The State of the Race: August 31st

The US election is well under way. UPF Lund will be tracking the race for the White House weekly- not just in numbers, but in terms of what is actually going on across the United States. Join us every Monday for a fresh update on the state of the race

Method Behind This Article

The statistics used in this article and the approximations given are the result of averaging. Numbers are taken from three different, more longitudinal polling averages for each state, as well as the District of Columbia. The three polls used are those of The Washington PostThe Los Angeles Times and the polling aggregator FiveThirtyEight. In 2016, The Washington Post overestimated Democrat support in the Midwest, but did call Florida for Trump prior to the election. The Los Angeles Times, which traditionally leans conservative, predicted Trump’s win in 2016 almost perfectly. FiveThirtyEight miscalled several states in 2016 due to state-level polling errors, but did show that Hillary Clinton’s campaign was running into trouble in its final weeks. In short, these three sources should, between them, reflect the state of the race well.

The Road to Two-Seventy

This week, there was no change to the assumed electoral tallies of both President Trump and Vice-President Biden. Trump stayed on two-hundred and three votes whilst Biden remained steady at three-hundred and thirty-five votes. But this was still an important week. Arizona stayed firmly in the blue column, whilst Kansas, South Carolina, Missouri and Mississippi all nudged further blue. In the red-leaning swing states of Georgia and Texas, Trump stayed in the lead but saw already thin margins reduced even further. Ohio was the only swing state in which Trump increased his lead this week, up 0.1% to 0.3%. But the size of the challenge facing both men was laid bare this week. Biden saw his leads in the Rust Belt states of Michigan, Minnesota, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania all dip. His lead in Florida also fell slightly – although all five states still remain firmly in his column. Overall, Biden’s national lead over Trump increased by 0.5% to 9.1%, suggesting that more and more voters are making their minds up across the United States.

Follow the Leader

The story this week was not told through national leads or swing states, but through safe states. This series has already looked at how Trump is seeing his leads in deeply-red states shrink. States like Arkansas and Texas are in play, while the likes of Kansas and South Carolina are beginning to look a little shaky. But now the same is happening to Biden. Once again, Biden did increase his lead nationally. But he appears to be increasing it through already deeply-blue states like Massachusetts, California and Connecticut. These are states that are not even remotely in play – nor are likely to become so. This is why it is important to look at blue states that were once purple. Aside from the Rust Belt, states like New Mexico, Colorado and Virginia used to be swing states. But, as their demographics have changed over time, they are now considered safely blue. There was some speculation that Trump might take Colorado and Virginia back in 2016, but Hillary Clinton ended up winning both by larger-than-expected margins. These wins confirmed their new alignment as blue states. But now Biden’s leads in these three states, whilst still very much safe, are decreasing. In 2016, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by almost three million votes. But Trump won Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by a combined total of around one-hundred and ninety-thousand votes, handing him the presidency. It is unlikely, but not impossible, that Trump could pull off that sort of Hail Mary pass again. Nevertheless, Biden’s dips this week may well be unsettling his team. Look out for where he takes his campaign trail in the coming weeks. It will be a sign as to where Team Biden thinks they need to shore up support.

A typical landscape in Wisconsin, one of the states that handed Trump the White House in 2016. (Photo: David Mark/Pixabay)

The Pendulum States

This week, Ohio was once again the closest state. Trump leads Biden by a slightly increased margin of 0.3%. Trump also leads Biden by less than 1% in Georgia (0.4%) and Texas (0.9%). This is part of a broader trend this week which saw the swing states, with the exception of Ohio, nudge towards Biden or remain unchanged. Trump lost ground in North Carolina, Texas and Georgia and was unable to regain any in Nebraska State-Wide, Iowa or Arkansas. But this may well only be the case for now. In 2016, Hillary Clinton led or was tied with Trump in many of these states, as well as the likes of South Carolina, Arizona and Missouri. But, as Election Day drew closer, these states swung back towards the red column. In many safe states, voting identities are hereditary for many Americans. Although many lifelong Republican voters may have strongly disliked Trump and may have initially thought about voting Democrat as a one-off, when the day finally came, they just could not leave their party. The great unknown is whether or not these moderate Republicans are prepared to actually tick the box beside the Biden-Harris ticket this time – or whether they will stay on the side of the known in the form of the Trump-Pence ticket. There will only be an answer to this question as a) Election Day draws nearer and b) more and more reliable polling emerges.

