Quantifying Biden’s choices for running mate

Presumptive 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden Jr. stated in a May 27, 2020 interview he hoped to choose his vice-presidential running mate by August 1. In March, Biden definitively stated he would choose a woman to run with him. Meanwhile, a recent Morning Consult poll tested the relative strength of nine rumored candidates, finding that only three Senators even slightly boosted Biden’s electoral position: United States Senator (“Senator”) from Massachusetts Elizabeth Warren, California Senator Kamala Harris and Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar. The other six—Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin, Nevada Senator Catherine Cortez Masto, former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams, Michigan Governor Gretchen Whitmer, New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham and United States House of Representatives Member (“Representative”) from Florida Val Demings—all hurt Biden, albeit slightly. Notably, the first three Senators sought the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, boosting their national profile in the process—and making it difficult to distinguish “actual” electoral boost from name recognition.

In the early summer of 2016, when it became clear former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton would be the Democratic presidential nominee that year, I built a Microsoft Excel spreadsheet listing 200 possible choices—including every current Senator, governor, Representative serving as party leader or Committee ranking member, mayor of one of the top 10 cities by population, or Cabinet member, as well as anyone who had served in that position within the last 10 years and a handful of other options. Virginia Senator Tim Kaine—who Clinton named her running mate on July 22, 2016—just edged out Klobuchar and former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis for the highest score.

Once it became clear Biden would be the nominee, meanwhile, I built an analogous spreadsheet. Along with every current and recent Senator, governor, big-city mayor and Cabinet official, I included all 89 women serving in the House as Democrats, as well as Abrams.

However, I excluded any woman who was:

  • Born outside of the United States, citing the “natural born citizen” requirement of Article II, Section 1 of the Constitution of the United States of America
  • Under the age of 35, citing the same requirements
  • From the state of Delaware, citing the requirement in Amendment XII that the vice president “shall not be an inhabitant of the same state as” the president.
  • A non-political figure such as media titan Oprah Winfrey or former First Lady Michelle Obama

My final list contained 123 candidates, including:

  • 80 current (79) or former (1) House members
  • 21 current (16) or former (5) Senators
  • 7 current (5) or former (2) governors
  • 9 former Cabinet officials
  • 4 mayors: former Houston, TX Mayor Annise Parker, as well as Atlanta, GA Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms; San Francisco, CA Mayor London Breed and Chicago, IL Mayor Lori Lightfoot
  • Abrams and former presidential candidate Marianne Williamson

And here is a scene our younger daughter drew on the still-popular white board. This has nothing to do with Biden’s selection of a running mate; I just like it.

Nora Drawing May 2020

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To assess the candidates for vice president, I examined three broad categories:

  1. Demographic balance
  2. Governmental experience
  3. Electoral strengths and weaknesses.

The first category is both symbolic—women of color overwhelmingly support the Democratic Party—and practical—this year’s vice-presidential nominee could well the next presidential nominee. It also acknowledges that Biden is a 77-year-old white man, meaning a much younger woman of color would provide the clearest contrast.

The second category speaks to the ability of the Vice President to assume the presidency at a moment’s notice, as stipulated in Amendment XXV. This is especially important in a Biden Administration, as Biden, who would be the oldest president of the United States, suffered two brain aneurysms in February 1988.

Finally, the third category stipulates that no presidential candidate should ever assume victory, so it is important for a running mate to increase the likelihood of such a victory by, for example, unifying the party or helping to win key voting blocs or regions.

Ideally, then, Biden’s running mate would be a younger woman of color with sufficient governmental experience who can enhance his chances of defeating President Donald J. Trump in November 2020. Or, at the very least, his running mate will not hurt Biden in any of these categories; above all else, a vice-presidential running mate should do no harm.

I calculated a score for each variable, as follows:

1. Demographic balance.

Age. To balance the fact Biden will be 78 years old on January 20, 2021, I created the following point system, using the somewhat-arbitrary “center point” age of 57 (20 years younger than Biden) and adjusting for someone being too young:

  • 35-46 (n=17): (57-Age)-2*(47-Age)
  • 47-66 (60): 57-Age
  • 67-76 (32): (57-Age)-3*(Age-67)
  • ≥77 (12): (57-Age)-5*(Age-67)

This measure penalizes being older—especially older than Biden—far more than it rewards being younger, and it ranges from 10 for 47-year-old Representative Jahana Hayes of Connecticut to -124 for 86-year-old California Senator Dianne Feinstein.

Race/Ethnicity. To balance the fact Biden is white, I assigned the following points:

  • White (n=77): -50
  • Asian (6): 25
  • Native American (2): 50
  • Latina (10): 75
  • Black (25): 90
  • Black and Asian (1): 100

Harris has a Jamaican father and an Indian mother.

Sexual orientation: I want to think sexual orientation does not matter—but I subtracted 25 points if a listed woman was openly lesbian (Baldwin, Lightfoot, Parker and Minnesota Representative Angela Craig) and 10 points if there were rumors (former Maryland Secretary Barbara Mikulski, former Secretary of Homeland Security Janet Napolitano).

