Why a Biden blowout is still the most likely result

There are several key differences between 2016 and 2020

President Trump and Joe Biden.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images)

Five weeks out from the 2020 presidential election, significant media attention is being given to the small possibility that President Donald Trump could again pull off a narrow Electoral College victory while losing the popular vote, or that even an Electoral College tie could push the election to the House. Those scenarios, though, are mainly making headlines because they're interesting fodder for the pundit class. All the data point to a big blowout victory for Democratic nominee Joe Biden.

The major recent polls (Economist/YouGov: Biden +7, CNBC: Biden +9, Quinnipiac: Biden +10, NYT: Biden +8) show Biden with a truly commanding lead nationally. Equally important is how Biden leads. The 2016 election was always a much closer and more dynamic race, Trump was facing a much more unpopular opponent, and a much larger number of voters were undecided. None of those are the case this time.

This year we have experienced a global pandemic which has so far killed over 200,000 Americans, a massive economic disruption, multiple Trump administration scandals, and the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. Yet Biden's large lead over Trump is basically identical to what it was at the end of last year. There is still the possibility that some new development — even bigger than those listed above — could shift the dynamics of the race, but that seems very unlikely.

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Biden also polls much better than Hillary Clinton ever did in the late stages of the 2016 election cycle — largely because there are significantly fewer undecided and third-party voters. In the RealClearPolitics polling average of the four-way race, Clinton's share of the vote never went over 46.2 percent while, by comparison, Biden has been bouncing right around 50 percent for the past few months with 7 percent third-party/undecided. To realistically win, Trump would need to pick up almost all the undecided voters and even flip some Biden voters.

In 2016, both candidates were unpopular. The final YouGov poll found Clinton with a favorable rating of 43 percent and 56 percent unfavorable, compared to Trump's rating of 39 percent favorable and 60 percent unfavorable. This gave the outsider Trump a chance to win over voters who disliked both candidates. By comparison, right now Biden's favorability numbers are 45 percent to 47 percent compared to Trump at 42 percent favorable and 53 unfavorable. In addition, 52 percent of voters disapprove of how Trump has handled his job as president, while 57 percent of voters are upset or dissatisfied with Trump. Trump effectively needs to win over voters who dislike him, disapprove of his job performance, and are simply ambivalent about Biden.

To be sure, in 2016, the very limited polling in certain critical swing states was off in important ways, and the final national polling undercounted Trump's support by roughly 1-2 points. Maybe there is another systematic undercounting of Trump's support in the polling this year, and maybe late-breaking events move voters towards him, and maybe a large share of voters who disapprove of Trump's job performance can be persuaded to vote against Biden — but that is a lot of maybes.

It is just as likely that Biden will outperform his already big lead. Elections tend to be referendums on incumbents, which is particularly true this year. Trump's polling numbers in head-to-head matchups with Biden have closely mirrored his overall job approval numbers. At the same time, Trump's job approval has been stuck in the low 40s effectively his entire time in office. Almost unique among modern presidents, he has never appealed to the majority of the country and has basically never tried. There really is no precedent for a chronically unpopular president who never tried to reach out beyond his base.

If the final election results follow this job approval pattern, Biden wins in a landslide even larger than his current polling lead. Winning by such a large margin would swamp Trump's modest advantage in the Electoral College.

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