2020 Elections Post-Mortem

On November 3, 2020, the United States ended a weeks-long electoral process. At stake was the presidency, control of the United States Senate (“Senate”) and House of Representatives (“House”), 11 governor’s mansions, and thousands of state and local offices. That day, I published “cheat sheets” to guide election viewers through state-level presidential returns, 35 Senate elections and the gubernatorial elections.

[Ed. note: This post, my 200th, is the longest I have written to date. It is fitting that a blog which found its data-driven footing in the wake of the 2016 elections would have its 200th entry address the aftermath of the 2020 elections, beyond mere repetition of the number “20.”]

As I write this on midnight EST on November 17, 2020, precisely two weeks after the elections concluded, these are the top-line results:

  • Only one governor’s mansion changed partisan hands: Republican Greg Gianforte won back the statehouse in Montana for the first time in 16 years. As of January 2021, Republicans will hold 27 governor’s mansions, and Democrats will hold 23.
  • Democrats basically held serve in state legislative races. For more details, please see here.

On balance, the 2020 elections affirmed the status quo: a nation roughly evenly split between Democrats and Republicans, though it remains possible the former could control, however narrowly, the White House, Senate and House for the first time since 2010.

Presidential election

Biden-Harris are closing on 79.0 million votes (50.9%), shattering the previous record of 69.5 million votes won by Democrat Barack Obama and Biden in 2008. Trump-Pence have just under 73.3 million votes (47.3%), ranking them second in history. Biden has now appeared on three of the four presidential tickets to receive the most votes, with Obama-Biden earning 65.9 million votes in 2012, edging out Clinton-Kaine in 2016 by about 65,000 votes. Third party candidates are receiving more than 2.8 million votes (1.8%), significantly lower than the 8.3 million votes (6.0%) such candidates received in 2016. Approximately 155.1 million votes have already been counted, with an estimated 4.1 million votes—mostly in California and New York—left to be counted. This ~159.2 million vote projection, or about 2/3 of all Americans eligible to vote, also shatters the previous record of 137.1 million votes set in 2016.

Biden-Harris’ 3.6 percentage point (“point”) margin is a 1.5-point increase from 2016, and 0.3-point decrease from 2012, making it the third consecutive presidential election in which the Democratic ticket won the national popular vote by between two and four points; adding 22 million voters did not fundamentally alter the partisan electoral divide. Based on my Electoral College model, a Biden-Harris win of 3.6 points equates to 296 EV, nearly the 306 EV they received; for a Republican ticket, this equates to 327 EV.

How did Biden-Harris win the Electoral College?

Table 1: 2020 and 2016 Presidential Election Results by State, Ranked from Highest to Lowest Biden-Harris Margin

StateEVWinnerClinton-Kaine MarginBiden-Harris MarginDelta
DC3Biden86.886.6-0.2
Vermont3Biden26.435.49.0
Massachusetts11Biden27.233.05.8
Maryland10Biden30.032.52.5
California55Biden26.429.63.2
Hawaii4Biden32.229.5-2.7
Rhode Island4Biden15.520.85.2
Connecticut7Biden13.620.16.7
Washington12Biden15.719.33.6
Delaware3Biden11.319.07.7
Illinois20Biden14.016.62.6
Oregon7Biden11.016.25.2
New Jersey14Biden16.915.5-1.4
New York29Biden22.513.7-8.8
Colorado9Biden4.913.58.6
New Mexico5Biden8.210.82.6
Virginia13Biden3.010.16.9
Maine4Biden (3)5.38.73.4
New Hampshire4Biden0.47.47.0
Minnesota10Biden1.57.15.6
Michigan16Biden-0.22.62.8
Nevada6Biden2.42.40.0
Pennsylvania20Biden-0.71.01.7
Wisconsin10Biden-0.80.61.4
Georgia16Biden-5.10.35.4
Arizona11Biden-3.50.33.8
North Carolina15Trump-3.7-1.42.3
Florida29Trump-1.2-3.4-2.2
Texas38Trump-9.0-5.73.3
Ohio18Trump-8.1-8.2-0.1
Iowa6Trump-9.4-8.21.2
Alaska3Trump-14.3-10.13.3
South Carolina9Trump-20.4-11.78.7
Kansas6Trump-18.5-15.13.4
Missouri10Trump-19.0-15.63.4
Indiana11Trump-20.2-16.14.1
Montana3Trump-14.7-16.4-1.7
Mississippi6Trump-25.1-17.87.3
Louisiana8Trump-19.6-18.61.0
Nebraska5Trump (4)-17.8-19.2-1.4
Utah6Trump-17.9-20.2-2.3
Tennessee11Trump-31.8-23.38.5
Alabama9Trump-26.0-25.60.4
Kentucky8Trump-27.7-26.01.7
South Dakota3Trump-29.8-26.23.6
Arkansas6Trump-29.8-27.62.2
Idaho4Trump-26.9-30.8-3.9
Oklahoma7Trump-36.4-33.13.3
North Dakota3Trump-35.7-33.42.4
West Virginia5Trump-41.7-39.02.7
Wyoming3Trump-46.3-43.42.9
Average  Trump+3.6Trump+0.8D+2.8

As Table 1 reveals, Biden-Harris won 25 states and the District of Columbia (“DC”) by an average of 17.4 points, while Trump-Pence won 25 states by an average of 19.8 points; medians are 14.6—reflecting the 86.8-point margin in DC—and 18.6, respectively. Biden-Harris won seven states and DC totaling 97 EV by 20 or more points, while Trump-Pence won 11 states totaling 65 EV by that margin.

Biden-Harris won 19 states, DC and the 2nd Congressional district in Nebraska by at least 6.0 points, for a total of 228 EV. Add Nevada (6) and Michigan (16), which the Democratic ticket won by ~2.5 points, below their national margin, and the total increases to 250 EV.

At around 10:30 am EST on Saturday, November 7, the major news networks declared Biden-Harris the projected winner in Pennsylvania—and its 20 EV put Biden-Harris over the total of 270 needed to win the presidency. It also makes Pennsylvania—the state in which I was born—the “tipping point” state, as it puts Biden-Harris over 270 EV when states are ranked from most to least Democratic. But the margin stands at just 1.0 points, or just 68,903 votes; Biden-Harris also won Wisconsin (0.6 points), Arizona and Georgia (0.3 points each) by similarly small margins. The Democratic ticket has a total winning margin of 104,025 votes in these four states.

In the 25 states, plus DC, won by the Democratic ticket, the average increase in margin from 2016 was 3.4 points, while in states won by the Republican ticket the average increase was 2.1 points; overall, the average margin shift was 2.8 points. In the five states which switched from Republican to Democratic, the average increase was 3.0 points, led by a 3.8-point increase in Arizona and a 5.4-point increase in Georgia. While Biden-Harris lost North Carolina by 1.4 points and Texas by 5.7 points, they improved the margin by 2.3 and 3.3 points, respectively.

However, while Biden-Harris improved on the 2016 margins by an average 3.7 points in these four southeastern/southwestern states—states I suggested were fertile ground for Democrats—they basically held serve in Iowa (D+1.2) and Ohio (no change), while falling further behind in Florida (D-2.2); I will not speculate what role undelivered ballots in Miami-Dade County played in the latter state. This should not be surprising, as these were perhaps the most disappointing states for Democrats during the otherwise “blue wave” 2018 midterm elections.

In 2016, Trump-Pence won 306 EV by winning six states Obama-Biden won in 2012: the aforementioned Florida, Iowa and Ohio, plus Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. The latter were decided by a combined 77,736 votes; Clinton-Kaine also lost Georgia by 211,141 votes and Arizona by 91,234 votes. In 2020, as Table 2 shows, Biden-Harris won the former three states—more than enough to give them an Electoral College victory—by a combined 233,945 votes: a shift of 311,681 votes, or just 0.2% of all votes cast. But the Democratic ticket also increased their margin in Arizona by 101,691 votes and in Georgia by a remarkable 226,296 votes.

Table 2: Changes in Margin from 2016 to 2020 in Five Key States

State2016 Dem Margin2020 Dem MarginIncrease, 2016-20
Michigan-10,704+144,532+155,236
Pennsylvania-44,284+68,903+113,187
Wisconsin-22,748+20,510+43,258
Arizona-91,234+10,457+101,691
Georgia-212,141+14,155+226,296
TOTAL-381,111+258,557+639,668

Overall, across these five states, the margin swung toward the Democratic ticket by about 640,000 votes, which is still less than 1% of all votes cast. But we can get even more granular than that. Early in 2017, I observed that in the three states that swung the 2016 election to Trump-Pence, the Clinton-Kaine ticket did about as well in the Democratic core counties—the urban centers of Detroit, Milwaukee/Madison and Philadelphia/Pittsburgh—as Obama-Biden had in 2012. What changed was a massive increase in Republican turnout in the other, more rural counties of those states. I ultimately concluded this resulted from a split between white voters with a college degree (more Democratic suburban/urban) and without a college degree (more Republican rural).

Table 3: Changes in Margin from 2016 to 2020 in Pennsylvania Counties

County2016 D Margin2020 D MarginIncrease, 2016-20
Phila Suburbs   
Bucks+2,699+17,415+14,716
Chester+25,568+53,598+28,030
Delaware+66,735+87,066+20,331
Montgomery+93,351+133,343+39,992
TOTAL+188,353+291,422+103,069
    
Major Urban   
Philadelphia+475,277+457,649-17,628
Allegheny+108,137+146,706+38,569
TOTAL+583,414+604,355+20,941
    
All Other Counties-816,051-826,874-10,283
TOTAL-44,284+68,903+113,187

Table 3 shows just how this split played out in 2020, using Pennsylvania as an example. Compared to 2016, the margins for the Democratic ticket increased only at 21,000 votes in the heavily urban Democratic counties of Allegheny (Pittsburgh) and Philadelphia. And the 61 counties outside these two counties, excepting the four-county ring around Philadelphia, also held serve for the Republican ticket; Erie and Northampton Counties switched, barely, from Trump-Pence to Biden-Harris. In fact, the two parties may have reach voted saturation in these two areas. But those four suburban Philadelphia counties, swung even further toward the Democratic ticket, from a margin of 188,353 votes to nearly 291,422 votes, for a total increase of 103,069 votes, nearly the entire swing from 2016 to 2020.

