In year of surprises, a win by Joe Biden should not be one

Revisiting scenarios sketched out in November

Of four scenarios for the 2020 election published in November 2019, one is looking most likely. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Of four scenarios for the 2020 election published in November 2019, one is looking most likely. (Caroline Brehman/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted October 7, 2020 at 9:30am

ANALYSIS — The direction the 2020 election has taken shouldn’t be a surprise. Sure, a year ago it was hard to imagine a pandemic, severe economic fallout from the response to the pandemic, a national conversation about racism, Ruth Bader Ginsburg’s death, or the president of the United States contracting a novel coronavirus. But President Donald Trump was an underdog for reelection before those historic events, and he remains an underdog.  

I can already envision a false narrative building that the president lost reelection because he contracted the coronavirus a month before Election Day. While Trump’s positive test and the overall White House handling of the situation might contribute to a loss to former Vice President Joe Biden, the two most likely scenarios for the 2020 elections, laid out eleven months ago, involved a Trump loss. 

A year ago, I ranked the four most likely outcomes for this November. And with less than one month to go, the second most likely scenario then is the most likely outcome now, with the rest of the list intact.

Blue Washington scenario

The “Blue Washington” scenario involved Biden winning the White House, Democrats taking control of the Senate and Democrats holding the House. 

“This result requires a surge in Democratic voters and continued revolt by independent voters against Trump as seen in the 2018 midterm elections,” I wrote last November. “Trump would be the catalyst to unify and energize the Democratic Party, causing him to lose some of the states he won by the closest margins in 2016, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin, while also turning Arizona, North Carolina, Florida and Georgia blue on election night. Iowa, which backed Barack Obama in 2008 and 2012, would also return to the Democrats’ column.”

With just a few weeks left, Biden is either leading or running virtually even with Trump in all of those states, when he probably only needs to win three of them to secure an Electoral College victory. 

While his handling of the coronavirus and race relations are factors in the president’s struggle to recapture his 2016 magic, the dip in the economy and the decline in voters’ confidence in his ability to handle the economy has contributed to Trump’s struggles. 

“In the Senate, Trump’s weakness at the top of the ticket could create a perfect storm for a Democratic majority, with the president losing Colorado, Arizona, North Carolina and Iowa by margins too large for GOP incumbents (who had no choice but to tie themselves to Trump) to overcome,” the November piece read. “Republican Sen. Susan Collins would also fall in Maine as voters continued to disregard personal brands and prioritize partisan purity and control of the chamber.”

Not only has Trump’s underperformance at the top of the ticket contributed to Republican vulnerability in those states, it has fueled Democratic takeover opportunities in Georgia, Montana, Kansas, Alaska, Texas, and even South Carolina. 

[These 10 senators and 10 House members are most vulnerable]

“In the House, this climate would mean Democrats add to their majority, picking off two of the last three GOP incumbents to represent Clinton districts as well as a handful of suburban districts that have been trending Democratic in response to Trump,” I wrote in November. 

If the latest national polls from CNN (which showed Biden with a 16-point advantage) and NBC News/Wall Street Journal (which showed a 14-point advantage) are even close to correct, a Democratic gain of a few seats in the House might be the best-case scenario for the GOP.

Eviction at 1600 scenario

The first scenario in the November projection, which now seems less likely, had Biden winning a close race for the White House. But Trump’s ability to keep enough of his coalition together would allow Republicans to keep their losses to a minimum, including maintaining a slim Senate majority. 

“Democrats face a divisive primary, but the prospect of four more years of Trump could be a powerful unifier,” the outlook from last year stated. “That solidification (and fewer Democrats voting for third-party candidates) would be enough to swing Trump’s closest 2016 states and pull another handful of states into the Democratic column as well.”

One of the forgotten lessons from 2016 is that Trump narrowly won the Electoral College — not in terms of Electoral College votes but rather the margins in the closest states. He won Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin by less than 1 percent each — and by 77,744 votes combined — and has been operating on very narrow margins ever since. 

Running from behind with a few weeks to go is a challenge when the presidential race has been stable in the face of historic events. The margin between Trump and Biden on the RealClearPolitics chart has barely changed in months, and the FiveThirtyEight chart tracking the matchup looks like a set of railroad tracks rather than a zigzag drawing created by my 4-year-old. Even before the president contracted the coronavirus, the general trajectory of this election had already left the station. 

From November: “Narrow victories for Trump in Arizona and North Carolina in 2020 would not be enough to reelect GOP Sens. Martha McSally and Thom Tillis. And if Colorado was to go against him by double digits, it would be too much for Republican Sen. Cory Gardner to overcome.” This dynamic is largely the same, except Trump’s underperformance compared to 2016 has broadened the Senate battleground, even if Republicans ultimately win.

What else could happen?

The unexpected 2016 presidential result should have been a reminder to think about future potential election scenarios in terms of probabilities rather than binary outcomes. 

With that in mind, it’s certainly possible that either of the first two scenarios don’t happen and Trump wins reelection (the Status Quo scenario from November). It’s just less likely at this stage. 

“Trump would nearly replicate his Electoral College victory from 2016, except 2020 would see him losing Pennsylvania. Democratic turnout would exceed 2016’s, giving the party’s nominee a greater popular vote victory than Clinton in 2016,” according to last year’s analysis, “But the increased Democratic turnout would come largely from urban areas that don’t affect the Electoral College result.”

If the current polling doesn’t improve for the president and he wins a second term, it will represent an abject failure of polling in elections involving Trump. The only way to explain dozens of pollsters, independent of each other, making the same methodological mistake in the same direction for the second time in a row would be for the president’s supporters to mislead or not answer pollsters. 

In any event, the president holding his Electoral College coalition together should be enough to keep the Senate in GOP hands. And in the House, Republicans could take back a third of the 30 districts represented by Democrats that Trump carried in 2016, but still be left short of the 17 they needed to gain a majority. This continues to be the most realistic, best-case scenario for Republicans, even though it’s less likely than a Biden victory.

The fourth and final scenario, Red Revival, is as close to impossible as you can get. Democrats have largely avoided the potential issues that could have derailed Biden. Democrats nominated a palatable presidential candidate and impeached the current president without significant voter backlash.

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