What to know going into Election Day

Election day 2020 is here. President Donald Trump will be trying to win reelection against former Vice President Joe Biden. Here is what you need to know. 

Who’s winning? 

First, Trump is down in the polls and down big. He’s down in the national polls– 6.8 points in the RCP average and 8.4 in the Fivethirtyeight average. And maybe more importantly, Biden is at 50.7 in the RCP average and 51.7 in the Fivethirtyeight average. To put it another way, Biden’s vote share in the RCP average is 53.59%. And yes, the national polls do matter. They may not legally matter in determining who wins, but because the national outcome is not independent of state outcomes it does matter. The national result is indicative of state results– and therefore the Electoral College.

And Biden’s lead is clearly bigger and more stable than Hillary’s was in 2016. 

While the national polls do matter, the state polls matter a lot more. And it doesn’t look good for Trump there either. The RCP no toss up map is based on who is leading in the state average for each state. It has Biden at 319 electoral votes. To put that in perspective, it had Hillary at 272 electoral votes. If it’s overestimating Biden by the same amount, Biden still wins with 274 electoral votes.

Another important phenomenon to understand is that there are a lot less undecided or third party votes than there were in 2016. On election day 2016, Hillary Clinton had 46.8% of the national support in the RCP average. Donald Trump had 43.6%. Combined, they had 90.4% of the electorate’s support. In other words, just under 10% of the electorate was either undecided or voting third party. That left a lot of voters that could switch to either candidate in the polling booth. That’s not the case this election. Joe Biden has 50.9% of the national electorate going into tonight according to the RCP average. Donald Trump has 44.4%. That’s 95.3 combined. And that same pattern can be seen at the state level. Let’s look at the three rust belt states and Florida. 

But what about the polls being wrong in 2016? Why should we trust them here. 3 reasons:

  1. The national polls weren’t wrong. The final RCP national average was Clinton 46.8 to Trump 43.6 or Clinton +3.2. The final result was Clinton 48.2 to Trump 46.1 or Clinton +2.1. And remember, there were a lot of undecided and third party voters going into that election. 
  2. The state polls were mostly right. Again, if you look at the RCP no toss up map only Nevada (called Trump) and the three rust belt states (called Clinton) were wrong. 
  3. Where the state polls were wrong, they largely missed for two reasons. First, they undervalued certain voters. Second, not enough polling. Both those issues have been resolved. Pollsters are weighing their sample by education to help identify those missing Trump voters and there are many more high quality polls in the rust belt this time than in 2016. National media (ex. Fox News and the New York Times) and university polls (ex. Monmouth and Marquette) are usually considered high quality public polls. There were only about a half a dozen of those polls in all the rust best states in the 5 weeks leading up to the election. This time, there have been over a dozen in each state. 

Another way to judge how this election is going is the generic ballot. It’s basically a poll question which asks respondents if they would rather vote for a Republican or Democrat in their local house race. In 2016. It slightly favored Democrats. RCP averaged it to be +0.6 Democrats. Republicans won another House majority and a trifecta. In 2018 it was +7.3 Democrats. We all remember Democrats cleaned house in that election. This time, it’s +6.8 Democrats. 

Lastly, if we look at district level polling, it, again, isn’t good for Trump. 

Which states matter the most? 

Pennsylvania and Florida. If either candidate fails to get at least one, the election is almost certainly over for them. Biden can afford to lose one but Trump really needs both. If he loses both, it’s over. He would then need to flip Minnesota and Nevada or New Hampshire and he isn’t doing that while losing two close swing states. If he loses one or another, the map gets really tricky. Florida is the bigger of the two so let’s assume he wins it. Biden would only need to flip two of the following states: Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, or Georgia. And if Trump wins both, Biden would need to flip four of those states. 

Arizona, Wisconsin, Michigan, and North Carolina are the other swing states worth paying attention to. 

What are the closing strategies? 

