2020 Senate and Gubernatorial Elections: The View from Labor Day

Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez should be very pleased with his performance. Since winning the chairperson position in February 2017, he has overseen a net gain of eight gubernatorial elections and hundreds of state legislative seats, as well as winning back control of the United States House of Representatives (“House”) in 2018—flipping a historic net 41 seats. He also held net losses in the United States Senate (“Senate”) to one—helped Democrat Doug Jones’ upset win in Alabama in December 2017—when 2018 looked like a terrible year for Senate Democrats.

As of Labor Day 2020, meanwhile, the Democratic nominee for president—former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr.—is in a very strong position, the House appears safe for Democrats…and Democrats are poised to add seats in the Senate, with control of the upper chamber for the first time since 2014 highly plausible.

Currently, there are 53 Republicans, 45 Democrats and 2 Independents who caucus with Democrats in the Senate. To regain control, Democrats must either win a net total of four Senate seats OR a net total of three Senate seats while winning back the presidency; as president of the Senate, Vice President Kamala Harris breaks a 50-50 tie.

In May 2019, I surveyed the 34 Senate races—now 35 with the December 2019 retirement of Republican Senator Johnny Isakson of Georgia and subsequent appointment of businesswomen Kelly Loeffler by Republican Governor Brian Kemp—scheduled for November 2020. I concluded then that while paths existed for the Democrats to recapture the Senate, everything would have to go just right.

More than one year later, based upon a political climate strongly favoring Democrats—they lead by 7.2 percentage points on the generic ballot[1]—and all publicly-available polls conducted since January 1, 2020, everything appears to be going right for the Democrats.

Before continuing, here is the September 2020 lighthouse photograph in my Down East 2020 Maine Lighthouses wall calendar.

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Table 1 presents the 35 Senate races scheduled for November 2020, sorted by 3W-RDM, my measure of how much more or less Democratic a state votes relative to the nation. “National Lean” is the current generic ballot margin. “Incumbency” is the average electoral advantage adhering to reelection candidates, calculated separately by party and adjusted downward for serving less than one full six-year term. “Sum” is 3W-RDM plus Incumbency plus National Lean, or what I call the “fundamentals”: how a generic Democrat would expect to fare against a generic Republican in a state, all else being equal.

Table 1. 2020 Senate election overview

NameStateRun 20203W-RDMIncumbencyNational LeanSum
DEMOCRATS
Edward MarkeyMAYes22.14.47.233.7
Jack ReedRIYes18.04.47.229.6
Richard DurbinILYes14.74.47.226.3
Chris CoonsDEYes12.54.47.224.1
Cory BookerNJYes12.04.47.223.6
Jeff MerkleyORYes8.74.47.220.3
Tom UdallNMNo6.50.07.213.7
Gary PetersMIYes2.24.47.213.8
Mark WarnerVAYes1.54.47.213.1
Tina SmithMNYes1.52.27.210.9
Jeanne ShaheenNHYes0.14.27.211.5
Doug JonesALYes-28.42.27.2-19.0
 
REPUBLICANS
Susan CollinsMEYes5.9-2.47.210.7
Cory GardnerCOYes2.2-2.47.27.0
Joni ErnstIAYes-4.7-2.47.20.1
Thom TillisNCYes-6.0-2.47.2-1.2
David PerdueGAYes-9.6-2.47.2-4.8
Kelly LoefflerGAYes-9.6-0.47.2-2.8
Martha McSallyAZYes-9.7-0.67.2-3.1
John CornynTXYes-15.3-2.47.2-10.5
Lindsey GrahamSCYes-15.7-2.47.2-10.9
Cindy Hyde-SmithMSYes-18.5-1.67.2-12.9
Steve DainesMTYes-18.6-2.47.2-13.8
Dan SullivanAKYes-19.2-2.47.2-14.4
Bill CassidyLAYes-22.2-2.47.2-17.4
Pat RobertsKSNo-23.40.07.2-16.2
Lamar AlexanderTNNo-25.80.07.2-18.6
Ben SasseNEYes-25.8-2.47.2-21.0
Mike RoundsSDYes-25.8-2.47.2-21.0
Tom CottonARYes-28.2-2.47.2-23.4
Mitch McConnellKYYes-28.7-2.47.2-23.9
James RischIDYes-34.2-2.47.2-29.4
Shelley Moore CapitoWVYes-35.5-2.47.2-30.7
James InhofeOKYes-38.1-2.47.2-33.3
Mike EnziWYNo-45.70.07.2-38.5

Based solely on these fundamentals, only one Democrat—Jones—entered the 2020 election cycle in serious danger of losing her/his seat, while two Republican—four-termer Susan Collins of Maine and first-termer Cory Gardner of Colorado—were in a similarly weak position. First-termer Joni Ernst of Iowa is basically a 50-50 proposition, while first-termer Thom Tillis of North Carolina is only slightly ahead, as are two recently-appointed Senators, Loeffler and Martha McSally, who lost to Democrat Kyrsten Sinema in 2018; slightly further ahead, but “only” by 4.8 points is first-termer David Perdue of Georgia.

So, at least according to the fundamentals, Democrats entered the 2020 election cycle poised to net between one and six Senate seats, making control of the chamber slightly more likely than not to remain Republican.

