US Elections 2020: Part 1- The Road to the White House

Photo by David Everett Strickler on Unsplash

The US is just 14 days away from the election date, where they will not only vote for their next president but also the House of Representatives, 33 senate seats that are up for reelection and 2 more senate special election seats in Georgia and Arizona. Also, at the state level, there are 13 governorships and 86 state legislative chambers that are up for election or reelection.

In this series of posts, I’ll deal with the elections that are held at the federal level, which includes the House of Representatives, the Senate and the presidential elections. I agree that things can change in 2 weeks, especially in the US Presidential elections, but I believe that we have enough data to make confident projections for the election. In this part, I’ll give my brief analysis about the US Presidential elections.

The presidential candidates and their nomination

The US has come a long way from the first Democratic Party Debate that was held in June 2019. The 2020 election’s democratic party field was extremely diverse, with many political pundits calling this field as the most culturally diverse field ever for the Democratic Party nomination.

For the Republican Party, the incumbent Donald J Trump was the favourite, but eight more candidates challenged him for the Republican Party nomination. Donald Trump won the Primaries and Caucuses with 96.08% of the popular vote and won all but one delegates, with the remaining one delegate won by former Governor of Massachusetts, Bill Weld. Bill Weld was also the Libertarian Party Vice President Nominee for the year 2016. Bill Weld eventually went on to endorse Democratic Party nominee Joseph R Biden (Joe Biden) for President.

The Democratic Party nomination process was a roller coaster ride. After the loss of Hillary Clinton in 2016, the party seemed leaderless. By the end of the 2018 mid-term elections, it did seem obvious that the Democratic Party was being fractured by the moderate wing of the party (centrists who favored Hillary Clinton in 2016) and the progressive wing of the party (liberals who favored Senator Bernie Sanders). This divide began during 2016 Democratic Primaries, when the progressive wing of the party was upset with the loss of Senator Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party leadership’s close alignment with Hillary Clinton to help her win the party nomination.

This posed a real threat for the Democratic party presidential nomination for the year 2020. After the 2018 midterm elections, the record turnout numbers for the mid-term elections, especially among young women, made it clear that the Democratic Party was moving left in terms of its core electorate. The surprise wins of US House Representatives Ilhan Omar of Minnesota, Rashida Talib of Michigan, Ayanna Pressley of Massachusetts and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York, collectively known as ‘The Squad’, made it clear that the party’s electorate will be trending more progressive and liberal during the 2020 election process.

And during the first few debates, it seemed clear that the progressive wing of the party was going to be the deciding members of the nomination process. At the start of 2019, polls showed a clear lead for the Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren and California Senator Kamala Harris. Those three closely represented the Progressive Wing of the Democratic Party, with Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren being the favourites.

And, political pundits tagged the Campaigns of Beto O’Rourke, Senator Cory Booker and Julian Castro as long shots.

The biggest issue with the initial lead was that a major segment of the Democratic Party electorate, the moderates and African Americans remained undecided when the progressives were leading the polls initially. But, when former Vice President Joe Biden announced his candidacy in April 2019, majority of the moderates and African Americans split for Biden, with even former Republicans who were frustrated with Donald Trump started turning towards Joe Biden.

Just days before the first Democratic Party debate in Florida, the top four candidates were Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris. Most of the other candidates seemed redundant after the first debate. However, by the third debate in September, the field narrowed down. The major candidates were still Joe Biden, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris, but four more candidates were surging in national polls. The candidates were Mayor of South Bend Pete Buttigieg, Entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar and Businessman Tom Steyer. Undecided moderates and other people who initially split for Joe Biden, turned towards Pete Buttigieg, who was the only millennial in the entire field at that time. Andrew Yang was able to gain traction among young voters and the progressives due to his fresh policy plans like Universal Basic Income, Geoengineering for tackling climate change, etc.

During that period, due to lack of funds, Kamala Harris dropped out of the race without endorsing any candidate.

