One week from Election Day, almost every data point suggests President Trump is headed to defeat. The question is how long it will take to find out—and how much of the Republican Party he takes down with him.
More than a dozen campaign strategists in both parties told VICE News that they’re fairly confident former Vice President Joe Biden will win the race for the White House, with most giving him 3-1 odds or better to become president. And their consensus is that Democrats have a better-than-even chance of winning a Senate majority, which would give them unified control of the government for the first time in a decade.
“Every piece of data I’m seeing in every state I’m doing, [Trump] is underneath his ’16 numbers,” said one GOP strategist granted anonymity to discuss internal polling numbers. “Part of my general pessimism is I’ve seen dozens of pieces of data and I think there was only one poll where his margin was over his ’16 margin.”
The race isn’t over. But unless a huge event throws the steady presidential race into turmoil, or there’s some sort of significant polling issue that’s widespread and systematic (and much worse than in 2016), Trump is facing a steep challenge to a second term.
“It's not going to be a good night,” said another GOP strategist involved in a number of House and Senate races.
But Biden’s easiest path to the White House runs through Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin—three states that will likely take a long time to count their ballots this time because of major expansions in mail voting, and rules that make it slow to count those ballots. It’s still not certain whether Biden will win some must-win Trump states where the race is close—and lock in an election-night victory—or whether America could be put through several tense days or possibly tumultuous weeks of vote-counting.
There’s still a slim chance that Trump could win. A cataclysmic event like interference from a malign foreign nation, a local election meltdown in a key swing state or widespread violence at the polls could disrupt the election (and democracy itself). And Republicans hope Trump’s improved final debate performance last week may have helped him steady his numbers and dull his down-ballot damage enough for them to hold the Senate.
While there hasn’t yet been enough polling—either public or private— to know whether Thursday’s debate made much of a difference, Democrats concede that Trump’s poll numbers had already recovered a bit since his disastrous first- debate performance and COVID diagnosis caused a dip in his polling.
“You haven’t seen a great deal of [recent] movement against Trump. It’s held bad, but it hasn’t gotten continually worse,” said one GOP pollster.
But Trump was already losing by a considerable margin before that disastrous week. Public and private polling shows him running consistently behind his 2016 numbers across the map, with huge deficits in suburban areas. Democrats are turning out early in huge numbers, suggesting they won’t have the same enthusiasm problem they did in 2016. And strategists in both parties said it would take a black swan event much larger than those that concluded 2016’s chaotic campaign for Trump to pull off another improbable victory.
“He’s in a very, very tough position right now,” another national GOP strategist involved in a number of Senate races told VICE News. “I’m not sure if he can will himself out of it.”
Why 2020 isn’t 2016
Strategists and voters are always fighting the last war, and most of the perceived uncertainty around this election seems to be driven more by caution by pundits who were sure Trump was going to lose four years ago than by any actual data that suggests Trump could win this time.
The GOP strategist who predicted a bad night for his party put Trump’s chances at 10-15 percent—with that already-low number not backed up by any real data or polling but just “a guesstimate of how likely it is that we’re all completely wrong.”
“There's nothing that indicates he has any chance whatsoever. The only reason anyone ascribes him any is most of us said he was dead in 2016,” they said.
And this race sure doesn’t look like that one.
Biden’s polling lead has been larger and more durable than Clinton’s was in 2016. He’s led Trump in national polling averages ever since he jumped into the presidential race 18 months ago. Since June, he has led Trump by six to 11 points in FiveThirtyEight’s national polling average, with his lead sitting above nine points on Tuesday morning. Most strategists believe Trump needs to be within four or five points in the national popular vote to have a real shot at pulling off a narrow Electoral College win.
While Clinton led for much of the 2016 race, she rarely had more than about 45 percent of support in national polling, as Trump’s numbers bounced around significantly. Biden has been consistently at or above 50 percent in polling averages since August. At this point in 2016, James Comey had already stumbled his way back into the presidential race and Clinton’s national lead had already begun to shrink. She’d been up by seven points three weeks out, but led by just two at this point four years ago, the same margin by which she won the popular vote. And unlike in 2016, when Clinton and Trump were both deeply disliked and nearly a quarter of voters held an unfavorable view of both, Biden is much better liked than Trump: His net favorability is 17 points better than Trump’s in poll averages, compared to Clinton’s five-point net favorability.