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Publicly-available polling tells a broadly similar story, even if the quantity and quality—based upon FiveThirtyEight’s pollster ratings—of polls varies widely from state to state:

Table 2: Number and Average Quality of 2020 Senate Election Polls

State# of PollsAverage Rating
North Carolina46B-/B
Michigan42B-/C+
Arizona37B/B-
Georgia (Loeffler)31B/B-
Georgia (Perdue)16B
Texas13B
Maine12B-/C+
Iowa10B/B+
Kentucky10B/B+
South Carolina10B-/B
Montana7B-
Alabama6B-/B
Colorado6B-/C+
Kansas5B
Minnesota5B/B+
Mississippi5B-/B
New Hampshire5B-
Alaska3B-/B
Oklahoma2C+/B-
New Jersey1A+
New Mexico1B
Virginia1B-/C+
All other states0 
TOTAL274B-/B

Only 22 races (63%) have been polled at all, with North Carolina (46), Michigan (42), Arizona (37) and the Loeffler race in Georgia (31) topping the list; six other states—the Perdue race in Georgia, Iowa, Kentucky, Maine, South Carolina and Texas—have been polled at least 10 times. Thus, just 11 races account for 227 (83%) of the 274 total Senate election polls conducted thus far in 2020.

Table 3 lists expected outcome, based on the fundamentals, and current weighted-adjusted polling average (WAPA) for each Democratic Senate nominee; New Hampshire will hold its Senate primaries on September 8, with incumbent Democratic Senator Jeanne Shaheen expected to win re-nomination easily. Elections with no incumbent are in italics.

Table 3: Expected and actual polling margins for 2020 Democratic Senate nominees, Labor Day 2020

StateExpectedWAPAExp – WAPA
Massachusetts33.7  
Rhode Island29.6  
Illinois26.3  
Delaware24.1  
New Jersey23.621.7-1.9
Oregon20.3  
New Mexico13.713.70.0
Maine10.73.6-7.1
Colorado7.010.03.0
Michigan13.89.4-4.4
Virginia13.120.57.4
Minnesota10.96.0-4.9
New Hampshire11.713.61.9
Iowa0.11.31.2
North Carolina-1.24.85.9
Georgia–Perdue-4.8-2.52.2
Georgia–Loeffler-2.8-5.1-2.3
Arizona-3.18.911.9
Texas-10.5-8.42.1
South Carolina-10.9-4.16.8
Mississippi-12.9-11.01.9
Montana-13.8-0.912.9
Alaska-14.4-6.48.0
Louisiana-17.4  
Kansas-16.2-4.012.2
Tennessee-18.6  
Nebraska-21.0  
South Dakota-21.0  
Arkansas-23.4  
Alabama-19.0-10.58.6
Kentucky-23.9-9.614.3
Idaho-29.4  
West Virginia-30.7  
Oklahoma-33.3-19.413.9
Wyoming-38.5  
AVERAGE-2.8*1.44.3

* Only for the 22 states with both measures

The WAPA for New Hampshire is the average of polls assessing Shaheen against retired United States Army officer Donald J. Bolduc (12.5) and attorney Bryant “Corky” Messner (14.8); all five polls were conducted by the University of New Hampshire, a B- pollster with a prior Democratic lean of 2.8 points.

The Loeffler race is a “jungle” primary in which every candidate, regardless of party affiliation, will appear on the November 3 ballot; assuming no candidate tops 50%, a runoff election between the top two vote-getters will take place on January 5, 2021. Republican House Member Doug Collins of Georgia is also running, as are Democrats Raphael Warnock, senior pastor of Ebenezer Baptist Church in Atlanta, Matt Lieberman, son of 2000 Democratic vice-presidential nominee Joe Lieberman, and former United States Attorney Ed Tarver. WAPA combines polls of all candidates—which suggest Loeffler and Collins could be the top two vote finishers—and head-to-head matchups between each Republican and each Democrat. The latter show all three Democrats beating Loeffler, and all three losing to Collins—albeit based on only one or two polls. Overall, then, this is an extremely difficult election to assess.

The correlation between expected margin and WAPA is +0.92, meaning the polling is broadly in line with the underlying “fundamentals” of the election. Still, even in a strong Democratic year, Democratic Senate nominees are “overperforming” expectations by an average of 4.3 percentage points (“points”), at least in the 22 Senate elections with at least one poll.

Table 4, finally, shows the win probability for each Democratic nominee based upon fundamentals, current polling and a weighted combination of the two, as well as a final projected margin; for calculation details, please see here. Republican seats in which Democrats lead are in boldface, while Democratic seats in which Repubicans lead are in boldfaced italics.

Table 4: Estimated state margins and probability Democrat wins, 2020 Senate Elections