As the days neared the Iowa Causes, Pete Buttigieg had earned enough traction, that he won the highest number of delegates in Iowa, with Bernie Sanders trailing just behind him. Elizabeth Warren, Biden and Senator Amy Klobuchar were trailing behind, with Andrew Yang despite being in the top six in many national polls, couldn’t win a single delegate. Political pundits declared Biden’s campaign essentially dead and Klobuchar’s being considered another long-shot campaign. The New Hampshire primaries weren’t much different, but Bernie Sanders won more delegates than Pete Buttigieg. Klobuchar did see a surge in numbers however and Andrew Yang dropped out of the race after gaining no delegates.

The turning point came in the Nevada Caucuses, where Bernie Sanders took the lead, while surprisingly Joe Biden came in second despite embarrassing losses in New Hampshire and Iowa. But in the US presidential nomination process, it is delegate counts that matter, not the actual votes. Despite Biden winning the second highest votes, Bernie was far ahead in terms of delegate count. Pete Buttigieg came in third. Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer won zero delegates.

The South Carolina primary was touted as the deciding primary because, it was the first state in the primary process with a major African American population which is a major segment of the Democratic Party electorate, especially after Barack Obama. Biden won the South Carolina primary with 48% of the popular vote and winning majority of the delegates. This win propelled Biden back into the contest and pushed back the moderates’ favourite Pete Buttigieg, who didn’t win a single delegate in South Carolina.

The moderate wing of the party was still split between Buttigieg, Biden and Klobuchar, while the progressives united behind Bernie essentially delivering him enough delegates that made it possible for Bernie Sanders to easily win the nomination as long as the moderates split among multiple candidates.

The surprise came just days before Super Tuesday when Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropped out of the campaign and endorsed Biden. Beto O’Rourke and Tom Steyer endorsed Biden too. This helped Biden surge and win the maximum number of states on Super Tuesday, leaving Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden neck-on-neck in terms of the delegate count.

However, slowly in the following primaries, Biden easily won the votes of the united moderates which lead to Bernie Sanders dropping out of the race and later he endorsed Biden. Biden then chose Senator Kamala Harris, who is the first African-American woman and Asian woman to run as the Vice President of a major party in the US.

The Presidential Race — The scene as of 19th October, 2020

Even before the start of the Republican primaries, the incumbent President Donald Trump was already the presumptive nominee for the Republican Party. For the Democratic Party, once Bernie Sanders dropped out, Joe Biden became the presumptive nominee for the Democratic Party months before the Democratic National Convention (DNC).

This election is quite different. Donald Trump, with his reckless economic policies and behaviour, and his handling of the pandemic, has shown how broken the American government is. Along with that, the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement has been fueled by the murder of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, etc. Had Trump and the Republican Party responded in a civil manner to the pandemic and the BLM movement, the chances of Donald Trump retaining his presidency would have risen.

We need to understand that Donald Trump won lesser votes than Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton nationally in 2016, but won more electoral college votes by flipping crucial battleground states in the Rust Belt (Michigan, Pennsylvania and Ohio) and winning the major states of the Sun Belt (Florida and Georgia). The Rust Belt was a sweet spot for Barack Obama; Hillary Clinton losing those states essentially handed over the presidency to Donald Trump despite Hillary winning the popular vote.

US Electoral map for 2016

For those living outside of the US, states coloured in red are those won by Donald Trump and those in blue are states won by Hillary Clinton.

As per 538’s forecasts and RCP’s polling average, Biden is up by almost 9% in terms of the popular vote. In the history of US elections, no candidate has lost an election with such a high lead. But still, it is still possible for Biden to lose because, Trump can lose Arizona, Michigan and Maine and still win even if he wins the other states that he won in 2016 by very low margins.

This has been the strategy of Republicans for decades together. The ‘winner takes all’ model followed in all states in the US except for Maine which uses a ranked-choice voting system, allows people like Trump to receive fewer votes than opposing candidates, but still win the election.

Now, let’s move forward with what I believe is the possible scenario for each state based on polls, 538’s forecast, election results of the 2018 midterm elections, how the states have been voting for the past 2 decades.

