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US Election 2020: Polls are calm as the pressure builds

28 Sept 2020
With the clock ticking to November election day and the TV debates about to get started, the pollsters and markets have been keen to see if there are any signs of the gap between the two candidates narrowing.

Without wanting to state the obvious, it’s an extraordinary election year in the US even when leaving aside the pandemic. The Trump presidency has been like no other, there are deep and ongoing racial and social divides within the country, and you have the two oldest candidates in history. For such a volatile period, it is therefore remarkable that the White House race between Trump and Biden has been remarkably consistent.

Stable polls

With election day just over six weeks away, the Democratic challenger is maintaining the same comfortable lead in most national polls that he has enjoyed throughout the summer. This is currently somewhere between six and eight points, with Poll tracker, Real Clear Politics, predicting that Trump’s odds to win are now 43.0%, compared to Biden’s 49.5%. But a secure Biden victory is not assured as using a lower margin of error would be just large enough to allow a Republican Trump victory in the electoral college. This relative quiet in polls also contrasts with the volatile swings in the final stretch of the 2016 contest, when Hilary Clinton held a much slimmer lead.

Trump’s built-in electoral college advantage

It’s important to remind ourselves that the US process is slightly peculiar in that the popular vote does not win the candidate the election, as it is victory in the electoral college which determines the outcome. This essentially means that all votes for each state go to the majority winner of that state. What this clearly does is give greater weight to rural central states (of which there are more) that tend to be Republican and less weight to the most populous coastal states that lean Blue. President Trump won the last election despite losing the popular vote by 2.1% and Hilary Clinton winning 2.8 million more individual votes. In fact, a little over eighty thousand votes spread over three key swing states, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin decided the election in Trump’s favour.

Swing states are key

As in 2016, Biden will need to win a small number of crucial swing states to claim victory in the electoral college. That means those states above, plus Arizona and Florida are required to gain the keys to the White House, though obviously swings to either side could mean many more states come into play.

Importantly, over the last month in these key states, the Democrat’s advantage is much less than his national lead and sits at a very similar level to that of Clinton four years ago, when Trump won each of these. If the challenger’s national lead falls just a point or two, he is unlikely to win Arizona, and Florida is similarly a coin toss between the two candidates with Biden’s polling average at just two points.

All to play for…

Prediction markets and polls are not perfect of course, but they do offer useful guidance on election probabilities. The reality though, is that we are closing in on the margin of errors coming into play and then the likelihood of a very close election. Trump remains in striking distance banking on the intensity of his most loyal supporters while hoping that disillusioned Republicans ultimately swing his way. The incumbent may make a more aggressive pitch to white suburban voters as we draw closer to election day, with those voters focused on safety and fear of violent unrest.

Indeed, the pandemic means more people than ever will opt for mail-in voting and it is the Democrats who are more likely to vote by post. Concern around the US Postal Service and its ability to handle this are rising, as this could signal a move from Republican Red to Blue and ratchet up the pressure on President Trump as the votes come in.

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