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State by state, Trump falls behind

Essential Politics

Whenever I write about national polls of the election, someone is sure to respond that those surveys don’t matter because presidential elections are won state by state, in the electoral college, not by the nationwide popular vote.

That’s only partly true. The relationship between the national vote and individual states is fairly well known: Some states, such as Wisconsin, are a few points more conservative than the nationwide average, others, such as Colorado, are a few points more liberal.

If one candidate leads by roughly seven points nationwide, as Joe Biden currently does, you can predict pretty accurately where the states will fall. But having polls of key states is a whole lot better than making projections, and this year, we have a lot of high quality state surveys.

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In 2016, one of the big problems with polling was a shortage of reliable statewide polls, largely because the big regional newspapers that used to pay for them stopped having the money to do so. This year, however, organizations that do have the money, including the New York Times, the Washington Post and several university-based survey centers, have jumped in to look at battleground states, giving us a lot more information than we had at this point four years ago.

The bottom line is that Biden is close to locking down an electoral college majority, but hasn’t quite achieved that goal. President Trump, by contrast, has a long way to go with fewer than seven weeks to election day. For a closer look at where the key states stand, read on.

Sunbelt or Midwest?

Biden has several pathways to get the 270 electoral votes needed to win the White House; Trump has many fewer options.

Both candidates can count on a number of states where the outcome is not in doubt. Democrats can be confident about the big, urban coastal states such as California, where Biden leads Trump by more than 30 points, and New York. Republicans can count on winning a broad swath of the South and the nation’s interior.

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Democrats start with just short of 190 electoral votes they’re all but certain to win; Republicans can be similarly sure of about 125. Add to that a number of other states that have the potential to deliver a surprise, but probably won’t, and most of the country goes largely uncontested.

As has been true for several election cycles, the two sides have concentrated almost all their advertising and candidate time in fewer than a dozen states. Almost all are states Trump won last time, illustrating the problem he faces: He’s been unable to expand his coalition and is playing defense.

The main strategic choice for the Democrats has been whether to focus on winning back the big industrial states that Hillary Clinton lost four years ago — Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin — or go after states in the South and Southwest starting with Florida, the nation’s perennial swing state, and including others that have been trending their way such as Arizona, Georgia and Texas, the biggest potential prize.

The northern route requires improving on Clinton’s dismal showing with white working-class voters and inspiring a larger turnout of Black voters than she received. The southern path leans more heavily on college-educated suburban residents plus a large turnout of Black and Latino voters.

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Biden has made clear that he believes the northern path is the surer one. He has long-standing ties to Pennsylvania, and his political base of older white and Black voters matches the profile of the industrial states. By contrast, his ties with younger and Latino voters in the Sunbelt are more tenuous.

The Democratic campaign, however, has invested in Arizona to provide insurance in case they fall short in one of the industrial states. They’re also making a serious effort in Florida, where Biden traveled this week, and where Michael Bloomberg, the billionaire former New York mayor, has pledged to spend at least $100 million to defeat Trump. They’ve resisted the temptation to pour resources into Georgia and Texas — states that could absorb huge amounts of money for an uncertain return.

So far, the Democratic bets appear to be paying off.

In Michigan, for example, seven recent publicly released polls have shown Biden with leads between 5 and 11 points among likely voters, with an average of 7.5 points in the compilation by FiveThirtyEight.com.

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Wisconsin shows much the same picture: Biden leads by 4 points in a recent survey by Marquette University and by 10 points in a poll by CNN. The state has had a slew of publicly released polls in the last two weeks, with an average lead for Biden of around 7 points.

The biggest uncertainty currently appears to be in Pennsylvania, which has had fewer public polls so far and where the race seems to be tightening. Biden’s lead has ranged from 3 to 9 points among likely voters there, with an average of around 5.

By contrast, in Arizona, Biden’s lead appears to be growing in recent weeks, in part because more Latino voters have moved from undecided into the Democratic camp. The most recent poll, by Siena College and the New York Times, has Biden leading by 9 points among likely voters, although another recent survey, from Monmouth University, showed a tighter race. The Monmouth poll offered several different turnout models, showing Biden with a lead in the low single digits.

In two other Sunbelt states, Florida and North Carolina, polls show the race as a toss-up. Both are must-wins for Trump.