Safe states

Let’s begin with the states that are going to be sure shots for Biden and Trump. I am categorizing this based on how the states voted for each party in the past two decades and using RCP’s average and 538’s forecast. Safe states are those that the candidate is likely going to win by a margin that is greater than 10%.

Let’s begin with Trump. For Trump it is quite easy. Republicans have held onto certain states for decades together and the likelihood of them losing those states despite Trump’s unpopularity is unlikely too. These are the states and I’ve attached 538’s forecast (likely margin for Trump to win) along with each state:

(State — likely margin of victory for Trump)

1. Idaho — 21%

2. Wyoming — 34.8%

3. Utah — 11.7%

4. South Dakota — 14.2%

5. North Dakota — 19.7%

6. Nebraska (At Large) — 7.3%

7. Nebraska District 3 — N/A

8. Arkansas — 13.9%

9. Oklahoma — 21.4%

10. Louisiana — 14.6%

11. Kentucky — 17.8%

12. Tennessee — 13.7%

13. Alabama — 17.7%

14. West Virginia -23.0%

The above states are deep red states and even if there is a huge turnout, it is extremely less likely that Trump loses these states. He won these states by a much larger margin in 2016; in 2020, his margins will narrow up slightly, but will not fall lower than 10%. Trump needn’t even campaign in these states except for Nebraska; he will still win these states easily. If Biden does manage to swing voters in Alabama or Wyoming to his side and win any one of those two states, it is likely that he manages to swing people from other states like West Virginia, Utah, Alabama and Arkansas because the electorates of those states combined have almost the same voting patterns. But Biden being able to do that is just wishful thinking.

These 14 states will give Trump 82 electoral votes. In any normal election year, other states like South Carolina, Montana, Arizona, Texas and Alaska would also be in the safe column for Republicans, just like it did for Mitt Romney. But this election is not a normal election and Trump has managed to piss a lot of people in those states. Trump having just 82 electoral votes in his safe column is very much worrying for the Trump campaign and for the Republicans in general.

Biden’s safe states count is a good sign for Biden. The coastal regions have voted for Democrats and the Democrats’ safe states have become much more solid for them and that was evident in the mid-term elections of 2018. Biden’s safe states are:

(State — likely margin of victory for Biden)

1. California — 30%

2. New York — 31%

3. Washington — 25%

4. Massachusetts — 38.2%

5. New Jersey — 19.8%

6. Delaware — 26.8%

7. Rhode Island — 31.4%

8. District of Columbia — 78%

9. Hawaii — 32.8%

10. Vermont — 33.6%

11. Connecticut — 26%

12. Maryland — 32.6%

13. New Mexico — 13.6%

14. Illinois — 18.7%

15. Maine (At large) — 14.9%

16. Maine 1st district — 24.7%

17. Oregon — 19.7%

That gives Biden a total of 191 electoral votes on his safe column. Now, this might seem biased towards Biden. But every poll and statistic tell the otherwise. Trump’s lead in his safe states are mostly between 10% to 20% margin of victory, but Biden has a lot of states that he’ll win by a 30%+ margin. This is because of the enthusiasm among Democratic voters to defeat Trump, and Biden has also pulled a lot of moderate Republican voters and independents towards him and that allows him to win historically blue states by a much larger margin than previous candidates.

The above states are solid and Biden losing his safe states is close to impossible because this election is more about making Trump lose than helping Biden win. Now, there are states that others wouldn’t place in the safe margin for Biden, like Maine, but Biden is going to win Maine (at large) by a comfortable margin. The state has been trending blue in the past four years.

Likely states

Let’s move to the likely states. Now, these are states that going to be won by a margin of victory that is less than 10% and above 5%. There is a feeble chance that the other candidate is going to pull another candidate’s likely state towards themselves, but it is not impossible.