StateCurrent PartyP(D win): ExpectedP(D win): WAPAP(D Win): OverallPredicted Margin
MassachusettsDEM100.0% 100.0%33.7
Rhode IslandDEM100.0% 100.0%29.6
IllinoisDEM100.0% 100.0%26.3
New JerseyDEM99.9%100.0%100.0%22.3
DelawareDEM99.9% 99.9%24.1
OregonDEM99.7% 99.7%20.3
MichiganDEM96.6%99.9%99.6%9.8
VirginiaDEM95.8%100.0%99.5%19.5
New HampshireDEM93.7%100.0%99.3%13.4
New MexicoDEM96.5%100.0%99.2%13.7
ColoradoGOP81.0%100.0%97.8%9.7
MinnesotaDEM92.2%97.7%97.2%6.5
ArizonaGOP29.2%99.8%92.5%7.6
MaineGOP91.9%88.4%88.8%4.5
North CarolinaGOP39.1%94.4%88.6%4.1
IowaGOP46.2%67.1%64.3%1.2
MontanaGOP2.0%38.7%33.1%-2.8
Georgia–PerdueGOP21.6%19.9%20.1%-2.8
KansasGOP0.8%9.4%8.2%-5.7
Georgia–LoefflerGOP30.6%4.4%8.1%-4.8
South CarolinaGOP5.0%8.7%8.1%-5.1
AlaskaGOP1.6%1.7%1.7%-7.3
TexasGOP5.6%0.3%0.8%-8.6
LouisianaGOP0.5% 0.5%-17.4
MississippiGOP2.7%0.0%0.4%-11.3
TennesseeGOP0.3% 0.3%-18.6
NebraskaGOP0.1% 0.1%-21.0
South DakotaGOP0.1% 0.1%-21.0
AlabamaDEM0.3%0.0%0.1%-11.8
KentuckyGOP0.0%0.1%0.1%-16.7
ArkansasGOP0.0% 0.0%-23.4
IdahoGOP0.0% 0.0%-29.4
West VirginiaGOP0.0% 0.0%-30.7
OklahomaGOP0.0%0.0%0.0%-26.3
WyomingGOP0.0% 0.0%-38.5

Two months before election day 2020, and with caveats about what voting will look like during a pandemic, Democrats are in a very strong position to recapture the Senate—albeit with few, if any, seats to spare.

Let us examine these 35 elections in groups.

Safe Democratic (9). Senators Edward Markey of Massachusetts, Jack Reed of Rhode Island, Richard Durbin of Illinois, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Chris Coons of Delaware, Jeff Merkley of Oregon, Mark Warner of Virginia and Shaheen should easily win reelection by double-digit margins, while in New Mexico House Member Ben Ray Lujan is expected to beat meteorologist Mark Ronchetti equally handily.

Lean/likely Democratic (2). The only reason first-term Senators Gary Peters of Michigan and Tina Smith of Minnesota are considered remotely vulnerable is the fact they represent two of the closest states in the 2016 presidential election, and because their polling averages are between four and five points below their election fundamentals. Still, each is very likely to prevail over businessman John James and former House Member Jason Lewis, respectively, by mid-single-digit margins.

Likely Democratic flips (4). Four incumbent Republican Senators—Gardner, McSally, Collins and Tillis—appear headed for defeat by single-digit margins. Gardner is the most likely to lose—by as much as 10 points—to former Governor John Hickenlooper. McSally is right behind, staring at a high-single-digit defeat by former astronaut Mark Kelly, husband of former Arizona House Member Gabrielle Giffords, who was shot and severely wounded in January 2011.

Collins and Tillis, meanwhile, trail Maine State House of Representatives Speaker Sara Gideon and former North Carolina State Senator Cal Cunningham, respectively, by around five points. While not guaranteed to win by any means—Collins won her last election by 37 points, and North Carolina leans 6.0 points Republican—right now these two states are likely Democratic pickups.

Toss-ups (2). Based solely on expectations—incumbent Republican in a lean-Republican state running for reelection in a strong Democratic year—Ernst is no more than even money to win reelection. And while she only trails businesswoman Theresa Greenfield by 1.3 points, that is enough to make Ernst the slightest of underdogs.

On the flip side is heavily Republican Montana, where Steve Daines seeks a second term. The fundamentals suggest Daines should easily win reelection by between 10 and 15 points. However, Governor Steve Bullock is mounting a very strong challenge, trailing by only 0.9 points overall—albeit a few points lower than when he declared his candidacy in early March.

Democrats could easily win both of these races, lose both of these races or split them, with Greenfield likelier to win than Bullock.

Likely Republican flip (1). While Jones is outpacing his fundamentals—running as a Democratic incumbent after only three years in a very Republican state—by 8.6 points, he remains very unlikely to prevail against former college football head coach Tommy Tuberville. In fact, losing “only” by single digits would be a moral victory.

Lean/likely Republican (6). Setting aside the Loeffler reelection, Democrats appear likely to fall short in Georgia’s other Senate election, Kansas, South Carolina, Alaska and Texas. Journalist Jon Ossoff, State Senator Barbara Bollier, former South Carolina Democratic Party Chair Jaime Harrison, orthopedic surgeon (and Independent) Al Gross, and United States Air Force veteran Mary Jennings “M. J.” Hegar, respectively, are overperforming expectations by an average 6.3 points against Senator David Perdue, House Member Roger Marshall and Senators Lindsey Graham, Dan Sullivan and John Cornyn. However, they are doing so in states which lean Republican by an average of 16.6 points.

Still, just as Republican upsets in Michigan and Minnesota cannot be ruled out, neither can Democratic victories in any of these states, with Ossoff likeliest to do so, followed by Harrison. And, in Texas, roughly 20% of voters in polls conducted in July and August are still undecided, which is a warning sign for any incumbent.

It is worth noting that a Harrison victory would give South Carolina two African-American Senators, which has not happened in any state since Reconstruction.

Likely Republican/Sleepers (2). In Mississippi, first-term Senator Cindy Hyde-Smith is again facing former Agriculture Secretary Mike Espy, who lost by only 7.2 points in 2018. One year later, Republican Tate Reeves defeated Democrat Jim Hood by only 5.5 points in an open gubernatorial election. Currently, Espy trails by 11.0 points, very close to the 12.9 points suggested by the fundamentals. Based on recent history, then, this race could yet tighten, though Hyde-Smith is still heavily favored.

