2020 Update: Three Scenarios

There have been two inflection points in this steadiest of presidential campaigns. The first took place around June 1, when the nation erupted in protest in the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder, and Donald Trump unleashed tear gas on peaceful protesters in front of the White House to clear the way for a photo op while moving prematurely to open the country in the midst of a deadly pandemic. What had been a steady five or six point Biden lead expanded to eight or nine points and remained there all summer before falling back by a point over the course of September. We are currently in the midst of the second inflection point, brought on by Trump’s verbal assault on the first debate audience, his Covid diagnosis, the cavalier way he has dismissed it and his coverup of when he first tested positive. What had been a seven point gap blossomed to double digits during the past ten days. The shift is driving campaign narratives, and Biden’s lead — the largest of the year — will shape how political reporters cover the final weeks of this interminable campaign. Official Washington is suddenly recognizing that Trump could lose. But nothing we are seeing is terribly surprising. It is the predictable end stage of a wave election. 

The telltale signs of a wave have been there for months. Trump’s inability to make adjustments following his party’s midterm defeat reinforced rather than reversed the dynamics that caused it, creating the conditions for a second wave to develop this year. Polling consistently confirmed Trump’s weak re-election position. A disproportionate share of congressional Republicans looked to the future and decided to call it quits. Throughout the summer, Republicans across the country have been running behind or close to their challengers. Now, in the final stages of the contest, new and unexpected opportunities are emerging for Democrats. Red states that should have been put away months ago remain competitive while new prospects emerge in unlikely places for Biden and Democratic House and Senate candidates. If a wave materializes on November 3, most of these close contests will break in the same direction.

Just consider what’s happening to the Senate picture. The 2020 battlegrounds had been unchanged in every election update since the first one I posted four months ago. Democrats had four strong top-tier pickup opportunities (Colorado, Arizona, Maine and North Carolina) to the Republican’s one (Alabama). As we enter the final stretch, the number of viable Democratic gains has exploded, either because Democrats hold a small lead in places like Georgia and Iowa — contests long considered a reach — or because seats in places like South Carolina, Alaska and Kansas that should be out of reach are neck and neck. 

The same applies to the presidential race, where the Biden campaign is expanding the electoral map in the final weeks while the Trump campaign struggles to keep up. As we enter the home stretch with millions of ballots already cast, here is what we know about the general political environment:

  • This is not 2016. Joe Biden has been ahead in national polling since he entered the race in early 2019 and he has been ahead comfortably, hovering near or above the 50% mark, while Donald Trump has averaged between 42-43%. That’s not what happened last time. It’s easy to forget that polling averages had Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump tied at five different points during 2016, and Hillary’s national lead ballooned several times to as much as eleven points only to fall back to earth within a few weeks. Significantly, Clinton only touched 50% once, in late March. The rest of the time she ranged from 44-48% (she finished with 48.2%), while Donald Trump ranged from 40-45% (he finished with 46.1%). So while Clinton was the clear leader, her floor was lower than Trump’s ceiling and a lot of voters were undecided, looking for other options or open to changing their minds.
  • Trump is the incumbent. When the presidency is open like it was four years ago, voters compare the candidates to each other. When an incumbent is running for re-election, voters make a judgment about whether they want four years of what they have before deciding if the alternative will be better. Since day one, a majority of Americans have expressed their disapproval of the Trump presidency, and it’s difficult to get people to vote for you if they don’t like the job you’re doing. Biden, on the other hand, isn’t saddled with the same negatives as Trump — or Hillary Clinton for that matter. The electorate has decided he is an acceptable alternative. 
  • People are dug in. As I have written repeatedly all year, this is the most stable election we’ve seen since scientific polling began. People know Donald Trump. They know Joe Biden. If you’re an undecided voter at this point, what additional information is going to help you decide? I mean — seriously — what new thing will you learn in the next three weeks that will help you make up your mind? In truth, undecided voters at this stage are either looking for a reason to come to terms with a decision they’ve already made or are disengaged and will end up staying home. The pool of undecideds is much smaller than four years ago, and the recent Biden surge suggests some of them are settling on the challenger, as is typical late in a campaign with an incumbent on the ballot.  Add to this that most people who’ve made up their mind say they won’t change it and you have an extremely stable electoral environment. 
  • There are no significant third party candidates. People had really negative impressions of Clinton and Trump, so in 2016 an atypical 5.8% of the vote went to other candidates. Not only was this more than twice the margin separating Clinton from Trump, it was quadruple the typical third party vote for contests without a major third party candidate like Ross Perot in 1992 and 1996 or John Anderson in 1980. This cycle looks more normal, making it easier to project likely outcomes from polling numbers.
  • Biden is playing on red turf. Months ago, I thought the election would be decided in ten states: five in the Rust Belt (Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio and Iowa) and five in the Sun Belt (Arizona, North Carolina, Florida, Georgia and Texas). Months later, these remain the states that will decide the election. Trump won all of them last time, but this time Biden leads or is tied in all of them. He is in the strongest position in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin, consistently ahead in Arizona, has narrower but durable leads within the margin of error in North Carolina and Florida, and is tied or within the margin of error in Georgia, Iowa, Ohio and Texas. 
  • Her emails! Donald Trump has employed multiple lines of attack against Joe Biden but none of them have worked. Months of calling Biden “Sleepy Joe” and suggesting he was in the final stages of senility only served to lower expectations that he easily surpassed in the first debate. The push to use Hunter Biden to prosecute a case about corruption had no political consequences except last January’s impeachment trial. Now, as autumn crescendos, Trump is pressuring his secretary of state to release the fabled emails from Hillary Clinton’s private server in a move reminiscent of an aging band playing its greatest hits because no one in the audience wants to hear their new stuff. 
  • Trump is running out of money. At least the campaign is acting like it’s running out of money, pulling ads from must-win states like Iowa and Ohio and being outspent across the board by a Biden effort that stands to raise somewhere in the neighborhood of one billion dollars in the last three months of the campaign.
  • Trump continues to dominate the media narrative — but to his detriment. No one can shape a news narrative like Donald Trump. It was pivotal to his success four years ago, when he parlayed priceless free media coverage into a narrow electoral win in an election that played out on his terms. Trump continues to dominate the campaign story but this time his visibility is hurting him. Last time he presented himself as an iconoclastic anti-establishment showman. This time he looks enraged, petulant and unhinged. His act still works with the base but just about everyone else is ready to run for the hills.  