And it’s clear from the candidates’ travel that Biden is giving Trump a real fight in states the president easily won last time around—and has more paths to victory than the president does.
Since Trump returned to the campaign trail after being sidelined with the coronavirus, he’s been to Florida five times, went to Pennsylvania three times, and hit North Carolina and Wisconsin twice, with stops in Michigan and Arizona as well. Those states are at the core of the presidential map for both candidates.
But Trump has also been forced to travel to Georgia, Iowa, and Ohio—states he won by five, eight, and nine points, respectively, last election. (He’s also stopped in New Hampshire and Nevada, two states he narrowly lost and where he’s trailed in public polls).
Trump has also campaigned in House districts in Omaha and northern Maine, a sign he’s looking to draw an inside straight for the presidency. (In Maine and Nebraska, each congressional district gets its own electoral college vote, and each state has a competitive district).
Biden hasn’t been on the road as much, but in the same stretch of time he visited or will visit not only the likely tipping-point states of Florida, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin but also Georgia, Iowa, and Ohio.
Trump campaign communications director Tim Murtaugh downplayed Trump’s travel to some states he won last election by wide margins on a Tuesday conference call.
“We’re definitely on offense, but we’re also visiting the states where the president did win last time,” he said. “If the president simply wins the states he won in 2016 he gets reelected.”
And Murtaugh touted the one positive concrete development for Trump, pointing out that the GOP registered more new voters than Democrats in a number of key swing states including Pennsylvania.
But it’s clear the map is in a different place than it was four years ago. And billionaire former New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg, a Biden ally, moved on Tuesday to expand it even further with a last-minute injection of $15 million in ads in Ohio and Texas, two GOP-leaning states that would end the election if Biden wins them.
Another major way that 2020 isn’t like 2016 is the huge surge in early voting. As of Tuesday morning, fully 66 million Americans had already voted, according to the U.S. Elections Project. That’s significantly more than the 57.2 million people that voted early or by mail in the entirety of the 2016 election.
A lot of that early vote is being driven by concerns over the coronavirus and states’ expansion of mail voting, and because of Trump’s attacks on mail voting many more Democrats are voting early than Republicans, so it’s a bad idea to read too much into these numbers.
But Democrats are cautiously optimistic about what they’re seeing in those votes. More than a quarter of the people who’ve cast their ballots so far in 2020 didn’t vote at all in 2016, according to the Democratic modeling firm TargetSmart, and that group skews more diverse and more Democratic than the 2016 electorate.
Some states have seen especially huge spikes in their early voting. Texas is already at 87 percent of its total 2016 turnout, while Georgia is at 71 percent. More African American voters over 65 have already voted in both states this year than did during the entire 2020 election.
“In general, there’s a lot for our side to feel good about,” TargetSmart CEO Tom Bonier told VICE News on Monday. “The reason I feel more confident about these numbers is it’s driven so much by voters who didn’t vote in 2016. It’s just unprecedented levels.”
Slow and uneasy could win the race
For Biden to become president, all he needs to do is win back three states that Trump won by less than one percentage point: Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin. In all three states, most public and private polls show Biden with a comfortable lead.
Biden’s lead in public Michigan polling has been in the high single digits for months. Strategists in both parties say their private numbers are close to that as well, and that Trump is all but done in the state.
Biden’s polling advantage in Pennsylvania and Wisconsin is solid but not quite as robust—he’s been up by four to eight points in most recent high-quality public and private polls.
Republican strategists working in both states say that district-level polling, especially in suburban areas, looks even worse for them.
One Pennsylvania Republican said he’d seen some “apocalyptic” district-level polling, especially in his state’s suburbs, while a GOP pollster involved in Wisconsin said, “We’re seeing enough that we’re concerned.” Democrats remain nervous that enough mail votes may be disqualified because they’re returned “naked,” without a second privacy envelope, that it could shrink Biden’s margin in the state a bit, but they’re heartened by robust early voting numbers.