In Kentucky, meanwhile, Republican Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell seeks a 7th term against former United States Marine fighter pilot Amy McGrath. The fundamentals say McGrath should be trailing by nearly 24 points. However, she is “only” down by 9.6 points, and in six polls conducted since June 1, 2020, she trails in three by 3-5 points and in three by 17-22 points, making this a very difficult race to assess. As with Espy, though, McGrath is highly likely to lose by mid-to-high single digits.

Safe Republicans (9). Senators Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Ben Sasse of Nebraska, Mike Rounds of South Dakota, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, James Risch of Idaho, Shelley Moore Capito of West Virginia and James Inhofe of Oklahoma should easily win reelection by double-digit margins. And in Tennessee and Wyoming, respectively former United States Ambassador to Japan Bill Hagerty and former House Member Cynthia Lummis are expected to win by similar margins.

In sum, Democrats appear all but certain to net at least one Senate seat, losing in Alabama while winning in Arizona and Colorado, and are very well-positioned to win seats in Maine and North Carolina, giving them a 50-50 tie in the Senate—broken by Vice President Mike Pence or Harris. To be fair, though, it is difficult to see how Democrats win all four seats while losing the presidential election, so I assume Harris breaks the tie in this scenario.

The question, then, is whether Democrats can add further seats in Iowa, where they are slightly favored, and/or Montana, where they are slight underdogs…and possibly in Georgia, where Ossoff has a roughly 1-in-5 chance of winning. Democrats have further pickup opportunities in some Republican states, albeit with at most an 8% chance.

Bottom line: The most likely range of Democratic pickups is three to five, with a plausible range of one to six—exactly what the fundamentals suggested in May 2019. If I simply add up the probabilities Democrats win each race, they sum to +4.1, though this is very “back of the envelope” methodology.

Another way to think about these races is to observe how Democratic win probabilities change with either of two reasonable assumptions:

  1. All polls are overestimating Democratic margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Democrats remain almost certain to win in Arizona (89.0%) and Colorado (95.5%) while losing in Alabama. Maine (61.1%) and North Carolina (67.1%) are now toss-ups, though Democrats would still be the slightest of favorites in both. But Iowa would now lean Republican (29.0%), with Democrats no more than an 8.5% favorite (Montana) anywhere else. Meanwhile, Democrats would still be favored in Minnesota (84.0%), but it would not be a comfortable lead.

Bottom line: Democrats could net zero seats, or they could net three seats, with a gain of one or two the likeliest outcome; summing the probabilities suggest a 2.3 seat gain, making Democrats modest underdogs to win back the Senate.

  • All polls are underestimating Democratic margins by 3.0 points.

While Alabama is still very likely to flip Republican, Democrats would be at least a 94% favorite to win Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina—and an 88.6% favorite to win Iowa—for a minimum net gain of four seats. Montana (65.3%) and the Perdue race in Georgia (53.4%) would be toss-ups, with Democrats the slightest of favorites, albeit by 0.2 points, suggesting long recounts in both states. Should Democrats prevail in both, that increases the net gain to six seats. And Democrats would now only be modest underdogs in toss-up races in Kansas (32.5%) and South Carolina (32.2%), with the difficult-to-assess Loeffler race in Georgia (27.2%) just beyond that. However, they would still be unlikely to win in Alaska (14.3%) or Texas (4.5%).

Bottom line: In this scenario, Democrats net four to eight seats, with five or six the likeliest outcome. Summing the probabilities, though, suggests a Democratic net gain of 6.1 seats, making them very strong favorites to win back the Senate.

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Flying well under the radar are 11 states holding gubernatorial elections in 2020. Democrats are defending four of them; John Carney, Jay Inslee and Roy Cooper are all-but-guaranteed to be reelected in Delaware, Washington and North Carolina, respectively. The latter is somewhat surprising, given Cooper’s 0.2 point upset win over Republican incumbent Pat McCrory in 2016; the fundamentals suggest a 6.9-point lead, while the polls have him up 11.8 points—something in between these two seems likely.

The other governor’s mansion Democrats are defending is in Montana, where Bullock is stepping down after two terms (and running for the Senate). Montana leans 18.6 points more Republican than the nation, and Democrats Bullock and Brian Schweitzer have governed the state for 16 consecutive years, making it ready for a Republican flip; the fundamentals say House Member Greg Gianforte should win by 11.4 points. And while Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney is “only” trailing by 5.8 points, that is not close enough to give Democrats more than a 2.8% chance of winning.

Six Republican governors, meanwhile, are running for reelection—and all are expected to win by at least 9.3 points. This includes heavily Democratic Vermont, where Phil Scott leads Lieutenant Governor David Zuckerman by 31.9 points, and partisan-neutral New Hampshire, where Chris Sununu leads both State Senate Majority Leader Dan Feltes and Executive Council of New Hampshire member Andru Volinsky by more than 30 points. The other four are Eric Holcomb in Indiana, Mike Parson in Missouri, former Democrat Jim Justice in West Virginia and Doug Burgum in North Dakota. In Utah, finally, Gary Herbert is stepping down after eight years; Republican Lieutenant Governor Spencer Cox is a near-lock to hold the governor’s mansion against Democratic law professor Christopher Peterson.