So where does this leave us? As we close in on the final weeks of a presidential campaign that literally began when Trump filed for re-election on the day he took office, polling has become abundant enough for us to have a pretty good sense of where things stand, which gives us an opportunity to make educated assumptions about where things are likely to go. Of course, polling can be wrong, but if history is a guide it isn’t likely to be all that wrong, and in any event we can estimate with some precision how wrong it would have to be to generate specific outcomes. Let’s consider three scenarios for how things could play out. Although I can’t say which of the three we’re going to experience, I have a high degree of confidence that one of them will happen.

SCENARIO 1: POLLING OVERESTIMATES BIDEN (BIDEN WINS 232-289 ELECTORAL VOTES)

This is the scenario that journalists crave, Republicans want, Democrats fear — and is least likely to happen, especially in light of recent events. In this scenario, the wave dissipates. A sudden late shift in voter sentiment toward Trump or natural polling error produces a 2020 map that looks much like it did on Election Day 2016. Unpredicted turnout patterns or polls that completely misjudged the preferences of white voters, seniors or independents would leave the presidential race close and control of the Senate in doubt. Should this happen, the national popular vote would be decided by a couple of points, Trump would win all the closely contested red states currently in play, and everything would come down to Pennsylvania, Michigan, Wisconsin and Arizona.

This is a legitimacy-shattering scenario. Either candidate could win, but the outcome would hardly matter because the losing side would refuse to accept it. If Trump found himself on the short end he would reject the outcome as rigged and his core supporters — already primed to reject a loss — would rise up in protest. If Trump narrowly won, there would be civil disobedience and widespread demonstrations against a president and a party blatantly attempting to disenfranchise opponents. 

The good news is that it would take a lot to get to this outcome. Because states move in line with national numbers, and with a margin of ten points between the candidates in mid-October polling, the contest would have to move about four or five points in Trump’s direction to put him in line to win Arizona, and about six or seven to be competitive in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. This would require a paradigm-challenging event in late October that moves public opinion more in the final weeks than it has over the past eighteen months, or for polls to be systematically off by far more than they have been in recent elections (remember, the much maligned 2016 polls only missed the national race by about a point). In other words, polling may be overestimating Biden’s position, but it has to be overestimating it by a lot for the election to be a nail biter.

SCENARIO 2: POLLING IS ACCURATE (BIDEN WINS 335-413 ELECTORAL VOTES)

What if after all is said and done the polling turns out to have been largely accurate? In this scenario Biden will win comfortably and possibly in a landslide. Incumbents can usually count on winning a share of the vote that’s in line with or slightly above their job approval rating, which for Trump has been hovering around the 42-43% range. This would put Trump’s ceiling around 44-45% of the vote, a notch below his 2016 performance. Give third parties a point or two and Biden would have an 8-10 point win, consistent with his margin in good national polling all summer and the largest victory margin for a presidential candidate of either party since Bill Clinton defeated Bob Dole by 8.5 points in 1996 and in the range of Ronald Reagan’s 9.7-point defeat of Jimmy Carter in 1980.

This is the result that has been staring at us all year. Biden would reconstruct the “Blue Wall” in the industrial Midwest and make inroads in the Sun Belt. He would win Arizona, North Carolina and Florida. At the low end, this would translate into a convincing win well north of the 270 threshold. At the high end, Georgia, Ohio, Iowa and even Texas could flip. A landslide win of up to 413 electoral votes would be on the table.  Democrats would win the Senate, either narrowly or by a comfortable margin. The election would be too lopsided to steal and the outcome would be clear on election night. With three weeks to go, some version of this scenario is the most probable.

SCENARIO 3: POLLING UNDERESTIMATES BIDEN (BIDEN WINS 413-439 ELECTORAL VOTES)

Pundits talk endlessly about the possibility that polls are overestimating Biden’s strength. But what if they are underestimating it by a point or two? This would be a recipe for a blue blowout, with Biden winning all the toss-up states in Scenario 2 and being unexpectedly competitive in Alaska, Montana, South Carolina and even Missouri and possibly Indiana. Democrats would easily win a Senate majority in excess of 53 seats and would pad their House majority by double digits. If you find this outcome hard to imagine in our polarized country, you’re not alone. I find it difficult to imagine as well. But if you’re concerned about the nightmare a close election would bring, remember that this scenario where Biden wins Alaska is about as likely as the first scenario where Trump wins Michigan. Both outcomes are possible but improbable.

As we look towards the ocean during the final days of an endless campaign, we know the big wave barreling towards us may dissipate at sea. But I wouldn’t count on it.