Prediction Time: Who Will Win the 2020 Elections?

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Posted: Nov 03, 2020 10:05 AM
Prediction Time: Who Will Win the 2020 Elections?

Source: AP Photo/Patrick Semansky

It's been an extremely strange election year, and we've finally made it to Election Day. What follows are my best guesses as to what will happen once the votes are counted -- and I'll begin with some transparency: Like many other analysts, I got 2016 wrong. I thought Hillary Clinton had a three-in-four chance of winning, but she famously lost. The national polling average was within approximately one percentage point of being dead-on accurate, but historic polling failures in a handful of upper Midwestern states loomed large. In the subsequent midterm election, my predictions were pretty spot-on in terms of the House, Senate and gubernatorial dynamics and outcomes. The polling (with notable exceptions) and the overall 2018 conventional wisdom proved broadly accurate.

This election comes in the midst of a stubborn, disruptive pandemic -- a reality that has loomed over the entire race. Massive turnout is expected, with an unprecedented number of ballots having already been cast prior to Election Day itself. National polls have been remarkably consistent for months on end, and based on that data, the race is concluding where it's been floating throughout: The challenger maintains a sizable national lead of seven-or-so percentage points, on average. The last time a presidential candidate went into the election leading by this rough margin was Barack Obama in 2008. The polls predicted he'd win by a little over seven points, and he did exactly that, good for 365 electoral votes. With that said, I believe former Vice President Joe Biden will win the presidency.

Why am I predicting a Biden win? There are some major differences between 2016 and 2020, and I believe a number of the key conditions that allowed Trump to pull off an upset last time no longer apply. (1) Hillary Clinton was one of the least personally liked presidential candidates in American history. Joe Biden's personal favorability, by contrast, is above water (+11), whereas Trump's is underwater (-11) in the final Fox News survey, -- which gives Biden an eight-point overall lead.  For what it's worth, NBC's last poll shows a less dramatic split at (+3 and -9). Regardless, the better-liked candidate almost always wins. (2) Joe Biden is averaging majority support. Four years ago, Clinton's final polling average hovered around 47 percent, as a handful of third party candidates drew modest but significant levels of support. This year, Biden's final average lead isn't merely more than double Hillary's; his average projected vote share is 51 percent. Higher ceiling, majority support, far less likely to lose.

(3) Seniors and independents. In 2016, Trump carried each of those groups -- by seven, and four points, respectively. In the new Fox poll, Biden leads among both demographics -- by 10 and 22 points.  Relatedly, I cannot fathom how publicly musing about firing Dr. Anthony Fauci (whose favorability rating is much higher than the president's) after the election at a closing days campaign rally will do much to reassure members of these groups who may be giving Trump one last look. (4) Trump won white voters by 20 points last time. This time, his margin with whites is down to single digits, across several polls. His double-digit 2016 victory margin among male voters also appears to have shrunk into single digits in some polling. Perhaps paradoxically, Trump has improved his standing among voters of color, which could offset some of this bleeding. But unless the national polling is historically wrong, I don't see the math adding up. This is especially true if the district-level data (which may portend an even bigger Biden win) also proves to be a leading indicator of what's to come, as it was in 2016.  Based on the preponderance of data and the underlying fundamentals, I suspect the electoral map will end up looking something like Obama's 2012 victory (332-206 EV), give or take a few states.

Why might I be wrong? Many of us still recall how the "obvious" results didn't play out the way we expected four years ago, so I've been hyper-vigilant for countervailing data.  There are some numbers and trends that give me pause. (1) We've told you about some of the experimental polling methods that paint a far rosier picture of Trump's standing in the race. Given some track record of success on that front, I don't think they should be dismissed out of hand. If Trump pulls off another epic upset, the teams at Trafalgar and USC will instantly become highly sought-after gurus as the polling world attempts to pick up its shattered pieces. Conversely, if Biden wins in a romp, Trafalgar will have lit itself on fire (for reference, Trafalgar's last round of swing state polls shows Trump ahead in nearly every battleground state, including Michigan, Pennsylvania and Nevada). (2) We've written about the GOP's strong voter registration efforts and vastly improved ground game. Slicing into those Democratic advantages could really help the party, and could be decisive in close states -- and Trump has closed the gap late in some important battlegrounds.

