also significantly wider than where the final national polls put Clinton's lead in 2016. Those national polls had Clinton up 3 to 4 points in the national popular vote, which turned out to be quite accurate.”
What the right is saying.
There’s still a path to victory. To Trump’s base, the election is viewed as a coinflip — if not advantage Trump. He’s still drawing massive crowds, he’s still dominating the news cycle, and he really just has to defend his 2016 map to win again. There is some hope in the polling, too.
In National Review, Rich Lowry described the Trafalgar Group, which “doesn’t see 2020 the same way everyone else does.” The Trafalgar Group’s methodology tries to make up for the social-desirability bias, where people answer questions in a way to avoid judgment. Their polls are also shorter, so people who are less interested in politics will stay on the phone longer.
“If you are a firm believer only in polling averages, this isn’t particularly meaningful, but if you are familiar with Trafalgar’s successes in 2016, when (unlike other pollsters) it had Trump leading in Michigan and Pennsylvania and, in 2018, Ron DeSantis winning his gubernatorial race, it is notable,” Lowry wrote. Robert Cahaly, who runs Trafalgar, is predicting a Trump victory via North Carolina, Georgia, Florida, Arizona and either Michigan or Pennsylvania. All of his polls have Trump ahead in those states, except Michigan or Pennsylvania, where the polls are within the margin of error and where he says undecideds will break for Trump.
“Closing the gap won’t be easy,” Karl Rove said in The Wall Street Journal. “Mr. Trump must prosecute the differences between Mr. Biden’s very liberal statements during the primary (e.g., ‘We are going to get rid of fossil fuels’ and ‘I’m going to eliminate the Trump tax cuts’) and his attempts now to make those comments disappear… The president must close on his strength—the economy—on which people trust him more than they do Mr. Biden. Gallup recently asked Americans if they are better off today than four years ago. An astonishing 56% said yes, despite the pandemic and recession. By comparison, 45% said yes as President Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election came to a close and 47% at this point in President George W. Bush’s 2004 campaign.”
“The media’s predictions of President Donald Trump’s certain defeat are about as confident this year as they were in 2016,” Mollie Hemingway wrote in The Federalist. “You would think pundits’ embarrassing errors in 2016 would provoke some humility, but the narrative has been roughly the same for months: Joe Biden is going to win the election, likely in a landslide… In 2016, Trump won by winning battleground states that few expected him to win. Right now, he’s polling slightly and relatively better in those states than he did four years ago.”
Anyone who has read this newsletter for any period of time knows that I hate political prognostication. Predicting the future is not something I’m in the business of doing. I like analyzing arguments, fleshing out stories, interviewing people and finding reasonable, honest takeaways in a crowded and noisy space. But I’d like to gingerly crawl out on a limb here, at risk of eating my words in a few weeks: I am struggling to see how Donald Trump wins this election.
The arguments above have laid out the baseline views on the polling. It’s clear, if you’re the Trump campaign, what your path to victory is. Trump has to win Ohio, Georgia, Iowa, and Florida. If he loses any of those, the election is basically over. Trump is down a few points or dead even in most Florida polls. The early voting data paired with what I’ve heard on the ground from Tangle readers and friends in Florida does not paint a rosy picture for the president.
Let’s assume, though, that he defies some of the polling — as he’s done before — and successfully defends those states. The most likely path to victory from there requires winning Arizona and North Carolina. Those are the two most traditionally conservative states that are the most “in play” according to the polling. In Arizona, the Republican Senator Martha McSally is now refusing to say she’s proud of supporting Trump. She’s running against a popular astronaut and losing her race. FiveThirtyEight gives Trump a 32 in 100 shot of winning Arizona and most polls show him down by more than 3 points, which is outside the margin of error.
In North Carolina, his odds are only slightly better: 33 in 100. The latest Emerson poll shows a dead heat. That’s great news for Trump, and could indicate a race that’s tightening. The Democratic Senate candidate there is roiled in a sex scandal that’s ushered in plenty of horrible press for the left. Four of the last eight polls were within the margin of error. So, let’s again give Trump both North Carolina and Arizona for the sake of argument.
Then he has to win either Pennsylvania or Michigan. According to the Trump campaign, they view Pennsylvania as the target here. I’m from Pennsylvania, and — as I love to mention — from what used to be a bellwether county in Pennsylvania. I don’t know what to say besides the fact that this feels nothing like 2016 did. Anecdotally, I have around 10 friends in Pennsylvania who voted third party or didn’t participate at all in the 2016 election. All of them appear poised to vote for Biden this time around. FiveThirtyEight gives Trump only a 12 in 100 chance to win the state. Most polling has Biden outside the margin of error. The only one that doesn’t is Trafalgar, which still has Biden up two points.
There are other bad indicators for Trump, too. His strongest messaging is on the economy, where he almost always beats Biden among likely voters. Now, that advantage is essentially nonexistent. One CNN poll showed Biden up 50-48 on who would handle the economy better (in May, Trump had a 12 point advantage in the same poll). Among likely voters who backed third party candidates in 2016, they’re breaking 49-19 for Biden. Among registered voters who sat out, Biden is up by nine points. As Rachel Bitecofer pointed out to me in her interview with Tangle on Friday, very, very few remaining voters are undecided.
How does Trump win given this outline? I don’t know. He hit a royal flush in 2016 but it’s a rare thing to be dealt that hand twice. Liberals have embraced the idea that the only way Trump will win is by suffocating the vote — challenging ballots and winning in court. But so far, judges in battleground states have seemed extremely skeptical of Republican voter fraud concerns. If you ask actual election officials in states like Pennsylvania what’s going to happen, they’re confident about having a clean race.
Turnout looks to be historic already, and any inroads Trump has made with Hispanic or Black voters in polling has been more than wiped out by the flight of white women and older voters to Biden. Women and older voters happen to cast ballots far more reliably than anyone else. With 15 days to go, Trump seems laser-focused on the messaging of… Hunter Biden’s emails? It’s a weak rewrite of 2016, and I don’t know many voters who really care about that story outside of Trump’s base, and they were never going to vote for Biden anyway. If the tent doesn’t get bigger, Trump’s pathway to victory only gets smaller.
COVID-19 is still omnipresent, there’s still no Republican health care plan, still no second stimulus deal from the ultimate dealmaker, and while the stock market has roared back, jobless claims remain stubbornly and historically high. If the election were held today, Trump would almost assuredly lose. But the election is in 15 days. I’m struggling to see Trump’s path, but that doesn’t mean it won’t materialize.
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