TOTAL. The sum of these three measures ranges from -124 (Feinstein) to 102 (Harris)—literally the two Senators from California. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 1:

Table 1: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Demographic Balance

Name Age Ethnicity Lesbian? TOTAL
California Senator Kamala Harris 55 Black/

Asian

No 102
Connecticut Representative Jahana Hayes 47 Black No 100
Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams 46 Black No 99
Massachusetts Representative Ayana Pressley 46 Black No 99
San Francisco Mayor London Breed 45 Black No 98
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms 50 Black No 97
New York Representative Yvette Clark 55 Black No 92
Alabama Representative Terri Sewell 55 Black No 92
Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice 55 Black No 92
Georgia Representative Lucy McBath 59 Black No 88
Former EPA Director Lisa P. Jackson, Jr. 59 Black No 88
Former Attorney General Loretta Lynch 61 Black No 88

The average value of this sum is -21.4, with a standard deviation (SD) of 71.1; the median is -47 (Florida Representative Kathy Castor, New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, Nevada Representative Susie Lee).

2. Governmental experience.

I calculated the number of years a candidate held each of these offices—Senate, governor, other statewide office (last 10 years only), House, Citywide office (last 10 years only), Cabinet—up to a maximum of 12 years, the equivalent of two Senate terms, to avoid overlapping with age too much. From this I subtracted the number of years since a candidate held that office. I assigned Abrams 1.75 years for her time as Minority Leader of the Georgia State House.

I weight experience as follows:

  • Senate = 5
  • Governor = 4
  • Other statewide office = 3
  • House = 2
  • Citywide office = 2
  • Cabinet = 1
  • Other (e., Abrams) = 1

This variable ranges from 0 for Williamson to 64 for New Hampshire Senator (and former Governor) Jeanne Shaheen. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 2:

Table 2: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Governmental Experience

Name Office 1 Office 2 TOTAL
New Hampshire Senator Jeanne Shaheen Senator, 12 years Governor, 6 years (-5 for time since 2008) 64
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand Senator, 12 years None 60
Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar Senator, 14 years None 60
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell Senator, 20 years None 60
Washington Senator Patty Murray Senator, 28 years None 60
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow Senator, 20 years None 60
California Senator Dianne Feinstein Senator, 28 years None 60
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Senator, 8 years House, 14 years (-8 years since 2012) 52
Former Missouri Senator Claire McCaskill Senator, 12 years (-2 years since 2018) None 50
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren Senator, 8 years Credit 1 year for Directing Consumer Financial Protection Bureau 41

The average of this weighted sum is 17.8 (SD=15.1); the median is 16 (14 women with 8 years in the House, including former 2020 Democratic presidential nomination candidate Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii).

3. Electoral strengths and weaknesses.

For this category, I considered eight questions:

  1. Will she help Biden win a key state in the Electoral College?
  2. Does she lack foreign policy or national security experience?
  3. Will she provide ideological balance?
  4. Will her ascension to the Vice Presidency cost Democrats a Senate seat?
  5. Is she a Senator up for reelection in 2020?
  6. Did she run for president in 2020?
  7. Has she ever run for political office?
  8. Is she a first-term member of the House?

Swing state status. On average, a vice-presidential nominee adds 2-3 percentage points to the party’s margin in her/his home state. But for most states—ones that are reliably Democratic or Republican, for example—these extra points mean nothing. In fact, choosing a running mate from one of these states could be considered a lost opportunity.

Using the probability Biden wins a given state in the 2020 presidential election, I determined which states were most likely to be the “tipping point” states—the state that gets him to the necessary 270 Electoral votes (EV) when states are ranked from most to least Democratic.

There are 13 states, including Delaware and the District of Columbia, where Biden is at least a 99.7% favorite, and they total 175 EV. The 54 candidates from these states were assigned -10 points.

In three states—Maine, New Mexico and Oregon—Biden is a 97.6-97.7% favorite; these states total 16 EV, although Maine assigns one EV to each of its two Congressional districts (CD). Thus, while the four candidates from New Mexico and Oregon are assigned -5 points, the two from Maine are assigned 0, because the 2nd CD could be pivotal. This gets us to 191 EV.

In four states—Colorado, Michigan, Minnesota and Virginia—Biden is a 93.6-95.8% favorite; these states total 48 EV, for an overall total of 239. These states could possibly be the tipping point states, though that currently seems very unlikely. Thus, the 14 candidates from these states are assigned 0 points.

In three states—Nevada, New Hampshire and Pennsylvania—Biden is an 86.9-88.3% favorite; these states total 30 EV, for an overall total of 269. These are the first states that could reasonably be called tipping point states, thus the 11 candidates from these states are assigned 2 points.

The bottom line is that, RIGHT NOW, Biden is at least a 5-1 favorite in enough states to earn him 268 or 269 EV, depending on one CD in Maine.

The next most likely states for Biden are Wisconsin (78.8%, 10 EV) and Florida (71.1%, 29 EV), either of which would theoretically secure victory over President Donald J. Trump. Baldwin and Representative Gwen Moore could guarantee a victory in Wisconsin. Six House Members, including Demings, could guarantee a victory in Florida. These eight candidates each earn 10 points.

There are three states totaling 44 EV, meanwhile, where Biden is roughly a 2-1 favorite (64.8-66.0%): Arizona, North Carolina and Ohio. As they are marginally less likely tipping point states, the nine women from these states each earn 5 points.

Georgia’s 16 EV are close to a toss-up right now (42.7%), but it is even less likely to be a tipping point state. Still, Abrams and McBath each earn 3 points.

The next likeliest states for Biden to win are Iowa (24.8%; 6 EV) and Texas (17.8%; 38 EV). Representative Cindy Axne of Iowa gets 1 point, as do the six female House Members from Texas.

Finally, I gave McCaskill of Missouri (2.3%) -2 points and eight women from the 0-0-0.9% states of Alabama, Kansas, Louisiana, North Dakota, Oklahoma and West Virginia -3 points.

