President Donald Trump still has a path to the 270 Electoral College votes he needs to win reelection. But it requires everything to break in his direction a second time.
Persuadable voters in battleground states will need to overwhelmingly swing in his favour. He’ll have to win back crucial voting blocs. And his turnout operation will need to dramatically outperform Democrat Joe Biden’s in an extraordinarily turbulent year.
“In 2016, his chances of winning the election were those of drawing an inside straight in poker. … The question this year is whether he can draw an inside straight two hands in a row,” said Whit Ayres a veteran Republican pollster.
“It is theoretically possible but practically difficult.”
While Trump has multiple roads to victory, his most likely route hinges on winning two crucial battleground states: Florida and Pennsylvania.
If he can claim both and hold onto other Sun Belt states he narrowly carried in 2016 — North Carolina and Arizona — while playing defense in Georgia and Ohio, which he won handily in 2016 but where Biden is now competitive, he will win.
Trump’s campaign is also continuing to pour time and money into Wisconsin and Michigan, longtime Democratic strongholds he flipped his way by the slimmest of margins four years ago, while trying to defend Iowa and Maine’s second congressional district and grab Nevada and Minnesota, two states his 2016 rival Hillary Clinton narrowly won.
Trump’s campaign points to other factors pointing in their favour: The campaign and the Republican Party have spent years investing in a powerful voter outreach operation and have 2.5 million volunteers knocking on millions of doors each week. They have seen spikes in GOP voter registration in several keys states.
And Trump voters are more enthusiastic about their candidate than Democrats are about Biden. The Democrats are driven more by their hate for Trump.
“We feel better about our pathway to victory right now than we have at any point in the campaign this year,” Trump’s campaign manager, Bill Stepien, told staff on a conference call this week.
“And this optimism is based on numbers and data, not feel, not sense.”
But polling shows Trump trailing or closely matched in nearly every state he needs to win to reach 270 Electoral College votes. Barring some kind of major upset, Trump needs to hold onto at least one of the three rustbelt states he won in 2016: Pennsylvania Wisconsin or Michigan, said Paul Maslin, a longtime Democratic pollster based in Wisconsin.
“I don’t see any other way for Trump to do this,” he said.
Fox News polls released Wednesday show Biden with a clear advantage in Michigan and a slight one in Wisconsin. In Pennsylvania, recent polls show Biden ahead but vary on the size of his lead.
For all of that, though, Trump’s team can draw comfort from this historical footnote: In all three states, Clinton led in the polls in the final weeks of 2016.
But Trump’s “fundamental problem,” said Ayres “is that a large number of states that he won comfortably last time” are currently close.
While Trump’s upset win in 2016 still haunts Democrats and has left many voters deeply distrustful of public polls, close watchers of the race stress that 2020 is not 2016.
Biden is better liked than Clinton and polls suggest there are now fewer undecided voters, who broke for Trump in the race’s final weeks four years ago. And Clinton was hobbled in the final weeks by a series of setbacks including the late reopening of an FBI investigation into her emails.
The impact of any additional “October surprise” this time would be limited by the record number of voters who have already cast their ballots.
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