Hello and welcome to Bournbrook’s new regular series on the state of the US presidential race. From now until 3rd November, this is your impartial guide to the campaign, how the candidates are performing and what you can expect as election date draws near. 

The state of the race 

With four months left to go, Joe Biden finds himself in the strongest position of any presidential candidate since Bill Clinton in 1996, as the presumptive Democratic nominee currently leads President Trump by 9.3% in the FiveThirtyEight national polling average. 

Given the substantial institutional advantages historically enjoyed by incumbents, this is a remarkable lead. Yet it is making many Democrats nervous. They have, after all, seen it all before. Hillary Clinton (mostly) led Donald Trump in the opinion polls throughout the 2016 campaign. She ultimately won the national popular vote by just over 2% but lost in the Electoral College system. 

SIDENOTE: The Electoral College is the constitutional body which officially elects the US president. There are a total of 538 votes, divided between fifty states plus Washington DC, roughly based on population. A majority of 270 votes is needed to secure the White House. Four times in US history, the candidate who won the college also lost the popular vote: in 1876, 1888, 2000 and 2016. 

Still traumatised by Clinton’s shock defeat, Democrats are terrified of complacency. Indeed, they are currently just as likely to distrust the polls as the president’s own supporters. 

However, Biden’s current polling lead is much higher than that enjoyed by Clinton at this point four years ago, or frankly at any point in the 2016 campaign. While Donald Trump continues to hold a mild advantage in the electoral college (as the crucial swing states still lean to the right of the country at large) Biden’s lead extends to battleground states.

Biden is ahead of Trump by:

10.7% in Michigan

9.6% in Wisconsin

8.1% in Pennsylvania 

7.3% in Florida 

4.8% in Arizona 

He does not have to win all of the above. Assuming Biden is able to hold on to every state won by Clinton in 2016, he need only flip Florida and Arizona OR just the three ‘Rust Belt’ states in order to secure the presidency. Biden is also marginally ahead in traditionally Republican Georgia, North Carolina and is virtually tied in Texas. He needs to win none of these states, but it goes to show how many paths the Democrat has and how wide is the battleground which Donald Trump must defend. 

The current national polling holds another worrying sign for the president. Not only is Joe Biden’s lead huge, but the Democrat now regularly polls at over 50%. This is very unusual for this point in the race. Normally, with four months left until polling day, support for both candidates is in the forties as millions of voters remain undecided. That Biden is able to breach the 50% threshold now suggests that there are fewer ‘swing voters’ to go around and thus less room for Trump to mount a comeback. 

A done deal?

No. If the election were to be held next week, outcomes range from a narrow Biden win to a Biden landslide. But the election remains four months away. Donald Trump’s standing in both national and state polls was less tenuous until mid-April. Since then, the president’s standing has been damaged by rising public dissatisfaction with his handling of both the Coronavirus outbreak and the nationwide protests and violence which followed the police killing of George Floyd.

In early March, when examining the reasons as to why Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic primary, I wrote this: 

A huge number of Americans are exasperated at the state of private healthcare and crushing student debt. Yet the economy is doing well, unemployment is low and wages are growing. While most Americans might approve of individual reforms, they remain sceptical of revolutionary change. Change is scary, especially for the majority of the country who are mostly getting along just fine.

Donald Trump’s re-election hopes have always rested on centre-right voters who, while often disapproving of his temperament, are sceptical of cultural and economic change. Yet the response to Coronavirus has plunged the US (and much of the world) into recession. Unemployment remains at around 13% while tens of millions rely on federal subsidies that might soon be running out. Congress (split between the Republican-controlled Senate and a Democrat House) has thus far proved unable to agree on a further stimulus package. Meanwhile, the protests have exasperated centre-right concerns regarding the president’s temperament and leadership style. 

US presidents tend to get re-elected. Since 1900, only five have been defeated by a challenger: William Taft (1912), Herbert Hoover (1932), Gerald Ford (1976), Jimmy Carter (1980) and George H.W. Bush (1992). Three of the five contests (1932, 1980 and 1992) took place against the backdrop of recession. 

With Coronavirus cases reaching a new high in the US, President Trump has made a clear gamble in prioritizing economic recovery over public health. States are being urged to open up while social distancing measures are dramatically relaxed. To that effect, a much better than expected recovery in time for November 3rd presents Trump’s best hope of victory. 

While the polling shows a large Biden lead, most Biden voters say they are voting against the President instead of for the Democrat. If Trump’s approval ratings do not improve, and the election is effectively a referendum on the President, Donald Trump will lose. But there is every chance that Biden could implode, Trump’s ratings could recover and soft Republican voters are reminded of their ingrained partisanship. Biden remains, to many voters, a relatively unknown quantity, while the Republican campaign still has time to change his image (for the worst). 

It must also be noted that Trump does not have to entirely overcome Biden’s current polling lead to win. Considering the aforementioned Republican advantage in the electoral college, the president might still succeed with a 3-4% deficit in the popular vote. Should the race tighten in the coming months, as I expect it will, this remains a realistic outcome.

Photo by Marc Nozzel on Flickr.

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