In other words, I deducted the most points for candidates hailing from states in which Biden is a near-certain winner and fewer points for hailing from reliably Republican states, while adding the most points for the likeliest tipping point states.

I then added one point for every state west of the Mississippi River, as no Democratic presidential or vice-presidential nominee has come from there, and I subtracted one point for being from the regionally-redundant states of New York, New Jersey, Pennsylvania and Maryland.

Foreign policy/national security. I deducted 2.5 points from the 17 candidates who never served in the Senate, House or in a Cabinet-level foreign policy/national security role.

Ideological balance. I assume Biden is in the ideological center of the Democratic Party.

For each member of the House and Senate since January 2017 FiveThirtyEight.com calculates how often that member has voted with President Trump when he has taken a clear public position. House Members vote far less often with Trump (average=13.3%) than Senators (30.2%). Female Senators with the lowest Trump scores are Gillibrand (12.4%), Warren (13.9%) and Harris (16.5%), while Arizona Senator Kyrsten Sinema and former North Dakota Senator Heidi Heitkamp each voted with Trump just over half the time.

Using this score as a proxy for ideology—with the added bonus of specifically reflecting opposition to Trump, I calculated how many SD above or below the mean each candidate is relative to their house of Congress; for the 20 women with no Trump scores, I estimated a score based upon age and state. I then assigned points as follows:

  • ≤-1.25 = 10
  • -1.00 to 1.24 = 7.5
  • -0.75 to -0.99 = 5
  • -0.50 to -0.74 = 2.5
  • -0.25 to -0.49 = 0
  • -0.01 to -0.24 = -1
  • 00 to 0.24 = -2
  • 25 to 0.49 = -3
  • 50 to 0.75 = -4
  • 75 to 0.99 = -5
  • 00 to 1.99 = -7.5
  • ≥2.00 = -10

Ultimately, I deducted more points for being (relatively) well to the right of Biden than for being ideologically similar, as the former would actually harm Biden’s chances to win over the party’s progressive base, while the latter is effectively “do no harm.”

Loss of Senate seats. The Democrats are currently at a 53-47 disadvantage in the Senate, though they have a solid chance of recapturing it in November. But this means that every Democratic Senate seat is vitally important.

I thus deducted 10 points from Senators Warren, Shaheen, Sinema and Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire because a Republican governor would appoint a replacement for each of them. I also deducted 2.5 points for Senators Baldwin, Cortez Masto and Jacky Rosen of Nevada because, while their home state governors are Democrats, there is a non-trivial chance Democrats could lose a special election in Wisconsin or Nevada. Finally, I deducted 10 points for the two female Democratic Senators facing reelection this year: Shaheen and Tina Smith of Minnesota; both are heavily favored to win reelection, keeping those seats in Democratic hands.

Other considerations. Running for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination both exposed candidates to extreme public scrutiny and served as a rough test run for campaigning for vice president; I thus added 5 points to Gabbard, Gillibrand, Harris, Klobuchar, Warren and Williamson. Six former Cabinet officials (Burwell, Jackson, Lynch, former EPA Director Gina McCarthy, former Secretary of Commerce Penny Pritzker and Rice) have never run for any political office, let alone the vice presidency, so they each lost 10 points. And, given how hard Democrats worked to recapture the House in 2018, I deducted 5 points from each of the 28 female first-term Representatives.

TOTAL. This measure ranges from -21 for Rice, a Marylander who has never run for political office, to 16 for Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick, whose Trump Score of 3.1% is the lowest of any woman in Congress. The top 10 candidates in this category are listed in Table 3:

Table 3: Top 10 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses

Name Strengths Weaknesses TOTAL
Arizona Representative Ann Kirkpatrick Tipping point state; low Trump Score None 16
Wisconsin Representative Gwen Moore Tipping point state None 12.5
Florida Representative Donna Shalala Tipping point state; low Trump Score First term 12.5
Former Florida Representative Corinne Brown Tipping point state None 12
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson Tipping point state First term 10
Florida Representative Debbie Wasserman-Schultz Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 9
Florida Representative Val Demings Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Florida Representative Kathy Castor Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Florida Representative Lois Frankel Tipping point state Ideologically similar to Biden 8
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Tipping point state Possible loss of Senate seat 7.5

The average of this sum is -4.5, (SD=7.6); the median is -6 (Representatives Suzanne Bonamici of Oregon, Clarke, Nydia Velasquez of California, Bonnie Watson Coleman of New Jersey).

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That these three sums measure somewhat distinct criteria can be seen in their Pearson correlations:

  • Demographic balance / Governmental experience                         -0.31
  • Governmental experience/ Electoral strengths and weaknesses -0.08
  • Demographic balance / Electoral strengths and weaknesses         0.13

It is thus not surprising that only six women—Senators Cortez Masto and Harris, and Representatives Marcia Fudge of Ohio, Barbara Lee of California, Sheila Jackson Lee of Texas and Moore—have above average scores in all three categories. Harris, in fact, comes closest to being at least 1 SD above the mean in all three categories, being +1.74 SD on Demographic Balance, +0.94 SD on Governmental Experience and +1.0 SD on Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses.

Indeed, when you convert each category sum to a z-score—number of SD above or below the mean—then sum them into an Initial Score, Harris ranks second, at 3.72, behind Moore at 3.95, with Brown (3.53), Gillibrand (3.52) and Klobuchar (3.47) rounding out the top five. Based upon the correlation of this initial sum with the three categories, it is slightly more associated with Electoral Strengths and Weaknesses (r=0.66) than with Demographic Balance (0.53) or Governmental Experience (0.40).

