Two weeks ago, Donald Trump was on track to lose the U.S. presidential election. After a chaotic debate performance and a COVID-19 diagnosis, Trump’s chances of winning the election fair and square have only gotten worse.
And he is running out of time.
On Sept. 29, the CBC’s Presidential Poll Tracker pegged Democratic nominee and former vice-president Joe Biden as the favourite. His lead in national polls stood at about 7.3 percentage points.
He was ahead by at least five points in enough states to secure 275 electoral college votes, slightly more than the 270 votes needed to win the White House. Trump had a lot of ground to make up — more than he did at the same point of the 2016 campaign against Hillary Clinton.
At the time, however, the incumbent was in a position where he could narrowly secure re-election if he could win the toss-up states and add Florida and Pennsylvania to his electoral map.
But Trump has not made up any ground since then — and the election is 10 days closer.
The Presidential Poll Tracker now puts Biden ahead in national support among decided voters by 10.7 points, his widest lead of the campaign so far. That easily beats the 7.5-point lead Clinton was enjoying at her peak in the 2016 campaign in mid-October, after the last of her three debates with Trump.
Biden now leads by at least five points in states worth a total of 308 electoral college votes, giving him even more margin for error. Add in the states where he leads by between two and five points and Biden appears to be on track to secure over 350 electoral college votes, which would give him a victory about as decisive as Barack Obama’s triumph over John McCain in 2008.
A number of factors likely are driving this bump for Biden.
Post-debate polls suggested that more viewers thought Biden won the debate with Trump. The Republican incumbent repeatedly interrupted the Democratic challenger, refrained from denouncing white supremacists and refused to agree to a peaceful transition of power should he lose the election.
The fact that Trump came down with COVID-19 — after spending weeks ridiculing Biden for wearing masks and after publicly demonstrating his disdain for basic preventative measures to keep himself and those around him safe — probably acted as a drag on the president’s poll numbers as well. A majority of Americans already disapproved of Trump’s management of the pandemic response and a CNN/SSRS poll found that 63 per cent of Americans took a dim view of how he handled the risk of exposing those around him to the coronavirus.
That poll found a majority of respondents in all racial, gender, age and educational demographics agreed that he had acted irresponsibly — including two-thirds of independents. Even 19 per cent of Republicans thought Trump had acted irresponsibly.
Biden’s electoral map is growing
A number of states that were only leaning toward Biden a couple weeks ago are now looking safer for the Democratic Party. Florida and New Hampshire, deemed “leaning” states on Sept. 29, are now looking like Biden wins. His margin over Trump has increased by about four points in both states since the first debate.
States that were toss-ups, like Arizona and North Carolina, are now leaning Democratic. Biden’s margin has increased by about two points in both of these states.
Trump was narrowly favoured to win Georgia and Iowa on Sept. 29. Now, Biden is projected to be leading by 2.5 points in Iowa and 2.6 points in Georgia.
Texas, leaning Republican two weeks ago, is now a toss-up and a virtual tie between Biden and Trump.
This is a map that gives Biden lots of options. If Biden is able to sweep the Midwest by capturing Iowa and Ohio — in addition to states like Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania that narrowly voted for Trump in 2016 — then he doesn’t need to win states in the South like Florida, Georgia or North Carolina. Biden could watch southwestern states like Arizona and Texas remain in the Republican column and still clear the 270-vote mark needed to win the White House.
Under-performing in the Midwest — as Clinton did in 2016 — would not block his path to victory if Black and Hispanic voters come out in big numbers in Georgia and Arizona.
Having lots of options helps Biden — and those options look a little more solid than they did for Clinton. Biden has widened the map into traditionally Republican states while also putting up better poll numbers among white and older Americans — demographics that could help him win states in the Midwest that Clinton was unable to secure four years ago.
Can Trump turn things around?
There isn’t much time remaining for Trump to turn these negative trend lines around. But that doesn’t mean he can’t do it.
In the CBC’s Presidential Poll Tracker in 2016, Clinton’s peak national lead of 7.5 points came about three weeks before election day. Clinton’s actual margin of victory in the popular vote was 2.1 points when ballots were cast, but thanks to three states Trump won by less than a percentage point, he was able to secure a win in the electoral college.
Trump now needs to see the polls swing by about six to seven points in order to put himself back in the position he was in on election night in 2016. Closing the gap by just five points might not be enough for him to pull off another upset.
That’s a lot to ask, considering how much has changed since the last election. There are fewer voters this time who are either undecided or say they will vote for a third party candidate.
Polls suggest a majority of Americans continue to view Trump unfavourably, while Biden is better liked than Clinton was. That means fewer swing voters making up their minds between two candidates they dislike. Those swing voters broke disproportionately for Trump last time.
This has been a roller coaster election campaign, so it’s possible the polls could swing again and make this race competitive once more.
But it’s just as possible that the trend lines won’t improve for Trump — and that, in another two weeks, his prospects look even bleaker than they do today.