Trump Is An Underdog, But The Electoral College’s Republican Tilt Improves His Chances

Trump Is An Underdog, But The Electoral College’s Republican Tilt Improves His ChancesSeptember 28, 2020

Even if you’re not following the polls super closely like those of us at FiveThirtyEight, you probably know that Joe Biden has both a sizable and fairly stable lead over President Trump.

However, you shouldn’t count Trump out just yet. Trump currently has a nearly 1 in 4 shot of winning the election,1 according to our presidential forecast, even though he only has a 1 in 10 chance of winning the national popular vote.

That’s, of course, due to the Electoral College, in which Trump has an edge this year.

Historically, which party enjoys an advantage in the Electoral College ebbs and flows; sometimes the Democrats benefit from it; at other times, the Republicans. But in 2020, the Electoral College is clearly boosting Trump’s odds of winning reelection.

That’s because the states that are most likely to decide the contest are somewhat more Republican-leaning than the country as a whole, as the table below shows.

Battleground states in 2020 lean Republican

Forecasted vote margin in states that have at least a 1 percent chance of being the tipping-point* state, according to the FiveThirtyEight presidential model as of 9:15 a.m. Eastern on Sept. 28

State Tipping-point chance Forecast margin Lean Relative to Nation
Texas 1% R+3.8 R+10.9
Georgia 2 R+2.1 R+9.2
Ohio 5 D+0.4 R+6.7
North Carolina 5 D+0.7 R+6.3
Florida 12 D+1.4 R+5.7
Arizona 6 D+2.7 R+4.4
Pennsylvania 32 D+4.5 R+2.5
Wisconsin 9 D+6.2 R+0.9
Nevada 3 D+6.5 R+0.6
New Hampshire 2 D+6.5 R+0.6
Michigan 9 D+7.0 R+0.1
Minnesota 3 D+7.9 D+0.9
Colorado 3 D+9.1 D+2.0
Virginia 1 D+11.0 D+3.9

*A state’s tipping-point chance is based on the odds it will provide the decisive vote in the Electoral College.

Overall, these 14 states decide the election in 94 percent of FiveThirtyEight’s forecast simulations, and in almost 9 out of 10 simulations, the tipping-point state is one of the 11 that may vote more Republican than the country. Meanwhile, only three of these states may vote to the left of the country, too, and of those, only Colorado and Virginia look like safe bets to vote more Democratic at this point. Collectively, what this means is that Trump has a better shot to win than if he had to win the national popular vote

Take a state like Pennsylvania to see what I mean. Pennsylvania is currently the most likely tipping-point state in the Electoral College (nearly a 1 in 3 chance), and at the moment, Biden is projected to win there by 4.5 points. But even if that were to happen, that still puts Pennsylvania 2.5 points to the right of the forecast’s national margin. What that means is if the polls were to tighten and Biden’s national advantage slips, the rightward tilt of Pennsylvania could very well help Trump win. And because most of the other likely tipping-point states lean Republican, Trump could capture enough right-leaning battleground states to win a majority in the Electoral College without winning the national popular vote.

Now, as we said at the outset, the Electoral College’s GOP bias is by no means permanent, and even in 2020, its Republican lean might be insufficient for Trump to win reelection. (It remains to be seen if the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg notably alters the political environment.) But nonetheless, the Republicans’ Electoral College advantage this cycle leaves the door more open to a Trump victory than if he had to win via the popular vote.

Sum it up this way: Biden enjoys a 9 in 10 chance of winning the national popular vote but slightly less than an 8 in 10 shot of winning the election. The difference between those two probabilities is, roughly speaking, the Republican advantage in the Electoral College this year.

We can really see how this works if we break down the national popular vote margin in our forecast’s simulations and Biden’s chances of winning based on different scenarios. As you can see in the table below, Biden is only favored to win if he wins by at least 3 points nationally — one more point than Clinton’s 2016 margin. Anything less than that makes him at best not even a 50-50 bet to win and, in most cases, a clear underdog.

To be favored, Biden must win the popular vote by 3+ points

Biden’s chances of victory at different national popular vote scenarios, plus the likelihood of those scenarios, according to the FiveThirtyEight presidential model as of 9:15 a.m. Eastern on Sept. 28

National popular vote scenario Scenario chance Biden chance in scenario
Trump wins popular vote 10% 0.8%
Biden wins by 0 to 1 points 3 7.4
Biden wins by 1 to 2 points 4 19.7
Biden wins by 2 to 3 points 5 44.9
Biden wins by 3 to 4 points 6 69.6
Biden wins by 4 to 5 points 6 88.4
Biden wins by 5 to 6 points 7 96.0
Biden wins by 6 to 7 points 7 98.9
Biden wins by 7 to 8 points 7 99.8
Biden wins by 8 or more points 43 100.0

In fact, Biden’s chances only become pretty certain if he wins by more than 5 points nationally, showing just how large the Republicans’ Electoral College edge might be in 2020. And even then, Biden’s lead has to get up to 9 points before there are no simulations in our forecast in which Trump wins. Meanwhile, Trump is almost guaranteed to win the election if he wins the national popular vote, and he actually wins a majority in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote (12 percent) more often than when he wins the most votes (10 percent).

The good news for Biden, though, is that he has nearly twice as good a chance of winning the national popular vote by at least 8 points (43 percent) as Trump has of winning, period. In other words, in more than half of the cases where Biden wins in our forecast simulations, he wins by at least that much. So it’s also entirely possible that Biden will end up claiming a sizable victory.

Yet it’s also quite possible that Biden loses while winning the popular vote, and that scenario boils down to the current rightward tilt of the key battleground states that are most likely to decide this election. Together, those states give Trump a real shot at another four years in the White House, especially if the race tightens over the next 36 days.

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