Biden’s closing strategy has been the same strategy he’s run since he won the nomination. Be low key, avoid big mistakes, and let Trump have the spotlight. For example, they called a lid Monday morning for the whole week until the second debate which was on a Thursday. If they lose, they will be lambasted as running a “low-energy” campaign. If they win, they will be looked at as geniuses. 

Trump has run a much different campaign from the start. His focus was on energizing his base– and hoping for a radical to win the Democratic nomination. That plan didn’t work out. 

So towards the closing weeks of the election he switched to a new strategy. His closing message was to tell voters to ignore the raging pandemic and look at Hunter Biden. The problem with that is voters care a lot about the raging pandemic. Saying they shouldn’t worry about what they are worried about didn’t help with them. And they didn’t care about Hunter Biden. They never did. 

So now Trump’s final strategy isn’t to win over voters but get as many Biden voters disqualified as possible. Here’s part of an op-ed from a big shot Republican lawyer:

“Proof of systematic fraud has become the Loch Ness Monster of the Republican Party. People have spent a lot of time looking for it, but it doesn’t exist…

Trump has enlisted a compliant Republican Party in this shameful effort. The Trump campaign and Republican entities engaged in more than 40 voting and ballot court cases around the country this year. In exactly none — zero — are they trying to make it easier for citizens to vote. In many, they are seeking to erect barriers…

This attempted disenfranchisement of voters cannot be justified by the unproven Republican dogma about widespread fraud. Challenging voters at the polls or disputing the legitimacy of mail-in ballots isn’t about fraud. Rather than producing conservative policies that appeal to suburban women, young voters or racial minorities, Republicans are trying to exclude their votes…

The Republican challenging effort is focused almost exclusively in heavily Democratic areas. Signature mismatches will go unheeded by Trump forces in friendly precincts. This is not about finding fraud and irregularities. It’s about suppressing the number of votes not cast for Trump.”

And here is Jason Miller making that intention clear

A surprise twist. 

Who would have guessed six months ago that one of the most important developments this election would be Trump over performing with minorities and under performing with (older) white voters. I wonder what that has to do with?? 

What to expect

Fivethirtyeight’s model currently gives Biden a 89% chance to win the election. To put that in perspective, if we decided the election by pulling a marble out of a bag then there would be 9 blue marbles and 1 red marble. The tail of distributions for outcomes in which Biden wins also goes out much farther than Trump’s distribution does. That’s because the election outcome has a massive range because the races are so close in so many states. The states can either all fall one way or split but if they fall for Biden it will be a landslide. On the other hand, if they all fall for Trump then he will comfortably win but with a much more normal margin. 

Additionally, Fivethirtyeight’s model only gives Republicans a 3% chance to win the House of Representatives and a 25% chance of holding the Senate. 

How to watch the election! 

The most important thing for watching the election is friends and alcohol. I suggest a nice vodka mixed with a little sprite. 

I joke. Somewhat. The actual most important thing is that there is a really good chance we won’t know who wins on election night or even early the morning after. Elections are rarely final on election night for a variety of reasons– for example, some states aren’t allowed to start counting mail in ballots until election day. Instead, we often rely on news networks to project who has won based on known data. But this election could be extremely close. Because of that, we might not know who won for days and until all the votes get counted. Remember, Gore was projected to win Florida on election night 2000. We know how that turned out. 

This Fivethirtyeight article attempts to estimate when every state will finish counting votes. 

That said, all the major news stations will have high quality broadcasts, but Fox News historically has the best. They tend to be one of the first networks to call races and have a fantastic track record. Their data team is great. I’ll also be following @DecisionDeskHQ, @Nate_Cohn, @NateSilver538, @HotlineJosh, @Redistrict, @amyewalter, @SeanTrende, and @varadmehta on Twitter. On my laptop I’ll have the New York Times, Fivethirtyeight, and the Decision Desks websites open. 

Some people will try and tell you about the results based on early voting data. Don’t buy it. It’s election snakeoil. There is no way to read into the final results based off early voting data.

Exit quotes: 

Bonus exit quotes:


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s