Now, this is where the Republicans have been able to do well. Republicans have always had more likely states in their column, which puts them in a competitive position with the Democrats. For Trump the likely states are:

1. Missouri — 6.1%

2. Indiana — 9.9%

3. South Carolina — 7.3%

4. Mississippi — 13.7%

5. Montana — 8.2%

6. Alaska — 4.8%

7. Nebraska 1st district — 7.3%

The above states will give Trump 43 more electoral votes.

That list could be surprising for some of you. States like Montana and South Carolina have been solid Republican states and in any general year, those two would have been in the safe column for Republicans. But this year, especially in South Carolina, the scenario is changing. The Democratic Candidate for South Carolina’s senate seat, Jamie Harrison is performing above expectations and he can bring in a lot of African American voters who could make the race in this state even closer. Montana’s governor, Steve Bullock, is also doing well in a red state like Montana, so that is an indication that even though Trump is most likely going to win Montana, the margin by which he wins the state is going to be between 5% to 10%.

Also, in 538’s forecast, Trump has a lead by a margin of 13.7% in Mississippi. I don’t think that is going to be the case. A few outlier polls place Trump at a higher margin than 15% and that could have skewed 538’s model to give Trump a higher margin of victory. Trump is going to win Mississippi, but not by a margin that is greater than 10%.

Let’s move onto the likely states for Biden. They are:

1. Virginia — 13.4%

2. Colorado — 13%

3. Minnesota — 9.1%

4. Michigan — 7.9%

5. Wisconsin — 7.8%

6. Pennsylvania — 6.8%

The likely states give Biden 87 more electoral votes, which when combined with his safe states, will give him 268 electoral votes which are close to the 270 mark that Biden needs to win the election.

The Rust Belt region used to be a very sweet spot for former President Obama during both the 2008 and 2012 elections. And generally, these states vote for the same party most of the times. And, it is true that Trump won the election just because of the Rustbelt states. Hillary Clinton’s campaign didn’t focus much on these states, while Trump’s campaign aired vigorous attack ads against Clinton in these states.

Also, Hillary was disliked by many Democrats in this region and hence they didn’t come out to vote for her on election day. Trump won these states not because he pulled a major group of Democrats to his side, but because Hillary Clinton’s voters didn’t turn out on election day.

For Biden, the case is different. When he was vice-president under Obama, they bailed out the auto industry in Michigan after the 2008 financial crisis and Biden is very very popular in Pennsylvania. He is so popular in Pennsylvania that political pundits used to call him, “Pennsylvania’s third senator”. There is no reason why Biden wouldn’t have a huge lead there and his popularity in Pennsylvania and Michigan should be enough to sway the other Rust Belt states. So Wisconsin, Michigan, Minnesota and Pennsylvania are going to give Biden a comfortable victory and 538’s forecast says the same too.

Virginia and Colorado have been swing states in previous elections, but this time, John Hickenlooper is running for Colorado’s senate seat and he used to be quite popular when he was the governor of Colorado. He is going to increase the turnout for Biden, giving Biden a comfortable lead over Trump.

Many people have tagged Oregon as likely state, but I’ve classified it as a safe state given new data that show Biden having a comfortable lead over Trump there.

Lean States

Lean states are those that a candidate is likely to win the election in that state by a margin of lower than 5%. Now, this is where the Republicans should be worrying about their position a lot. Let’s begin with looking at lean Republican states. They are:

1. Texas — 1.3%

2. Kansas — 6.7%

I’m sure you are wondering why Texas is being placed in the Lean category and not in the likely Republican state category. Well, Mitt Romney won the state by 15% margin in 2012 against Obama. In 2016, Trump won the state by a margin of just 9%, which is a 6% drop in margin. But the real concern for Trump was evident in the 2018 midterm elections, former US House Representative and Democrat Beto O’Rourke lost the senate election to Senator Ted Cruz by a margin of just 2.6%.

You can counter that by saying that the 2018 midterm elections were a blue wave and that is why the margin was low. That is certainly true, but you must also know that this time, in 2020, the Democrats are a united opposition and early turnout numbers are a positive sign for Democrats. Despite all that, it is hard for Biden to win Texas, but it is going to be a tough fight for Trump in this state. And remember that Texas gives 38 electoral votes and every Republican presidential candidate in the past 50 years won Texas by comfortable margins and a narrowing margin is a worrying sign for both Trump and the Republican Party.

