The Morning Jolt


What Trump Needs to Win

President Donald Trump delivers remarks during a campaign event in Lumberton, N.C., October 24, 2020. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

On the menu today: walking through President Trump’s not-so-implausible route to 270 electoral votes, state by state, and taking a look at the gubernatorial races this year — where GOP candidates from deep red states to a few blue ones are polling considerably ahead of Trump this cycle; and how the country just missed the sight of former Maine senator Olympia Snowe moving into the White House.

Trump Has a Route to 270 Electoral Votes

Right now, the most confident Trump fans are overestimating the likelihood he wins another term, while the most confident Biden fans are drastically underestimating how just a handful of cases of Biden underperforming in his polls — the way Hillary Clinton did — could bring Donald Trump to a second term.

It’s easy to forget that Trump won with 306 electoral votes four years ago — two of his electors were faithless — and thus he can give away 36 electoral votes and hit the critical threshold of 270. He doesn’t need to win Wisconsin. He doesn’t need to win Michigan. He could lose both of those states and Iowa, and still finish above 270 electoral votes.

The first step for Trump is that he can’t lose any of those states he won comfortably in 2016. This starts with Texas. The Dallas Morning News poll unveiled Sunday showed Biden ahead by three percentage points. That poll is an outlier compared to other polls in the past few months, although Quinnipiac showed a tie. Obviously, if Biden wins Texas, it’s game over. Keep in mind, the early vote in Texas has been huge — more than 7.1 million votes, as of this writing; overall, 8.9 million Texans voted in the presidential race in 2016.

“States Trump won comfortably in 2016” also includes Iowa, Ohio, and Georgia. Last cycle Trump won Iowa by almost ten percentage points; the polling this year, in aggregate, has Biden ahead by a hair. It’s a similar story in Ohio, where Trump won by eight points last cycle, and the polling this year, in aggregate, has Trump ahead by a hair. In Georgia, Trump won by five points last cycle, and the polling this year, in aggregate, has Biden ahead by a hair. The new Atlanta Journal-Constitution poll of likely voters released this morning showed Biden at 47 percent and Trump at 46 percent, within the survey’s margin of error of four percentage points.

If you give Trump all the deep-red states, and all of these states listed above, this gets him to 203 electoral votes.

Then Trump needs to win Arizona, maybe the most intriguing state of the cycle. Between the number of retirees, the importance of border issues, and high-profile surrogates such as former Maricopa County sheriff Joe Arpaio, Arizona may be perceived as redder and more pro-Trump than it is. Trump won this state by just 3.5 points last cycle.

The conventional narrative is that this is a red state gradually turning purple. In the midterms, Senator Kyrsten Sinema won a hard-fought Senate race, Katie Hobbs won the secretary of state race, the Democrats flipped a U.S. House seat, and Democrats gained four seats in the state House. But the state GOP didn’t completely collapse; incumbent Republican governor Doug Ducey won reelection by 14 points, and Republicans held the state attorney general and state treasurer jobs reasonably comfortably. Whether Arizona stays red or turns blue this autumn, fair questions will be asked about whether Arizona is shifting away from Republicans overall or whether Arizona is shifting away from Trump specifically. Right now, Joe Biden enjoys a small lead in Arizona polling, but Trump is gaining ground. Trump is scheduled to appear in the state on Wednesday at rallies in Bullhead City and Goodyear.

With Arizona and the states listed above, Trump reaches 214 electoral votes.

Then Trump needs to win his home state of Florida. (He changed his voter registration to the Sunshine State in 2019.) Trump only won Florida by a bit more than a percentage point, but Florida’s a big state that had 75 percent turnout — so that one percentage point was 112,911 votes — far too large a sum for the Clinton camp to plausibly contest afterwards.

Aggregate polling currently gives Biden a small lead in Florida, but it’s narrowing as well. The fact that Republican Senate candidate Rick Scott and Republican gubernatorial candidate Ron DeSantis overperformed their final polls in Florida ought to prevent Democrats from celebrating too early.

With Florida and the states listed above, Trump reaches 243 electoral votes.

Then Trump needs to win North Carolina, which seems to be remembered as being closer than it was four years ago — Trump won, 49.8 percent to 46.1 percent, or 173,315 votes. Whether you included the minor-party candidates or not, Trump outperformed his final polling average by a few points. Right now, in the RealClearPolitics average, Biden is ahead by 1.8 points.

If Trump wins North Carolina and the states listed above, he reaches 258 electoral votes — just twelve short of winning another term.

Around here, we should note that Trump is probably going to lose the congressional district that includes Omaha in Nebraska, meaning he will probably win four of Nebraska’s five electoral votes and Biden will win one. (Trump is doing a rally in Omaha at 8:30 p.m. local time tomorrow night.) In Maine, the limited polling in the state’s larger and more rural second congressional district is split pretty widely depending upon the pollster — either Biden has a modest lead or Trump has a fairly large one.

Trump needs to win at least one of those big three upper midwestern states that he won narrowly four years ago — Michigan, Pennsylvania, or Wisconsin.

