Election Day is hours away, and after pushing out our final overview of the race for control of the Senate yesterday, we’re excited to give our final overview of the state of the presidential race.
Our two-person team here at The Postrider has been following the election news and scene religiously and we’re ready to stay up all night — and probably many, many nights afterwards, to watch the results trickle in and the array of responses from the Biden and Trump camps. So before we bear down on Election Day/week/month, it seems fitting to provide one final update on where the race for the presidency stands going into Tuesday.
Our presidential ratings, originally pointing towards a cautious-but-favorable environment for Biden when he first published them in early September, have gone through a few changes in the last couple months. We initially expected the race to tighten and we were therefore more conservative in our ratings on states that were decisive in a Trump win in 2016 like Ohio, Iowa, and Georgia. But as the months went on, Trump never made up ground, and may have even lost some due to some truly remarkable events. But the overarching trend was that things were, despite a whirlwind of news in September and October, oddly steady.
There are a number of explanations for this, but the one I’d encourage you to subscribe to the most is increasing partisanship. Trump’s approval ratings have held at around 39-44% throughout his term in office, with few exceptions, and this is a sign of polarization in the electorate, with very few members of the public actively changing their very positive or very negative opinions of the president from week to week or even year to year. There are few undecided voters this year, so there is less margin for a 2016-like situation wherein both candidates were historically disliked and a large swath of undecided voters broke late for Trump, putting him over the edge in key states. This is also related to polarization and what we call “negative partisanship”, that hatred of the other side is a larger motivator than love for one’s own. This all points to a race with little potential to really change from the get go, almost everyone made up their minds on November 9, 2016, and almost everyone who was left probably made up their minds as soon as the coronavirus washed over the country and Biden became the nominee.
With things so steady, we saw it fit to make a few adjustments in our ratings over the last couple of months. Most notably, we downgraded Trump’s odds in Georgia and Ohio and then Iowa (all of which we initially characterized as “Lean Trump”) and we upgraded Biden’s odds in Virginia (now “Safe Biden”), Michigan (now “Likely Biden”), and Nebraska’s Second Congressional District. We have only moved one state, Utah, into a more favorable condition for the president than we had when we first published our ratings. But the truth is, none of these changes (with the exception of Iowa, in which Biden pulled even in polls only recently) reflected a major shift in any state. They were all characteristic of things largely staying the same in terms of polling and demographic data, election narratives, and performance in similar states. We just initially believed that Trump would gradually claw back some support that he — as of mere hours before Election Day — has not evidently reclaimed.
Our final ratings give Biden an average of 323 electoral votes to Trump’s 215 and point to more opportunities and routes to the necessary 270 electoral votes for Biden than for the president.
States to Watch
If you want an early sign on how things are going, Florida may be the best option. Florida, which we and most other ratings sites consider a “Toss-Up”, may be the most significant swing state to have a count as early as Tuesday night. If Biden carries Florida, Trump has less than a one percent chance of winning the presidency.1Here’s a nifty tool from FiveThirtyEight to play around with as you read through this article, just to compare and contrast why some swing states are more liable to swing the odds than others. So, if Biden is having a very good night and he easily carries Florida to the point where it could be announced as soon as election night, this race is all but a done deal. Be mindful of the fact that the first votes reported in Florida will be early votes and mailed-in votes, which will probably over-favor Biden compared to the rest of the state. If these returns don’t look strong for Biden, he may be in some trouble in Florida.
Notable mentions for early states that will be indicative of the election as it unfolds are Georgia and North Carolina, both of which process ballots before Election Day and are likely to have a large array of results on Tuesday night. We count both of them as “Toss-Ups” in our ratings. Like Florida, if Biden has locked in these states, it’ll be a quick night, and Republicans will be poised to take heavy hits in the Senate as well.
If you’re looking for a late sign on election night, your best bet is probably Arizona, a “Toss-Up” by our ratings (though most other raters give Biden the edge), which starts counting ballots before election day and is likely to have many returns in come election night. Since it’s further west, Arizona will close the polls later than most other states, and Biden is expected to overperform initially — as in Florida — since early votes will be counted first. Still, Arizona is probably a more favorable state for Democrats than Florida is this cycle, which is a bad sign for Trump, considering Arizona was a reliably Republican state for a long time. And, if things go worse than expected for Biden in the Midwest, Arizona and a fallback Sun Belt strategy could provide Biden with a lifeline and propel him to the White House regardless.
If you want to wait for the most important state, that’s probably Pennsylvania, which we rate as “Lean Biden”. Polls have consistently put Biden in the mid-to-high single digits in the state. While Pennsylvania is not make or break for Biden, it’s probably make or break for Trump; should Trump win it, the race would turn into more of a pure toss up. This is because Pennsylvania is the most likely tipping point state (the state that would deliver the determinative 270th electoral vote to the winning candidate). Pennsylvania may take several days to count ballots though, and it’s probable that a longer count would increase Biden’s margin there due to a phenomenon known as the “blue shift.” So if you’re looking for an easy answer on election night, Pennsylvania is worth watching out of the corner of your eye, but not worth waiting for, since ballots can be accepted up to November 6 there.
If there’s one thing you should keep in mind, even if you’re not following returns live on election night, it’s that, yes, much of this election will probably come down to what happens in Pennsylvania, Arizona, or Florida, but the fact that Biden is favored in each of these states, and in a handful of other states that haven’t been competitive in a long time is not something to shrug off. Biden has a better chance to win Alaska than Trump has to win Michigan, a better chance to win Montana than Trump has to win Nevada, and a better chance to win Missouri than Trump has to win Colorado. The fact that the former of these states are all reliably conservative and the latter were all typical swing states last cycle should be evidence of the significant hurdles Trump needs to overcome. To be sure, many of these states are correlated — it’s very unlikely that Biden carries Pennsylvania but not Wisconsin, or that Trump wins Arizona but not Texas, but there are enough states that are at least potentially competitive for Biden across a wide range of demographic and geographic areas.
Trump, on the other hand, needs to run the table, winning Florida and Arizona and Georgia and North Carolina and then also Pennsylvania to really be guaranteed a win. The fact that Biden needs to win just one of these states to lock the race down (and the fact that these historically conservative states are even competitive at all!) bodes poorly for Trump, and is ultimately what makes him the underdog in our ratings overall.
“But guys! What about 2016?! And Hillary?!2AnD hEr EmAiLs! Wasn’t she supposed to win too?!” Well, no. Our favorite forecast from 2016 gave Clinton about 70% odds on Election Day, 2016. And if there was a 30% chance of something happening, you’d take that pretty seriously, or at least you should! Forecasts are giving Biden closer to 90% odds, and that means Trump has only one-third the chance of winning as he did back in 2016. We can say with a very high degree of certainty that Trump will not win the popular vote, but he nonetheless maintains an electoral college advantage that is disproportionate to the popular vote.
The other truth is that Biden is in a better position than Hillary Clinton in 2016 because he routinely polls above 50% nationally (something Clinton never really managed), because there are fewer undecided voters who can swing late for one candidate over another, because of the detrimental state of economic and other fundamentals which reflect negatively on an incumbent, and because Biden is simply perceived as more likable and moderate than both Trump and Clinton. If we assume a fair election, and assume no extra-constitutional shenanigans — which may not be a guarantee — Biden is a clear favorite to win the election, with better odds than Clinton in 2016, and about equal odds to Obama winning reelection in 2012.