What about the polling?

With most of the vote counted, Biden-Harris lead Trump-Pence nationally by 3.6 points, which is 4.6 points lower than my final weighted-adjusted polling average (“WAPA”) of 8.2 points.

For my final post tracking national and state polling of the 2020 presidential election, I estimated the probability Biden-Harris would win a given state. In 24 states/DC totaling 279 EV, the probability was at least 94.7%; Biden-Harris won all of them. In 20 states totaling 126 EV, the probability was 1.3% or less; Trump-Pence won all them. The remaining seven states were:

  • Florida (80.1%), which Biden-Harris lost
  • Arizona (77.5%), which Biden-Harris won
  • North Carolina (69.0%), which Biden-Harris lost
  • Georgia (56.4%), which Biden-Harris won
  • Ohio (39.1%), Iowa (37.0%) and Texas (28.4%), each of which Trump-Pence won

Florida and North Carolina were the only “misses,” though it should be noted Trump-Pence still had a non-trivial 19.9% and 31.0% chance, respectively, to win those states. Further, my final back-of-the-envelope EV estimate was 348.5 for Biden-Harris—subtracting the 44 combined EV of Florida and North Carolina essentially gets you to 306. The latter value is also very close to the 297.5 EV I estimated Biden-Harris would receive if all polls overestimated Democratic strength by 3.0 points.

Along those lines, my 2020 election cheat sheets included a projected Democratic-minus-Republican margin (“JBWM”), which adjusts final WAPA for undecided votes, along with recent polling errors in selected states. Compared to the final FiveThirtyEight.com margins/polling averages (“538”), JBWM margins were about 1.2 points more Republican.

Even so, as Table 4 shows, the JBWM margins were, on average, 3.4 points more Democratic than the final margins, and the 538 margins were 4.6 points more Democratic. When the direction of the difference is ignored, meanwhile, the differences between the two method vanish: an average absolute difference of 4.5 from JBWM margins compared to 4.8 for 538.

However, this overall difference masks a stark partisan difference: the mean JBWM difference was only 1.1 points more Democratic in states/DC won by Biden-Harris, while it was 5.9 points more Democratic in states won by Trump-Pence. The correlation between the Biden-Harris margin and the JBWM difference is 0.73, meaning the more Republican the state, the better Trump-Pence did relative to the final polling. In short, pollsters continue to undercount “Trump Republicans” in the most Republican states.

Table 4: 2020 Presidential Election Results by State, Ranked by Difference from JBWM Democratic-Republican Margin “Projection”

StateEVWinnerJBWM ProjectionBiden-Harris MarginDelta
West Virginia5Trump-20.4-39.0-18.6
New York29Biden28.313.7-14.6
Wyoming3Trump-32.1-43.4-11.3
South Dakota3Trump-15.6-26.2-10.6
North Dakota3Trump-23.2-33.3-10.1
Montana3Trump-7.1-16.4-9.3
Kentucky8Trump-17.2-26.0-8.8
Oklahoma7Trump-24.9-33.1-8.2
Texas38Trump1.6-5.7-7.3
Utah6Trump-12.9-20.2-7.3
Alabama9Trump-18.6-25.6-7.0
Indiana11Trump-9.6-16.1-6.5
Tennessee11Trump-16.9-23.3-6.4
Nevada6Biden8.62.4-6.2
Missouri10Trump-9.6-15.6-6.0
Kansas6Trump-10.2-15.1-4.9
Idaho4Trump-26.0-30.8-4.8
New Jersey14Biden19.515.5-4.0
Maine4Biden (3)12.58.7-3.8
Mississippi6Trump-14.1-17.8-3.7
Florida29Trump0.2-3.4-3.6
Alaska3Trump-6.7-10.1-3.4
Iowa6Trump-5.0-8.2-3.2
Connecticut7Biden23.020.1-2.9
Louisiana8Trump-15.8-18.6-2.8
South Carolina9Trump-8.9-11.7-2.8
Wisconsin10Biden3.20.6-2.6
Arizona11Biden2.90.3-2.6
Washington12Biden21.719.3-2.4
Hawaii4Biden31.629.5-2.1
Ohio18Trump-6.2-8.2-2.0
Michigan16Biden4.42.6-1.8
New Hampshire4Biden8.97.4-1.5
Nebraska5Biden (4)-17.8-19.2-1.4
Massachusetts11Biden34.333.0-1.3
Oregon7Biden17.516.2-1.3
New Mexico5Biden12.010.8-1.2
Pennsylvania20Biden2.21.0-1.2
Delaware3Biden20.219.0-1.2
Virginia13Biden11.210.1-1.1
Minnesota10Biden7.97.1-0.8
Georgia16Biden0.60.3-0.3
North Carolina15Trump-1.1-1.4-0.3
Illinois20Biden16.216.60.4
California55Biden29.129.60.5
Arkansas6Trump-29.1-27.61.5
Maryland10Biden30.231.91.7
Rhode Island4Biden19.020.71.7
Colorado9Biden11.413.52.1
Vermont3Biden28.835.46.6
DC3Biden74.986.611.7
Average  Biden+2.6Trump+0.8D-3.4

To again get more granular, Table 5 lists the pollsters who assessed the national popular vote at least five times since January 1, 2019, sorted by distance from the actual national margin of 3.6%. Margins are weighted for time, but not adjusted for partisan “bias.”

Table 5: Top 2020 Presidential Election Pollsters, Final WAPA National Margin

Pollster538 RatingFinal MarginDelta
OpiniumC+14.1-10.5
NORC (AllAdults only)C+11.3-7.7
CNN/SSRSB/C11.1-7.5
QriouslyC+10.5-6.9
USC DornsifeB/C10.4-6.8
Quinnipiac UniversityB+10.4-6.8
NBC News/Wall Street JournalA-10.1-6.5
Global Strategy Group/GBAO (Navigator Res)C+9.9-6.3
Data for ProgressB-9.8-6.2
Redfield & Wilton StrategiesC+9.6-6.0
ABC News/Washington PostA+9.2-5.6
Marist CollegeA+9.1-5.5
Echelon InsightsC+8.8-5.2
SurveyUSAA8.8-5.2
IpsosB-8.5-4.9
LégerC+8.4-4.8
Change ResearchC-8.3-4.7
Fox NewsA-8.3-4.7
YouGovB8.2-4.6
Research Co.B-7.8-4.2
PureSpectrumC+7.6-4.0
Morning ConsultB/C7.6-4.0
Monmouth UniversityA+7.4-3.8
Firehouse Strategies/OptimusB/C7.4-3.8
RMG ResearchB/C7.1-3.5
Harris XC6.5-2.9
Suffolk UniversityA6.2-2.6
IBD/TIPPA/B5.5-1.9
Emerson CollegeA-3.8-0.2
Zogby*C+3.60.0
Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion ResearchC+3.20.4
CiviqsB/C3.10.5
AverageB/B-8.2-4.5

           * John Zogby Strategies/EMI Solutions, Zogby Analytics, Zogby Interactive/JV Analytics

These 32 pollsters accounted for 556 (80.6%) of the 690 polls conducted. On average, they estimated Biden-Harris would win the national popular vote by 8.2 points, identical to my final WAPA; the average miss was 4.5 points in favor of Biden-Harris. There was only minimal difference by pollster quality: the 11 pollsters with a rating of B or better missed by an average of 4.2 points, while the 21 pollsters with a rating of B- or lower missed by an average of 4.7 points. That said, three of the four pollsters who came closest to the final national margin—Zogby, Rasmussen and Civiqs—had ratings of B/C or C+; the fourth was Emerson College, rated A-. At the other end of the spectrum are seven pollsters who anticipated a double-digit national popular vote win for Biden-Harris: low-rated Opinium, NORC (who polled adults, not registered/likely voters), CNN/SSRS, Qriously and USC Dornsife; and high-rated Quinnipiac University and NBC News/Wall Street Journal.

Overall, though, the polling captured the broad contours of the 2020 presidential election—if not the precise margins—fairly well, with JBWM and actual Democratic margins correlated a near-perfect 0.99; the order of states from most to least Democratic was accurately predicted. It forecast a solid, if not spectacular win by Biden-Harris in the national popular vote, a restoration of the upper Midwestern “blue wall,” and continued Democratic gains in southeastern/southwestern states such as Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas, even as Florida, Iowa and Ohio become more Republican.

One final note: it is exceedingly difficult to beat an elected incumbent president. Since 1952, it had happened only twice (1980, 1992) in eight chances prior to 2020[1]; Biden-Harris beat those 1:3 odds convincingly.

Senate elections

Democrats entered 2020 needing to flip a net four seats—or three seats plus the White House—to regain the majority for the first time since 2014. As Vice-President-elect, Kamala Harris breaks a 50-50 tie.

