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Election 2020: A Fortnight and Five Days Away

A Commentary By Kyle Kondik


— With 19 days to go before the election, Joe Biden’s lead in the presidential race remains steady, although his national lead is bigger than his leads in the most crucial swing states.

— In the Senate, Republicans appear to be getting some traction against Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI), although Peters remains favored in our ratings. Overall, the Senate battlefield continues to expand, with Republicans having to play more defense in places like Alaska and Kansas.

— Eight House rating changes largely benefit Democrats.

Table 1: Crystal Ball House rating changes

A mid-October status report

Tonight should have been the second presidential debate — one of the last opportunities for the two major party presidential candidates to try to reach a giant audience. But the Commission on Presidential Debates’ decision, issued the morning after last week’s vice presidential debate, that the debate would be held virtually pushed President Trump to skip it. Biden and Trump are engaging in dueling town halls this evening. As of this writing, next Thursday’s debate in Nashville is still happening.

The national polling lead that last week we deemed a “sugar high” in favor of Joe Biden is still in force. Biden’s lead as of Wednesday evening was at nine points in the RealClearPolitics average and 10 in the FiveThirtyEight average, up from six and seven points, respectively, the day of the first debate (Sept. 29). Biden’s leads in 2016’s pivotal states, Michigan, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin, are in the six-to-eight-point range in both averages, a good indicator that Trump may retain the advantage he held four years ago in the Electoral College relative to the national popular vote.

Still, even if one assumes that the Trump vote is being underestimated — which may or may not be the case — the size of Biden’s current lead would survive a polling error of the magnitude of 2016, according to calculations from the New York Times.

Some, though not all, polling from firms that sometimes produce more favorable results for the president don’t look very different from the aggregates. The IBD/TIPP tracker, launched Monday, showed Biden up eight points nationally as of Wednesday morning. Its final poll from four years ago showed Trump winning the popular vote by two points (Hillary Clinton won the popular vote, but the poll ended up being prophetic in showing a very close race down the stretch). On the other hand, the Republican pollster Trafalgar, which swooped in at the end of 2016 to show Trump with small leads in states he ended up winning narrowly (Michigan and Pennsylvania), shows a closer race in those two states and Wisconsin, but has Biden up 2-3 points in its most recent surveys of the states. The Trafalgar numbers look similar to what the New York Times calculates the polling aggregates would look like in the three key industrial North states if there is a pro-Democratic polling error in 2020 along the same lines of the one in 2016. However, we can’t assume that there will be a polling error, or that any polling error will necessarily benefit Trump. And as our former colleague Geoffrey Skelley of FiveThirtyEight recently pointed out, while the size of Biden’s leads over Trump in some state polls are often similar to the leads Clinton had around this time in 2016, Biden’s share of the vote in these polls is higher, often at 50% or a little better, meaning that his leads may be more durable.

In other states, and in aggregate, Biden appears to hold smaller leads in the three top Sun Belt battlegrounds, Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, and four additional Trump-won 2016 states (Georgia, Iowa, Ohio, and Texas) remain very close.

Turnout should be extremely high, perhaps historically so. According to historical data from turnout expert Michael McDonald, the highest turnout of eligible voters since women’s suffrage a century ago was about 64% in 1960, one of the most famous elections in American history. More recently, turnout has hovered around 60% — could it hit 65% in 2020, setting a new modern turnout mark? It seems possible given the enthusiasm for voting that we see in polls, the expanded options for voting, the historically high midterm turnout in 2018 (50%, a post-women’s suffrage high for a midterm), and the number of votes cast already (roughly 15 million already, according to McDonald’s tracking). There were 137 million presidential votes cast in 2016, and that number will be higher this November, perhaps a lot higher.

Organic, anecdotal signs of enthusiasm abound. The president’s signature rallies continue to draw large crowds. Long lines at early voting locations in places like Georgia earlier this week are likely an enthusiasm mark in favor of Democrats, who appear much likelier to vote by mail or early in-person. Election Day itself, meanwhile, should skew heavily Republican in many states: Politico’s Marc Caputo has a great breakdown of how this dynamic is playing out in mega-swing state Florida (Democratic strategist Steve Schale also has a great, and fair, assessment of Florida that merits reading).

Florida typically counts its votes relatively quickly and comprehensively — if either candidate, particularly Biden, wins Florida by more than a point or two, that candidate is very likely winning the Electoral College overall.

We continue to closely watch the numbers, and we’re holding this week at our current Electoral College ratings: 290 electoral votes at least leaning to Biden, 163 at least leaning to Trump, and 85 Toss-ups.

The bottom line is that another week has passed, and the president is not really making up the gap, even if the state polls are less favorable to Biden than the national ones.