However, I adjusted these scores one final time, by adding up to 1 point or subtracting up to 10 points (Brown, for her 2017 conviction for fraud). Thus, I added 1 point to Warren, and 0.5 points each to Harris and Klobuchar, for Morning Consult poll performance. Similarly, Cortez Masto, Baldwin, Demings, Lujan Grisham and Whitmer each lose 0.5 points for their Morning Consult poll performance. That said, I added back 0.5 points to Demings for her service as Orlando Chief of Police because a woman of color serving in law enforcement could play well in the current climate. Speaking of criminality, I deducted 3 points from Moore for a tire-slashing incident involving her son and 2 points from Fudge for remarks she made about a serious domestic violence incident.

Other large deductions were:

It is not clear how the impeachment of President Trump will play in the election, but on the theory it is slightly more likely to rile Trump voters than inspire Biden voters, I deducted 0.5 points from Demings, as well as Texas Representative Sylvia Garza and California Zoe Lofgren, who served as House Managers during the Senate trial.

Other deductions include 1 point each from Gillibrand for a seeming inauthenticity in her ideology, from California Representative Norma Torres for controversial remarks on the House floor, from Lynch for her questionable tarmac meeting with former President Bill Clinton, from Gabbard for being generally disliked within the Democratic Party, from New York Representative Kathleen Rice for being a former Republican and from Whitmer for an ill-timed “joke” her husband made.

The Final Score is correlated 0.69 with the Initial Score, with an average of -0.40 (SD=1.63); the median is -0.453 (Michigan Representative Debbie Dingell and Parker). Only 24 of the 121 potential 2020 Democratic vice-presidential candidates had Final Scores of 1.00 of higher, as Table 4 shows.

Table 4: Top 2020 Democratic Vice-Presidential candidates by Final Score

Name Strengths Weaknesses TOTAL
California Senator Kamala Harris Black/Asian; 55;

Ran for president;

To left of Biden;

Popular with base

California;

Only 4 years in Senate

4.18
Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin Wisconsin;

58;

8 years in Senate/14 years in House

White;

Lesbian; Possible loss of Senate seat; Ideologically similar to Biden

2.56
New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand 53;

12 years in Senate;

Well to left of Biden;

Ran for president

White;

New York; Disappointing presidential run; Suspected inauthenticity

2.55
Florida Representative Frederica Wilson Black;

Florida;

10 years in House

78 2.52
Michigan Senator Debbie Stabenow Michigan;

20 years in Senate

White;

70;

Slightly to right of Biden

2.40
Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty Black;

Ohio

70;

Ideologically similar to Biden

2.22
Florida Representative Val Demings Black;

62;

Florida; Orlando Chief of Police

OnIy four years in House; Ideologically similar to Biden 2.07
North Carolina Representative Alma Adams Black;

North Carolina

73;

Ideologically similar to Biden

1.92
New York Representative Yvette Clark Black;

55;

12 years in House;

Left of Biden

New York 1.77
Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams Black;

46;

Georgia; Progressive reputation

No foreign policy or national security experience;

No office higher than state House

1.77
Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren Strong progressive; Ran for president; Very popular with party base;

8 years in Senate

White;

70;

Loss of Senate seat; Massachusetts

1.75
Washington Senator Maria Cantwell 61;

20 years in Senate

White; Washington; Similar to Biden ideologically 1.73
Florida Representative Kathy Castor  Florida;

53;

14 years in House

White;

Slightly to right of Biden

1.69
Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms Black;

Georgia;

50

No foreign policy or national security experience;

Never run statewise

1.63
Georgia Representative Lucy McBath  Black;

59;

Georgia;

Left of Biden

First-term House Member 1.57
Texas Representative Veronica Escobar Latina;

50;

Texas;

Left of Biden

First-term House Member 1.56
California Representative Barbara Lee Black;

21 years in House;

Left of Biden

California;

73

1.54
Washington Senator Patty Murray 28 years in Senate White; Washington;

69

1.53
Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence Black; Michigan;

66

Ideologically similar to Biden 1.49
New York Representative Nydia Velasquez Latina;

28 years in House

New York;

67

1.40
Alabama Representative Terri Sewell Black;

54;

10 years in House

Alabama; Slightly right of Biden 1.38
California Representative Linda Sanchez Latina;

51;

14 years in House

California 1.23
Former Secretary of Labor Hilda Solis Latina;

62

California;

Out of federal office since 2013

1.13
California Representative Karen Bass Black;

66

California 1.02

This list includes 14 current House Members, seven Senators, a current mayor, a former Cabinet Secretary (Solis) and Abrams. Thirteen are Black, seven are White and four are Latina. Five are from California; three are from Florida, Georgia and New York; and two are from Michigan and Washington. Fifteen are between the ages of 46 and 66, while three are older than 70. Only seven are ideologically to the left of Biden, though only three are (slightly) to the right of Biden.

