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8 September 2020

How Joe Biden could still lose the US presidential election

Nearly 60 per cent of Biden supporters say their vote is directed against Trump rather than for the Democratic nominee.

By Ben Walker

With less than 60 days to the US election on November 3, Democratic candidate Joe Biden has been having a good campaign. Since early June, he has consistently enjoyed a lead in the polls of at least eight points over his Republican opponent, incumbent President Donald Trump; and his running mate Kamala Harris has wowed both the Democratic base and key swing voters. 

In the swing states where it all matters – Florida, Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin – Biden leads the president by around 4-6pts. When it comes to support and enthusiasm from minorities, poll data suggests Biden has impressed, and is so far performing better than Hillary Clinton did at this point in the campaign back in 2016. Enthusiasm and satisfaction among black voters for the Democratic candidate is up 14pts on 2016. Among Latino voters, that rise is slightly lower, but still significant, at 9pts.

Though we are now seeing a narrowing in the numbers, if only by half a point or so, there is no question as to who is the clear frontrunner in this race. No other presidential candidate in decades has enjoyed a lead as large as Biden’s for as long as Biden has. If the election were held today, it’d likely be a blowout. Republican Texas would be in contention, and near all of the east coast, with the exception of South Carolina, would run the risk of going blue.

Biden attracts more voter enthusiasm than Hillary Clinton
Share of voters enthusiastic and/or satisfied about Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton

And yet, this lead over Donald Trump does not matter as much as might first appear, and nor is it as set in stone as simplistic line charts would suggest. US presidential elections are decided not by the overall popular vote, but by the electoral college as shaped by the results from each state; and polls this far out don’t have a record for accuracy either.

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Biden would flip seven states if an election were held today
New Statesman election model figures correct as of September 07

It is because of this that we have models – like ours – which try to cut through the polling noise and give a probabilistic forecast of where the election is now, and where it will be come polling day. What our model shows is that though Biden enjoys a big lead, his chances of losing still stand at less than one in five – but that risk has grown since July.

It’s clear Biden knows this. Conscious of the Democrats’ need to reignite support amongst groups disenchanted under Hillary Clinton in 2016, the national convention last month made great promotion of the party’s elected black men and women, particularly those from the Obama-gone-Trump state of Wisconsin, where the convention was being held. Biden has a “chance to be the most progressive president” since Franklin D. Roosevelt, according to Senator Bernie Sanders, who ran against him in the Democratic primary. And his campaign has been hitting the right notes with its “building back better” slogan, a message tailored towards Americans in the rust belt.

Why, then, have Biden’s chances of winning been on the slide? Why – if his campaign were a car – are we seeing a few warning lights flare up on the dashboard?

Problem 1: The economy

Donald Trump’s handling of Covid-19 has received the approval of just 39 per cent of Americans and has done a lot to worsen his performance in the polls. With the pandemic receding across much of the country, voters are increasingly paying heed to issues other – despite scientists’ warning of a winter resurgence.

According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump has never come close to being approved by a majority of Americans overall. When polled specifically on his handling of the economy, however, it’s a different story. A recent YouGov survey found 67 per cent of Americans ranked jobs and the economy as a “very important” issue to them, and 53 per cent of those polled said they approved of the president’s handling of the issue. 

When put toe-to-toe with Biden in a recent NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll, Trump, while trailing on voting intention, comes out top on the economy.

August poll: majority approve of Trump’s handling of the economy
YouGov survey puts healthcare and the economy top for voters

If the election were fought on Covid-19 alone, or healthcare, then there’d be little question of Joe Biden winning the White House. If it were fought on the economy and jobs or national security, that prediction would dramatically change. 

The less Covid matters as an election issue, the more weight is carried by other things, such as the economy – and the better Trump’s prospects. If the pandemic is kept at bay in the weeks and months to come, expect that shift to intensify, and the polls to narrow accordingly.

Problem 2: the Biden coalition

Biden’s campaign is juggling two key challenges this election. The first is turning out its base in large enough numbers come November 3; the second is broadening their coalition of supporters to keep ahead in key swing states. 

That coalition has so far been an eclectic mix of predominantly young and diverse voters who support a liberal platform, and conservative and centrist voters who don’t. According to YouGov, 14 per cent of voters who identify as conservative say they will vote for Joe Biden instead of Donald Trump, as well as 53 per cent of self described moderates.

14% of ideological conservatives say they’re voting for Biden
Demographic breakdown of latest YouGov voting intention

This group is motivated not by Biden per se, and certainly not by the kind of progressive policy platform demanded by the base. Some 58 per cent of Biden supporters say their vote is more against Trump than for Biden. This is in stark contrast to Trump supporters, 80 per cent of whom say their vote is more for Trump than against Biden. 

Trump’s abrasive style and uncanny ability to appear the bogeyman has therefore done a lot of the work for Biden – whose low-key strategy of being all things to all voters has been paying dividends. But for how long? The risk is that were perceptions of Trump to soften, or the campaign to shift to issues where it is harder to portray him as the villain, “I’m not him!” becomes a less effective rally cry. Indeed it becomes a potential weakness – a sign of absence. Biden would have to work harder at showing what he was for, and in a way that motivated both his base and the recent converts.

To perform that balancing act may turn out to be much harder than simply pointing towards Trump’s perceived shortcomings. A recent Morning Consult survey reports voters increasingly rate Biden as less moderate than ever. This might soothe the progressive base, but it alienates those conservative converts – the Biden Republicans, so to speak – who are such a vital but potentially fragile part of the coalition.

Biden is still the clear favourite to win this election, and remains in what is a historically strong position. But he’d be foolish to ignore those flashing dashboard lights. There is still a way to go before November, and it might well be that the Democrats have to end up actively winning the election after all, rather than just waiting for their opponent to lose.

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