Table 6: 2020 Senate Election Results by State, Ranked from Highest to Lowest Democratic Margin, Compared to Pre-Election “Fundamentals”

StateWinnerFundamentalsFinal Dem MarginDelta
Rhode IslandReed24.433.08.6
MassachusettsMarkey28.532.94.4
DelawareCoons18.921.52.6
OregonMerkley15.117.62.5
IllinoisDurbin21.116.9-4.2
New JerseyBooker18.415.8-2.6
New HampshireShaheen6.515.79.2
VirginiaWarner7.912.04.1
ColoradoHickenlooper1.89.37.5
New MexicoLujan8.56.1-2.4
MinnesotaSmith5.75.2-0.5
ArizonaKelly-8.32.410.7
MichiganPeters8.61.5-7.1
Georgia Special???-8.0-1.07.0
Georgia???-10.0-1.78.3
North CarolinaTillis-6.4-1.74.7
IowaErnst-5.1-6.6-1.5
MaineCollis5.5-8.9-14.4
TexasCornyn-15.7-9.85.9
MontanaDaines-19.0-10.09.0
South CarolinaGraham-16.1-10.35.8
MississippiHyde-Smith-18.1-11.26.9
KansasMarshall-21.4-11.99.5
AlaskaSullivan-19.6-12.96.7
KentuckyMcConnell-29.1-19.59.6
AlabamaTuberville-24.2-20.63.6
LouisianaCassidy-22.6-25.9-3.3
TennesseeHagerty-23.8-27.1-3.3
IdahoRisch-34.6-29.35.3
OklahomaInhofe-38.5-30.28.3
South DakotaRounds-26.2-31.5-5.3
ArkansasCotton-28.6-33.3-4.7
NebraskaSasse-26.2-41.3-15.1
West VirginiaCapito-35.9-43.3-7.4
WyomingLummis-43.7-46.1-2.4
AverageD+1 to 3GOP+8.9GOP+7.0D+1.9

Table 1 summarizes these elections; for the Georgia special election and Louisiana, margins are for all Democrats and all Republicans. Democrats John Hickenlooper and Mark Kelly defeated Republican incumbents in Colorado (Cory Gardner) and Arizona (Martha McSally), respectively, while Republican Tommy Tuberville defeated Democratic incumbent Doug Jones in Alabama. This leaves Democrats two seats shy of 50-50, pending the January 5 runoff elections in Georgia. Incumbent Republican David Perdue edged Ossoff on November 3 by 1.7 points, but fell 0.3 points short of the 50.0% needed to win outright. In the special election necessitated by the retirement of Republican Johnny Isaakson in December 2019, Warnock (32.9%) led incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler (25.9%) by 7.0 points in the all-candidate “jungle primary;” overall, Republican candidates earned 49.4% of the vote and Democratic candidates earned 48.4%, with 2.2% split between a handful of third-party candidates.

When I took a “wicked early” look at these elections, I assessed the Democrat’s chance in each election using their “fundamentals,” or the sum of the state’s partisan lean (calculated using my 3W-RDM), the Democratic margin on the generic ballot and incumbency advantage.[2] For Table 6, the generic ballot is the difference in the percentages of the total vote for all Democratic House candidates and for all Republican House candidates; Democrats are ahead by 2.0 points.

On average, Democrats overperformed “expected” margins by 1.9 points. In the 13 elections won by Democrats, the overperformance was 2.5 points, while in the 20 elections won by Republicans, the overperformance was just 0.9 points; Democrats overperformed in the two Georgia Senate races by 7.0 and 8.3 points, confirming how rapidly it is moving toward swing-state status. The biggest Democratic overperformance—fully 10.7 points—was in Arizona, which in 2021 will have two Democratic Senators (both of whom beat McSally) for the first time since 1953. Other Senate elections in which the Democratic candidate overperformed by at least 9.0 points were New Hampshire, and three states where Democrats fell short in their attempt to win back a Republican-held seat: Montana, Kansas and Kentucky.

On the flip side, setting aside a 15.1-point underperfomance in Nebraska, the biggest Republican overperformance was in Maine, where incumbent Susan Collins, first elected in 1996, “should” have lost by 5.5 points. Instead, she won by 8.9 points; this is a 28-point decline from 2014, when Collins won by 37 points. Pending the results of the Georgia runoff elections, Maine is the only state in 2020 to have a Democratic presidential victory and a Republican Senate victory, with a gap of 17.6 points. It will be interesting to see whether Collins adjusts her voting in the next Senate. Other large Democratic underperformances, finally, took place in Michigan, where first-term Democratic Senator Gary Peters beat Republican John James by only 1.5 points and in West Virginia, which grows more Republican every year.

On the whole, though, expected and actual margins aligned nearly perfectly, with a 0.94 correlation.

What about the polling?

As with the presidential election, the final polling averages/projected margins were far less accurate, as Table 7 shows; I did not calculate a projected final margin for the Louisiana Senate election.

Table 7: 2020 Senate Election Results by State, Ranked by Difference from JBWM Democratic-Republican Margin “Projection”

StateWinnerJBWM ProjectionDemocratic MarginDelta
West VirginiaCapito-20.6-43.3-22.7
WyomingLummis-30.2-46.1-15.9
MaineCollins3.3-8.9-12.2
South DakotaRounds-19.9-31.5-11.6
NebraskaSasse-30.8-41.3-10.5
KentuckyMcConnell-9.7-19.5-9.8
OklahomaInhofe-20.5-30.2-9.7
AlaskaSullivan-3.7-12.9-9.2
AlabamaTuberville-11.5-20.6-9.1
New JerseyBooker24.615.8-8.8
MontanaDaines-1.3-10.0-8.7
DelawareCoons29.621.5-8.1
TexasCornyn-2.3-9.8-7.5
IllinoisDurbin23.716.9-6.8
KansasMarshall-5.4-11.9-6.5
South CarolinaGraham-4.7-10.3-5.6
TennesseeHagerty-21.9-27.1-5.2
MississippiHyde-Smith-6.4-11.2-4.8
ArizonaKelly6.62.4-4.2
New MexicoLujan10.06.1-3.9
Georgia???1.7-1.7-3.4
MichiganPeters4.71.5-3.2
IdahoRisch-26.1-29.3-3.2
MinnesotaSmith8.45.2-3.2
VirginiaWarner15.112.0-3.1
IowaErnst-3.6-6.6-3.0
North CarolinaTillis1.1-1.7-2.8
OregonMerkley20.017.6-2.4
ArkansasCotton-33.0-33.3-0.3
ColoradoHickenlooper9.39.30.0
MassachusettsMarkey31.432.91.5
New HampshireShaheen14.415.71.3
Georgia Special???-3.9-1.02.9
Rhode IslandReed29.633.03.4
AverageDem+1 to 3GOP+0.6GOP+6.4D-5.8

The polling may have been within historic parameters for the presidential election, but it was far worse in the Senate elections, with the JBWM margins overestimating Democratic margins by an average of 5.8 points, almost exactly the 6.0 points by which 538 margins erred on average; ignoring direction, the average misses are 6.3 and 7.0 points, respectively. That said, the correlation between the actual and projected Democratic margins was 0.97, meaning the polling correctly forecast the order of Senate elections from most to least Democratic.

These overall averages again mask substantial partisan differences. In the 13 states where the Democratic nominee won, the average miss was a historically-reasonable -2.9 points, but in the 19 states (excluding Louisiana) where the Republican nominee won, the average miss was an astounding -8.3 points. Put another way, in the 15 states Trump-Pence won by at least 10 points which also held a Senate election, the average Senate miss was -8.9 points, while it was -3.3 points in all other states. Somewhat reassuringly, in the five states whose presidential margin was within five points also holding a Senate election (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, North Carolina), the miss was only -2.2 points. Overall, the correlation between the Biden-Harris margin and the JBWM margin error was 0.57, confirming the idea pollsters systematically undercounted Republican support in the most Republican states.

My back-of-the-envelope estimate was a net gain of five Democratic seats in the Senate, with at least a 77% chance Democrats would regain control; these values dropped to 30% and either two or three seats with the assumption all polls systematically overestimated Democratic strength by three points. Democrats will ultimately net between one and three seats, corresponding more with the latter assumption. I estimate the probability Democrats win both Georgia Senate runoff elections—and thus the Senate—is between 25 and 50%, depending on the degree of ticket-splitting.

From a purely mathematical perspective, the largest Democratic underperformances occurred in the Senate elections in West Virginia, Wyoming, South Dakota and Nebraska: four extremely Republican states. But from a strategic perspective, the most disappointing elections were in Maine (-12.2) and North Carolina (-2.8), where incumbent Republican Thom Tillis narrowly held off a challenge from Democrat Cal Cunningham, who may have been hurt by a sexting scandal; given the narrowness of his victory (1.7 points) and the increasingly swing status of North Carolina, Tillis’ voting patterns also merit watching. These were the two states besides Arizona (98.1%) and Colorado (99.5%) in which I estimated the Democratic nominee had at least an 85% chance to defeat a Republican incumbent; I also thought Democrat Theresa Greenfield was roughly even money to defeat incumbent Republican Joni Ernst, despite projecting a final margin of 3.6 points for Ernst; the latter won by 6.6 points.

There were four additional Senate elections—in Alaska, Kansas (open seat), Montana and South Carolina—where I estimated the probability of a Democratic flip was between 11.7 and 26.4%. In a sign of how good these elections were for Republicans, their nominees won all four elections by an average of 11.3 points, a mean 7.5 points more Republican than projected. In fairness, these states tilted an average 19.2 points more Republican than the nation as a whole coming into the 2020 elections. A similar story can be told in Texas, which tilted 15.3 points more Republican, but where Democrat M.J. Hegar “only” lost by 9.8 points to incumbent Republican John Cornyn, beating expectations by 0.6 points.

Put simply, assuming a loss in Alabama, Democratic hopes of winning back control of the Senate relied on flipping two Senate seats in Democratic states, then winning at least two more seats in states ranging from somewhat Republican—Iowa, North Carolina, Arizona, Georgia—to extremely Republican—Alaska, Kansas, Montana, South Carolina and Texas—all while Trump sought reelection. To date, Democrats have only flipped seats in Colorado (D+2.2) and Arizona (D-9.7) while winning back the Vice-Presidency, losing tough elections in Iowa, Maine and North Carolina, while never really being in contention anywhere else. Senate control now rests on Democrats winning two Senate runoff elections in a nominally Republican state (D-9.6), but one where Biden-Harris won, improving on Clinton-Kaine’s by 5.4 points.

Gubernatorial elections

Unlike those for the White House and Senate, there was very little drama in these elections. Two Democratic incumbents—John Carney of Delaware and Jay Inslee of Washington—were expected to win easily; they won by margins of 20.9 and 13.6 points, respectively. Six Republican incumbents—Eric Holcomb of Indiana, Mike Parson of Missouri, Chris Sununu of New Hampshire, Doug Burgum of North Dakota, Phil Scott of Vermont and Jim Justice of West Virginia—as well as Republican Spencer Cox of Utah were expected to win easily, though I projected Parson to win by “only” 8.0 points (he won by 16.6 points). They won their elections by an average margin of 31.6 points!

