Even if you don’t follow the polls as closely as we do at FiveThirtyEight, you probably know that Joe Biden has both a sizeable and fairly stable lead over President Trump.
You shouldn’t be counting Trump just yet, however. According to our President’s prediction, Trump currently has a 1 in 4 chance of winning the election, despite only having a 1 in 10 chance of winning the national referendum.
This is of course due to the electoral college, in which Trump has an advantage this year.
Historically, which party has an advantage in the electoral college; sometimes the Democrats benefit from it; at other times the Republicans. But in 2020, the electoral college will significantly increase Trump’s chances of re-election.
This is because the states most likely to rule over competition are slightly more republican than the whole country, as the following table shows.
|Status||Turning point opportunity||Forecast margin||Lean Relative to Nation|
|Texas||1%||R + 3.8||R + 10.9|
|Georgia||2||R + 2.1||R + 9.2|
|Ohio||5||D + 0.4||R + 6.7|
|North Carolina||5||D + 0.7||R + 6.3|
|Florida||12||D + 1.4||R + 5.7|
|Arizona||6||D + 2.7||R + 4.4|
|Pennsylvania||32||D + 4.5||R + 2.5|
|Wisconsin||9||D + 6.2||R + 0.9|
|Nevada||3||D + 6.5||R + 0.6|
|New Hampshire||2||D + 6.5||R + 0.6|
|Michigan||9||D + 7.0||R + 0.1|
|Minnesota||3||D + 7.9||D + 0.9|
|Colorado||3||D + 9.1||D + 2.0|
|Virginia||1||D + 11.0||D + 3.9|
Overall, these 14 states decide the election in 94 percent of FiveThirtyEight’s forecast simulations, and in nearly 9 out of 10 simulations, the turning point state is one of the eleven states that may vote more Republicans than the country. Now only three of these states are allowed to vote to the left of the country, and of those only Colorado and Virginia look like safe bets to vote more democratically at this point. Taken together, it means Trump has a better shot than if he had to win the national referendum
Take a state like Pennsylvania to see what I mean. Pennsylvania is currently the most likely turning point in the electoral college (almost a 3-1 chance) and right now Biden is expected to win there by 4.5 points. But even if that happens, Pennsylvania is still 2.5 points to the right of the national scope of the forecast. That said, if the polls tighten and Biden’s national advantage wears off, Pennsylvania’s leaning to the right could very well help Trump win. And, because most of the other likely betting states are Republicans, Trump could conquer enough right-wing battlefield states to win a majority on the electoral college without winning the national referendum.
Well, as we said at the beginning, the electoral college’s GOP bias is by no means permanent, and even in 2020, his Republican bias for Trump might not be enough to win re-election. (It remains to be seen whether the death of Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg will change the political environment significantly.) Still, the Republican electoral college advantage this cycle leaves the door more open to a Trump victory than to winning over should have the referendum.
Put it this way: Biden has a 9:10 chance of winning the national referendum, but slightly less than an 8:10 chance of winning the election. The difference between these two probabilities is roughly the Republican advantage on the electoral college for that year.
We can really see how this works when we break down the national vote gap in our forecast simulations and Biden’s odds based on different scenarios. As you can see in the table below, Biden will only be preferred if he wins nationally with at least 3 points – a point more than Clinton’s margin for 2016. Everything else doesn’t even make him a 50:50 bet at best and, in most cases, a clear underdog.
|National scenario of the referendum||Scenario opportunity||Expand the chance in the scenario|
|Trump wins referendum||10%||0.8%|
|Biden wins by 0 to 1 points||3||7.4|
|Biden wins by 1 to 2 points||4th||19.7|
|Biden wins with 2 to 3 points||5||44.9|
|Biden wins with 3 to 4 points||6||69.6|
|Biden wins by 4 to 5 points||6||88.4|
|Biden wins with 5 to 6 points||7th||96.0|
|Biden wins with 6 to 7 points||7th||98.9|
|Biden wins by 7 to 8 points||7th||99.8|
|Biden wins with 8 or more points||43||100.0|
In fact, Biden’s chances will only be fairly certain if he wins nationally by more than 5 points, which shows just how big the lead the Republican Electoral College could be in 2020. And even then, Biden’s lead has to rise to 9 points before there is no simulations in our forecast of Trump winning. Meanwhile, Trump is almost guaranteed to win the election if he wins the national referendum, and he actually wins a majority on the electoral college while losing the referendum (12 percent). More often than if he wins the most votes (10 percent).
The good news for Biden, however, is that he has almost twice the chance of winning the national referendum by at least 8 points (43 percent) than Trump. In other words, more than half the times that Biden wins in our forecast simulations, he wins at least as much. So it is entirely possible that Biden will claim a respectable victory.
However, it is entirely possible that Biden will lose while winning the referendum, and that this scenario boils down to the current tilt to the right of the major battlefield states most likely to make that election. Together, these states give Trump a real shot at another four years in the White House, especially if the race gets closer in the next 36 days.