Let’s move on to the lean democratic states. They are:

1. Nevada — 6.4%

2. Arizona — 3.9%

3. Nebraska 2nd district — 7.6%

4. Maine 2nd district — 2.5%

In 2016, Hillary Clinton won Nevada with a very low margin of 1.52%. It likely going to remain the same this year too despite polls showing a large margin. Arizona being placed in Biden’s column isn’t surprising. A Democrat won the Arizona senate against Republican Senator Martha McSally in 2018, which is an indication of the state trending blue and we’ll discuss in the next post of how Mark Kelly’s run for the Senate against Martha McSally will help Biden. Adding insult to injury, the McCain family is extremely popular in the state and their endorsement for Biden is going to swing McCain loyalists and moderate Republicans to Biden’s side.

Tossups

There are 5 more states, but based on the previous safe, likely and lean states, Biden is already in a safe position to win the election, but Trump could still win by retaining the rust belt states even though the likelihood of that happening is very low. However, let us look at the toss-up states that I don’t think can be categorized as tilt Republican or Democrat as of today (20th October). They are:

1. Florida

2. Georgia

3. North Carolina

4. Iowa

5. Ohio

Donald Trump flipped Ohio and Iowa by a huge margin. The reasons towards why those two states flipped from Obama to Trump is not not clear, but I think that Hillary Clinton’s unpopularity could have been a major factor. Biden doesn’t have that issue, so they could flip back to Biden, but those two states are going to be extremely competitive.

North Carolina might have a tilt towards the Democratic party, but the new sexting scandal from Democratic Senate candidate Cal Cunningham might discourage some independent and moderate voters. It doesn’t seem to have affected polls much, but after Doug Jones’ win in Alabama, I don’t think it is wise for the Democratic Party to be confident about North Carolina. Based on trends from the 2018 mid-term election and polls, it is likely that North Carolina will still go to Biden, but it is going to be competitive. North Carolina hasn’t been a Democratic party stronghold, but Trump has managed to alienate old white voters which might cost Trump big.

The Georgia results will be close too. In 2008, former Senator John McCain beat Obama in Georgia by 5% despite a high turnout from minority voters who largely split for Obama. In 2012, Mitt Romney won Georgia by close to 8%, widening the margin. In 2016, Trump won Georgia by a margin of 5%. Finally, in the recent 2018 midterm elections, Democratic governor candidate for Georgia, Stacey Abrams, lost to Brian Kemp only by a margin of 1%. She could have won the gubernatorial election if the minority voter turnout was slightly higher. This is very similar to Texas’ case, but despite Georgia being a Republican stronghold for 2 decades, the race is going to be competitive. 538’s model forecasts Georgia as tilt Democrat, but it will be a competitive race.

Florida, according to me is an easy choice for categorizing a state as a tossup. Florida has been taken up by both Republican and Democratic candidates in the presidential election. Many forecasters are pushing Florida as a lean Democratic state for this year largely because of Obama’s Florida win during both 2008 and 2012 elections. Biden has also lost Latino and Hispanic voters in the state while gaining voters among old white men and suburban women who used to be a key voting bloc for Trump in 2016. The race could go either way in Florida this year and we may not know the results of Florida’s election on election night itself; the results could get delayed.

That’s it. Trump’s handling of the pandemic and his response to the BLM movement has brought in a united Democratic opposition and the early voting numbers seem very positive for Biden. But if 2016 has taught us anything, then it is the fact that even if the polls are pointing in one direction, even if the majority of the population want Biden to win, it is still possible for Trump to win if he can win the tossups and the lean Republican states even by a tiny margin. 77,000 votes split between the Rust Belt states are the reason why Trump won the presidency in 2016 despite losing the popular vote.

On the next post, I’ll write about the Senate elections and how each state is probably going to play out. You can read the next post by clicking this link.

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