The only possible drama was in Montana, where Republican Gianforte and Democrat Mike Cooney vied to win the governor’s mansion being vacated by Democrat Bullock, and North Carolina, where Democratic Governor Roy Cooper—who won extremely narrowly in 2016—faced Republican Dan Forest. Gianforte defeated Cooney by 12.4 points, easily exceeding a projected 4.5 points, while Cooper won by 4.5 points, not the projected 10.4 points. Still, my global projection was correct: a net gain of one governor’s mansion by the Republicans, giving them a 27-23 majority; this an overall net gain of seven governor’s mansions by the Democrats since 2016.

In these elections, Republicans strongly overperformed fundamentals (7.1 points) and JBWM projections (7.6 points). However, expected values were strongly skewed by Scott’s 41.1-point victory in extremely-Democratic Vermont (D+27.7) and Sununu’s 31.8-point victory in swing New Hampshire (D+0.1); exclude those two margins and DEMOCRATS overperformed expectations by 1.0 points—with Democrat Ben Salango exceeding what were admittedly very low expectations by 8.5 points. Meanwhile, in the four states with governor’s races won by Biden-Harris, Democratic gubernatorial nominees finished an average 8.9 points lower than projected, while in the seven states won by Trump-Pence, they finished an average 6.8 points worse than expected. Once again, the extreme disparity in presidential/Senate and gubernatorial voting in New Hampshire and Vermont—two of three states in solidly-Democratic New England, along with Massachusetts (Charlie Baker), to have very popular Republican governors. In fact, gubernatorial elections are among the only ones in which ticket-splitting is still relatively common: Biden-Harris won six states with a Republican governor,[3] while Trump-Pence won five states with a Democratic governor.[4]

House elections

A wide range of forecasters expected Democrats to net between five and 10 House seats[5]. I was highly dubious of this, to be honest, given the likelihood the margin for Democrats in the total national House vote would decline from the 8.6-point margin they earned in 2018; it would also be higher than the 1.1 points by which they lost in 2016, when they still managed to net six seats. However, because I was not closely tracking House races, I said nothing about my doubts.

According to the Cook House vote tracker, Democrats had earned more than 75.1 million House votes (50.1%), Republicans had earned just under 72.1 million votes (48.0%), with the nearly 2.2 million votes (1.8%) going to third-party candidates. A total of 150.0 million votes have been counted, 5.1 million less than those cast in the presidential election. The 2.0-point margin by which Democrats are winning the House vote—just under 3.1 million votes—is also lower than the 3.6 points, and 5.6 million votes by which Biden-Harris currently lead Trump-Pence. It is also much lower than the 9.7-million Democratic vote margin in 2018, albeit with 36.3 million more votes cast in 2020, reinforcing the conclusion a few million Republican-leaning voters “balanced” a vote for Biden-Harris with Republican votes elsewhere…or simply chose not to vote in down-ballot elections.

In the races that have already called, Republicans have gained 11 seats held by Democrats (two each in California and Florida, one each in Iowa, Minnesota, New Mexico, New York, Oklahoma, South Carolina and Utah), while Democrats have gained three seats held by Republicans (two in North Carolina, one in Georgia). This gives Democrats 221 seats, three more than needed for the majority, and Republicans 208 seats. Of the six seats yet to be called, Democrats currently hold four, with freshman Democrat Tom Malinowski leading by ~5,000 votes in New Jersey’s 7th Congressional District (“CD”). Giving that seat to the Democrats—and giving Republicans their open seat in New York’s 2nd CD—increases the totals to 222 Democrats and 209 Republicans.

That leaves four seats truly in doubt:

  • California’s 21st CD, where incumbent Democrat T.J. Cox trails Republican David Valadao, in a 2018 rematch, by 2,065 votes.
  • California’s 25th CD, where Democrat Christy Smith is within 104 votes of unseating Republican Mike Garcia, who won a special election in May 2020 after first-term Democrat Katie Hill resigned.
  • Iowa’s 2nd CD, where Democrat Dave Loebsack did not seek reelection; Republican Mariannette Miller-Meeks leads Democrat Rita Hart by only 47 votes!
  • New York’s 22nd CD, where Republican Claudia Tenney’s lead over incumbent Democrat Anthony Brindisi continues to shrink as New York votes are slowly counted.

Democrats will thus lose a net 8-12 seats compared to the 234-201 margin they had after the 2018 elections. This is a bad result for the Democrats, right?

Well, no…it suggests that polling-based expectations were flawed, because the fundamentals always pointed toward a net loss of House seats for the Democrats. Moreover, the comparison should be to 2016, because that is the last election in which Trump appeared on the ballot.

Following the 2016 elections, Republicans had a 241-194 House majority. Democrats were convinced, wrongly I thought, that gerrymandering by Republican legislators and governors would keep them in the minority for the foreseeable future. Looking ahead to the 2018 midterm elections, knowing Democrats needed to net 24 seats to regain the majority, I looked at all House elections from 1968 to 2016, and I noticed that what “predicted” net change in seats from one election to the next was not the national margin in a given election, but the change in that margin from the previous election. Figure 1 helps to illustrate this.

Figure 1:

In 2018, Democrats net a surprisingly-high 41 House seats, 17 more than they needed, most by narrow margins. It is then reasonable to expect that even a small decline in the Democratic share of the total national House vote would allow Republicans to “claw back” some of these seats Democrats currently lead the total national House vote by 2.0 points, fully 6.6-point decrease f 2018. Entering this value into the OLS regression shown in Figure 1 yields an estimated Democratic loss of 22.4 seats.

In other words, while Democrats expected to gain seats—based on what we now know was polling that underestimated Republican margins by 3-7 points—they should actually have been bracing themselves for a possible loss of the House itself. Instead, they “only” lost between eight and 12 seats, meaning they did far better than history would have suggested. Moreover, Democrats have net between 29 and 33 seats since 2016, earning control of the House in back-to-back elections for the first time since 2006-2008, something that seemed nearly impossible early in 2017.

Summary

Both Democrats and Republicans can find 2020 election results to celebrate.

Democrats won back the White House after just four years (beating 1:3 odds to defeat an incumbent), rebuilding their upper-Midwestern blue wall while expanding into the southeast and southwest; no Democratic presidential nominee has won both Arizona and Georgia since 1948. They also maintained control of the House of Representatives and made gains in the Senate; with two more wins in Georgia in January 2021, they regain control of the Senate as well. Democrats have not controlled both the White House and House since 2010.

Republicans, even as they lost the White House, gained as many as 12 seats in the House and staved off losing control of the Senate until January 2021 at the earliest. They net one governor’s mansion, giving them a 27-23 majority, and held their own in state legislative elections. Once again, Trump’s name on the ballot encouraged many more exurban and rural voters to vote than expected, ironically helping all Republicans but himself and his running mate.

Fans of bipartisan “balance” can also celebrate 11 states seeing different parties win their state’s electoral votes and serving as governor. Moreover, a record-smashing 155.1 million—and counting—Americans cast a ballot for president, which equates to two in three of all adults eligible to vote.

Finally, the polls erred substantially in favor of Republicans, with a miss of around 3.5 points compared to my final projections and 4.7 points relative to those from 538. Republicans fared even better in Senate and gubernatorial elections, beating final projections by around six points in the former and nearly eight points in the latter. These values mask a partisan split, with polls far more accurate for Democratic candidates than Republican ones. In the end, though, polls were far less accurate—in this Trump-led cycle at least—than simply considering a state’s recent partisan lean, the national partisan environment and incumbency. These fundamentals remain extremely predictive, at least relatively.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…


[1] 1956, 1972, 1980, 1984, 1992, 1996, 2004, 2012

[2] Democratic full-term incumbents=4.4, Democratic partial-term incumbents=2.2, non-incumbent=0, Republican partial-term incumbents=–0.4, -0.6, -1.6; Republican full-term incumbents=-2.4

[3] Arizona, Georgia, Maryland, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Vermont

[4] Kansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, Montana, North Carolina

[5] The Cook Political Report hedged a bit, labeling 229 seats at least Lean Democrat, 179 seats at least Lean Republican, and 27 seats Toss-up. Of the Toss-ups, nine are held by Democrats, 17 by Republicans, and one by Justin Amash of Michigan, who switched from Republican to Independent in July 2019.

Your 2020 Election Cheat Sheets

Election Day 2020 has finally arrived. More accurately, the end of election season comes today, as over 100 million Americans have already voted. To help guide you through the coming hours of media coverage, I have attached two PDFs.

The first one allows you to track the results of the presidential election. For my last update and to understand how I aggregate all polls assessing Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden, Jr. versus Republican President Donald J. Trump, please see here.

The second one allows you to track, the results of the 36 Senatorial and 11 gubernatorial elections. In the column headed “538CL,” I list the final projected FiveThirtyEight.com Senate election margins using their “Classic” methodology. The analysts at 538 did not track gubernatorial elections this year. For my last update, see here.

Names of incumbents are underlined in italics, while, in open seats, the candidate of the incumbent’s party is in italics. Values highlighted in blue are projected Democratic gains, and values highlighted in red are projected Republican gains.

In both trackers, the column headed “JBWM” list my my best estimate of the final margins in each election, not the polling averages. In most states, this is essentially the same as the final polling average. Since my last update, I made two algorithm changes. First, I weight all poll conducted entirely after the final presidential debate on October 22 six times higher. Second, I halve the weight of any poll with a one-day field date.

However, in the 13 key Electoral College states of Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Iowa, Michigan, Minnesota, Nevada, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, Texas and Wisconsin, and in the key Senate battlegrounds of Alaska, Arizona, Colorado, Georgia, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Michigan, Minnesota, Mississippi, Montana, North Carolina and Texas, I began by assigning between 0.5 and 3.0 percent of the total vote to third party candidates, essentially eyeballing their polling percentages and cutting them in half. I then adjusted the final polling margin, for states for which I had this information, by the average 2016-2018 miss, as calculated by Dave Wasserman. Finally, I divided the remaining–usually minimal–undecided vote based on the relative Democratic or Republican lean of the state and the early vote count as a share of the 2016 vote totals. Put simply, in strong Democratic states with high turnout, I gave two-thirds of the undecideds to Biden, in strong Republican states with lower turnout I gave two-thirds of the undecideds to Trump, and where the two metrics diverged, I split them evenly.

With that in mind, here are some general observations.

