In less than five months, voters will start casting early ballots in the 2020 election. As the summer progresses, polling will give us an increasingly good sense of what those accumulated ballots will say. Even at this point, we can look to national and state averages of high-quality polls showing Joe Biden with a national lead of between 7-8 points and conclude with some confidence that Biden is in a strong position and Donald Trump is in trouble. At this point in 2016, Hillary Clinton’s lead was around 3 points — close to where she ended up in November. This cycle is clearly different. 

If we want to understand what these May numbers suggest about November it makes sense to look at the fundamentals of the 2020 cycle. Whether Biden’s lead will be durable is a function of how circumstances are tilting the playing field. At this stage, we already know that:

Flailing in the wake of a crisis that is defining him, Trump will do anything to distract from his performance and try as hard as he can to bring Biden down. But with the pandemic swallowing everything in its path, for the first time in his presidency Trump can’t set the agenda. The death toll is driving the news. To independent voters who would like Trump to spend his time managing the crisis, partisan attacks look petty and feel discordant. All this is making it difficult to undermine Biden, who — unlike Hillary — doesn’t come pre-softened by 25 years of negative attacks or carry the burden of trying to become the first female president. Voters who hate both candidates support Biden by over 40 points. Trump won this group by 17 points in 2018. No wonder he fantasizes about running against Clinton again.

Then there are the fundamentals of the map:

Then there are the regime cycle trends working against Trump:

Taken together, these fundamentals point to a challenger who has the good fortune to be in the right place at the right time. The map and the moment give Biden a strong advantage, and right now the only reason he is not a lock to win is because Trump’s base gives him an unnaturally high floor for an incumbent who has proved so inept in a crisis. Still, to the extent that there is uncertainty about the election, it may be useful to distinguish between possibilities from probabilities.

There is a scenario where Trump could win. We don’t yet know how the pandemic will influence turnout, what will come of voter suppression efforts in key states, or whether foreign actors might significantly upend the outcome. These unknowns will become important only if the margin between the two candidates significantly narrows. And that could happen. Since extreme partisanship began defining our politics at the turn of the century, aggregate polling at this stage has been rather accurate — to within a handful of points of the actual vote — but movement of a few points in Trump’s direction would leave Biden with a slender lead on Election Day and give Trump the opportunity to again thread the Electoral College needle. However, a shift of a few points in the other direction would set Biden up for a double-digit win and a landslide Electoral College victory. This, too, could happen. The overarching question is which of these possibilities is more probable? And that’s where the fundamentals come into play. We may not be heading for a blowout, but right now a blowout is a far better bet than a nail biter.