(3) We should always be careful about putting too much stock in crowd sizes (see here), but it's undeniable that Trump has generated far more organic enthusiasm and passion than Biden has. The flip side of this is that Trump has also engendered intense negative enthusiasm that will flow to Biden -- who has been running as a generic, moderate alternative, with a "prevent defense" strategy geared toward winning a "referendum" election. If Trafalgar is correct, and Trump significantly over-performs and Republicans surge, this is what his path to re-election would probably look like (via CBS News, as highlighted by the Team Trump):


The Senate: If Biden wins the national popular vote by the expected margin, he'll be in Obama '08 territory. That year, the floodgates opened and Democrats won basically every contested Senate race -- a net gain of eight seats. Assuming a Biden win, Democrats need to net three seats this cycle to achieve a nominal Senate majority (50/50 or better). They are likely to lose in Alabama, meaning they'd need four wins elsewhere to achieve a bare majority. The easiest road to get there runs through Arizona, Colorado, Maine and North Carolina (if Republicans survive in two of these or more, which is possible under sunnier scenarios, Mitch McConnell would be a near-lock to remain majority leader). The next batch would be Alaska, Georgia, Iowa and Montana. If we're discussing toss-up contests in places like Kansas, South Carolina, and Texas, the rout will be on.

If Biden over-performs his polls, which he could, Democrats could go from a 47 seat minority to something in the ballpark of a 54-seat majority. If Biden under-performs but still wins, which is also very plausible, Democratic gains could be held within a three-to-five seat range, with control up for grabs. If Trump wins, the Senate will almost certainly remain in GOP hands. I'd guess that there is a one-in-four chance for a big Democratic Senate sweep, and an equal chance of Republicans retaining control (go vote). But the highest probability outcome is somewhere in between. I'll hazard a guess that Democrats will enter 2021 with 51 upper chamber seats and a thin majority. We'll see if the supposedly anti-money-in-politics party's astonishing money advantage will pay off.

The House: Virtually nobody is seriously expecting the speaker's gavel to transfer parties due to this election. Republicans have recruited some strong and compelling candidates in a number of districts, so certain seats that were lost in 2018 will probably toggle back to the red column. But given the GOP's ongoing struggles in the suburbs, House Democrats have a solid chance of swelling their majority even further. The Cook Political Report's House ratings tell the story, with more Republican-held seats in danger of switching hands (in the toss-up category or worse) than Democrat-held seats. If Biden has a moderately strong win, Republicans managing to keep additional Democratic gains to a minimum (single digits) would be a realistic achievement. 

Governors: Republicans currently control 26 out of 50 governorships. This year's map is not conducive to many shifts at all, with just one red-leaning toss-up on the board (Montana). Expect status quo, more or less, with a chance for the GOP to increase its number to 27.

All in all, if Joe Biden wins the national popular vote by three or so points, Trump could thread the needle and win the electoral college and earn four more years in the White House. If Biden wins by a margin in the mid-single digits, he'll become president, but his coattails could be relatively limited and he might have a divided Congress to contend with. If his "popular vote" victory margin is in the upper single-digits or higher, it's hard to envision anything other than robust working Democratic congressional majorities, with Republicans rendered all but powerless. In other words, a handful of percentage points scattered across the country, and concentrated in a select few states, could make an immense difference. I've made my guesses to the best of my ability, with the humility to concede that I could be wrong. It's now in the hands of the voters. Vote, then stay tuned.  I'll leave you with this thread from Trump's campaign manager, who says the smart set is getting it wrong -- again (my one note of push-back comes down to the word 'independents'):