Hillary Concedes
Hillary Clinton acknowledges defeat, the morning after. Wed., Nov. 9, 2016 Credit: Matthew Cooper

If the election were held today, Joe Biden would probably win. But there are strong signs that the race is much, much closer than you’d think from the news coverage. Donald Trump has a real shot at being reelected.

First, the president is actually more popular now than on the day he was elected. Yes, that’s right. His personal favorability rating around election day in 2016 was 37.5%. Now, it is 43.2%. There are, in fact, hundreds of thousands of Americans (if not millions) who have grown fonder of Trump.

We all know it’s not about the popular vote so let’s disregard nationwide polls that have Biden ahead by double digits. Who cares if he’s going to win California by 20 percent or 30 percent? There’s been much attention paid to the former vice-president running strong in battleground states that Trump won in 2016. That’s true. But… Biden is leading in many of those pivotal contests by just a little bit. As of October 20, according to the Real Clear Politics average, Biden led in these potential red-to-blue flips:

Georgia — .09 percent
Florida — 1 percent
Arizona — 3.1 percent
Iowa — 1.2 percent
North Carolina — 2 percent
Texas — (-4.4 percent)

Yes, I’d rather be Biden than Trump, but Trump doesn’t need a shift of 12 points. The president needs a shift of about 3 points – or a group-think polling error of just a few points. If that happens, Biden could quite easily lose all of those (mostly sunbelt) states mentioned above, just as Hillary did in the last election. There’s reason to believe that the growing Hispanic population in those states and Trump’s anti-immigration obsession will propel Biden to victory. But Trump is polling surprisingly strongly with Hispanics, especially men and the growing number of Hispanic Evangelicals

If Biden blows it in the sunbelt and Iowa, it will come down once again to the rust belt battlegrounds: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, and Michigan. Remember: if Biden loses all of the above-mentioned states that he wants to flip from red to blue (which is quite possible) – then he has to sweep the Great Lakes battlegrounds. Not 2 of 3. 3 of 3.

Right now (as of 10/20), those three states are looking pretty good for Biden, especially Michigan and even Wisconsin, which once seemed like it might be the hardest of the three to get back in the blue column where it resided from 1988 to 2012. Somewhat surprisingly, Pennsylvania is still a dogfight for Biden despite nearly 50 years in politics in neighboring Delaware and multiple visits to the Keystone State this year:

Pennsylvania — +3.8
Wisconsin — +6.2
Michigan — +6.8

So, remembering that Biden might need to sweep all three of those, my main cautionary note is to look at the Real Clear Politics polling averages for those states way back on October 19, 2016:

Pennsylvania: Clinton +6.2
Wisconsin: Clinton +7
Michigan: Clinton +11.6

As you can see, Joe Biden is doing worse in those state polls than Hillary was. And she, of course, lost them all.

Granted, some things are different now. Undecideds break towards the challenger, and that was Trump last time with Hillary as a quasi-incumbent. Now Trump is the status quo. And today’s polling is less likely to overstate black turnout. Some politicos question the Real Clear Politics average, saying it gives too much weight to lesser polls. But even other averages, such as FiveThirtyEight, aren’t radically different. On October 20, they had Biden up 7.3 points in Wisconsin. That’s better than RCP but not dramatically so. 

But consider this: The one pollster that consistently has Trump doing better than the national average—well enough to win—is The Trafalgar Group. They are often discounted as being to the right of the average, which is true. The Atlanta-based firm also happens to be the only polling firm that accurately predicted Trump’s margin in Pennsylvania and Michigan in 2016. So why are we so quick to discount the only pollster that got it right last time? (Right now, Trafalgar has Trump down 2% in Pennsylvania but up +1% in Michigan, and predicts to the Rich Lowry at National Review that the president will be re-elected).

Some of the pollsters who got those state races wrong in 2016 have adjusted their methodology to account for a lower black turnout and so on—but some, apparently, amazingly—have not. “Since then, some of the most prolific state polls, including Monmouth University’s, have started to weight their samples by educational attainment to make sure they are not falling prey to survey bias based on voters with more degrees being more likely to answer their phones,” the Washington Post reported. “Yet several firms have not, including Marist College, Mason-Dixon, and EPIC-MRA, which conducts Michigan polls for the Detroit Free Press.”

Then there’s the mysterious matter of voter registrations. Tom Edsall in the New York Times quoted a Democratic consultant about what seems to be a spike in the voter registration of the demographic group toughest on Democrats– non-college aged whites: “Since last week, the share of white non-college over 30 [years of age] registrations in the battleground states has increased by 10 points compared to September 2016, and the Democratic margin dropped 10 points to just 6 points. And there are serious signs of political engagement by white non-college voters who had not cast ballots in previous elections.”

And here’s Edsall’s summary of the voter registration news:

“David Wasserman, House editor for The Cook Political Report. wrote on Oct. 1 that voter registration patterns over a longer period in key battleground states show that ‘Republicans have swamped Democrats in adding new voters to the rolls, a dramatic GOP improvement over 2016.’

Four of the six states Trump won by fewer than five points in 2016 allow voters to register by party: Arizona, Florida, North Carolina, and Pennsylvania. In recent months, there have been substantially more Republicans added to the rolls than Democrats in each of them except for Arizona.

Wasserman’s data:

Florida, since the state’s March primary, added 195,652 Republicans and 98,362 Democrats.

Pennsylvania, since June, Republicans plus 135,619, Democrats up 57,985.

North Carolina, since March, Republicans up 83,785 to Democrats 38,137.

In Arizona, the exception, “Democrats out-registered Republicans 31,139 to 29,667” in recent months.”

I’d add one other factor. Even if no one engages in fraudulent voter suppression, it is the case that more absentee ballots are typically disqualified than in-person voters. And this year, Democrats are dominating the absentee ballot voting by more than 2:1 in many states.

Sure, I’ve read various pieces about why Biden is in a stronger position than Clinton. There are fewer undecideds than last time. The third-party candidates are weaker. The numbers have been remarkably stable. Trump’s running a worse campaign. Oh, and there’s a pandemic. And unemployment is in the high single digits. That’s all true. And if the polls are accurate or widen, Biden could win in a blowout.

But the Biden edge is much smaller than most of the analysis has suggested. Yes, I’d rather be Biden than Trump as we approach the final days of the campaign. But Trump’s path to victory is, at this moment, only slightly less likely than it was in 2016 around this time.

Steven Waldman

Follow Steven on Twitter @stevenwaldman. Steven Waldman is the president and co-founder of Report for America, an initiative of The GroundTruth Project. He is the author of Sacred Liberty: America’s Long, Bloody, and Ongoing Struggle for Religious Freedom. As senior adviser to the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission, he was the prime author of the landmark report Information Needs of Communities.