If you eliminate the three House Members over 70, the two first-term House Members, the two white women slightly to the right of Biden, as well as 66-year-old Karen Bass of California, 67-year-old Nydia Velasquez of New York and 69-year-old Patty Murray of Washington, you are left with 15luja solid candidates:

14. Former Labor Secretary Hilda Solis

13. California Representative Linda Sanchez

12. Alabama Representative Terri Sewell

11. Michigan Representative Brenda Lawrence

         10. Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms

9. Washington Senator Maria Cantwell

8. Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren

7. Former Georgia State House Minority Leader Stacey Abrams

6.  New York Representative Yvette Clark

5. Florida Representative Val Demings

4. Ohio Representative Joyce Beatty

3. New York Senator Kirsten Gillibrand

2. Wisconsin Senator Tammy Baldwin

1. California Senator Kamala Harris

Really, however, one choice jumps out from all the rest: Harris, the 55-year-old, Black/Asian progressive-voting Senator who ran a solid race for president, is broadly popular with the Democratic Party and has a wealth of criminal justice experience. Were she not from reliably-Democratic California—which, at the same time, would not cost Democrats a Senate seat—and had at least one full Senate term under her belt, she would be THE obvious choice.

That said, there are a number of excellent choices Biden could make, including familiar names like Warren, Abrams, Demings, Gillibrand and Baldwin, as well as sleeper choices like brilliant, black, 55-year-old, five-term Representative Terri Sewell of Alabama.

Meanwhile, consider who did not make this final cut—Klobuchar (0.97), Cortez Masto (0.50), Lujan Grisham (-0.09) and Whitmer (-1.80). It is unlikely any of these four women makes Biden’s short list; although reports suggest Lujan Grisham remains a leading contender, along with Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms, Demings, Harris, Former National Security Advisor Susan Rice and Warren.

Please feel free to quibble with my categories and/or assignation of points; I admit up front that much of the latter was arbitrary. With all that, however, Harris still comes out the best choice, by far, whatever way you choose to quantify and aggregate strengths and weaknesses.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

Biden vs. Trump: The view from six months out

A note to readers: I have temporarily stopped writing “dispatches” about how my wife Nell, our two daughters and I cope with social distancing and the closure of Massachusetts schools through the end of the 2019-20 school year because they started to feel repetitive. When and if that changes, I will resume dispatching.

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As I write this, it is exactly six months until the 2020 United States (U.S.) presidential election, which will conclude on November 3, 2020. On April 8, 2020, U.S. Senator from Vermont Bernie Sanders announced he was suspending his campaign for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, making former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr. the presumptive nominee against incumbent Republican president Donald J. Trump.

Using all publicly-available polls of the presidential election—both nationally and at the state level, recognizing presidential elections are determined by the Electoral College—conducted since January 1, 2019, I have been tracking the relative performance of contenders for the 2020 Democratic nomination against Trump. When given the choice, I used polls of likely voters over those of registered voters, and the latter over polls of adults only; I also used polls including such possible third-party candidates as former Starbucks CEO Howard Schultz and U.S. House of Representatives Member Justin Amash of Michigan. Table 1 lists the number of national polls conducted each month for both candidates based upon the midpoint of the poll’s field dates; some polls were actually conducted in two months.

Table 1: Number of National Polls Assessing Hypothetical 2020 Match-ups Between Biden/Sanders and Trump by Month

Month Biden Sanders
January 2019 1 1
February 2019 4 3
March 2019 7 6
April 2019 6 6
May2019 7 5
June 2019 10 9
July 2019 8 7
August 2019 8 8
September 2019 15 11
October 2019 18 13
November 2019 8 4
December 2019 14 9
January 2020 20 17
February 2020 23 21
March 2020 33 23
April 2020 41 3
TOTAL 223 146

Just seven of 41 total pollsters (average grade: B-/B) account for 54% of Biden versus Trump polls; the values are similar for Sanders:

  • IBD/TIPP (A/B), 10 polls
  • Fox News (A-), 13 polls
  • Harris X (C+), 13 polls
  • Emerson College (B+), 18 polls
  • Ipsos (B-), 18 polls
  • Morning Consult (B/C), 22 polls
  • YouGov (B-), 36 polls

Figure 1, meanwhile, shows how Biden and Sanders fared monthly against the president, using my weighted-adjusted polling averages, or WAPA. Basically, I use data published by FiveThirtyEight.com to adjust each poll for partisan lean (tendency of a pollster to err more Democratic or Republican than other pollsters in analogous races) and overall quality (using the letter grade assigned by FiveThirtyEight.com). I also weight more recent polls—again using field midpoint—higher, using the ratio of the number of days since January 1, 2019 and the total number of days between January 1, 2019 and November 3, 2020. Finally, I average two different versions of WAPA: one treating polls by the same pollsters as statistically independent values, and one which treats all polls by the same pollster as a single value; differences between estimates are generally negligible.

Figure 1: Monthly weighted-adjusted average margins for Biden and Sanders versus Trump since January 2019Biden and Sanders v Trump since Jan 2019

Only one national poll assessing hypothetical matchups between Biden or Sanders and Trump was conducted in January 2019, so I combined them with the four and three, respectively, from February 2019 to generate Figure 1. Biden and Sanders have consistently led Trump in head-to-head matchups, never dropping below Sanders’ 2.0 percentage point (“points”) lead in December 2019. Through September 2019, Biden’s margin was typically three-to-four points higher, though Sanders still led Trump by 4.3 points on average, versus 7.8 points for Biden. From October 2019 through February 2020, though, the two men fared equally well versus Trump, with Biden ahead an average 5.4 points and Sanders ahead 4.9 points. Once Biden’s nomination began to become clear in March 2020, however, Biden again began to fare better versus Trump than Sanders, averaging a 5.7-point-lead to Sanders’ 3.4-point lead. Overall, Biden has a 6.1-point lead over Trump, not meaningfully different than his lead over the last two months; Sanders exited the race with an overall national lead of 4.3 points versus Trump, though that lead had begun to drop slightly over the last two months.

