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Two weeks to go for polls, Trump narrows gap, but Biden still has the edge

With Biden's leads in national polls, all conventional political understanding says he should win. But, the landscape feels like deja vu for pundits who remember former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton's poll-lead in the run-up to the 2016 election.

Written by Karishma Mehrotra | San Francisco | Updated: October 20, 2020 7:59:24 am
Two weeks to go for polls, Trump narrows gap, but Biden still has the edgePresident Donald Trump and Joe Biden during a town-hall-style event on Thursday. (The New York Times)

With a fortnight left for the November 3 Election Day in the US, Democrat nominee Joe Biden’s once-encouraging lead over incumbent Republican Donald Trump has narrowed, leaving both campaigns on edge.

Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon said in a memo to donors, reported by Reuters, “We cannot become complacent because the very searing truth is that Donald Trump can still win this race, and every indication we have shows that this thing is going to come down to the wire.”

“New polling shows this election is going to come down to a few swing states like North Carolina, Minnesota, Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin… Simply put, we can win this but we’ve got to ramp up our campaign,” said Trump’s campaign manager Bill Stepien in a memo shared with his party campaign mailing list on Sunday.

Republicans have attempted to keep the narrative on “law and order”, painting this summer’s Black Lives Matters protests as violence endorsed by Biden. More recently, in the debates and town halls, the campaign has emphasised Biden’s tax plans. “Hello…,” a Trump campaign mass text message read. “Biden will raise taxes. That’s it, that’s the text.”

Democrats have tried to focus on the pandemic and a need for a moral and fair leader. “I feel so deeply that this country needs to be a place to represent opportunity in the world,” said Biden’s Chief Financial Officer Saloni Multani to The Indian Express. “I look at my young girls and I hope that that foundational part of America remains. That is on the ballot. We need a functioning democracy for generations to come.”

With Biden’s leads in national polls, all conventional political understanding says he should win. But, the landscape feels like deja vu for pundits who remember former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s poll-lead in the run-up to the 2016 election. An NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll had Clinton at +10 percentage points over Trump back then. The same poll has +11 for Biden now. Poll aggregation done by data analytics outlet FiveThirtyEight has Biden at +10.6.

“Still, Trump has a meaningful chance per our forecast – a little worse than the chances of rolling a 1 on a six-sided die and a little better than the chances that it’s raining in downtown Los Angeles. And remember, it does rain there,” reads an analysis by FiveThirtyEight.

In American political punditry, national polls have to be understood alongside state-level dynamics. The Electoral College system gives each state a designated number of electoral votes that go to the candidate who wins the popular vote in that state.

Clinton won 48 per cent of the popular vote, compared to Trump’s 46 per cent in 2016. But she only snagged 232 electoral votes, as compared to his 306. A candidate needs 270 out of the 538 electoral votes to win.

Most states have consistently voted for one party, leaving a very small number of states that swing between parties and attract real battleground campaigning. For the past five elections, since 2000, 15 states have consistently voted Democrat, adding up to 195 electoral votes. These states are mostly on the West Coast and the Northeast of the US. A total of 21 states, mostly in Middle America, have voted Republican since 2000, accounting for 176 electoral votes.

The solid Blue and Red states leave roughly 167 potential toss-up electoral votes in 14 states that have swung between the parties. Of these 14 states, some have been particularly erratic or offer up a large number of electoral votes.

There are three electoral maps that could give Trump another term, and he needs to win Florida in all of them. Beyond that, he needs to win some combination of Arizona, North Carolina, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan to garner the count. The latter three were the most important wins for Trump in 2016.

While Biden leads in double-digits in most national-level polls, he has maintained steady, yet single-digit leads in several swing states. In Florida, he is leading by 3.9 percentage points; Michigan 7.9; Pennsylvania 6.7; Wisconsin 7.4, Arizona 3.8. But some heavily leaning Republican swing states are also showing a Biden lead by 1 per cent or less, such as Georgia.

But some analysts say Biden has maintained a stronger consistency in his numbers than Clinton did. They add that the polling process has refined since the Clinton errors, including new weighting for voters without a college degree.

Another possible boost for the Biden campaign is their financial advantage over the increasingly cash-crunched Trump campaign. Where Trump had an intimidating cash machine early on in the season, Biden has now outspent Trump by $124 million in political advertising.

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