  1. Maine and Nebraska assign two Electoral Votes (“EV”) to the statewide winner and one each to the winner of the state’s two and three Congressional districts (“CD”), respectively. I did not analyze polling data from the 2nd CD of Nebraska or the 2nd CD of Maine. While I expect Biden to win the former (and the 1st CD of Maine), I have no clear sense of who will win the latter; Trump will easily win the other two CD in Nebraska.
  2. My final “product of EV probabilities” sums are 348.5 using all polls conducted since January 1, 2019, and 350.6 using only polls conducted since the national party conventions concluded on August 28. With a systemic three-point polling error favoring Republicans, the EV total drops to 297.5, and with a systemic pro-Democratic error the EV total jumps to 391.2
  3. In my 2020 presidential election cheat sheet, Biden wins a total of 290 EV in states where I project him to win by at least 2.2 points, including NE-2; the latter state is Pennsylvania, with 20 EV–losing it drops Biden to exatly the 270 he needs to win. Note that I “award” North Carolina to Trump, while 538 has Biden slightly favored there. I am far less certain of three states whose 83 total EV–Florida, Georgia and Texas–I “award” to Biden by very narrow margins; 538 has Trump slightly favored in Texas. Honestly, Biden could win all four of these states, Trump could win all four, or any combination in between. Thus, by my calculations, Biden could win anywhere from 290 to 373 EV–very close to my six-point polling error spread.
  4. Recall that there are two Senate elections in Georgia, one scheduled between Democrat Jon Ossoff and Republican incumbent David Perdue, and one being defended by incumbent Republican Kelly Loeffler in which all candidates run in the same election. In the former, I “award” the win to Ossoff, but if neither candidate reaches 50%–and Libertarian Shane Hazel routinely earns ~3% in public polling–there will be a runoff election on January 5, 2021. In the latter race, it is a near certainty Democrat Raphael Warnock will advance to a runoff election on January 5, probably–but not certainly–against Loeffler. As of now, Warnock is the strong favorite to win that election.
  5. Louisiana also has a “jungle” primary for Senate, with a runoff between incumbent Republican Bill Cassidy (if he does not reach 50% today) and Democrat Adrian Perkins a near-certainty.
  6. I line up exactly with 538 on Senate races, though the Senate race in Iowa is quite close. We both anticipate the next Senate to have 50 Democrats, plus two Independents who caucus with them, and 48 Republicans.
  7. However–keep an eye on Montana. Democratic Governor Steve Bullock is a very slight underdog against incumbent Republican Steve Daines, but could also easily eke out a narrow win. And the only remotely competitive governor’s race–an open seat battle between Democratic Lieutenant Governor Mike Cooney versus House Member Republican Greg Gianforte–is being held there as well.

And that is it.

Time to prepare a batch of blue lagoons, ready my bowl of blue and white M&M’s and settle in for a long night…or week.

Until next time…please stay safe, and if you have not done so already, please VOTE!

Biden is now the clear favorite to win the 2020 presidential election

On November 3, 2020, a weeks-long presidential election between incumbent Republican Donald J. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., will end. As I write this, more than 23 million Americans—including yours truly—have already cast their ballots. This number is just over 1/6 of total votes cast in 2016.

Following an extremely contentious first presidential debate on September 29, and dueling town hall events on October 15, here is an updated assessment of the 2020 presidential election; you may find my previous assessment here. Assessments are based upon 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.

A total of 606 national polls assessing Biden vs. Trump have been conducted since January 1, 2019,[1] of which:

  • 499 have been conducted since January 1, 2020
  • 140 have been conducted entirely since the end of the national party conventions on August 28
  • 44 have been conducted entirely since the first presidential debate

The 70+ pollsters who have assessed this election at least once have an average B- FiveThirtyEight pollster rating, as do the 50+ pollsters who have assessed the election multiple times.

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.[2] I weight more recent polls higher, using the 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. Polls conducted after August 28, but before September 30, are weighted 1.5 times higher than prior polls, and polls conducted entirely after September 29 are weighted 3.0 times higher.

Figure 1

Using all polls conducted since January 1, 2019, Biden leads Trump nationally by 8.2 percentage points (“points”), with his lead rising to 8.8 points only using polls conducted since the conventions, and to 9.9 points only using the 46 polls with an October 2020 field date midpoint. Biden’s margin over Trump has risen 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 seven and 10 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.

**********

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. Now that SurveyMonkey—a D- pollster with a 5.0-point historic Democratic bias—has released a set of polls covering June, July, August and September, every state/DC has now been polled at least four times.

Table 1 reports two projected Democratic-minus-Republican margins and corresponding EV win percentage (“EV%”) for every state and DC: one using all polls conducted since January 1, 2019, and one using only polls conducted since the two national party conventions. The table is sorted from highest to lowest EV% using the larger set of polls. For margin and EV% calculations, see here.

Table 1: Projected 2020 Biden-Trump margins and likelihood of winning EV calculated two ways

StateMargin since 1/1/2019EV%Margin since 8/29/2020EV%
DC71.4100.0%70.7100.0%
Hawaii32.2100.0%34.6100.0%
Vermont26.8100.0%23.6100.0%
California28.4100.0%28.5100.0%
Maryland29.4100.0%30.9100.0%
Massachusetts34.0100.0%29.1100.0%
New York27.1100.0%31.4100.0%
Rhode Island16.8100.0%23.4100.0%
Illinois14.9100.0%19.0100.0%
Connecticut20.3100.0%20.3100.0%
Delaware21.0100.0%20.8100.0%
Washington21.1100.0%21.1100.0%
New Jersey19.3100.0%19.5100.0%
Oregon16.099.9%16.299.9%
New Mexico11.899.9%12.999.9%
Maine12.799.8%14.099.9%
Colorado11.699.7%11.499.7%
Virginia10.599.6%12.199.7%
Minnesota8.599.4%8.099.3%
New Hampshire7.899.0%8.999.4%
Michigan7.298.9%7.298.9%
Wisconsin5.896.8%6.698.2%
Pennsylvania5.596.1%5.896.7%
Nevada4.592.0%5.395.3%
Florida2.881.9%3.183.9%
Arizona2.881.9%3.486.2%
North Carolina1.871.7%1.973.4%
Ohio0.049.5%-0.839.0%
Georgia-0.148.8%0.049.7%
Iowa-0.839.0%-0.739.7%
Texas-2.225.0%-2.125.5%
Alaska-5.63.5%-5.63.6%
Missouri-6.91.6%-6.91.8%
South Carolina-7.70.9%-7.61.0%
Mississippi-12.80.5%-11.20.6%
Indiana-10.30.4%-9.10.6%
Montana-8.60.4%-8.80.4%
Kansas-12.20.2%-11.90.2%
Louisiana-12.30.1%-13.00.1%
Nebraska-17.30.0%-19.00.0%
South Dakota-22.10.0%-19.50.0%
Tennessee-17.30.0%-19.50.0%
Arkansas-18.00.0%-24.20.0%
Alabama-18.90.0%-20.10.0%
Kentucky-18.90.0%-20.90.0%
North Dakota-23.30.0%-21.30.0%
Utah-15.00.0%-15.20.0%
Idaho-26.00.0%-26.70.0%
West Virginia-21.50.0%-16.70.0%
Oklahoma-27.20.0%-27.00.0%
Wyoming-42.70.0%-36.40.0%

With just 17 days until Election Day 2020, Joe Biden is the clear favorite to be elected the 46th president of the United States. The most direct way for Biden to win the Electoral College is to win the 232 EV from the states won by Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton won in 2016, then add Michigan (98.9%), Wisconsin (96.8-98.2%) and Pennsylvania (96.1-96.7%); he could even lose Nevada (92.0-96.2%) and still win 273 EV, three more than necessary. Taking the product of the likelihood of victory for the states totaling 273 EV yields a minimum 89.5% probability Biden wins the Electoral College using all polls, which rises to 91.8% using only post-convention polls. These are very rough probabilities given how correlated voting behavior is across demographically-similar states, though they are broadly in line with other public estimates.

Moreover:

  • He is at least a 92.0% favorite in enough states—and by margins of at least 4.5 points—to earn him 278 or 279 EV, 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. At this point, Biden would already have won the presidency.
  • He is favored better than 4-1 to win the 11 EV of Arizona and the 29 EV of Florida, by around three points each, increasing Biden’s total to 318 or 319 EV.
  • He is favored 5-2 to win North Carolina, by a hair under two points, for an additional 15 EV, increasing Biden’s total to 333 or 334 EV.
  • The 40 combined EV of Ohio, Georgia and Iowa are essentially toss-ups, with projected margins of less than one point, increasing Biden’s total to between 339 and 375 EV; Biden has a roughly 81% chance of winning at least one of them. That said, winning Iowa would require a winning a solid majority of undecided voters, Ohio has been trending slightly away from Biden, and Georgia is literally 50-50.

Plus, it might take only a sharp break by undecided voters and a modest polling error for Biden to win the ultimate prize—Texas (-2.1). Thus, while something in the mid-300’s currently appears the most likely EV total for Biden, 413 (or more) EV cannot be discounted.

Using the simplistic—perhaps even simple-minded—method of multiplying Biden’s probability of winning each state by its EV, then summing, yields a “projected” EV total of just under 350 EV using both sets of polls, essentially adding Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Florida, Arizona, North Carolina, and one of Ohio/Georgia/Iowa to the states Clinton won.

Biden’s lead looks even stronger after making either of two historically-valid assumptions; calculation use all polls conducted since January 1, 2019:

Polls systematically overestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV drops to 300.8, 28.8 more than required, with a minimum “path of least resistance” probability of 51.0%. He would be favored at least 78.8% to win in enough states to win 273 EV. Thus, even if Biden “only” wins the national popular vote by 5.2 points, he would likely still prevail, though the decisive states of Wisconsin and Pennsylvania would be decided by relatively narrow margins, with all votes possibly not counted for a week or more. That Biden could win the national popular vote by more than five points, yet still only be a modest favorite to win at least 270 EV, demonstrates the recent Republican advantage in the Electoral College.