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Again, however, presidential elections are actually fought across all 50 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”), with the plurality winner in each state/DC winning every electoral vote (“EV”) from that state.

To that end, Table 2 lists the number of polls conducted within each state since January 1, 2019 of hypothetical matchups between Biden/Sanders and Trump, plus that state’s 3W-RDM, an estimate of much more or less Democratic than the nation a state tends to vote; 11 states[1] and DC have not yet been polled. 

Table 2: Number of state-level polls assessing hypothetical 2020 matchups between Biden/Sanders and Trump since January 1, 2019

State 3W-RDM Biden Sanders
Michigan 2.2 33 23
Wisconsin 0.7 30 26
Texas -15.3 27 21
North Carolina -6.0 23 16
Pennsylvania -0.4 23 17
Florida -3.4 19 11
Arizona -9.7 17 14
California 23.2 14 13
New Hampshire 0.1 10 10
Iowa -4.7 9 8
Georgia -9.6 8 6
Ohio -5.8 7 6
Virginia 1.5 7 6
Nevada 2.0 6 6
Utah -33.1 5 3
South Carolina -15.7 4 4
Maine 5.9 4 3
North Dakota -29.4 4 2
Washington 12.1 4 3
Missouri -15.9 4 3
Connecticut 12.8 4 4
New York 21.6 3 1
Colorado 2.2 3 2
Kentucky -28.7 2 1
Montana -18.6 2 2
New Mexico 6.5 2 1
Alabama -28.4 2 2
Kansas -23.4 2 2
Oklahoma -38.1 2 2
New Jersey 12.0 2 1
Mississippi -18.5 2 1
Minnesota 1.5 1 1
Massachusetts 22.1 1 1
Alaska -19.2 1 1
West Virginia -35.5 1 1
Delaware 12.5 1 1
Tennessee -25.8 1 1
Maryland 22.6 1 1
Indiana -16.3 1 0
TOTAL D-6.2 292 227

It is not surprising that eight of the 14 most-polled states thus far are “swing” states, those with 3W-RDM between -5.0 and +5.0, including the four closest states won by Trump in  2016: Florida (19 Biden, 11 Sanders), Pennsylvania (23, 17), Wisconsin (30,26) and Michigan (33,23). In fact, the Pearson correlation between the absolute value of a state’s 3W-RDM and the number of times it has been polled for the 2020 presidential election is -0.47 for Biden and -0.48 for Sanders, meaning the closer a state is to the national average (i.e., a pure toss-up in a dead-even national race), the more often it has been polled. Also highly-polled are large states like California and Texas, red-drifting states like Ohio and Iowa, and emerging Democratic opportunities like Arizona, Georgia and North Carolina. 

While U.S. presidential elections are decided on a state-by-state basis, though, national averages are still important. Combined with 3W-RDM, they provide the “expected Democratic-minus-Republican margin” in each state in 2020, all else being equal. Comparing polling averages to this expected value tells us where Biden may currently be under- or over-performing, or which states have drifted Democratic or Republican since 2016.

For example, Biden leads Trump overall by 6.1 points. North Carolina has recently been about 6.0 points less Democratic than the nation as a whole. Adding those two values together (6.1 – 6.0 = +0.1) yields an expected photo-finish in North Carolina in 2020. However, Biden leads Trump by a mean 2.2 points in 23 polls thus far in North Carolina, meaning Biden is “outperforming” expectations there by about 2.1 points.

This could mean any or all of three things:

  1. WAPA is the more accurate reflection of the November election and either
    1. North Carolina has drifted about two points toward the Democrats since 2016, or
    2. The true “expected value” is somewhere between Trump winning by 5.3 points and Biden winning by 5.5 points, based upon an average 3W-RDM error margin of 5.4 points in recent elections.
  2. The “expected” value is the more accurate reflection, and Republican-leaning voters will drift back toward Trump over the next six months, making North Carolina nail-bitingly close on election day.

Table 3 lists every state’s expected value and WAPA; for ease of presentation, I include Biden-Trump values only.

Table 3: Expected and actual polling margins for Biden over Trump in each state in November 2020

