The presidential polling in the last fortnight of the 2020 campaign has fallen into two buckets.
In one bucket is the majority of polls, which show Joe Biden ahead by somewhere between +8 and +11 nationally, which would give Donald Trump no clear path to victory.
A a smaller bucket of polls put Biden’s lead is in the +3 to +5 percent range—which opens the door for the possibility of Trump getting to 270 votes in the Electoral College.
When you look at the national averages, you see Biden at +7.7 in RealClear Politics and +8.8 at 538. Both averages have Biden over 51 percent and both averages show the race much closer—in the +4 range—in battleground states.
So if you want to hang your hat on a bearish scenario for Biden, one exists: If the averages are off by the maximum margin of error, and you squint a little, you can see your way to Trump getting 280 Electoral votes.
On the other hand, should the margin of error go in the Democrats’ direction—as it did in 2012, then not only will Joe Biden be the next president, but his party will also pick up 12 to 14 seats in the House and between 5 and 7 Senate seats.
In other words: Even with normal polling error, we have a wide range of outcomes on offer.
So instead of making predictions, let’s talk about the factors that will determine what happens.
First: If turnout surges from the 137 million votes cast in 2016, towards something close to 155 million, then Democrats will have a clear advantage.
The higher the vote, the more likely that it will be powered by the votes of younger, minority, and single female voters. And also, the more likely the polling averages are to be accurate. If turnout were to be under 140 million votes, that would favor Trump. The fulcrum point on this turnout advantage lies in whether or not it crosses 150 million votes.
As of right now, seeing the early vote in some counties surpass their total 2016 vote, the safe bet would be to take the over.
Second: What is the rate of Covid 19 infection heading into Sunday November 1, especially in swing states? When voters sit down in their kitchens for their coffee and breakfast on the last Sunday morning of the campaign, what is the number of Covid deaths reported both on the front pages of the papers and on the news shows playing in the background?
Note that Wisconsin has the worst outbreak in America at this moment. Matters are only slightly better in Michigan and Iowa.
The race is closer than anyone expected in Iowa. Biden’s lead in Michigan seems insurmountable. And if Trump loses Wisconsin he has to run the table with every remaining battleground state.
Third: What will the weather be like on November 3, especially along Florida’s Gulf Coast and the Panhandle, in the Carolinas, and on the coastal regions of Georgia and Texas? Trump’s assault on mail-in voting has left Republicans especially dependent on in-person voting. In a race where the the candidates are in statistical ties, the outcome could be decided by a few thousand votes. And when it comes to numbers that small, any exogenous input can make a difference.
Tropical Storm Zeta moved through the Mid-Atlantic this week. There is currently a tropical disturbance in the Caribbean which NOAA rates has having a 20 percent chance of developing into a storm. Keep one eye on that while you’re looking at polls.
So where does all that leave us? With a couple of bedrock facts:
Donald Trump is the incumbent president and has not been over 45 percent in the polling average since March. Normally, incumbents panic when they are under 50 percent going into an election. Trump is currently at 43 percent.
This decline is due to the fact Trump has been hemorrhaging support from his base—seniors and whites with only a high school education. At the same time, he’s been losing the swing voters who broke for him late in 2016: Independents, suburban women, and whites with a college education.
Also, Trump is on the wrong side of COVID, which has been the dominant issue in this campaign for half a year. The public has a clear yearning for a practical plan to protect them from the ravages of this pandemic, as a precursor for restarting sustainable economic growth and ultimately a return to normalcy. Trump has not only misread that desire in the electorate, but has rejected that approach at every turn, vacillating instead between wishing COVID away and pretending that it was already gone.
And then there is enthusiasm. If you go only by social media and boat parades, you would believe that Trump as the greatest enthusiasm of any politician in our lifetimes.
But you also have to look at breadth of those repulsed by Trump and the way they have acted in the voting booths over the last three years. From 2017 to the 2018 midterms to the 2019 special elections, we have seen sky-high voting levels for Democrats, even when Trump was not on the ballot.
In generational terms, Trump has maneuvered himself into an electoral cul-de-sac where he is simultaneously losing younger voters by a to 2-to-1 margin while also losing seniors by nearly 10 percent.
Put this all together the picture you have is of a divide-and-conquer strategy that alienated too many coalitions. There are a lot of white men with only a high school education between the ages of 45 and 64.
But there probably aren’t enough of them to put Trump over the top again, even in a scenario where nearly everything breaks his way. Come next week, America’s apprentice president is likely to be fired.