The Outliers

Predictions are only as good as the data that drives them. It was raw data that led to Wisconsin being put firmly in the Clinton column in 2016. It was raw data that, until this week, had Delaware as a swing state. Both predictions were wrong. From the 2016 national conventions up until Election Day, polling had Hillary Clinton leading in Wisconsin by margins of between 7% and 12%. Wisconsin was simply not seen as being in play. In fact, Hillary Clinton did not once visit the Badger State after she clinched the nomination. Pollsters from almost every organisation and outlet grossly underestimated turnout amongst rural white voters, as well as the support that Trump was enjoying amongst college-educated men in the state, a group that had traditionally backed the Democrats there. In the end, Trump ended up taking Wisconsin and its ten votes by 0.8%. Wisconsin was by far the biggest upset of the night. Similarly, polling, up until this week, suggested that Biden was leading Trump by just 1% in Delaware. Now, better, more reliable and more proportional polling is being carried out in the First State. The result is now that Biden leads Trump by around 21%. Delaware, with its three votes, has suddenly become one of the safest states in the race. But there is still little to no reliable polling data for the District of Columbia, Idaho, Illinois, Oregon, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Vermont or Wyoming. Whilst these are all safe states and districts in this race, Wisconsin was also seen as a safe state in 2016. Good, reliable polling is needed across the entirety of the United States. The upset in Wisconsin and the skywards leap in Delaware demonstrate why.

The Tightest Races

As has already been mentioned, Ohio, Georgia and Texas were the closest races this week. Ohio moved 0.1% more towards Trump, whilst Georgia and Texas moved towards Biden by 0.3% and 0.7% respectively. Ohio is a traditional swing state won on small margins, while Georgia has become more and more purple over the course of the last decade. Ruby-red Texas is the odd one out here. These margins, particularly in Ohio, are so tight and so volatile, that, should this trend continue all the way to 3 November, all three of these states will be considered toss-ups. It is very possible that they will continue to be this tight. In all three states, urban voters are swinging behind Biden, while rural voters are swinging behind Trump. It will be voters in the suburbs, particularly white, college-educated women, who decide which way these three states tip. It is also important to note that support for both Trump and Biden has risen in both Ohio and Texas, suggesting that there are fewer and fewer undecided suburban voters upon which either side can draw. But 3 November is still a long way off, enough suburban and moderate voters could well yet shift in either direction.

The Atlanta suburb of Alpharetta. It is suburbs such as this that will likely decide the next president. (Photo: Wikimedia Commons)

The National Picture

Biden’s increase in his lead over Trump was substantial this week. 0.5% is quite the shift in just one week. It could be that, after all, Biden did enjoy a ‘convention bounce’ following the Democratic National Convention. Last week, the Republican National Convention took place with full theatrics in Charlotte, North Carolina, as well as virtually. If Biden has enjoyed a ‘convention bounce’ then Trump should follow suit next week by closing the gap, even if only by a little. Both campaigns have now also laid out their core messages. Trump will put law and order at the centre of his campaign. In the wake of the Black Lives Matter protests and widespread rioting and looting in Minnesota, Wisconsin and New York, he will seek to win over white suburban voters with a campaign centred on the possible continuation of social unrest during a Biden presidency. Biden, meanwhile, is promising a return to ‘business as usual’ in the wake of Trump’s more controversial moves as president and the devastation caused by the Covid-19 epidemic in the United States. These are both powerful messages. The battle lines have been drawn. It looks set to be quite the showdown in the weeks to come.

This Week’s Swing States

State Leader Margin 2016 Winner
Arkansas Trump 2% Trump
Georgia Trump 0.4% Trump
Iowa Trump 1% Trump
Maine Second Biden 1% Trump
Nebraska State-Wide Trump 2% Trump
North Carolina Biden 1.8% Trump
Ohio Trump 0.3% Trump
Texas Trump 0.9% Trump

The Electoral College Map: 31 August 2020 (Courtesy of 270ToWin)

Note: A state is considered to be a swing state if the leading margin is under 4.0%. A state is considered to be a safe state if the leading margin is 10.0% or greater.

Luke Sandford