How Biden could still win (note sarcasm)

Don’t let counterintuitive takes overwhelm sound analysis

Joe Biden leaves the Capitol on Friday after a memorial service for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Joe Biden leaves the Capitol on Friday after a memorial service for the late Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)
Posted September 29, 2020 at 6:00am

ANALYSIS — It has become fashionable these days to write about the many ways that Democrat Joe Biden can lose to President Donald Trump in November.

Lots of really smart people have written on the subject, and their pieces are a good reminder that we don’t know precisely what will happen between today and Nov. 3. We can’t be certain who will win the presidency.

“There are at least five reasons Joe Biden’s consistent lead over Donald Trump does not guarantee him a lock on the White House,” the always thoughtful Tom Edsall wrote in The New York Times recently, even though I know of no veteran political analyst who has “guaranteed” a Biden victory.

In Politico a few weeks ago, David Siders wrote a piece entitled “Why Biden could still lose the suburbs to Trump.”

“This Is How Biden Loses,” wrote George Packer in a late August piece in The Atlantic.

Also in late August, veteran GOP consultant Mike Murphy wrote “How Biden could still lose” in The Washington Post.

These few examples merely skim the surface. It seems almost everyone has written about how Biden can lose. And, of course, he can.

These “counterintuitive” pieces stem from the same understanding: Biden is ahead in the race for president. Trump trails, rather badly, in national polls and is underperforming his 2016 showing in many crucial swing states. But there are still unknowns, many of which stem from Trump’s desire to retain power at any cost, so “anything can happen.”

I don’t disagree with that view. In fact, I spoke recently with a veteran Democratic consultant who reminded me that all pollsters are making assumptions about turnout, many of which could end up being wrong. No wonder thoughtful people are hesitant to crawl out too far on the limb.

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The big picture

But the flurry of pieces about how Trump can win a second term ignores the obvious — that Biden has a good chance of winning because he is keeping the 2020 contest a referendum on the incumbent president; Trump’s language and behavior are consistently off-putting to non-Trumpers; and the coronavirus pandemic has exposed the president’s incompetence.

On Aug. 25, I wrote a column, “Watch the key 2016 numbers as you watch the 2020 polls,” that sought to identify the crucial groups to watch as the 2020 race heads to the finish line.

Crucial swing groups that are trending toward Biden — including college-educated whites, seniors and suburban voters — and core Democratic voters (Blacks, the young, progressives, etc.) are all worth watching down the stretch, both for indications of turnout but also to compare their 2020 vote choice with that of 2016.

So are Latinos, who will vote Democratic in most states but possibly not at the levels Democrats have hoped for. Will Trump outperform previous GOP hopefuls among Latino voters or is all the recent hype of Biden’s problems mostly chatter?

Finally, is there a flood of white, noncollege-educated voters who stayed home in 2016 and 2018 waiting to turn out in 2020, thereby offsetting Biden’s greater strength with college-educated whites (especially college-educated white women)? It’s an important question.

Occam’s razor

But focusing on how Biden can lose ignores something else. Trump continues to sit in the low to mid-40s in the ballot test, and Biden has maintained a solid 6- to 9-point lead in recent polls that use different methodologies and make a variety of assumptions about turnout.

Biden is also showing strength in crucial states, including the Great Lakes trio (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin) and the South/Sunbelt trio (Arizona, Florida and North Carolina.) Iowa, Ohio and Georgia may well also be in play.

None of these states are a “lock” for Biden. He could lose most or all, once again giving the country a Democrat who wins the popular vote while losing the Electoral College. But he has more paths to victory in 2020 than Hillary Clinton had four years ago, and Trump has even fewer paths than he did in 2016.

When I moved my rating of the presidential race on June 29 from Leaning Biden to Likely Biden, it was based on my assessment of the nominees; Trump’s personality and his limited efforts to broaden his appeal; key swing groups; and the electorate’s views of the sitting president.

As I wrote then, “With just four months to go, Trump is not likely to change his language or messaging. Americans are talking about health care, social justice and the economy, while the president complains about the media and Barack Obama, tweets about ‘law and order,’ vows to protect statues, and generally looks out of touch, inept and petty.”

But I also ended the column with a warning to readers: “But keep watching. Strange things happen these days.”

That warning still applies. There are, after all, three scheduled presidential debates and unexpected developments ahead. But that should not obscure the obvious conclusion that it is now much easier to show how Biden will win rather than how Trump will. Much, much easier.