Why Biden’s Polling Lead Is Different From Clinton’s In 2016June 25, 2020
There are still 131 days — an eternity in politics — to go before the general election, but as of right now, former Vice President Joe Biden has a commanding lead over President Trump. Last week, we unveiled FiveThirtyEight’s polling average for the 2020 presidential election, which adjusts for things like the quality or recency of the poll. (If you’re curious, you can read more about how it’s calculated here.) And as of Wednesday, June 24,1 Biden leads Trump nationally 50.9 percent to 41.3 percent (a margin of 9.6 points).
So although it’s still early (and the race can still change), we thought it would be good to set a marker for what the state of the race is at this point. So here are a few takeaways from our polling averages:
First, Biden’s lead has clearly widened in the past month. He now leads by more than 9 points, but on May 25, Biden led by an average of only 5.8 points (48.9 percent to 43.1 percent). On that day, though, police officers killed George Floyd in Minneapolis, touching off weeks of protests nationwide. Americans gave Trump poor marks for his heavy-handed response, such as his administration’s use of the military to clear protesters from in front of the White House so he could pose for a photo. In addition, voter approval of Trump’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic continues to sink, and the president has faced several other controversies in the past week or so. So while we can’t say for sure how much these events might be driving Biden’s increasing advantage in the polls, it seems probable that recent events have hurt Trump’s reelection chances.
But some people have dismissed Biden’s lead by pointing out that Hillary Clinton also led in most polls of the 2016 election (Clinton, obviously, ended up losing to Trump). While this is true, Clinton’s lead was much smaller. Applying our current polling-average methodology to 2016 polls, Clinton led national polls by an average of about 4.0 points four months before the 2016 election, and 3.8 points on Election Day itself. So while a normal-sized polling error was enough to throw the 2016 election to Trump, it would take a much bigger — and much unlikelier — polling error for Trump to be ahead right now.
Of course, Trump became president because he won the Electoral College despite losing the national popular vote. But if Biden wins the popular vote by 9.6 points, his current lead, Trump would be extremely unlikely to pull off the same trick. In our state-by-state polling averages, Biden currently leads in states worth 368 electoral votes, far more than the 270 needed to win.2
However, the Electoral College looks like it could still give Trump an advantage, just like it did four years ago. It’s hard to see that advantage now because Biden leads in nearly every swing state, but if you look at each state’s polling average relative to the national polling average3 (the rightmost column in the table below), you get a sense of whether the state is redder or bluer than the country as a whole. As you can see, by this metric, many of these states lean more toward Trump than the country does. That means that, if the overall race tightens, those states could slide into Trump’s column, allowing him to once again win a majority of electoral votes even if Biden wins the national popular vote.
|State||Biden||Trump||Margin||Lean Relative to Nation|
Right now, according to our polling averages, Florida would be the “tipping point” state of the election — the state that will give a candidate his 270th electoral vote. (In other words, if Biden wins every state above Florida in the table, and Trump wins every state below Florida, both would still be short of 270 electoral votes. So whoever won Florida would win the election.) Biden currently leads by 7.4 points in Florida, according to our polling average there, which is 2.3 points less than his national lead. That means Trump could win the state — and therefore, the way things are set up right now, the Electoral College — even if Biden still leads the national average by up to 2.3 points on Election Day. That said, it’s still early in the campaign, and the tipping point state will likely continue to shuffle around (for example, Minnesota was the tipping-point state last week).
For now, though, it’s notable that the Midwestern swing states — namely, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin — are still a bit more Democratic-leaning than the emerging swing states in the Sun Belt, like Arizona, Georgia, North Carolina and Texas. That’s a similar story to 2016, when the election was decided in the Midwest. But based on these early polling averages, a few states seem to have gotten a bit more Democratic since the last election (even accounting for the bluer national environment). For example, Michigan’s polling average almost exactly mirrors the national polling average right now, despite Michigan voting 2.3 points to the right of the nation in 2016. It’s especially surprising to see Michigan so far away from Pennsylvania and Wisconsin in the table above, considering how similarly those three states voted in 2016.
However, this could also just be noise in the data. We’re still light on polls in many states; for instance, we’ve seen a grand total of one Pennsylvania poll conducted this month. So be sure to check back to see how the polling averages shift. For now, though, things look pretty good for Biden.