Bottom line: Even if one assumes polls are over- or under-estimating Democratic strength by three points, Montana is still the only state likely to flip partisan control—from Democratic to Republican. In fact, across all three scenarios, the range of “summed probabilities” is -0.50 to -0.76, with only the strong Democratic lean of Vermont keeping it even that close to no net change.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] That is, some variant of “If the election for United States House of Representatives was held today, would you vote for the Democrat or the Republican in your Congressional district?”

Biden vs. Trump September 2020: A rising tide lifts more than enough boats

On November 3, 2020, the presidential election between incumbent Republican Donald J. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., will mark the end of a weeks-long electoral process. One month ago, I analyzed all publicly-available polls of the presidential election—nationally and by state, recognizing presidential elections are determined by the Electoral College—conducted since January 1, 2019.

Since then, Biden selected United States Senator Kamala Harris of California to be his vice-presidential running mate, as I anticipated, and both the Democrats and Republicans held mostly-virtual televised nomination conventions.

Did these events change the trajectory of this election?

The short answer is…no.

Table 1 lists the number of national polls assessing Biden vs. Trump conducted in 2019 and in each month of 2020; a handful of older polls were released since my last update. Sixty-five pollsters, with an average B- FiveThirtyEight pollster rating, have assessed the 2020 presidential election at least once since January 1, 2019; 45 of them (mean B-/B) have assessed the election more than once.

Table 1: Number of 2020 Monthly National Polls Assessing Biden vs. Trump

Month# Polls
All of 2019107
January 202020
February 202025
March 202035
April 202050
May 202048
June 202062
July 202051
August 202073[1]
TOTAL471

Fifteen pollsters (mean B-) account for 70% of these polls, as well as 68% of the 364 polls conducted in 2020:

  • YouGov (B-), 64 polls (49 in 2020)
  • Morning Consult (B/C), 48 polls (43 in 2020)
  • Ipsos (B-), 35 polls (28 in 2020)
  • HarrisX (C), 27 polls (18 in 2020)
  • Emerson College (B+), 19 polls (7 in 2020)
  • Fox News (A-), 18 polls (9 in 2020)
  • Change Research (C-), 16 polls (13 in 2020)
  • RMG Research (B/C), 15 polls (15 in 2020)
  • Data For Progress (B-), 14 polls (14 in 2020)
  • Optimus (B/C), 14 polls (13 in 2020)
  • IBD/TIPP (A/B), 14 polls (9 in 2020)
  • Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion Research (C+), 13 polls (10 in 2020)
  • Quinnipiac University (B+), 11 polls (7 in 2020)
  • Zogby Interactive/JV Analytics (C+), 11 polls (6 in 2020)
  • CNN/SSRS (B/C), 10 polls (7 in 2020)

Figure 1 shows how Biden has fared monthly against Trump in 2020, using my weighted-adjusted polling averages (WAPA). I use pollster rating data to adjust for partisan lean (historic tendency to err more Democratic or Republican than other pollsters in analogous races) and quality. I weight more recent polls higher, using this ratio: number of days since January 1, 2019 divided by 673, the number of days between January 1, 2019 and November 3, 2020. I then average two versions of WAPA: one treating polls by the same pollster as statistically independent, and one treating all polls by the same pollster as a single, time-weighted value; differences between estimates are usually negligible.

Figure 1

Using all polls conducted since January 1, 2019, Biden leads Trump nationally by 7.5 percentage points (“points”). Biden’s margin rose from just over four percentage points in January and February, when he was fighting for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, to just under six points in the three months after Biden’s decisive win in the 2020 South Carolina Democratic presidential primary, to between eight and nine points since June 1, the day protesters were forcibly cleared from Lafayette Square so Trump could pose in front of St. John’s Episcopal Church holding a copy of the Bible.

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Again, though, presidential elections are fought across 50 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”), with the plurality winner in each state/DC winning every electoral vote (“EV”) from that state. Table 2 lists the number of polls within each state assessing Biden vs. Trump since January 1, 2019, plus that state’s 3W-RDM, my estimate of much more or less Democratic than the nation a state has voted over the last three presidential elections; eight states[2] and DC have not been polled.

Table 2: Number of state-level polls assessing Biden vs. Trump since January 1, 2019

State3W-RDMOverall2020
Michigan2.27561
Wisconsin0.77360
North Carolina-6.06956
Pennsylvania-0.46253
Florida-3.45345
Arizona-9.75244
Texas-15.34833
Georgia-9.63126
Ohio-5.82016
California23.22014
Iowa-4.72013
New Hampshire0.11510
Minnesota1.51413
Colorado2.21210
Virginia1.5128
Kentucky-28.7119
Maine5.9118
Montana-18.6109
South Carolina-15.7108
Missouri-15.997
Massachusetts22.187
Nevada2.084
New York21.677
Utah-33.176
Washington12.175
New Jersey12.066
Connecticut12.864
Alabama-28.455
Kansas-23.455
Mississippi-18.544
Oklahoma-38.144
Alaska-19.243
North Dakota-29.442
New Mexico6.533
Tennessee-25.833
Indiana-16.333
Maryland22.622
Delaware12.522
Arkansas-28.211
Hawaii34.311
Louisiana-22.211
West Virginia-35.511
TOTALD-6.1719582

Nineteen states have been polled at least 10 times since January 1, 2019, of which 14 have been polled at least 10 times in 2020. Four of the top five, along with suddenly-swing North Carolina, are the closest states won by Trump in 2016: Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Florida. Five other Republican-leaning states have been frequently polled: Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Ohio and Iowa, reflecting their status as ongoing or emerging battlegrounds. California, with 54 EV, rounds out the 11 states polled at least 20 times overall.

