Track the Numbers to Understand Presidential Race

By Johnathan Miller

Special Correspondent 

The general election for president, as well the down-ballot races like Congress, is only 56 days away. Now that both the Democratic and Republican National Conventions have concluded, it is only a matter of time before the American people vote. Time is quickly running out. 

As Labor Day passes, the fall campaign has begun. Through virtual rallies, journalistic town halls and limited meet-and-greets, President Donald Trump and Democratic challenger and former Vice President Joe Biden race to build the coalitions needed to win the election. 

The next major campaign event will be the presidential (and vice president) debates. The three debates for President Trump and Biden will be Sept. 29, Oct. 15 and Oct. 22 while the vice presidential debate is scheduled to take place Oct. 7.

Prior to entering the debate period, it is important to take a look at the current state of the race between President Trump and Biden. 

Post-Convention Bounce

As noted in my previous article, convention bounces have been decreasing over the past decade. This year it seemed the bounce could be even smaller than the previous election. Some political analysts have attributed the lower numbers to the first-ever virtual forum. 

Prior to the start of the Democratic convention, Biden held a steady lead of 8.4 percentage points over President Trump, which is slightly down from 9 points the month before, according to FiveThirtyEight Polling Averages. Biden peaked after his convention at 9.3 percentage points on Aug. 25. That is almost a point bounce in Biden’s favor. 

Since then, however, President Trump has been able to shrink that gap to just 7 percentage points on Sept. 1. It seems that President Trump has been able to get a small bounce, which he was able to pull closer to Biden — at just under 8 points, but recent evidence has shown that the bounce might have been short-lived.  

A CNN poll released on Sept. 2 showed Biden ahead, 51% to 43%, an 8-point difference after showing Biden leading President Trump by 4 points a month earlier. A Selzer poll, which is rated A+ by FiveThirtyEight, showed Biden leading by 8 points as well, 49% to 41%. 

State polls have shown a similar favorability to Biden. In Arizona, which has been polling close figures, a Fox News poll, an A-rated pollster, showed Biden leading by 9 points, 49% to 40%, among likely voters. A similar Fox News poll also showed Biden leading in Wisconsin by 8 points, 50% to 42%, among likely voters. 

Pennsylvania, however, shows a strange result. A Monmouth poll showed Biden leading Pennsylvania only by 4 points among registered voters, and it dips 1-2 points when it switches to likely voters. However, a Quinnipiac poll showed Biden up by 8 points. One of these polls may be more accurate and the other may be an outlier, but more polling is needed to figure out which is which. 

Who Is Most Likely to Win the Presidential Election? 

There are different models that use different methodologies to build the model. The Economist model currently has Biden at an 84% chance of beating President Trump. 

Most models had former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton winning the 2016 election with between an 80-90 percent chance of winning (as the New York Times model, the Huffington Post model), but FiveThirtyEight had Trump at a higher chance with 30% of winning, which he happened to land on that 30%. 

Currently, the FiveThirtyEight model has Biden up 71% chance to win versus President Trump’s 28%. That is what was projected on election night of 2016. One of the main reasons why President Trump has a better chance, despite being down between 7-8 points in the polls, is because the election is still 56 days away and there is still time to shrink the margin. 

On Labor Day, Trump was down in the polls by 7.5 percentage points, nationally. Within the tipping-point state, however, he has an edge. The tipping point is a state that tips the balance of the election. 

“If you were to line up all 50 states from most Democratic to most Republican, the tipping point state would be the state that gives the candidate his or her 270th electoral vote and is therefore decisive,” said Nate Silver, founder of FiveThirtyEight, on his Politics Podcast. The current likeliest tipping point state is Pennsylvania. Biden is leading in Pennsylvania by 4.4 percentage points, which is a 3.1 point difference from the national lead to the state lead. 

What does this tell us?

There is likely to be an electoral edge for President Trump in this election. President Trump won Wisconsin, the tipping point state in 2016, by .08% while Clinton won the popular vote by 2 points, equal to a 3-point difference. It may be the same for 2020, although it is unclear how much until the actual election takes place. 

Trump has a real chance to pull off another win for re-election. He needs to keep Biden under 6 points nationally to have a competitive election in which he may have a shot at winning. The thread below explains the chances Biden will get to win the election if he led by a certain range of percentage points on election day. A 4-point national lead would equal between a 1-2 point lead in the battlegrounds and the tipping-point state which, in case of a polling error, is not safe at all. The problem, however, is that time is running out. This election has been stable for the past few months, and there is no guarantee that Biden’s 7-point lead will shrink.

Johnathan Miller (Twitter: @JMiller_NJ) is a senior political science major from Lacey, N.J. He is glad to join the Equinox in covering the 2020 Presidential Election for students and to help students understand and participate in the political process.

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Figure 1: Chances of a Biden Electoral Win If He Wins by X Points Nationally

Art by Johnathan Miller; retrieved from Nate Silver’s Twitter.