UNLESS Donald Trump experiences a miracle of the sort he used to predict would wipe out Covid-19, he faces a defeat of historic, landslide proportions on Nov 3. Since the end of August the US president had been trailing his opponent, Democrat Joe Biden, by a fairly steady margin in national and battleground-state polls. Since then he has been ravaged by multiple unflattering stories, for which he alone is responsible.
On a February audio tape, he told reporter Bob Woodward that the Covid-19 pandemic was deadly serious, while simultaneously telling the American public that those saying such a thing are perpetrating a “hoax”. The New York Times reported, and Trump has not denied, that he paid US$750 in income taxes in 2016 and 2017 and now owes US$421 million, which is coming due over the next few years. In his first debate with Biden on Sept 29, he behaved wildly, constantly interrupting his opponent and the moderator – and the public judged him, by a 2-1 margin, as having lost the debate. On Oct 2, he announced that he himself was a victim of the coronavirus he’d downplayed, and within days the world would learn that the virus had afflicted 34 people close to the president, many of whom attended a non-mask, non-social distancing event at the White House on Sept 26.
Needless to say, Trump’s critics and many others have noted the supreme irony of the White House’s Covid-19 storyline.
While he and his minions spent months downplaying the virus by flouting safety measures and mocking Biden and others for wearing masks (calling it “politically correct” and stating that the masks are public-relations “props”), many of them – including top aides, his press secretary, his campaign manager, three GOP senators and his wife – now are in quarantine due to the virus, while Biden and his team are campaigning, still cautiously, with live audiences.
How badly have these setbacks hurt Trump’s chances at re-election? While observers have long noted that his core supporters could not care less what the president does or how often he does it, at least some of his marginal supporters have fled. Following his catastrophic debate performance, two respected national polls showed that Biden’s national lead had grown to 14 and 16 percentage points – nearly double his pre-debate advantage. And as would be expected, Trump’s national slippage is also reflected in key swing states.
Whether Trump can, in the short time remaining in the campaign, recoup some lost ground is an open question, but it’s worth considering what will happen if he does not.
Let’s begin by looking at the results of the 2016 contest between Trump and Hillary Clinton. And in doing so, it’s important to note that Biden’s “very unfavorable” rating within the public, as measured in opinion polls, is about eight percentage points lower than Clinton’s was four years ago.
In 2016, Trump lost the popular tally by a margin of 2.8 million votes, while winning the presidency with a 306-232 electoral college victory.
What do the aggregate polls indicate would happen if the election is held now? First, Trump would lose the popular vote by a substantial margin – probably at or close to 10 percentage points. But as we saw in 2016, the popular vote does not determine the winner.
So how do things stand in the battleground states?
First, let’s look at the Clinton states, then the Trump states from that year, and use the most recent data from dozens of polls. As the Trump campaign team recognised that the president is in danger of losing some of the battleground states he’d carried in 2016, they decided to hunt for some states Clinton won that might prove winnable for Trump. These included Minnesota (with 10 electoral votes), Nevada (six), New Mexico (five) and New Hampshire (four). As of early this month, the poll averages, compiled by the best analysts, show that Trump is trailing in these four states by approximately nine, six, 13 and 10 percentage points, respectively. But remember, Trump can afford to again lose these states, provided he holds onto enough of the states he won four years ago to rope in the minimum required to win, which is 270. But can he do so?
The six battlegrounds analysts continue to study furiously are Michigan (16 electoral votes), Wisconsin (10), Pennsylvania (20), Arizona (11), Florida (29) and North Carolina (15), for a combined total of 101 electoral votes. Keeping in mind the fact that Trump carried all of these states in 2016, let’s examine the early October polls in these states. In Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin Biden is leading by eight, six and seven points, respectively. Were he to carry these three and hold Clinton’s 2016 states, he’d wind up with 278 electoral votes – eight more than he needs to win the presidency.
In the remaining three top-tier battlegrounds, Biden leads by three points in Florida, four points in Arizona, and two in North Carolina. Winning all three would give Biden a total electoral count of 333.
But Trump is in serious trouble in four other states he carried in 2016 –Ohio (18 electoral votes), where he now trails by one point, Iowa (six), where he is tied with Biden, Georgia (16), where he is behind by one point, and Texas (38), where he is clinging to a two point lead. All four states are within the statistical margin of error, which essentially means that the candidates are tied.
If Biden sweeps these four states, all of which Trump carried by wide margins four years ago, and wins the aforementioned states, he’d close with a total of 411 electoral votes (it’s also important to note that Biden is ahead in one congressional district in Nebraska, which Trump surely will win statewide, and Trump is ahead in one district in Maine, where Biden is a sure statewide winner; in both these states the winner of a given district is awarded one electoral vote, so if Biden wins one this time, while Trump fails to repeat his single-vote pick-up, Biden’s national total could swell to 413).
What clues do the polls and the history of the 2020 campaign offer about the likely outcome of this presidential election?
First, that in this most disruptive year, with violent demonstrations, a pandemic, an economic collapse, and a series of shocking revelations about the president, the race has been remarkably steady. Since securing his party’s nomination, and until October, Biden led Trump nationally by six to nine percentage points.
Second, given the unpredictability of Trump – five days into his hospitalisation he announced that Americans should regard Covid-19 as they do the common flu – we cannot know what the remaining days of the campaign will bring.
Democrats fully expect that, in the event of a reasonably close national election, Trump will to go to court to challenge the results of races in several states Biden wins, arguing that Democrats cheated, especially with mail-in ballots.
Notwithstanding Trump’s repeated threat to challenge the election in the Supreme Court (despite the fact that no votes have been counted yet), it is very likely that Biden will prevail on November third.
And if Biden’s victory is by a substantial, or landslide, margin, serious discussions of court challenges will cease.
William G. Borges is a professor at HELP University.