Who’s going to win the United States presidential election today?
It’s a mug’s game to make a definitive prediction.
Major party presidential candidates often experience short-lived highs and lows. Shifts in the electoral narrative, political controversies and (more rarely) debate performances can move the needle in different directions.
Third-party candidates, independents/fence sitters, disgruntled ex-party supporters and certain demographic groups can play significant roles, too.
Some presidential elections have been easy – or gradually became easier – to figure out, including Richard Nixon/Barry McGovern (1972), Ronald Reagan/Walter Mondale (1984) and Bill Clinton/Bob Dole (1996).
Others were more difficult, including John F. Kennedy/Richard Nixon (1960), George W. Bush/Al Gore (2000) and Donald Trump/Hillary Clinton (2016).
It appears this year’s presidential election will be in the latter category.
To begin with, the polls are all over the map.
The Real Clear Politics national average, which is an aggregate of major and minor opinion polls, has Biden falling from a 10.3 per cent lead over Trump on Oct. 11 to 6.5 per cent on Nov. 2. That’s almost a four-point drop in three weeks, which is significant no matter how you slice it.
The range in the polling numbers is absolutely stunning this election cycle.
On one end, CNN has Biden ahead by 12 per cent, followed by Economist/YouGuv at 11 per cent and NBC News/Wall Street Journal at 10 per cent.
On the other end, Rasmussen Reports has Biden ahead by only one per cent, with The Hill/HarrisX at four per cent, and Emerson and Investors Business Daily/TechnoMetrica Institute of Policy and Politics both at five per cent.
Whether you agree or disagree with any of these polls or polling companies is irrelevant. And whether you prefer using aggregates from other organizations like Princeton Election Consortium, Electoralvote.com or FiveThirtyEight (Biden leads Trump by 8.5 per cent) is also irrelevant.
Modest spreads between opinion polls from competing organizations are common historically, but leads that stretch from a margin of error to a near-blowout are baffling. It either means conventional wisdom is valid and Biden will ultimately prevail, or the mid-sized/smaller polling companies identified a growing trend toward a second Trump victory.
Which theory is correct and which is the outlier?
That remains to be seen.
Here are some other factors to keep in mind.
Biden will win the two biggest Democratic-leaning states, California and New York, by overwhelming margins. No Republican presidential candidate has won either state since Reagan in 1984 and George H.W. Bush in 1988. Trump won’t break these streaks and he could do worse against Biden than he did against Clinton. If so, this would skew the popular vote tallies heavily in Biden’s favour.
The popular vote doesn’t decide who becomes the U.S. president. It’s the electoral college, in which each state legislature appoints electors who don’t hold federal office to cast the allotted number of votes. This number represents senators (100) and house representatives (435), along with Washington, D.C.’s three electors. Most state governments direct their electors to vote for the presidential candidate they prefer. Nevertheless, there have been faithless electors who ignore this pledge and vote independently.
Winning the popular vote doesn’t mean you’ll win the electoral college. The two tend to be attached at the political hip but not always. Five U.S. presidents – John Quincy Adams (1824), Rutherford B. Hayes (1876), Benjamin Harrison (1888), Bush (2000) and Trump (2016) – lost the popular vote but won the all-important electoral college.
It could also take a while before a winner is officially declared. Someone will be ahead on Nov. 3 (or Nov. 4) and may choose to declare an early victory. However, more than 95 million Americans have reportedly cast mail-in ballots or took part in early in-person voting due to concerns over COVID-19. According to Reuters, this “record-breaking number is equal to 69 per cent of the entire voter turnout for the 2016 election.”
It will take time to sort this all out.
There will surely be complaints from the losing side in terms of voting procedures, allegations of mail fraud and so forth. This could lead to multiple legal challenges on a state-by-state basis, or it could go all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. As long as everything is resolved on or before Inauguration Day on Jan, 20, 2021, that’s fine. If not, the political situation could get very messy.
A comfortable Biden victory or a close Trump win seems most likely, but I don’t think either will materialize. As a guess, Biden wins the popular vote by five or six per cent and ekes out a close victory in the electoral college by a margin of 280-258.
But if the surge in momentum is valid and Trump wins most of the battleground states, he’ll be re-elected.
We’ll see if I’m right soon … or whenever.
Michael Taube, a Troy Media syndicated columnist and Washington Times contributor, was a speechwriter for former prime minister Stephen Harper. He holds a master’s degree in comparative politics from the London School of Economics.