National averages still matter, though. Combined with 3W-RDM, they provide the “expected Democratic-minus-Republican margin” in each state in 2020, all else being equal. For example, North Carolina has recently been 6.0 points less Democratic than the nation as a whole. Adding that to Biden’s current national margin (-6.0 +7.5 = +1.5) suggests Biden is slightly favored to win North Carolina in 2020, based solely on its recent voting history. Indeed, Biden leads Trump by an adjusted mean of 1.9 points in 52 polls conducted in North Carolina. Table 3 lists every state’s expected value and WAPA.

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

State3W-RDMExpectedWAPAWAPA-Expected
DC82.089.5  
Hawaii34.341.829.1-12.7
Vermont27.735.2  
California23.232.728.4-2.3
Maryland22.630.124.6-5.5
Massachusetts22.129.634.34.7
New York21.629.125.9-3.2
Rhode Island18.025.5  
Illinois14.722.2  
Connecticut12.820.317.9-2.4
Delaware12.522.019.2-0.8
Washington12.119.624.65.1
New Jersey12.019.518.2-1.3
Oregon8.716.2  
New Mexico6.514.011.3-2.7
Maine5.913.410.4-3.0
Michigan2.29.77.0-2.7
Colorado2.29.712.12.5
Nevada2.09.53.8-5.7
Minnesota1.59.07.7-1.3
Virginia1.59.09.60.6
Wisconsin0.78.25.0-3.2
New Hampshire0.17.65.2-2.4
Pennsylvania-0.48.15.1-2.0
Florida-3.44.13.9-0.2
Iowa-4.72.8-1.6-4.4
Ohio-5.81.70.4-1.3
North Carolina-6.01.51.90.4
Georgia-9.6-2.1-0.71.3
Arizona-9.7-2.22.95.1
Texas-15.3-7.8-2.05.7
South Carolina-15.7-8.2-7.30.9
Missouri-15.9-8.4-6.32.2
Indiana-16.3-8.8-13.9-5.2
Mississippi-18.5-11.0-11.9-0.9
Montana-18.6-11.1-8.92.2
Alaska-19.2-11.7-4.37.3
Louisiana-22.2-14.7-11.23.5
Kansas-23.4-15.9-9.36.7
Nebraska-25.8-18.3  
South Dakota-25.8-18.3  
Tennessee-25.8-18.3-14.53.9
Arkansas-28.2-20.7-3.517.2
Alabama-28.4-20.9-18.22.7
Kentucky-28.7-21.2-17.04.2
North Dakota-29.4-21.9-20.41.5
Utah-33.1-25.6-13.112.5
Idaho-34.2-26.7  
West Virginia-35.5-28.0-34.3-6.3
Oklahoma-38.1-30.6-23.07.7
Wyoming-45.7-38.2  
AverageD-6.4Biden+1.5*Biden+2.1+0.7

* Only for the 42 states with both measures

The correlation between the expected margin and WAPA is +0.961, meaning polling matches expectations extremely well—as one increases or decreases, so does the other. Still, Biden is polling slightly ahead of those fundamentals, meaning state-level polling as a whole is even better for Biden than his excellent national polling; that said, the difference vanishes once you adjust for a state’s 2016 presidential election turnout.[3]

Biden is underperforming expectations in some states, most notably Hawaii—the birthplace of former President Barack Obama, artificially inflating Hawaii’s Democratic vote margin in 2008 and 2012. He is also underperforming in woefully-under-polled Nevada. Biden leads there by 3.8 points, nearly six points lower than the 9.5 points by which he “should” be leading. Biden is also underperforming expectations in very Democratic Maryland (-5.5) and Republican-leaning Iowa (-4.4). By the same token, Biden is overperforming in the traditionally Republican states of Arkansas, Utah, Oklahoma, Alaska, Texas and Kansas, as well as in reliably-Democratic Washington. There is a partisan split in Biden’s over-and under-performance: in states with 3W-RDM>-5.0, Biden is underperforming by 2.2 points, on average. In states with 3W-RDM≤5.0, Biden is overperforming by 3.4 points. Many grains of salt are in order here, though. In recent elections, “fundamentals” have missed the final margin by an absolute value average of 5.4 points.

Still, the close alignment between the two values allows us to combine them into a single estimate of Biden’s margin over Trump on November 3, 2020, assuming polls become more predictive as an election gets closer:

  1. Assign expected value and WAPA equal weight as of January 1, 2020.
  2. WAPA weight increases daily with proximity to November 3, 2020.