Polls systematically underestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV are a landslide-level 390.3, 120.3 more than necessary, with a minimum “path of least resistance” probability of 97.2%.  He would be favored at least 80% to win enough states to earn 368 EV, while being a 3-1 favorite in Iowa, for a total of 374 EV. Biden would even be a slight favorite (61.7%) in Texas, which he would be projected to win by 0.8 points. Biden would also have a 20.4% chance of winning Alaska’s 3 EV and a 10.4% chance of winning Missouri’s 10 EV. The last presidential candidate to come close to 426 EV was Republican George H. W. Bush, who won 426 EV in 1988.

**********

None of this is to say Biden is guaranteed to be elected the next president of the United States. Even with the massive surge in early voting, delays in mail delivery—allegedly orchestrated by the Postmaster General—could leave millions of votes uncounted because they did not arrive by November 3. Pennsylvania, the most likely “tipping point” state—the one giving either Biden or Trump the necessary 270 EV when states are ordered most to least Democratic—is already showing the strain of trying to establish absentee voting on the fly. Moreover, while Biden’s national polling lead has ranged between seven and 10 points since June 1, a last-minute “October surprise” could erase this lead, though this “e-mails” story is unlikely to be it.

Nonetheless, unlike Clinton in 2016, Biden has a sufficiently-wide range of paths to 270 EV that I estimate he is at least a 92% 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] I limit iterations of tracking polls only to those with non-overlapping field dates.

[2] I halve the number value assigned to a letter grade for any poll conducted since June 1, 2020 which samples adults instead of registered or likely voters.

As the 2020 presidential debates begin, Biden maintains a solid lead

On November 3, 2020, a weeks-long presidential election between incumbent Republican Donald J. Trump and his Democratic challenger, former Vice President Joseph R. Biden, Jr., will end. In fact, as I write this, more than 1 million Americans have already cast their ballots.

With the first presidential debate scheduled to begin at 9 pm EST on Tuesday, September 29 at Case Western University in Cleveland, OH, here is an updated assessment of the 2020 presidential election; my previous assessment may be found here. These assessments are based upon 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.

Table 1 lists the number of national polls assessing Biden vs. Trump conducted in each month of 2020 and in all of 2019, based upon the midpoint of polling field date; a handful of older polls were released since my last update. Sixty-eight pollsters, with an average B- FiveThirtyEight pollster rating, have assessed the 2020 presidential election at least once since January 1, 2019; 50 pollsters (mean B-/B) have assessed it more than once.

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

MonthBiden
2019107
January 202020
February 202025
March 202035
April 202050
May 202048
June 202062
July 202052
August 202079
September 202061
TOTAL539

Eighteen pollsters (mean B-/B) account for 73% of these polls, as well as 71% of the 432 polls conducted so far in 2020:

  • YouGov (B-), 69 polls (54 in 2020)
  • Morning Consult (B/C), 53 polls (47 in 2020)
  • Ipsos (B-), 39 polls (32 in 2020)
  • HarrisX (C), 31 polls (22 in 2020)
  • Emerson College (B+), 20 polls (8 in 2020)
  • Fox News; Beacon Research/Shaw & Company Research (A-), 19 polls (10 in 2020)
  • Change Research (C-), 18 polls (15 in 2020)
  • RMG Research (B/C), 17 polls (17 in 2020)
  • Data For Progress (B-), 16 polls (16 in 2020)
  • Rasmussen Reports/Pulse Opinion Research (C+), 16 polls (13 in 2020)
  • IBD/TIPP (A/B), 15 polls (10 in 2020)
  • Optimus/Firehouse Strategies (B/C), 14 polls (13 in 2020)
  • Redfield & Wilton Strategies (C+), 12 polls (12 in 2020)
  • Quinnipiac University (B+), 12 polls (8 in 2020)
  • Zogby Interactive/JV Analytics (C+), 11 polls (6 in 2020)
  • NBC News/Wall Street Journal (A-), 10 polls (8 in 2020)
  • ABC News/Washington Post (A+), 10 polls (7 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.[1] I weight more recent polls higher, using the 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 7.3 percentage points (“points”). This is very close to his September 2020 average of 7.2 points, down 1.7 points from his June peak. 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 seven 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.

**********

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 and since January 1, 2020, plus that state’s 3W-RDM, my estimate of how much more or less Democratic than the nation a state has voted over the last three presidential elections; five states[2] and DC have not yet been polled.

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

State3W-RDMOverall2020
Wisconsin0.79885
Michigan2.29682
Pennsylvania-0.48778
North Carolina-6.08774
Florida-3.47365
Arizona-9.76860
Texas-15.35843
Georgia-9.64136
Minnesota1.52625
Ohio-5.82622
California23.22519
Iowa-4.72417
Maine5.91613
New Hampshire0.11611
Colorado2.21513
Kentucky-28.71412
Virginia1.51410
South Carolina-15.71311
Nevada2.0139
Montana-18.61211
Missouri-15.9119
Massachusetts22.187
Utah-33.187
Washington12.186
New York21.677
New Jersey12.077
Kansas-23.466
Connecticut12.864
Alabama-28.455
Mississippi-18.555
Oklahoma-38.155
Indiana-16.344
Alaska-19.243
North Dakota-29.442
New Mexico6.533
Tennessee-25.833
Maryland22.633
Delaware12.522
Arkansas-28.211
Hawaii34.311
Idaho-34.211
Louisiana-22.211
Oregon8.711
Vermont27.711
West Virginia-35.511
TOTALD-5.6928791

Twenty-one states have been polled at least 10 times since January 1, 2019, of which 19 have been polled at least 10 times in 2020. The five most-polled states are the closest states won by Trump in 2016—Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida—plus suddenly-swing North Carolina. Five other Republican-leaning states have been frequently polled: Arizona, Georgia, Texas, Ohio and Iowa, reflecting their status as ongoing or emerging battlegrounds. Light-blue Minnesota and dark-blue California (54 EV), round out the 12 states polled at least 20 times overall.

National averages still matter, though, as Table 3 illustrates. 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 +7.3 = +1.3) suggests Biden is slightly favored to win North Carolina in 2020, based solely on its recent voting history. And, in fact, Biden leads Trump by an adjusted mean of 1.4 points in 87 polls conducted in North Carolina since January 1, 2019.

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

State3W-RDMExpectedWAPAWAPA-Expected
DC82.089.4  
Hawaii34.341.729.1-12.6
Vermont27.735.021.8-13.2
California23.230.528.3-2.1
Maryland22.629.929.2-0.7
Massachusetts22.129.434.34.9
New York21.628.925.9-3.0
Rhode Island18.025.3  
Illinois14.722.0  
Connecticut12.820.117.9-2.2
Delaware12.519.819.2-0.6
Washington12.119.423.54.1
New Jersey12.019.318.0-1.3
Oregon8.716.012.1-3.9
New Mexico6.513.812.5-1.3
Maine5.913.213.30.1
Michigan2.29.67.0-2.6
Colorado2.29.511.11.6
Nevada2.09.34.2-5.1
Minnesota1.58.88.80.0
Virginia1.58.88.90.1
Wisconsin0.78.05.6-2.5
New Hampshire0.17.44.6-2.8
Pennsylvania-0.46.95.1-1.9
Florida-3.43.92.5-1.4
Iowa-4.72.6-1.2-3.8
Ohio-5.81.50.6-0.9
North Carolina-6.01.31.40.1
Georgia-9.6-2.2-0.61.6
Arizona-9.7-2.43.05.4
Texas-15.3-7.9-1.86.1
South Carolina-15.7-8.3-7.80.5
Missouri-15.9-8.6-6.22.4
Indiana-16.3-9.0-14.3-5.3
Mississippi-18.5-11.1-11.20.0
Montana-18.6-11.3-7.93.4
Alaska-19.2-11.8-4.37.5
Louisiana-22.2-14.9-8.36.6
Kansas-23.4-16.1-8.57.7
Nebraska-25.8-18.5  
South Dakota-25.8-18.5  
Tennessee-25.8-18.5-14.54.0
Arkansas-28.2-20.9-3.517.4
Alabama-28.4-21.1-15.45.6
Kentucky-28.7-21.4-18.62.8
North Dakota-29.4-22.1-20.41.7
Utah-33.1-25.8-13.812.0
Idaho-34.2-26.9-24.72.2
West Virginia-35.5-28.1-34.3-6.2
Oklahoma-38.1-30.8-22.97.9
Wyoming-45.7-38.3  
AverageD-6.4Biden+1.7*Biden+2.4+0.7

        * Only for the 45 states with both measures

The correlation between the expected margin and WAPA is +0.96, meaning polling matches expectations extremely well—as one increases or decreases, so does the other. Still, Biden is polling slightly ahead of those fundamentals, on average, meaning state-level polling as a whole is slightly better for Biden than his excellent national polling; that said, the difference mostly vanishes once you adjust for a state’s 2016 presidential election turnout.

Biden is underperforming expectations in some states, most notably Hawaii and Vermont, though each state has only been polled once. He is also underperforming in under-polled Nevada. Biden leads there by 4.2 points, about five points lower than the 9.3 points by which he “should” be leading. Biden is also underperforming expectations in Republican-leaning Indiana (-5.3) and Iowa (-3.8). By the same token, Biden is overperforming in the traditionally Republican states of Arkansas, Utah, Oklahoma, Kansas, Alaska, Louisiana and Texas; of these states, though, only Kansas and Texas have been polled more than five times. There is a partisan split in Biden’s over-and under-performance: in states with 3W-RDM>-5.0, Biden is underperforming by 2.5 points, on average. In states with 3W-RDM<-5.0, Biden is overperforming by 3.8 points. Many grains of salt are in order here, however. 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.
  3. Weight all national and state polls conducted entirely after August 28, 2020—the final day of the Republican National Convention—twice as much as all earlier polls.

