29 June 2020

The Outlook for the US Presidential Election

This year’s upcoming presidential election in the United States is without question one of the most anticipated elections in world history. In fact, this could be the most important presidential election in the United States since 1860’s election, which put Abraham Lincoln in the White House and triggered the US Civil War, the largest conflict ever to take place in the Western Hemisphere. 

There are many reasons why this US presidential election is so important, for both the United States and the world.

  • First, there is little doubt that the incumbent in this year’s election, President Donald Trump, is one of the most polarizing presidents in US history.
  • Second, this election is taking place amid the worst pandemic to face the world since the Spanish Flu a century ago, and the United States has been one of the countries hardest hit by this pandemic.
  • Third, this election will be held amid the worst recession to hit the US and global economies since the Great Depression.
  • Fourth, President Trump’s time in office has seen the US pull back from many of its international ties at a time when global tensions are at their highest level in decades.

Now, with 18 weeks to go until the actual election takes place, the world is waiting in anticipation for what could be a significant historic event.


A Look Back at 2016

Before we look at the current state of the race, let’s look back to 2016, which seems now to be such a long time ago given all of the events that have taken place around the world in recent years. 2016’s US presidential election pitted two very polarizing candidates. One, the Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton (a former First Lady and Secretary of State), was seen as an establishment candidate that had been forced through by the Democratic Party’s leadership against the will of many voters, particularly on the party’s left-wing. The other, businessman and reality TV star Donald Trump, emerged from a field of 17 candidates for the Republican Party’s nomination by being the loudest and most nationalistic candidate in this race to become that party’s nominee, a shocking development that few had foreseen just a few years earlier.

For much of the campaign, Clinton held a small, but steady lead in national polls, making her the odds-on favorite to win the presidency. However, her lead in many swing states was even narrower, suggesting that, if Trump could win narrow victories in the larger swing states, particularly in Florida and the Midwest, he could shock the world and win the presidency. In fact, that is what he did, winning the presidency via the Electoral College, despite losing the popular vote to Clinton by a margin of 48.2% to 46.1%.


The President's Low Approval Ratings

As we look to 2020, it is important to remember that Hillary Clinton defeated Donald Trump by nearly three million votes nationally, but still lost the Electoral College by a margin of 306 to 232. This is important as President Trump has struggled to gain support in national polls throughout his presidency. 

In fact, the president’s approval rating has been remarkably steady for much of his presidency, hovering between 37% and 44%. Meanwhile, for much of his first term in office, President Trump’s disapproval rating has been above 52%, the highest continuous disapproval rating for a US president in modern times.

However, over the past two months, there has been a noticeable decline in President Trump’s approval rating, as well as a corresponding increase in the share of US voters that disapprove of his performance in office. At the same time, the Democratic Party’s presumptive nominee for this year’s presidential election, former Vice President Joe Biden, has opened up a double-digit lead over the president in most national polls taken in recent weeks. What was looking like a very tight presidential election suddenly has the potential to be a landslide in favor of the Democratic challenger.


The State of the State Races

Of course, when we look at a presidential election in the United States, we must remember that it is actually 51 separate elections (the 50 states plus the District of Columbia). For some states, it is already relatively easy to predict which candidate will win come November. Let’s break the states down by candidate and by their certainty of winning each state.

Trump Core States (17 states and 98 electoral votes): We currently have 17 states (minus one district in Nebraska) that we have down as locks for President Trump in November. There are (in order of electoral votes):

  • Tennessee
  • South Carolina
  • Alabama
  • Louisiana
  • Kentucky
  • Oklahoma
  • Arkansas
  • Mississippi
  • Kansas
  • West Virginia
  • Nebraska (the state plus two of its three electoral districts)
  • Idaho
  • Wyoming
  • Montana
  • North Dakota
  • South Dakota
  • Alaska

Most of these states are located in the Southeast or along what is being described as the “Red Belt” across the rural center of the United States running from North Dakota in the north to Oklahoma in the south. Noticeable, nearly all of these states are highly rural with very low population densities, the types of states where President Trump has maintained more support than anywhere else.

Biden Core States (13 states and two districts with 183 Electoral Votes): While President Trump leads Joe Biden in terms of the number of core states in this election, Biden holds a huge advantage of 183-98 in terms of electoral votes in these core states. We now consider the following states and districts locks for Biden in November:

  • California
  • New York
  • Illinois
  • New Jersey
  • Washington
  • Massachusetts
  • Maryland
  • Oregon
  • Connecticut
  • Hawaii
  • Rhode Island
  • Delaware
  • Vermont
  • District of Colombia
  • Maine’s First District

Here we can see that the former vice president holds a dominant position in two of the most heavily-populated areas of the United States, the Northeast and the Pacific Coast. Likewise, heavily-Democratic Illinois also appears to be a lock for Biden. With his command of these highly-urban areas of the country, Biden is already more than two-thirds of the way to the needed 270 Electoral College votes needed to become president.

