In 2016, the states of New York and California gave Clinton a 3 million vote advantage in the popular vote. Clinton ended up winning the popular vote by around 2.8 million. Come 2020, those states will contribute millions to Biden’s advantage, but make no impact no meaningful impact on who occupies the White House in January. But, they sure do make an impact in the polls.
Right now, the President is going through some of the roughest polling of his Presidency. His approval rating, which had climbed pre-COVID, and even during COVID, to around 46 percent, has declined to less than 43 percent in the RCP average (the left leaning Daily Kos and 538 politics sites have it lower). Meanwhile, in the RCP polling average of nationwide surveys, Trump now trails Biden by over 7 percent vs. less than five at the end of May.
Trump trailing in national surveys is nothing new. But the news from swing states looks downright dire (or does it). Polling averages show the President trailing in every swing state (NC, FL, MI, MN, WI, PA, AZ,) widely thought of in play this cycle. The New York Times (yes, that one) recently reported on the Trump campaign spending millions to shore up its position in pink states like Texas and Georgia. Meanwhile, the few polls out of Nevada, Virginia and New Mexico, states the President’s campaign wanted to put in play, are dismal.
But, despite all this bad news, there are signs of why Trump, even when he is down, will be hard to beat come November. Let’s start with the Big Three States as it were (WI, MI and PA). In 2016, Clinton won the popular vote by 2.1 percent. Trump, won each state by a little more/less than a point meaning each state leans a bit to the right politically. Indeed, even though each state elected a Democratic Governor and Senator in 2018, those Democrats ran on platforms which did not swear fealty to the party platform.
Fast forward to 2020 (and I will use the current RCP averages for simplicity) and you see Biden’s leads in each state are well below his seven point national lead. In Pennsylvania, Biden leads by four percent, in Wisconsin, by 3.4 percent and in Michigan by 4.2 percent. Expanding this out to the perennial swing state of Florida, Trump won the state by a little over a point. Right now, he trails Biden by a little over three percent. In AZ and NC, despite the narrow leads for Biden, we see a familiar pattern of Biden’s leads in both states lagging his national margin. Even in Minnesota, a state Clinton won by a point or so less than her national margin, Trump is running much better than his national numbers.
Put simply, Trump has a durable and formidable advantage in the states which will determine November. What explains this? The logic should follow if the President is imploding and his he is losing swing voters shouldn’t his numbers be falling across the board? Or, at least, hitting his floor (the base remains strong).
Well, the New York Time’s Nate Silver had an insightful article and survey at the end of last year on the of the Democratic primary which shed some light on this. At least on MI, PA and WI. The article was tied to a survey testing Trump against Biden, Warren and Sanders. It found narrow margins one way or the other in every state and suggested due to demographic and economic factors the President is in better position than most polls suggest.
This is where we turn to polling’s accuracy. Four years ago, the country was shell-shocked when Trump won because the polls almost uniformly showed he would lose (it’s called herding in the polling world). RCP had Clinton winning the national vote by 3.3 percent and she ended up winning by 2.1 percent. Most other polling aggregators had her lead even larger. Due to virtually every poll pointing a certain way the right leaning nature of many states was overshadowed until voting actually occurred.
It is true if one looks at where Biden is vs. Clinton at this same time he would be leading by larger margins than she was at this point. But, Clinton had a contested primary still ongoing while Biden just wrapped up the nomination in delegates. Plus, it is arguable the Trump campaign cannot fall much further.
There are also the other traditional caveats of having seen the way COVID and recent events have shaped electoral results. Republicans wins in WI-7 and a formerly Republican district in CA (first seat taken in 22 years). Plus, the individual sub-sample surveys which suggest an undercurrent of support for the President larger pollsters are not detecting.
The President is not invincible however, and there is no guarantee the polls are wrong. This is a dark time for the Trump campaign as Biden expands the map and Trump sees it shrinking. Even so, the most obvious route to the White House for Trump was to hold enough of his 306 electoral votes to stay in the White House. That has not changed.
Plus, there is one other factor to consider; money! The Trump campaign has plenty of it. It also has a robust data driven campaign it did not have in 2016. Survey after survey showing Trump losing have found Republicans far more motivated to come out and vote. The massive financial edge Trump’s camp has will allow it to focus on holding so many states (even as Biden expands the map) while Biden will at some point likely need to make a decision about prioritizing flipping purple AZ, GA or North Carolina vs. fighting for the traditional swing states of FL, MI, PA, and WI. With more money he might not have to make that choice but right now he just does not have that money and infrastructure.
Infrastructure and money are advantages almost any modern day incumbent President has. But, the GOP advantage in the electoral college hinted at in 2012, illustrated in 2016, may be even larger come 2020 due to Trump even as he costs them in other places. Pollsters and pundits might miss it, but all the bad news and polls do illustrate just why Trump will be so tough to beat in five months.