The Senate

There are a number of signs indicating that the list of competitive Democratic Senate targets is growing. For instance, the National Republican Senatorial Committee recently launched its first ad buys to defend Sen. Dan Sullivan (R-AK) and an open seat in Kansas. As noted last week, there are several typically Republican states that the president seems very likely to carry that nonetheless feature very competitive Senate races: Alaska, Kansas, Montana, and South Carolina. We do not view any of these contests as true Toss-ups, but perhaps that’s where they’ll be by Election Day.

However, Democrats also should be concerned about one of the couple of states where they are playing serious defense: Michigan, where Sen. Gary Peters (D-MI) has been lagging Joe Biden in state polls. That was most starkly illustrated by a New York Times/Siena College poll on Monday that showed Biden up 48%-40% in the state, but Peters up just 43%-42% on John James (R), a veteran who challenged Sen. Debbie Stabenow (D-MI) in 2018. Other polls show Peters up by more and, just like the Republicans in red states who are lagging the president, it makes some intuitive sense that Peters will largely be able to match Biden’s showing in the end. But Peters is weakly defined and James has had the resources to go toe-to-toe with him; Peters also could have been hurt by a COVID quarantine that ended Wednesday (Peters tested negative but said he would self-quarantine). Increasingly, we have to account for the possibility of a Michigan flip in our overall Senate calculations, even if the race still leans to Peters.

Meanwhile, in North Carolina, former state Sen. Cal Cunningham’s (D) lead over Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) has remained relatively steady in public polling even as he continues to deal with the fallout of an affair. Republicans are hammering Cunningham over the airwaves about it and are arguing that the scandal “has made this a close race again,” according to Tillis’ pollster Glen Bolger. The trajectory of this race is still a major question mark for us.

We’ll be discussing the Senate in more depth in today’s Sabato’s Crystal Ball: America Votes webinar.

The House

Democratic and Republican operatives monitoring the House battlefield report seeing the same thing that many of the public polls have shown over the past couple of weeks — the president’s numbers are either not improving or are getting worse.

This erosion for the president plays a major role in some of our rating changes this week. Most notably, we’re moving Reps. Ann Wagner (R, MO-2) and Don Bacon (R, NE-2) from Leans Republican to Toss-up. Wagner holds a highly-educated and affluent suburban St. Louis district that Trump won by 10 points but that could very well flip to Biden, and she is being pushed hard by state Sen. Jill Schupp (D). Meanwhile, Bacon has attracted substantial crossover endorsements in his rematch with Kara Eastman (D), who many Democrats once felt was too progressive to win this Omaha-based seat, which voted for Trump by two but seems very likely to flip to Biden (and, with it, the district’s single electoral vote). Among Bacon’s endorsers is former Rep. Brad Ashford (D, NE-2), who Bacon beat in 2016 and Eastman upset in a 2018 primary (Eastman also defeated Ashford’s wife in this year’s primary). We had been giving these incumbents the benefit of the doubt, but the weight of the presidential race in their districts could very well drag them down.

We are also upgrading the chances of several Democratic incumbents who appear well-positioned for reelection: Reps. Lucy McBath (D, GA-6), Elissa Slotkin (D, MI-8), and Andy Kim (D, NJ-3) move from Leans Democratic to Likely Democratic; all three hold Trump-won districts, although Biden seems almost guaranteed to carry GA-6, which Trump won by just 1.5 points in 2016, and he might carry MI-8 and NJ-3, which Trump won by about a half-dozen points apiece. Reps. Ann Kirkpatrick (D, AZ-2) and Sharice Davids (D, KS-3) move off the competitive board entirely, going to Safe Democratic. Neither of their races have really engaged.

One race that most definitely has engaged, though, is Rep. Peter DeFazio’s (D, OR-4) bid for an 18th term. Veteran Alek Skarlatos (R), famous for stopping a terrorist on a Paris-bound train in 2015, is a much more credible challenger than DeFazio has faced in the recent past in this competitive southwest Oregon swing district, and outside groups on both sides are now spending there. DeFazio is still favored, but the race is now Leans Democratic.

Overall, our House ratings now show 232 districts at least leaning to the Democrats, 185 at least leaning to the Republicans, and 18 Toss-ups. Splitting the Toss-ups 9-9 would lead to a Democratic net gain of six seats from the 235 seats they won in 2018. To be honest, though, as we assess the Toss-ups, we’d probably pick the Democrats to win more than the Republicans at this point, meaning that on a good night, Democratic net House gains could reach double digits.

Kyle Kondik is a Political Analyst at the Center for Politics at the University of Virginia and the Managing Editor of Sabato's Crystal Ball.

See Other Political Commentary by Kyle Kondik.

See Other Political Commentary.

This article is reprinted from Sabato's Crystal Ball.

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