State 3W-RDM Expected WAPA WAPA-Expected
DC 82.0 88.2    
Hawaii 34.3 40.4    
Vermont 27.7 33.8    
California 23.2 29.3 27.1 -2.2
Maryland 22.6 28.7 25.0 -3.7
Massachusetts 22.1 28.2 38.0 9.8
New York 21.6 27.7 27.9 0.2
Rhode Island 18.0 24.1    
Illinois 14.7 20.8    
Connecticut 12.8 18.9 16.9 -2.0
Delaware 12.5 18.6 16.4 -2.2
Washington 12.1 18.2 19.8 1.6
New Jersey 12.0 18.1 16.1 -2.0
Oregon 8.7 14.8    
New Mexico 6.5 12.6 10.4 -2.2
Maine 5.9 12.0 9.2 -2.8
Michigan 2.2 8.4 5.9 -2.5
Colorado 2.2 8.3 6.9 -1.4
Nevada 2.0 8.1 3.5 -4.6
Minnesota 1.5 7.6 12.7 5.1
Virginia 1.5 7.6 7.8 0.2
Wisconsin 0.7 6.8 1.7 -5.1
New Hampshire 0.1 6.2 4.5 -1.7
Pennsylvania -0.4 5.7 4.2 -1.5
Florida -3.4 2.7 1.9 -0.9
Iowa -4.7 1.4 -3.5 -4.9
Ohio -5.8 0.3 3.0 2.7
North Carolina -6.0 0.1 2.2 2.1
Georgia -9.6 -3.4 -0.3 3.2
Arizona -9.7 -3.6 2.0 5.6
Texas -15.3 -9.1 -2.0 7.2
South Carolina -15.7 -9.6 -9.6 0.0
Missouri -15.9 -9.8 -8.6 1.3
Indiana -16.3 -10.2 -14.1 -3.9
Mississippi -18.5 -12.4 -12.9 -0.5
Montana -18.6 -12.5 -16.0 -3.5
Alaska -19.2 -13.0 -4.2 8.8
Louisiana -22.2 -16.1    
Kansas -23.4 -17.3 -11.2 6.1
Nebraska -25.8 -19.7    
South Dakota -25.8 -19.7    
Tennessee -25.8 -19.7 -15.3 4.4
Arkansas -28.2 -22.1    
Alabama -28.4 -22.3 -19.6 2.7
Kentucky -28.7 -22.6 -15.9 6.7
North Dakota -29.4 -23.3 -20.6 2.7
Utah -33.1 -27.0 -12.3 14.7
Idaho -34.2 -28.1    
West Virginia -35.5 -29.3 -34.0 -4.7
Oklahoma -38.1 -32.0 -26.1 5.9
Wyoming -45.7 -39.6    
Average D-6.4 Trump+0.05* Biden+0.9 +1.0

        * Only for the 39 states with both measures

The correlation between the expected margin and WAPA is a very-reassuring +0.96, meaning the polling is broadly in line with the underlying “fundamentals” of the election. Still, Biden is polling ahead of those fundamentals by an average of about one percentage point, meaning the state-level polling as a whole is even better for Biden than his already-solid national polling.

Nonetheless, there are clearly states where Biden is underperforming expectations, including the vital and heavily-polled state of Wisconsin. While Biden leads there by about 1.7 points overall, he “should” be ahead there by about 6.8 points. Moreover, he is trailing by about 3.5 points in nearby Iowa, even though Biden “should” be ahead by about 1.4 points. And while Biden leads Trump by about 3.5 points in Nevada, that is 4.6 points below what the fundamentals suggest.

The story is similar, but more narrowly so, in the key states of Michigan, Pennsylvania, New Hampshire and Florida: Biden leads Trump in these states by an average of 4.1 points, though he “should” lead by an average of 5.8 points, a mean “underperformance” of 1.7 points.

Moreover, there appears to be something of a partisan split in Biden’s over-and under-performance: in the 10 states with both measures and 3W-RDM≥5.0, Biden is underperforming by 0.3 points, on average, though once you remove the single poll of Massachusetts, that jumps to -1.6 points. At the same time, in the analogous 20 Republican states with 3W-RDM≤5.0, Biden is overperforming by 3.2 points, though that drops to 2.6 with the massive outlier of Utah removed.

Let me again stress, however, that there is a lot of “wobble” in the “expected margins,” as well as in the polling averages—especially given that most states have seen very little recent polling. All of this “over- and underperforming” may simply be statistical noise, as we try to read too much into highly stochastic data.

Still, the two values are sufficiently closely aligned to combine them into a single, six-months-out estimate of Biden’s margin over Trump on November 3, 2020, based upon the assumption polls become more predictive as an election gets closer:

  1. Arbitrarily assign expected value and WAPA equal weight as of January 1, 2020.
  2. If the most recent poll in a state was conducted more than 100 days prior to January 1, 2020, WAPA is weighted just 10%. This only applies to Massachusetts, Alaska and Kentucky, with Minnesota the only other state whose most recent poll was conducted in 2019.
  3. WAPA weight increases, by day, with proximity to November 3, 2020.

At the same time, I introduced a probabilistic element into these estimates—rough calculations of how likely Biden is to win the EV from each state, assuming such likelihood is distributed normally:

  1. For expected margins, I used a mean of estimate-0.8 and a standard error of 7.1[2]
  2. For WAPA, I used a standard error of 3.0, roughly the margin of error in most quality polls.
  3. Overall probability Biden wins a state’s EV calculated the same as for predicted final margin

While the means and standard errors are somewhat arbitrary, albeit broadly defensible, the final EV probabilities shown in Table 4 are in line with what other forecasters are saying.

Table 4: Estimated final state margins and probability of winning EV, Biden vs. Trump, November 2020

State EV P(EV): Expected P(EV):

WAPA

P(EV):