I also calculated how likely Biden is to win the EV from each state, assuming this likelihood is distributed normally:

  1. For expected margins, I use mean = -0.8 and standard error = 7.1[4]
  2. For WAPA, I use standard error = 3.0, roughly the margin of error in most quality polls; this is likely an over-estimate, as pooling reduces the standard error of the resulting polling average.
  3. Combined probability Biden wins a state’s EV calculated the same as for predicted final margin

While the means and standard errors I use are arguably arbitrary, albeit 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

StateEVP(EV): ExpectedP(EV): WAPAP(EV): OverallPredicted Margin
DC3100.0% 100.0%89.5
Hawaii4100.0%100.0%100.0%31.1
Vermont3100.0% 100.0%35.2
California55100.0%100.0%100.0%28.7
Maryland10100.0%100.0%100.0%26.1
Massachusetts11100.0%100.0%100.0%33.8
New York29100.0%100.0%100.0%26.3
Rhode Island4100.0% 100.0%25.5
Illinois2099.9% 99.9%22.2
Connecticut799.7%100.0%99.9%19.1
Delaware399.7%100.0%100.0%19.6
Washington1299.6%100.0%99.9%22.1
New Jersey1499.6%100.0%99.9%18.8
Oregon798.5% 98.5%16.2
New Mexico596.8%100.0%99.3%11.9
Maine496.2%100.0%99.4%10.9
Michigan1689.6%99.0%98.0%7.3
Colorado989.5%100.0%98.8%11.9
Nevada688.9%89.5%89.4%4.4
Minnesota1087.6%99.5%98.3%7.9
Virginia1387.5%99.9%98.3%9.5
Wisconsin1085.2%95.2%94.2%5.3
New Hampshire483.1%96.0%94.3%5.5
Pennsylvania2081.3%95.5%94.0%5.3
Florida2968.0%90.5%88.1%4.0
Iowa661.0%29.6%34.4%-0.9
Ohio1854.9%55.7%55.6%0.6
North Carolina1554.0%73.6%71.6%1.9
Georgia1634.4%40.7%40.1%-0.8
Arizona1133.6%83.6%78.4%2.4
Texas3811.4%24.9%23.4%-2.7
South Carolina910.4%0.8%2.2%-7.4
Missouri109.7%1.8%2.7%-6.5
Indiana118.9%0.0%1.4%-13.1
Mississippi64.9%0.0%0.7%-11.8
Montana34.7%0.2%0.7%-9.1
Alaska34.0%7.4%6.9%-5.5
Louisiana81.5%0.0%0.2%-11.7
Kansas60.9%0.1%0.2%-12.6
Nebraska50.4% 0.4%-18.3
South Dakota30.4% 0.4%-18.3
Tennessee110.4%0.0%0.2%-16.4
Arkansas60.1%12.2%9.3%-12.1
Alabama90.1%0.0%0.0%-19.5
Kentucky80.1%0.0%0.1%-20.8
North Dakota30.1%0.0%0.0%-21.0
Utah60.0%0.0%0.0%-15.1
Idaho40.0% 0.0%-26.7
West Virginia50.0%0.0%0.0%-31.2
Oklahoma70.0%0.0%0.0%-26.8
Wyoming30.0% 0.0%-38.2
  • He is at least an 88.1% favorite in enough states—and by margins of at least four points—to earn him 308 EV, or 307 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. Moreover, Biden could lose Florida (+4.0, 88.1%), Nevada (+4.4, 89.4%) and one EV in Maine and still win 272 EV, two more than he needs.
  • He is a 70-75% favorite to win in Arizona (+2.4) and North Carolina (+1.9), for an additional 26 EV, increasing Biden’s total to 333/334 EV.
  • The 34 combined EV of Ohio (+0.6) and Georgia (-0.8) are essentially toss-ups, meaning Biden has a roughly 73% chance to win at least one of them, putting him somewhere between 349 and 352 EV, with a maximum of 368 EV (or 369 with one EV in Nebraska).

Three months before Election Day 2020, and with every caveat about voting during a pandemic, Joe Biden is the strong favorite to be elected the 46th president of the United States.

Plus, it might take only a sharp break by undecided voters and a modest polling error for Biden to win the 44 combined EV of Iowa (-0.9) and the ultimate prize—Texas (-2.7). Thus, while something in the low-to-mid 300’s currently appears the most likely EV total for Biden, 413 EV cannot be discounted.

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 349.2, essentially adding Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and one of Ohio/Georgia to the states 2016 Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won.

Biden’s lead looks even more robust when you make either of two historically-valid assumptions:

Polls systematically overestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV drops to 301.2, still 31.2 more than required. He would be favored at least 80% to win in enough states to win 239 EV, though he would also be favored by at least 74.6% in three states totaling 34 EV, getting him to 273 EV. Thus, even if Biden “only” wins the national popular vote by 4.2, he would likely still prevail, though the decisive states—some combination of New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—would be decided by narrow margins, with all votes possibly not counted for a week or more.

Polls systematically underestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV are a landslide-level 389.4, 119.4 more than necessary. He would be favored at least 80% to win enough states to earn 352 EV, while being a 74.9% favorite in Georgia, for a total of 368 EV. He would also be a 69.1% favorite in Iowa, with Texas now a toss-up at 58.1%–and a projected Biden victory of 0.3 points! Based on only one poll, Biden would have a 33.2% chance of winning Arkansas’ 6 EV, plus a 14.3% chance of winning Missouri’s 10 EV and a 11.5% chance of winning Alaska’s 3 EV. The last presidential candidate to come close to 433 EV was Republican George H. W. Bush, who won 426 EV in 1988.

**********

To maximize the number of polls available for analysis, I use all polls going back to January 1, 2019; I also use a straightforward time-weighting method: increasing the weight of a poll by 1/673 = 0.0015 every day since then.