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On the Republican side, campaign operatives earlier this year talked boldly about contesting several states that Clinton won in 2016, but as the year has gone on, they’ve largely given up on most of those.

The state that had seemed Trump’s best bet to go on offense was Minnesota. This summer, Republicans hoped that the president’s law and order message would connect with voters there because of the unrest that rocked Minneapolis after the death of George Floyd, a Black man whose death in police custody has led to criminal charges against several officers.

That hasn’t happened. Recent polls have shown Biden with a strong lead in Minnesota, with some putting his margin in double digits. Trump and Biden are both scheduled to campaign in the state today.

Trump this week also campaigned in Nevada. The state hasn’t been polled as often as the others, but the recent surveys show a tight race. In recent years, however, Democratic candidates have often done better in the state than polls predicted, in part because pollsters have had trouble gauging the state’s large Latino population.

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The race isn’t over yet. If Trump can gain some ground, he could be competitive in Pennsylvania. Nevada and Arizona aren’t sure for Biden at this point, and Florida and North Carolina likely will remain close until the end. The challenge for Trump is that he needs to win at least four of those five states to eke out a victory, and right now, he’s trailing in all of them.

An even bigger problem for Trump may be this: In poll after poll, in one battleground state after another, he almost never gets more than 44% of the vote.

This late in the race, it’s hard to count on undecided voters breaking toward the incumbent, and third party candidates almost certainly won’t take as large a share of the vote as the 5% they got in 2016. Trump won with 46% of the vote in 2016; he’ll need to do better this time, and time is running short.

Virus still dominates campaign debate

Both sides have begun to talk about other issues in their campaign advertising — Trump has turned more to the economy and Democrats have broadened their attack on his healthcare record. But as recent televised town halls have shown, voters still want to talk about the coronavirus.

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At a CNN town hall Thursday night, Biden condemned Trump’s response to the pandemic, declaring, “I don’t trust the president on vaccines,” as Matt Pearce wrote.

Trump played into Biden’s hands the day before. As Evan Halper, Janet Hook and Noah Bierman wrote, the president picked a fight with the head of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention over the timeline for a vaccine and the utility of wearing masks. The dispute provided further evidence for Democratic charges that Trump doesn’t listen to medical and scientific experts.

Seemingly flummoxed by Democratic attacks on his record of dealing with the pandemic, Trump has taken to accusing Biden of mishandling it, drawing reminders from the Democrat that “I’m not the president.” It’s an example of how Trump consistently tries to attack opponents for whatever he’s been attacked for, as Chris Megerian wrote. It’s a long-standing trait with Trump that some analysts see as a form of projection on his part.

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Too liberal versus not trusted

Data from the USC Dornsife poll highlights key barriers for Trump and Biden in these final weeks before the election: Many of the remaining undecided and swing voters see Biden as far more liberal than they are. But a large share of voters already have turned their back on Trump, saying they have “extremely unfavorable” views of the president.

And the poll bears out what Doyle McManus said in his column: Trump’s “law and order” pitch has fallen flat. His arguments on the subject do generate support among voters already in his base, as Bierman found in reporting from Pennsylvania, but they haven’t gained traction with the broader electorate.

Low interest rates for years

The Federal Reserve issued new monetary guidance this week. As Don Lee wrote, the central bank is expected to keep interest rates near zero through 2023. Fed chief Jerome Powell expressed some optimism that by then, the economy may be back to low levels of unemployment.

Wildfire relief

Wildfires have burned over 5 million acres in the West. But figuring out what to do about them is creating divisions among Democrats, Anna Phillips and Jennifer Haberkorn report.

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Some Democrats, including Sen. Ron Wyden of Oregon, are pushing for additional federal money to do more controlled burns, which forest managers say are badly needed. Others, including Sen. Dianne Feinstein, back legislation that would exempt some forestry management plans from environmental review — an idea opposed by environmental groups.

Newsletter changes ahead

Starting next week, we’ll be adding a Wednesday edition to the Essential Politics newsletter in an effort to help you keep up with all that’s going on in the campaign and the broader worlds of state and national politics. Look for it in your inbox. And we’ll be revamping the design of the newsletter as well. We hope you’ll like it. Drop us a line to tell us what you think.

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