Trump Lean States (4 states with 65 electoral votes): In 2016, Trump won nearly every important state where the margin between him and Hillary Clinton was less than 2%. This time, President Trump finds himself defending a handful of states that have traditionally been Republican strongholds, but are now in play due to his falling approval ratings. These four states are:

  • Texas
  • Indiana
  • Missouri
  • Utah

It would have been hard to imagine a Republican presidential candidate losing any of these four states in the recent past, but current polls show that each of them, particularly the most important among them, Texas, is in play for Biden this year. This will force the Trump campaign to commit valuable resources to these states as he cannot win a second term in office without winning each of these states.

Biden Lean States (8 states with 65 electoral votes): Polls show that Joe Biden now enjoys quite sizeable leads in each of the eight states that we now list as leaning his way in this year’s election. These states are:

  • Michigan
  • Virginia
  • Minnesota
  • Colorado
  • Nevada
  • New Mexico
  • New Hampshire
  • Maine (statewide vote)

This list has grown in recent weeks and now includes Michigan, a state won narrowly by Trump in 2016, but in which Biden now holds a substantial lead over the president in the polls. In fact, without a much more dramatic shift in the polls than in 2016, it is hard to see President Trump making inroads in any of these eight states in November.

Toss-up States (8 states and one district with 127 electoral votes): If the classifications above hold true until November, Biden will hold a lead over Trump in the Electoral College of 248-163, leaving the challenger just 22 votes away from the presidency. That means that the president will have to win Florida, as well as most of the other swing states in this year’s election, if he hopes to win a second term in office. This year’s swing states include:

  • Florida
  • Pennsylvania
  • Ohio
  • North Carolina
  • Georgia
  • Arizona
  • Wisconsin
  • Iowa
  • Maine’s Second Electoral District

In 2016, it was President Trump who won nearly all of the swing states to win a surprise victory in that year’s presidential election. It appears that this year, he will have to do the same, if not more, to win a second term in office. Unfortunately for the president, he now trails in the polls in a number of these swing states, including in Florida, Pennsylvania, Arizona and Wisconsin. If Biden can win Florida, or two or three of these other swing states, it appears that he will have a clear path to the presidency. For President Trump, he will need a shock result much like the one he had in Wisconsin in 2016, only this time in a number of states.


18 Weeks is a Long Time in Politics

As we look ahead to November, it is important to remember that much can happen between now and then. For example, the coronavirus pandemic that continues to spread across the United States could have claimed tens of thousands (or more) of additional lives between now and November, and the ideological disputes over social distancing measures in the US could have worsened. Meanwhile, the GDP results for the US in the second quarter of this year will be released just over a month before these elections, and they are expected to be among the worst quarterly GDP results in US history. If other economic results do not improve by the fall, President Trump’s chances at re-election are likely close to nil.

While the pandemic and its impact on the US economy are the main issues that will impact this election, others, including more potential revelations about the president or his rival, or the health of both candidates (the combined age of the two candidates is a US presidential election record of 151), could also have a major impact on November’s vote. Joe Biden’s vice-presidential choice will also be closely scrutinized as he has already promised to choose a woman, while this year’s party conventions are sure to be anything but conventional as they will be taking place during a pandemic.


Biden Ahead, For Now

What is clear is that Joe Biden is currently in a much stronger position than Hillary Clinton was at any point during the campaign in 2016. This is due primarily to President Trump’s low approval ratings, which resemble those of the last two presidents to lose their bids for a second term in office, Jimmy Carter and George HW Bush. If the president intends to win a second term in office, he is going to have to regain support from voters outside of his core base, which account for around 35%-40% of the US electorate. 

Of course, there are more wild cards in this year’s election than in just about any other election in US history. For example, it remains to be seen how the pandemic will impact this election. Already, there is speculation that, due to the huge numbers of expected absentee ballots utilized in this election, the results of the election might not be known for days or even weeks after the 3rd of November. At the same time, voter turnout remains highly uncertain, as it was expected that it would be higher-than-normal this year, but that was before the pandemic hit. 

Nevertheless, at this stage in the campaign, Joe Biden is the clear favorite to win this election. Not only does he appear to be a lock to win the popular vote, but if a few traditionally Republican states turn against President Trump (Texas, Georgia and Arizona, among others), the result could be the type of landslide not seen since the 1980s. However, due to the Electoral College system, President Trump still has an outside chance at re-election, but to do so, he will have to both recover all of the support he has lost in recent months, and then win nearly all of the swing states that will ultimately decide this election. 2020 will be a year the world will not soon forget, and this year’s US presidential election may be yet another event that will make it unforgettable.