My first thought was that from what I can see, Pennsylvania is the lowest-hanging fruit, and perhaps the key to the whole election. On the FiveThirtyEight doodad that allows you to pick the winner of a swing state and see how that affects the rest of the states, if Trump wins Pennsylvania, he has a 73 percent chance of winning a second term. If Biden wins Pennsylvania, Trump has a 3 percent chance of winning a second term.

As of this writing, Biden is ahead in the RealClearPolitics average in Pennsylvania by 5.1 percentage points. But this is a complicated state, with many Pennsylvanians casting ballots by mail for the first time; without the “security envelope,” the ballot will not be counted.

Biden is ahead in the RealClearPolitics average in Michigan by 7.8 percentage points.

But then again, maybe Wisconsin is the lowest-hanging fruit. Biden is ahead in the RealClearPolitics average in Wisconsin by 4.6 percentage points; the most recent Susquehanna survey had the race a tie.

If Trump wins Pennsylvania and the states listed above, he reaches 278 electoral votes, past the 270 threshold. If Trump wins Wisconsin and the states listed above, he reaches 268 electoral votes — and then those lone electoral votes in Nebraska and Maine suddenly have huge significance!

Trump is scheduled to do three events in Pennsylvania today, in Lancaster, Johnstown, and Martinsburg; he heads to Lansing, Mich., and West Salem, Wis., Tuesday.

There are a few other states that are worth watching. Nevada has been pretty blue most cycles, but a few Democrats are worried about whether the unions will be able to effectively do their usual get-out-the-vote operations. There’s been a lot of attention on Minnesota, but Biden’s lead has been in the five- to seven-point range since late September. Colorado, New Hampshire, New Mexico, and Virginia have now slipped out of the broadest definition of a “swing state.”

Keep in mind, if the polling is accurate, Biden is going to win, and win big. If the final vote matches all of those small leads in polling aggregates, Biden is finishing with something in the neighborhood of 350 electoral votes.

Meanwhile, in the Gubernatorial Races . . .

A few paragraphs back, I asked whether Arizona was shifting away from Republicans overall or whether Arizona was shifting away from Trump specifically. There’s one other useful measuring stick for measuring voters’ views on Republicans in general vs. the president and the current crop of Republicans in Washington: the governors’ races.

Fewer governors are up for reelection in presidential years than in midterms, but there are a handful, and they may give us some indication of how a Republican performs when that candidate is not so closely associated with President Trump. The most ominous indicator is in North Carolina, where the presidential race and Senate race are neck and neck, while Republican gubernatorial candidate Dan Forest just isn’t making incumbent Democrat Roy Cooper sweat at all.

Washington is a heavily Democratic-leaning state, where GOP wins are few and far between, but notice that Republican gubernatorial candidate Loren Culp is running a good four to nine points ahead of Trump in that state.

Beyond that, Republicans candidates are looking strong in the mostly red states electing governors this year. In Montana, Representative Greg Gianforte is enjoying a consistent lead that is about the same as Trump’s lead over Biden. Mike Parson, who took over in Missouri after Eric Greitens resigned, is looking solid, and maybe a few points ahead of Trump.

Polling in Indiana has been sparse, but the latest Survey USA poll put incumbent Republican Eric Holcomb ahead by 30 points, while Trump is ahead of Biden, 49 percent to 42 percent.

In West Virginia, incumbent governor Jim Justice switched to the Republican Party, and he’s on the path to win by a margin in the high teens — perhaps a little higher, or a little lower, than the president’s likely margin over Biden.

In Utah, Republican gubernatorial candidate Spencer Cox is on pace to win by 24 to 33 points, while Trump is on pace to win by ten to 18 points.

Perhaps the most significant differences come in New England. In New Hampshire, where Trump trails Biden badly, incumbent Republican Chris Sununu is way ahead of Democratic challenger Dan Feltes. In Vermont, where Trump may not crack 35 percent, incumbent GOP governor Phil Scott leads the NPR poll, with 55 percent to 24 percent for Democrat progressive David Zuckerman.

Add it all up, and we see quite a few Republican governors overperforming Trump in the polls. Perhaps Trump indeed wins votes that few other Republican candidates could win, among blue-collar workers. But probably also he loses votes that few other Republican candidates could lose among suburbanites.

A lot of Democrats, and some of the self-identified Never Trumpers, believe that Trump will be a millstone around the necks of Republican candidates for a long time to come. Nothing is written in stone yet, but GOP governors and gubernatorial candidates appear to be demonstrating that it is possible to develop a political identity separate from Trump and, in many states, win significantly more votes. And if Republican candidates for non-federal offices can cultivate an identity distinct from Trump now . . . why would it be harder in 2022 or 2024?

ADDENDUM: This morning, The New Yorker runs the first excerpt from former president Barack Obama’s forthcoming memoirs, revealing just how thoroughly he wanted Maine GOP senator Olympia Snowe to support the Affordable Care Act: ‘Tell Olympia she can write the whole damn bill!’ I said to Nancy-Ann as she was leaving for one such meeting. ‘We’ll call it the Snowe plan. Tell her if she votes for the bill she can have the White House — Michelle and I will move to an apartment!’” Snowe voted “no” in December 2009.


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