To test the validity of this weighting system, I re-estimated every WAPA and probability using the following time-weighting system, based on the key dates of February 29 and June 1 described above:

  1. Only use polls whose field date midpoint is January 1, 2020 or later (that is, date weight for 2019 polls = 0)
  2. Weight polls released in January and February 2020 as before
  3. Weight polls released in March, April and May 2020 twice as much as before
  4. Weight polls released in June, July and August 2020 three times as much as before
  5. Weight polls in September and October 2020 four times as much as before

This system gives vastly more weight to the most recent polls and correspondingly much lower weight to earlier polls.

As one would expect from Figure 1, Biden’s national lead jumps to 8.0 points using this time-weighting method, though the projected EV total barely increases to 351.4, with only minor changes in the probability Biden wins any given state: Nevada (92.3% and Florida (90.7%) rise slightly, while Ohio (52.2%) and Georgia (40.1%) decline slightly.

However, state-level changes in WAPA are very telling, as Table 5 reveals:

Table 5: 2020 Polling Margins, Biden vs Trump, Using Two Time-Weighting Methods

StateWAPA Original Time-WeightWAPA Recent Time-WeightDelta
Hawaii29.1029.100.00
California28.3729.911.55
Maryland24.6024.49-0.11
Massachusetts34.3034.300.00
New York25.8927.031.15
Connecticut17.9118.620.71
Delaware19.1720.040.87
Washington24.6526.131.49
New Jersey18.2018.220.02
New Mexico11.3011.770.47
Maine10.4010.710.31
Michigan7.027.570.55
Colorado12.1513.171.02
Nevada3.764.340.58
Minnesota7.738.340.60
Virginia9.5610.921.36
Wisconsin5.005.930.94
New Hampshire5.246.100.86
Pennsylvania5.075.200.13
Florida3.934.530.60
Iowa-1.61-1.080.53
Ohio0.430.11-0.32
North Carolina1.892.150.26
Georgia-0.70-0.87-0.17
Arizona2.933.010.08
Texas-2.03-1.920.10
South Carolina-7.25-6.620.63
Missouri-6.28-5.710.57
Indiana-13.92-14.48-0.56
Mississippi-11.92-11.500.41
Montana-8.86-8.360.51
Alaska-4.33-4.010.32
Louisiana-11.19-11.190.00
Kansas-9.27-9.030.24
Tennessee-14.47-14.280.19
Arkansas-3.50-3.500.00
Alabama-18.19-17.950.24
Kentucky-17.05-17.82-0.77
North Dakota-20.42-19.131.28
Utah-13.11-13.88-0.77
West Virginia-34.30-34.300.00
Oklahoma-22.96-22.030.93
AverageBiden+2.08Biden+2.480.40

Extending WAPA to two decimal places, Biden’s national lead increases by 0.46 points, from 7.50 to 7.97. However, rather than Biden increasing his lead by four or five points in some states, say, while decreasing his lead by three or four points in other states, only five states saw a decline in Biden’s average polling margin—Maryland, Georgia, Ohio, Kentucky and Utah; no decline was less than -0.77. And in only six states—Colorado, New York, North Dakota, Virginia, Washington and California—did Biden’s average polling margin increase by more than 1.00 points, with a maximum of 1.55. The standard deviation of the average change in Biden’s margin is only 0.55, showing how tightly bunched around the mean of 0.40 points these shifts are.

In other words, when switching to a time-weighting method which gives vastly more weight to polls released over the preceding three months while eliminating 2019 polls entirely, Biden saw his lead either not change or increase by up to 0.94 in 31 of 42 states. This remarkably consistent change should alleviate fears that Biden will win the popular vote by four or five points, yet still lose the Electoral College because he won even more votes than Clinton in safe states like California and New York while narrowing the 2016 margins in states like Georgia, Ohio and Texas without actually winning any of their EV. Instead, as Biden’s national margin increases, his lead in nearly every state—including nearly every swing state—increases correspondingly. Put differently, the same groups of voters fueling increases in Biden’s vote total in one set of states are also fuel increases in states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida—and perhaps Arizona and North Carolina as well.

Figure 2 makes this same point in a different way. It compares current Biden WAPA to simply increasing every 2016 Democratic margin increased by 5.4 points, the difference between Biden’s current national polling lead and the 2.1 points by which Clinton won in 2016.

Figure 2

Figure 2 perfectly illustrates the adage “A rising tide lifts all boats,” or nearly all, anyway. Biden’s current state-level polling averages—as I calculate them—are astonishingly close to how you would expect him to fare in each state given a 5.4-point increase in the national Democratic margin.

**********

None of this is to say Biden is guaranteed to be elected president of the United States on in two months. There are worrisome signs this year’s elections will not be conducted as efficiently and transparently as they could be. Delays in mail delivery—allegedly orchestrated by a newly-confirmed Postmaster General—could leave millions of votes uncounted because they did not arrive by November 3. Moreover, while Biden’s national polling lead has consistently ranged between four and 10 points over the last 20 months, a late-recovering economy or last-minute “October surprise” could erase this lead.

All that being said, however, unlike Clinton in 2016, Biden has a sufficiently-wide range of paths to 270 EV that I estimate he is at least an 80% favorite to be elected president of the United States on November 3, 2020—or whenever ballots are ultimately counted.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] Includes one Redfield & Wilton Strategies poll conducted August 31 to September 1

[2] DC, Vermont, Rhode Island, Illinois, Oregon, Nebraska, South Dakota, Idaho, Wyoming

[3] That said, this does not account for mid-to-large states like Oregon and Illinois where Biden is expected to win by double-digit margins.

[4] 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.