Overall

Predicted Margin
DC 3 100.0%   100.0% 88.2
Hawaii 4 100.0%   100.0% 40.4
Vermont 3 100.0%   100.0% 33.8
California 55 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 27.9
Maryland 10 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 26.6
Massachusetts 11 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 29.2
New York 29 100.0% 100.0% 100.0% 27.8
Rhode Island 4 99.9%   99.9% 24.1
Illinois 20 99.8%   99.8% 20.8
Connecticut 7 99.5% 100.0% 99.8% 17.9
Delaware 3 99.4% 100.0% 99.7% 17.5
Washington 12 99.3% 100.0% 99.8% 19.0
New Jersey 14 99.2% 100.0% 99.7% 17.1
Oregon 7 97.6%   97.6% 14.8
New Mexico 5 95.2% 100.0% 97.6% 11.5
Maine 4 94.3% 99.9% 97.7% 10.3
Michigan 16 85.6% 97.5% 93.9% 6.6
Colorado 9 85.5% 99.0% 93.3% 7.5
Nevada 6 84.8% 88.0% 86.7% 5.4
Minnesota 10 83.1% 100.0% 89.4% 9.5
Virginia 13 83.0% 99.5% 93.7% 7.7
Wisconsin 10 80.2% 71.5% 74.3% 3.3
New Hampshire 4 77.7% 93.2% 88.4% 5.0
Pennsylvania 20 75.6% 92.0% 86.9% 4.7
Florida 29 60.7% 73.5% 69.4% 2.2
Iowa 6 53.3% 12.0% 28.4% -1.6
Ohio 18 47.1% 84.1% 72.5% 2.1
North Carolina 15 46.1% 76.5% 67.2% 1.5
Georgia 16 27.5% 46.3% 40.5% -1.3
Arizona 11 26.8% 75.1% 58.7% 0.1
Texas 38 8.1% 25.5% 20.1% -4.2
South Carolina 9 7.2% 0.1% 3.0% -9.6
Missouri 10 6.7% 0.2% 2.9% -9.1
Indiana 11 6.1% 0.0% 2.0% -12.8
Mississippi 6 3.2% 0.0% 1.3% -12.7
Montana 3 3.1% 0.0% 1.3% -14.5
Alaska 3 2.6% 8.1% 3.1% -12.2
Louisiana 8 0.9%   0.9% -16.1
Kansas 6 0.5% 0.0% 0.2% -14.3
Nebraska 5 0.2%   0.2% -19.7
South Dakota 3 0.2%   0.2% -19.7
Tennessee 11 0.2% 0.0% 0.1% -17.5
Arkansas 6 0.1%   0.1% -22.1
Alabama 9 0.1% 0.0% 0.0% -20.9
Kentucky 8 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -21.9
North Dakota 3 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -21.6
Utah 6 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -17.1
Idaho 4 0.0%   0.0% -28.1
West Virginia 5 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -31.7
Oklahoma 7 0.0% 0.0% 0.0% -29.0
Wyoming 3 0.0% -39.6 0.0% -39.6

Six months before election day 2020, and with all of the caveats about what voting will even look like during a pandemic, Biden is clearly in a commanding position to be elected the 46th president of the United States.

  • He is projected to win by at least 3.3 points in enough states to get him to 279 EV, or 278 depending on what happens in Maine, which, along with Nebraska, allocates two EV to the statewide winner and one each to the winner of its Congressional districts.
    • He has narrower leads in Florida, Ohio and North Carolina, which combine for 62 EV, increasing his total to 340 or 341.
    • Arizona’s 11 EV are balanced on a knife’s edge.
  • He is favored at least 86% in enough states to get him to 268 or 269 EV
    • He would then need to win ONLY ONE of Wisconsin (74.3%), Ohio (72.5%), Florida (69.4%) or North Carolina (67.2%) to win the presidency. Assuming Biden’s chances of winning each state are statistically independent from each other (a lousy assumption), he has about a 99% chance of winning AT LEAST one of these states.
  • He has at least a 58% chance in enough states to earn him 351 or 352 EV, at least 81 more than required.
  • And if things truly break Biden’s way, he has a 40.5% chance to win the 16 EV in Georgia, a 28.4% to win the 6 EV in Iowa, and a 20.1% chance to win the 38 EV of Texas, upping his total to 411-413 EV, depending on what happens in the 2nd Congressional district of Nebraska, which allocates its EV the same as Maine.

Using the simplistic—perhaps even simple-minded—method of multiplying Biden’s probability of winning each state by its EV and summing yields a “projected” EV total of 335.2, fairly close to the 341 generated by taking the 232 EV won by Hillary Clinton in 2016, adding Michigan and Pennsylvania to get to 268, then adding Wisconsin, Florida, Ohio and North Carolina (and the last EV in Maine).

This lead looks even more robust when you make either of two reasonable assumptions:

All polls are overestimating Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV drops to 286, still 16 more than required. He would be favored at least 80% to win in enough states to win 239 EV, though he would be favored by at least 64% in three states totaling 30 EV, putting him on the doorstep. He would then have to win one of Wisconsin or Ohio, at 44% each; he would have about a 69% chance to do so.

The point is, even if the polls are consistently off by this much, Biden would still be roughly even money to win the presidency. That said, Biden would still be winning by 3.1 points nationally, demonstrating the current Republican bias in the Electoral College.

All polls are underestimating Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV are a landslide-level 373.7, more than 100 more than necessary. He would be favored at least 80% to win enough states to earn 341 EV, while being a 77.3% favorite in Arizona and a 69.8% favorite in Georgia, for a total of 368 EV. Adding in the states where Biden would be roughly even money—Iowa and Texas—gets us once again to 412.

This appears to be Biden’s upper limit, as even in this scenario where he is wining nationally by 9.1 points, he is no more than 9% favored to win any additional states.

Now, none of this is to say Biden is guaranteed to be the next president of the United States; it would be monumentally foolish for me to conclude that this far from the election, particularly if Amash earns more than, say, three points in the national popular vote. I am simply noting that all indications point very strongly in that direction, based on the data we have right now.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] Hawaii, Vermont, Rhode Island, Illinois, Oregon, Louisiana, Nebraska, South Dakota, Arkansas, Idaho, Wyoming

[2] The former value is the mean arithmetic difference between “expected” and actual D-R margins across 153 state-level contests in 2008, 2012 and 2016, while the latter value is the standard deviation of these values. I recognize this is not a standard error. However, using the value 13.6—the range of values covering 95% of all values divided by 1.96, the final EV projection changes by only 1.0