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[3]
  2. For WAPA, I use standard error = 3.0, the margin of error in most quality polls; this is 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 way as predicted final margin

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

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

StateEVP(EV): ExpectedP(EV): WAPAP(EV): OverallProjected Margin[4]
DC3100.0% 100.0%89.4
Hawaii4100.0%100.0%100.0%31.1
Vermont3100.0%100.0%100.0%23.0
California55100.0%100.0%100.0%28.5
Maryland10100.0%100.0%100.0%29.3
Massachusetts11100.0%100.0%100.0%33.8
New York29100.0%100.0%100.0%26.2
Rhode Island4100.0% 100.0%25.3
Illinois2099.9% 99.9%22.0
Connecticut799.7%100.0%99.9%19.0
Delaware399.6%100.0%100.0%19.5
Washington1299.6%100.0%100.0%21.5
New Jersey1499.5%100.0%100.0%18.7
Oregon798.4%100.0%99.8%14.1
New Mexico596.6%100.0%99.6%12.6
Maine496.0%100.0%99.7%13.3
Michigan1689.1%99.0%98.3%7.1
Colorado989.0%100.0%98.9%11.0
Nevada688.4%92.1%91.9%4.6
Minnesota1087.0%99.8%99.0%8.8
Virginia1387.0%99.9%98.8%8.9
Wisconsin1084.6%96.8%96.0%5.7
New Hampshire482.5%93.9%92.9%4.9
Pennsylvania2080.6%95.5%94.6%5.2
Florida2967.1%80.2%79.3%2.6
Iowa660.0%35.1%36.8%-0.9
Ohio1853.9%58.2%57.9%0.7
North Carolina1552.8%68.1%67.1%1.4
Georgia1633.5%41.9%41.4%-0.7
Arizona1132.6%84.3%80.6%2.6
Texas3810.9%27.2%26.2%-2.2
South Carolina99.9%0.5%1.1%-7.8
Missouri109.2%1.9%2.4%-6.4
Indiana118.5%0.0%0.8%-13.8
Mississippi64.6%0.0%0.5%-11.2
Montana34.4%0.4%0.8%-8.1
Alaska33.8%7.4%6.8%-5.6
Louisiana81.4%0.3%0.4%-9.2
Kansas60.9%0.2%0.3%-12.3
Nebraska50.3% 0.3%-18.5
South Dakota30.3% 0.3%-18.5
Tennessee110.3%0.0%0.1%-16.5
Arkansas60.1%12.2%9.3%-12.2
Alabama90.1%0.0%0.0%-18.3
Kentucky80.1%0.0%0.1%-21.1
North Dakota30.1%0.0%0.0%-21.1
Utah60.0%0.0%0.0%-14.8
Idaho40.0%0.0%0.0%-24.9
West Virginia50.0%0.0%0.0%-31.3
Oklahoma70.0%0.0%0.0%-26.8
Wyoming30.0% 0.0%-38.3

Five weeks before Election Day 2020, and with every caveat about voting during a pandemic, Joe Biden is strongly favored to be elected the 46th president of the United States. Multiplying Biden’s win probabilities of his likeliest path to 270 EV—the Clinton states (minus Nevada) plus Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania—yields a minimum likelihood of winning of 79.3%; this is only a rough probability given how correlated voting behavior is across demographically-similar states.

Moreover:

  • He is at least a 91.9% favorite in enough states—and by margins of at least 4.6 points—to earn him 278 or 279 EV, 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. At this point, Biden would already have won the presidency.
  • He is favored roughly 4-1 to win the 11 EV of Arizona (+2.6) and the 29 EV of Florida +2.6), increasing Biden’s total to 318 or 319 EV.
  • He is favored roughly 2-1 to win North Carolina (+1.4), for an additional 15 EV, increasing Biden’s total to 333 or 334 EV.
  • The 34 combined EV of Ohio (+0.7) and Georgia (-0.7) are essentially toss-ups, meaning Biden has a roughly 75% chance to win at least one of them, increasing Biden’s total to between 349 and 352 EV, with a maximum of 368 EV (or 369 with one EV in Nebraska).

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 (-2.2). 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, then summing, yields a “projected” EV total of 348.5, 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 solid even after making 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 297.4, still 27.4 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 70.7% in three additional states totaling 34 EV, getting him to 273 EV. Thus, even if Biden “only” wins the national popular vote by 4.3, he would likely still prevail, though the decisive states—New Hampshire, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin—would be decided by relatively narrow margins, with all votes possibly not counted for a week or more. I hasten to add that the product of the state-level win probabilities for this path is only 33.1%–suggesting Trump might be a very slight favorite in this scenario, in line with the Republican advantage in the Electoral College.

Polls systematically underestimate Biden’s margins by 3.0 points.

In this scenario, Biden’s projected EV are a landslide-level 391.8, 121.8 more than necessary; the product of the state-level win probabilities for the path of least resistance jumps to 94.0%. He would be favored at least 80% to win enough states to earn 352 EV, while being a roughly 3-1 favorite in Georgia and Iowa, for a total of 374 EV. Biden would even be a slight favorite (61.9%) in Texas, which he would be projected to win by 0.7 points. Based on only one poll, Biden would have a 33.2% chance of winning Arkansas’ 6 EV, plus a 14.4% chance of winning Missouri’s 10 EV and a 11.1% 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.

**********

You may have noticed a drift over the last month toward Trump in Florida, North Carolina and Georgia, and a slight drift toward Biden in Nevada, Wisconsin, Arizona and Iowa, even if the projected winner has not changed in any of these states. That is because of the large number of polls released in the month since the end of the two national party conventions—and especially since Labor Day, when voters traditionally begin to focus more closely on the upcoming elections.

Three things typically happen after Labor Day that can cause polls to tighten, if only slightly, as Figure 1 suggests has happened over the last three months:

  1. Pollsters shift from sampling all registered voters to sampling who they deem likely to vote. Historically, this has led to a 1-to-2 point shift toward Republicans.
  2. Voters “come home” to the party for whose candidates they typically vote after considering voting for a different candidate. This generally benefits the trailing candidate.
  3. Undecided voters begin to make their decisions, some not until just before they actually vote. Depending how many undecided voters there are, these can cause large polling shifts late in a campaign. That said, in national polls, only 9.1% are either undecided or are leaning toward a third-party candidate.

Table 5 compares WAPA before and after August 29, 2020 to see where the race has changed; for simplicity, both measures assumes all polls, even those released by the same pollsters, are statistically independent. Only the 20 states with at least two polls in both time frames are included. A positive “Delta” indicates movement toward Biden.

Table 5: Polling Margins, Biden vs Trump, Before and After August 29. 2020

StateThrough August 29, 2020After August 29, 2020Delta
Maine10.4015.405.00
Montana-8.86-6.802.06
Nevada3.765.141.39
Wisconsin5.066.231.16
Iowa-1.74-0.611.13
California28.5329.190.66
Arizona3.053.620.57
Minnesota8.048.330.29
Ohio-0.050.070.13
Missouri-6.58-6.530.05
Michigan6.876.66-0.21
Pennsylvania5.064.69-0.37
South Carolina-7.25-7.65-0.39
Virginia9.619.20-0.41
Texas-1.72-2.14-0.42
North Carolina1.810.86-0.95
Georgia-0.09-1.70-1.61
Florida3.891.46-2.44
Kentucky-16.97-20.54-3.56
Colorado11.938.28-3.65
AverageBiden+2.74Biden+2.66-0.08

There is scant evidence in these 20 states polls have tightened in the previous month. Biden’s position has improved by at least 1.0 points in the key states of Iowa, Wisconsin, Nevada and Maine (where a key EV is in play), as well as in red-leaning Montana. Biden’s position has likewise worsened in the key southeastern states of North Carolina, Georgia and Florida, as well as in dark red Kentucky and blue Colorado. Again, however, tight-as-a-drum Ohio aside, the polling leader has not changed in any state.

If I replace WAPA listed in Table 3 with one calculated using only post-convention polls—even in the 13 states with only one such poll—Biden’s projected EV drop by 7.9 to 340.6, primarily because his probability of winning Florida’s 29 EV drops from 79.3% to 68.5%. Nonetheless, Biden would be favored by at least 80% in states totaling 290 EV. And his “path of least resistance”—swapping out New Hampshire for Nevada—still has an 80.5% probability, suggesting this race remains remarkably stable.

**********

None of this is to say Biden is guaranteed to be elected president of the United States over the next five weeks. 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 21 months, a late-recovering economy or last-minute “October surprise” could erase this lead. For example, as I write this, it has only been one day since the New York Times announced it had obtained 15 years of Trump’s tax returns.

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] I cut in half the number value assigned to a letter grade for any poll conducted since June 1, 2020 which samples adults instead of registered or likely voters.

[2] Rhode Island, Illinois, Nebraska, South Dakota, Wyoming

[3] 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.

[4] Assuming undecided voters split their votes evenly between Biden and Trump.

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.

**********

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.

The Republican advantage in the Electoral College is real

As I detail here, the Electoral College (“EC”), not direct popular vote, determines who wins American presidential elections. Since 1856, the first presidential election in which the two major candidates were a Democrat (James Buchanan) and Republican (John C. Fremont), there were four presidential elections in which one candidate won the EC while another candidate won the popular vote; in all four elections—1876, 1888, 2000, 2016—the Republican won the EC and, thus, the presidency.

Those elections—just four out of 41 (10%)—could be considered flukes, were it not for the fact Republicans maintain a clear, quantifiable advantage in the EC.

One way to think about this is to consider a presidential election in which the two major-party candidates receive exactly the same number of popular votes. Put another way, this is a situation where the difference between the Democratic percentage of the popular vote and the Republican percentage of the popular vote equals 0.0%.

If there was no partisan advantage in the EC, we would expect both candidates to receive 269 electoral votes (“EV”), exactly half of the 538 available to them. Or, at least, a number very close to 269, allowing for third-party candidacies and “faithless” electors who vote for someone other than the plurality winner of their state.

Table 1 lists the winner, political party, popular vote margin (Democratic % – Republican %) and number of EV won by the winning candidate for the 17 presidential elections from 1952 through 2016. I chose 1952 because it was the first presidential election to feature television commercials by the major candidates and televised nomination conventions. It is also the first election to show cracks in the previously solid Democratic south: Republican Dwight D. Eisenhower won Florida, Tennessee, Texas and Virginia in 1952, adding Kentucky and Louisiana in 1956. As usual, all elections data come from Dave Leip’s indispensable Atlas of U.S. Presidential Elections.

