Reclaiming hope: Joe Biden is starting to put 'swing' states away

A flurry of polls that came out right before the presidential debate on Tuesday night showed a trend that is accelerating: Joe Biden - and key Democratic candidates for the Senate - are starting to put away what is thought of as 'competitive' states, and are starting to make more and more red states look purple.

This is a real shifting of the grounds.

While Biden's national lead - and as we all know, in the greatest democracy in the world, the person with the most votes doesn't necessarily become president - has been remarkably stable throughout the course of the year, even impressively so given the number of events that would have upended any other election, throughout the spring and summer, swing state polling remained tight. Biden maintained a numeric overall lead, but the lead has been small, within the margin of error, and too close for comfort. That's now starting to change.

In 2016, Hillary Clinton, in addition to shellacking Donald Trump in the popular vote by 3 million votes, also won enough states to account for 232 electoral votes. She actually received only 227 after 4 electors from Washington state and one from Hawaii became 'faithless' electors and voted against the will of the voters in their respective states. The chances of faithless electors is significantly less in 2020 after the Supreme Court unanimously upheld the right of states to punish electors who go rogue.

The simplest path for Biden to get to 270 and clinch the presidency is to win everything Clinton won four years ago and add 38 electoral votes to the tally. That could result from rebuilding the blue wall in the Great Lake states of Pennsylvania (20 electoral votes), Michigan (16), and Wisconsin (10 votes), or from just adding Pennsylvania and Ohio (18 votes). More traditional red states like Georgia (16 electoral votes), Arizona (11), and North Carolina (15), where Biden is competitive (and slightly ahead) could also finish the job by themselves. Note that we haven't even discussed Florida (29 votes), a win in which and just one other 2016 Trump state would put Biden over the top.

I argue here that Biden is on a commanding path to securing the road to the White House based on the state of the competitive races because of the following factors:

  • Biden's consistent lead in polls outperforming Clinton in 2016, even after models have been adjusted to account for Trump's overperformance that year.
  • Biden is consistently at or breaking 50% in poll after poll in enough competitive races.
  • Trump appears unable to put any Clinton state in play.
  • Massive demand for early voting will reduce the impact of any late Trump surges (not that there is any indication of one).

In many of these states, Joe Biden is now pulling ahead enough in polling averages for pollsters to start moving them from toss-ups to 'lean' and 'likely' Biden categories. Beside just the size of the leads, Biden is performing very close to, at, or even above 50% in many of these polls, and that should be worrying for Trump given how immovable the numbers are appearing to be on both sides.

Pennsylvania: Biden leads FiveThirtyEight polling averages in Pennsylvania by 5.5 points and Real Clear Politics (RCP) by 5.7 points, with two latest A+ rated polls putting his lead at or near double digits. Biden, at 54%, trounces Trump by 10 points in the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, and a Sienna College survey shows him leading Trump 49-40.

By contrast, Clinton's average lead, coming into the 2016 election in Pennsylvania was about 4 points. Another notable observation is that Biden is consistently performing at or strikingly close to the 50% line, whereas Clinton was mostly in the mid (to slightly upper) 40s.

Michigan: Biden's lead in Michigan is better than his advantage in Pennsylvania. He is currently up 6.9 points in FiveThirtyEight average and 5.2 points in the RCP average. Note that RCP does not weigh polls, allowing poorly rated pollsters, which tend to be dominated by Trump-leaning polling firms, to skew the average.

Clinton was also up in Michigan going into election day by just about 4 points on average and again, similarly to PA, her numbers were stuck in the mid-40s while Biden has been performing at or above 50 percent in a good number of polls.

Wisconsin: Yet another Trump state where Biden's polling average is near 50% by account of both FiveThirtyEight (actually in WI, it's 50.5) and RCP, Biden is ahead, on average, by 6.8 and 5.5 points, respectively. And although Clinton was ahead by about 5 points in 2016, she once again suffered from being stuck in the mid-40s in most polls and averages, making her more vulnerable to a late Trump surge than Biden's averages around 50 would allow.

In Ohio, Florida, Arizona, and North Carolina, Biden is ahead by low single digits when it comes to polling averages, but some highly rated pollsters are beginning to show Biden start to slowly widen the gap. Texas is now firmly in the swing state category, Iowa is a dead heat, and in a Quinnipiac poll out just today, Biden is fighting Trump to a draw in South Carolina, where a reverse coat-tail effect from Jaime Harrison, the Democratic candidate to replace Linsey Graham in the Senate, is pulling Biden up.

In the mean time, Biden is comfortably holding large edges in states the Clinton won but was close in 2016. Biden is averaging 51% as well as a 9-point lead in Minnesota, a state Hillary Clinton won by just 2.5 points. In Nevada, Biden is up 7 points compared to Clinton's margin of 2.5 points. Hillary Clinton eked out a victory in New Hampshire by less than a half a point. Biden is ahead by a whopping 9 points, with an average polling number at above 52%. A Republican pollster has Biden up by 14 points in NH.

Another notable divergence this year is how national polls compare to the state numbers. In 2016, the average of polls put Clinton ahead by about the same 4-5 point margin nationally as her average margins in these states - and both tightened significantly closer to the actual election. Biden's advantage on national polls - between 7 and 10 points - is consistently higher than state polls.

That may be a result of adjustments to polling models after the 2016 elections, when a consensus built among pollsters that polls, and particularly battleground state polls had, underestimated Trump's support and turnout. Individual pollsters as well as forecasters have updated their models account for that error, and Biden's extended leads are extending and persisting post that adjustment.

Yet another factor working in Biden's favor - that may in fact temper the need to skew polls further Trump - is that inaccurate as state polls were in 2016, the major pitfall for them was to fail to pick up a late surge in support for Trump (mostly thanks to Russian propaganda), a surge Trump rode all the way to the White House. This time, though, a much more significant portion of the votes - if not a majority of them - will be banked early, to a significant degree insulating Biden against any late surge effects, even if one were to arise in Trump's favor. More than 1 million votes have already been cast, and more mail-in ballots have already been requested in 2020 than were cast in the whole 2016 cycle.

I know that liberals dare not hope this cycle, lest our hopes get devastated again like in 2016. And as Joe Biden and Kamala Harris continue to remind us, nothing in set in stone, and there is no room for letting up on volunteering, organizing, donating, and making sure our ballots are cast and counted until all the votes are tallied and Joe Biden and Kamala Harris are declared President and Vice President-elect.

But we can certainly take heart that our hard work is producing results. We are on the verge of taking our country back.

As we fight hard, let us hope again.

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