Biden's path to victory gives him more margin for error than Trump's — and Hillary Clinton's

Joe Biden's electoral map is broader than Hillary Clinton's was in 2016. That means more has to go right for Donald Trump than last time if he is to pull off another surprise on Tuesday.

Trump needs more to go right for him than in 2016 if he is to pull off the same upset

U.S. Democratic presidential candidate and former vice-president Joe Biden, shown in Detroit on Saturday, is ahead of Republican President Donald Trump in the polls. His lead is bigger than Hillary Clinton's was at this point in the campaign four years ago. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

If this was any other election, there would be little doubt that Joe Biden will become the president-elect after the votes in Tuesday's U.S. presidential election are counted.

But after 2016's surprise victory by Donald Trump, more than 230,000 deaths in the United States caused by the COVID-19 pandemic and the possibility that the results could wind up before the courts, this is not any other election.

Nevertheless, Biden remains the favourite to win — and his chances look better than Hillary Clinton's did four years ago.

According to Sunday's update of the CBC News Presidential Poll Tracker (check the interactive for the latest updated estimates between now and Tuesday), Biden holds an eight-point lead over Trump among decided voters nationwide.

That lead has held relatively steady ever since Biden officially became the Democratic nominee for president in mid-August, with the margin holding at between seven and 11 points over that time. There has been little evidence that the race has significantly tightened, beyond the slow reduction of Biden's bump coming out of the first presidential debate at the end of September.

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National support does not decide U.S. elections, however. Twice in the last five elections, the winner of the popular vote — Al Gore in 2000 and Clinton in 2016 — did not win the presidency. That's because elections are decided by the electoral college, which awards the winner of each individual state (with the exception of Nebraska and Maine) a number of votes equal to the state's representation in Congress.

Biden's advantage in the electoral college is not as wide as his lead in national polling, but it is still robust. He is ahead by at least five percentage points in enough states to get him more than the 270 electoral college votes needed to win the election. He is ahead by smaller margins in enough additional states to turn the result into a rout.

This includes solid leads in the Rust Belt states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan that were carried by Trump in 2016 by narrow margins. Biden has a smaller edge in Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Ohio and North Carolina — states Trump also won four years ago.

This election is not like 2016

In 2016, Clinton was widely viewed as the heavy favourite to win. But just because she didn't pull it off in that election doesn't mean that Biden's good numbers should be seen as equally illusory.

Biden's lead over Trump is much wider than Clinton's at this point of the 2016 campaign. His lead is about twice as wide in national polling, and he is ahead in states worth 368 electoral college votes. Clinton was ahead in states worth only 323 electoral college votes, giving her less margin for error.

In fact, the former vice-president's lead is wide enough to withstand a polling error similar to the one that happened in 2016.

After 2016's surprise, pollsters have made changes to the way they poll in order to avoid the same mistakes as last time. There are also fewer undecideds in 2020 than in 2016, something that helped Trump close the gap on Clinton in that year's presidential election. (Jeff McIntosh/The Canadian Press)

Only in North Carolina, Georgia and Ohio would the same error cost Biden his lead. That would not be enough to give Trump the win — he'd need a bigger swing in his favour in Pennsylvania, Florida and one of Arizona, Minnesota or Wisconsin. And that's assuming he holds Texas, where the Democrats actually out-performed expectations in 2016.

This is because Biden has a wider lead than Clinton had in nearly every state. The only states in which Trump is doing better than he did four years ago are bedrock Republican states.

But there's good reason to doubt that the same kind of error as in 2016 is likely this time. Pollsters have changed their methodologies to account for the Trump supporters missed in the polls last time.

Biden is much more popular than Clinton was in 2016, making fewer voters choose between two unpalatable options. And there are far fewer Americans who are undecided or say they will vote for a third-party candidate — about five per cent compared with nearly 13 per cent at this point in 2016.

Biden's path: Rust Belt, Sun Belt or both?

The path that takes Biden to the White House is a simple one: He wins the states in which the polls show him as the favourite, largely recreating (and potentially expanding upon) Barack Obama's winning maps in 2008 and 2012. If the results do not go entirely as the polls predict, however, Biden still has some options.

He could win the states in the Rust Belt that have traditionally supported the Democrats by winning back the support of whites, particularly Catholics or those without a college degree. With Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan going Democratic blue again, Biden doesn't need to win the swing states in the south and southwest. Adding Ohio and Iowa to his column would make his margin safer.

Former president Barack Obama speaks at a rally in Michigan on Saturday. Biden is leading in several of the same states Obama won in the 2008 and 2012 U.S. elections, as well as other states, such as Georgia and Arizona. (Andrew Harnik/The Associated Press)

If, however, he is not able to win back the Midwest, he can look to an expanded map in the Sun Belt, carrying Florida and any one of Arizona, Georgia or North Carolina with the help of high turnout among Black and Hispanic voters. If he doesn't win Florida, he could swap in all three of those other states instead. Flipping Texas, where he trails, and its 38 electoral college votes would make things even easier for him.

In either of these scenarios, Biden ends up with just over 270 electoral college votes. But a combination of them, with perhaps a state or two staying Republican, would give him a solid mandate that could be invulnerable to potential court challenges.

Trump needs things to go perfectly

Trump's path to victory requires things to go just right for him — and in a much bigger way than they did four years ago.

His win in 2016 was razor-thin. He lost the popular vote by two percentage points and carried Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania by less than a point. The error in the polls was just enough to turn a Clinton win into a Trump squeaker.

He needs the same thing to happen again. He needs to come out on top in the close races in Ohio and Georgia — states he won by comfortable margins in 2016 — and overturn the two- or three-point deficit he has in Florida and North Carolina. He's trailed in Arizona for most of the race, but he needs to hold it.

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Then it comes down to Pennsylvania, where he is behind by about 5.5 points. He trailed Clinton by four points there in 2016, and it will take a bigger lift to win it this time. If he doesn't, he then needs to look to states like Michigan, Wisconsin or Minnesota, where Biden is ahead by between eight or nine points.

It's not impossible or even implausible. But the factors that worked to Trump's favour in 2016 — pollster error, lots of undecideds and an unpopular opponent — are unlikely to be as beneficial to him in 2020. He'll need all of these factors to not only happen again, but to be masking his potential vote by an even greater degree than before.

That is if every vote counts. The president has spent the last few months disputing that this election would be fair, claiming rampant fraud without proof. He has questioned whether the counting should continue after Tuesday, when a large number of (likely Democratic-leaning) early and absentee ballots will be counted. There's no ruling out that this election won't end up before the courts, leaving the outcome to a few judges.

But first things first — election day. And if this were a normal election, Biden's odds would look very good. We'll find out soon just how abnormal this election will turn out to be.

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What do you want to know about the U.S. election? Your questions help inform our coverage. Email us at Ask@cbc.ca


Éric Grenier

Politics and polls

Éric Grenier is a senior writer and the CBC's polls analyst. He was the founder of ThreeHundredEight.com and has written for The Globe and Mail, Huffington Post Canada, The Hill Times, Le Devoir, and L’actualité.


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