Table 1: Winning Presidential Party, Margin of Victory (Dem % – GOP %) and Electoral Votes Won: 1952-2016

Year Electoral College Winner Party Margin EV
1952 Eisenhower Republican -10.9% 442
1956 Eisenhower Republican -15.4% 457
1960 Kennedy Democratic 0.2% 303
1964 Johnson Democratic 22.6% 486
1968 Nixon Republican -0.7% 301
1972 Nixon Republican -23.1% 520
1976 Carter Democratic 2.1% 297
1980 Reagan Republican -9.7% 489
1984 Reagan Republican -18.2% 525
1988 GHW Bush Republican -7.7% 426
1992 B Clinton Democratic 5.6% 370
1996 B Clinton Democratic 8.5% 379
2000 GW Bush Republican -0.5% 271
2004 GW Bush Republican -2.5% 286
2008 Obama Democratic 7.3% 365
2012 Obama Democratic 3.9% 332
2016 Trump Republican -2.1% 304

Republicans won 10 of these elections, by an average margin of 8.6% in the popular vote and 393.9 EV; this includes 2000 and 2016, when Democrats Al Gore and Hillary Clinton, respectively, won the popular vote but lost the EC. Democrats, meanwhile, won seven of these elections by an average margin of 7.1% and 361.7 EV.

In three elections, the Democratic and Republican percentages of the popular vote differed by less than one percentage point (“point”): 1960, when Democrat John F. Kennedy won by 0.2% with 303 EV; 1968, when Republican Richard M. Nixon won by 0.7% with 301 EV, with 13.5% and 46 EV for American Independent nominee George Wallace; and 2000, when Republican George W. Bush lost by 0.5%, but still eked out 271 EV after a controversial recount in Florida.

It is difficult to discern any sort of pattern here, other than the higher the popular vote margin, the more EV you win. Figure 1 shows this clearly.

Figure 1: Popular Vote Win Margin and Electoral Votes Won, 1952-2016

Winning Electoral College

As expected, there is a strong linear association between popular vote margin and EV won—including 2000 and 2016; margin alone accounts for 86% of the variance in EV. The formula was calculated using ordinary least squares (“OLS”) regression, and it tells us the average number of EV one would expect a presidential candidate to win based upon their popular vote margin.

Thus, for every 1.0-point increase in popular vote margin (expressed as 0.01), that candidate wins an 11.1 additional EV, on average. Moreover, when the margin is 0.0 points—a popular vote tie—the winner should receive 292 EV, 23 more than the expected 269 or so. Also, to earn 270 EV, the winner would actually LOSE the popular vote by 2.0 points!

How is this possible?

Figures 2 and 3, which break down the popular vote margin-EV association by party, help to explain.

Figure 2: Popular Vote Margin and Electoral Votes Won: Democratic Presidential Candidates, 1952-2016

Dem Electoral College

Figure 3: Popular Vote Margin and Electoral Votes Won: Republican Presidential Candidates, 1952-2016

GOP Electoral College

For both major political parties, every 1.0-point in popular vote margin increases EV earned by an average of 12.3. And in both models, popular vote margin alone accounts for 92% of variance in EV; these two variables are VERY strongly linearly associated.

However, it is where the fitted line crosses the Y axis that makes all the difference—this is the expected EV won by each political party in the event of a tied popular vote. For Democrats, a tie equates to only 251.0 EV, on average, 19 fewer than needed to win the presidency. For Republicans, however, that same tie equates to 282.7 EV, 12.7 more than needed to win the presidency. The slopes and r-squared values are identical, the Republican line is just 31.7 points higher at every value of popular vote margin.

In other words, on average, a tied total popular vote translates to a 283-251 Republican win in the Electoral College, with 4 EV going to third-party candidates or otherwise up for grabs. That translates to a 32-EV Republican advantage in the Electoral College.

Another way to measure Republican advantage is to calculate what popular vote margin a presidential candidate needs, on average, to secure 270 EV. For the Democratic presidential nominee, the formula is:

Popular Vote Margin = (270 – 251.0) / 1233.1) = = +1.5%

And for the Republican presidential nominee, the formula is:

Popular Vote Margin = (270 – 282.7) / 1230.8) = = -1.0%

That is, a Democratic presidential nominee must win the national popular vote by at least 1.5 points to secure a minimum 270 votes, while a Republican presidential nominee can do so while losing the total popular vote by 1.0 points. Third-party EV and faithless electors keep the values from being identical. Still, that translates to a 2.5-point popular vote advantage for Republicans in the Electoral College!

This is a very robust finding. For example, while the 2016 election looks like an outlier—as does, to be fair, 1980, when Republican Ronald Reagan converted a 9.7-point popular vote margin of victory into 489 EV—removing it only improves the Democratic position slightly: a tied total popular vote still gives the Republican a 279.4 to 254.1 EC victory, while only reducing the popular vote advantage to 2.1 points.

Also, starting in 1964—the first election in which Alaska, Hawaii and the District of Columbia all contributed EV—actually increases the Republican advantage. The latter nominee would win 286.4 to 248.5 if the total popular vote were tied nationally, a 37.9 EV advantage equivalent to winning Texas’ 38 EV. Moreover, since 1964, a Democrat would need to win nationally by 1.8 points, on average, to win 270 EV, while a Republican could lose by 1.3 points—a gap of 3.1 points!

**********

My analysis of national- and state-level polling suggests 2020 Democratic presidential nominee Joseph R. Biden, Jr. currently leads Republican President Donald J. Trump by 7.5 points, up slightly from the last time I wrote about the state of the race.

Plugging 0.075 into the Democratic formula yields a projected EV total of 343.5. This is remarkably close to the 349.6 EV I estimate Biden will received based on in my model; the number increases to 352 if I simply count up the EV from states I calculate Biden has >50% chance to win.

I also assess Biden’s chances if all polls are systematically over-estimating Democratic strength by 3 points and if all polls are systematically under-estimating Democratic strength by 3 points. That is, I consider a universe in which Biden is actually ahead by 4.5 points or by 10.5 points.

Entering 0.045 into the Democratic formula yields an expected 306.5 EV—basically, the states won by Clinton in 2016 plus Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Florida. My estimate of Biden’s EV in this scenario is 301.7, or 308 using the states where Biden is better than even money.

Entering 0.105 into the Democratic formula yields an expected 380.5 EV—basically, the previous scenario plus Arizona, North Carolina, Ohio, Georgia and Iowa…but not Texas. The polling data, however, suggest Biden would do even better—389.6 EV, or 412 using the states where Biden is better than even money, including a 57.6% chance of winning Texas.

In other words, results from this simple one-variable model align almost exactly with the state of the race based on available polling data.

**********

Why this is the case, however, is a far more complicated question. The most direct answer is that Democratic votes are distributed less efficiently than Republican votes across the states. Democrats routinely win large states like California, New York and Illinois—104 total EV—by double-digit margins, padding their national vote total while adding 0 EV. Republicans, by contrast, win larger states by narrower margins, as they did in 2016, and smaller states like Wyoming, Idaho and Utah by huge margins which only minimally impact their national vote total.

Put differently, the Democratic strategy to run up the popular vote paradoxically hurts them in the Electoral College, while Republican strategy to eschew large national vote totals in favor of narrower wins in key states boosts them.

On a related note, Republicans have an advantage in swing states, as my 3W-RDMdemonstrates; this is a measure of how Democratic a state votes relative to the nation. Based solely on this measure, Table 2 lists how I would anticipate the following states to vote if Biden and Trump exactly tied in the total popular vote:

Table 2: Expected 2020 vote margins in 18 key states, based on tied popular vote

State EV 3W-RDM Current Biden polling
Oregon 7 8.7 n/a
New Mexico 5 6.5 11.3
Maine 4 5.9 10.4
Michigan 16 2.2 7.1
Colorado 9 2.2 12.4
Nevada 6 2.0 3.5
Minnesota 10 1.5 8.1
Virginia 13 1.5 9.6
Wisconsin 10 0.7 4.6
New Hampshire 4 0.1 5.2
Pennsylvania 20 -0.4 5.2
Florida 29 -3.4 3.9
Iowa 6 -4.7 -1.7
Ohio 18 -5.8 0.7
North Carolina 15 -6.0 2.0
Georgia 16 -9.6 -0.5
Arizona 11 -9.7 2.7
Texas 38 -15.3 -2.0

Assuming Biden starts with 175 EV[1] and Trump starts with 126 EV,[2] that leaves 237 EV up for grabs. In this popular-vote-tie scenario, Biden wins 84 of those EV, though Wisconsin and New Hampshire could be looking at a recount, for 259 EV. Trump wins the remaining 153 EV, with a recount possible in Pennsylvania, for 279 EV, very close to the 283-251 EV margin estimated earlier.

But while in this scenario Biden would narrowly win states like Michigan, Colorado, Nevada, Minnesota and Virginia—Trump would be looking at far easier wins in Florida, Iowa, Ohio, North Carolina, Georgia, Arizona and, especially, Texas. This is because of the enormous gap between Pennsylvania, at 0.4 points more Republican, and Florida, at 3.4 points more Republican. While a Democrat could theoretically win 279 EV—and the White House—by winning the total popular vote by 0.4 points, s/he would have to win by at least 3.4 points nationally to have a little breathing room.

That all said, Biden’s current estimated lead of 7.5 points gets him those 308 EV relatively easily, while making him slightly favored in Arizona and North Carolina, perched on the razor’s edge in Ohio and Georgia, and pounding on the door in Iowa and Texas. A slight polling error in his favor, strong Democratic turnout/depressed Republican turnout and a decisive win among late-deciding voters, and Biden could turn 343-352 EV into 412 EV.

When you know in advance how high the mountain you need to climb is, it is far easier to prepare to climb it.

Until next time…please stay safe and healthy…

[1] District of Columbia, Hawaii, Vermont, California, Maryland, Massachusetts, New York, Rhode Island, Illinois, Connecticut, Delaware, Washington, New Jersey

[2] South Carolina, Missouri, Indiana, Mississippi, Montana, Alaska, Louisiana, Kansas, Nebraska, South Dakota, Tennessee, Arkansas, Alabama, Kentucky, North Dakota, Utah, Idaho, West Virginia, Oklahoma, Wyoming