It’s clear that both candidates see Pennsylvania as the most likely state to decide the election. Biden has been there 10 times since the late-August Democratic National Convention, while he hasn’t campaigned in any other state more than three times in that stretch. Trump has been there a ton of times as well.
The problem is that these states are also going to be much slower at counting their votes than most of the rest of the country. Pennsylvania and Wisconsin are two of the only states that aren’t allowed to start counting their mail votes until Election Day, a rule that the Republicans who control both states’ legislatures refused to alter despite pleas from election officials. That means both states will likely take days and possibly weeks to tally up all of their ballots.
Michigan probably won’t be much faster. Republicans in the state legislature agreed to allow localities to start prepping to count mail ballots one day before the election, but that’s not much of a head start, and Michigan officials have said it may take until Friday, Nov. 6, to count the state’s ballots.
That could mean a long, tense process that could lead Trump to falsely declare victory on election night—and if things get close enough, head to court, where a newly minted conservative Supreme Court supermajority has already signaled that it’s going to be downright hostile to Democrats on voting rights issues.
That prospect has Democrats on edge even though Biden is ahead in these states, and hoping that he can pull off a win in another, closer state that would lock in a victory early on.
How Biden could score a quick knockout
Pennsylvania may be the state most likely to decide the 2020 election, but Biden has other potential paths to victory, and some of those states are likely to have quick results on election night.
The Sun Belt states of Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina all look like tossup races in public and private polling, with Biden holding a slim edge within the margin of error in most surveys of those states. The race looks essentially tied in Georgia, another emerging battleground, as well as in Iowa, a state that Trump won comfortably after President Obama carried it twice. Trump has a slight edge in Ohio, with a slightly larger advantage in Texas.
Arizona looks like Biden’s best opportunity among these states. Strategists in both parties say the polling is a bit closer than public surveys, but most private polls show Biden with a lead of around two points. While Republicans think the race in the traditionally Republican state may be tightening, Democrats think that Biden is likely to grind out a win in that state. If he wins Arizona along with Wisconsin and Michigan, he can still win the presidency by carrying Nebraska’s Omaha-based congressional district, a suburban district that both Democrats and Republicans say is all but in the bag for him.
Biden’s campaign is feeling confident about Arizona. Even as Biden campaign manager Jen O’Malley Dillon recently warned against trusting “inflated national public polling numbers,” she declared on a recent call with supporters, “I know we’re going to win Arizona.”
While Arizona has been a slow-counting state in the past, election officials for the first time this year are being allowed to count mail ballots ahead of Election Day. It’s unclear how fast those votes will be counted, but Arizona could wrap its count within a day or so, a lot faster than Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin.
But Biden’s best shot at a quick, clean knockout comes in Florida, which strategists in both parties think is a pure tie. Trump is doing better among Cuban-American voters than he did last time around, a warning sign for Democrats. But Biden is outperforming Clinton among seniors in one of the country’s oldest states, and lack turnout looks like it’s up from 2016.
Statewide polling is essentially useless in Florida, a state where a three-point win is a blowout in any race, and Democrats feel snakebit about the state after late collapses in both 2016 and 2018, but everyone expects a close finish here. Florida usually counts its ballots very fast—it allows counties to tally mail votes well before Election Day—so there’s a good chance we know who’s won the state by late Tuesday night. If Biden wins, the race is all but over.
North Carolina is another state where Biden could score a knockout. He’s led Trump by a tenuous one to three points in recent public and private surveys, and while the state will count late-arriving mail ballots for a few days, if Biden has a lead after all election-night ballots are counted, he’s likely on his way to the White House.
Georgia is another Democratic opportunity, and the surging early vote after a close 2018 gubernatorial race indicates that Democratic voters are very fired up in the state.
Republicans aren’t feeling great about Trump’s numbers in these states.
“His numbers look like shit in North Carolina, Arizona, and Georgia. The question is whether the polls are off again,” said one GOP strategist who has seen a lot of data in the three states.
Biden and Trump are essentially tied in Iowa, while Texas, Ohio, and Maine’s second district all look close but are still uphill battles for Democrats. Ohio is expected to count its vote fast on Election Day. If Biden has won, the race is likely over, and if he’s all but tied with Trump, that suggests the polling was right and he’ll likely win other nearby Rust Belt states that look better for him in the polls.