US Elections: Who Will be President in 2020?

I Voted Today 2020, United States of America election

In the countdown to the US Presidential elections, TNL has a special series to explain the swing states, key races, and voting mechanisms. Although voters in all 50 US states and Washington DC will have cast ballots on or before November 3rd, owing to the electoral college system used for Presidential elections, only a few states will decide the winner. What will happen in 2020? Will the US get President Trump or President Biden? We examine here with personalised maps and in-depth analysis. 

2016 overview

Donald Trump won the electoral college and the Presidency despite losing the popular vote. He received 306 electoral votes, and Hillary Clinton got 232. However, due to faithless electors, the official electoral college results were Trump 304, Clinton 227, Colin Powell 3 and one vote each for Bernie Sanders, John Kasich, Ron Paul, and Faith Spotted Eagle. To recap, a candidate needs to secure 270 electoral college votes for the Presidency, irrespective of the result of the popular vote. 

In the popular vote, Clinton won 48.2%, Trump 46.1% and 5.7% voted for third party candidates, most notably for Libertarian Gary Johnson with 3.3% and Green candidate Jill Stein with 1.1%. It was the highest third-party vote since 1996. Compared to Obama’s performance in 2012, Clinton’s vote share dropped 2.9%, Trump’s vote share fell 1.1% compared to Mitt Romney (even though Trump won 100 more electoral votes) and third-party candidates went up 4%. 

3 States Decided the Presidency

In the end, three states decided the election: Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan. Had Clinton won these states, she would have become President instead of Trump. Trump’s margin of victory in these three states was in total, only 77,744 votes. 

In Michigan, he won by just 10,704 (0.2%), in Pennsylvania by 44,292 (0.7%) and in Wisconsin by 22,748 (0.8%). Notably, Trump won only a plurality of the votes in these states (i.e. less than 50%), 47.5% in Michigan, 48.2% in Pennsylvania and 47.2% in Wisconsin. 

These numbers underline how close the 2016 election was and how Trump had a very narrow path to the White House. Increased vote for third party candidates helped him. It is clear that he was able to succeed with a lower vote share overall than Romney got when he lost in 2012 and that in these critical states, Trump was able to win with a lower vote share than might generally have been needed.

What are swing states?

Map 1: Swing States in 2016

Swing states fit into two categories. One, states which switched from one party to another at the last election. Two, those that did not switch but where the margin was close enough for the state to be in play in 2020 and states where polling indicates a close contest.

The following states which voted for Barack Obama in 2012, voted for Donald Trump in 2016: Florida, Ohio, Michigan, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Iowa and Maine’s 2nd congressional district. That is a total of 100 electoral votes. In Map 1, the states marked in grey are the ones that flipped in 2016.


An expanded battleground

Map 2: An Expanded Battleground for 2020

In addition to these states mentioned above, there are others where the margins are close. Utilising a British election term, they would need around a 5% swing from one party to another to change hands – and become either Blue or Red. This illustration is not to suggest that all these states are in play or that they will change parties but to highlight that even those electoral college votes being considered safe are relatively close by more international standards. It would not take a particularly big swing on a national level to produce a landslide victory of either side. 

About 17 states (and Maine and Nebraska’s 2nd congressional districts) are in play which represents only 230 electoral votes ( less than half). Despite this expanded battleground, 33 states plus DC (coloured in red or blue) make up a majority of electoral college votes. They are virtually irrelevant in determining the winner as they are safe states for one of the candidates.

Paths to 270: Scenarios and Probabilities

In short, there are four possible outcomes with the following estimated TNL probabilities: 

Trump wins expanding his support 10%
Trump wins narrowly 25%
Biden wins narrowly 40%
Biden wins comfortably 25%

Scenario 1: Trump wins comfortably, expanding his support base

Map 3: Scenario 1 – Trump Wins Comfortably

Probability: 10%

The Path: Trump wins all the states he won in 2016 and gains New Hampshire and Minnesota.This is illustrated in Map 3.

Rationale: While other states like Nevada, New Mexico and Maine could statistically be in play, even if Trump is expanding his support, he is unlikely to secure these states due to long term trends in these states. This is why only New Hampshire and Minnesota are down as Trump gains here.

Explanation: Trump could win New Hampshire and Minnesota and still lose the popular vote. Trump has only a 3% chance of winning the popular vote. Biden also has a 7% chance of winning the popular vote but losing the electoral college. Therefore, combining these two possibilities, we could give this scenario, where Trump wins with more electoral votes than in 2016 (regardless of whether he wins the popular vote or not) at around 10%. Unlikely, but not enough to ignore.  


Scenario 2: Trump wins narrowly, losing support but retaining electoral college

Trump Biden Win Elections
Map 4: Scenario 2 – Trump wins narrowly

Probability: 25%

The Path: Trump wins all of the states he won in 2016 apart from a couple of swing states that he loses to Biden. In this scenario, Trump loses Arizona and Pennsylvania but still wins with 275 electoral votes.This is highlighted in Map 4.

Rationale: Polling indicates Trump is most vulnerable in the Rust Belt states and Arizona. Therefore, it is possible that Trump could lose at least one rustbelt state, as well as Arizona. It may not be Pennsylvania; it could be Michigan or Wisconsin. The point here is that Trump could lose some states, but if he holds onto enough, he can still win.

Explanation: There are numerous factors to consider here. First, Trump has an overall 10% chance of winning the election. Second, Biden could win the popular vote and lose. Third, what should arguably be termed the 2016 shock factor – put at 8%, which is that predictions can be wrong. Fourth, the general volatility of politics, we could push the likelihood of Trump narrowly winning the election up to 25%. Too high? Perhaps. However, if there is anything we have seen in recent years, it is that polling can miss critical groups of voters, and it might do so again. 


Scenario 3: Biden wins narrowly, flipping swing states to secure electoral college

Trump Biden Win Elections
Map 5: Scenario 3 – Biden wins narrowly

Probability: 40%

The Path: Biden has many narrow paths to a small electoral college win. All that is required here is for Biden to win all the states Clinton won in 2016 and win any combination of Trump swing states that get him an additional 38 electoral votes. Map 5 shows this scenario. 

If Biden wins Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania, he gets to 278 (the rustbelt path). Alternatively, if Biden wins only Florida and Arizona, he gets to 272 (the sunbelt path). A third path is where he combines gains in Michigan and Florida to get to 277.

Rationale: Florida has voted for the winning candidate in every election since 1964 and from 1928-1956 before that. Therefore, if Biden is to win, while it is possible Florida could buck the trend, it is likely he will win Florida. As for Michigan, this was statistically the closest result in 2016, so if any rustbelt seat is to flip to Biden in a scenario where he is only winning narrowly, it is going to be there. 

Explanation: Putting everything together, the precise forecasts of an overall Biden victory, the polling in swing states, the factors that go back to the 2016 result (the high third-party vote, the narrow nature of Trump’s win), the most likely outcome is a narrow Biden win. As has been pointed out, Biden only needs 38 electoral votes, so there are many possible routes. In other words, even if the polling suggesting a larger Biden win is off, it is still 40% probable that Biden will flip enough swing states to secure the electoral college narrowly. 

Scenario 4: Biden wins comfortably, even by a landslide

Trump Biden Win Elections
Map 6: Scenario 4 – Biden wins with landslide

Probability: 25%

The Path: Biden gains from Trump the traditional key swing states of Florida and North Carolina. He further secures the rustbelt states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. And adds Nebraska’s 2nd district and wins Arizona, giving him a comfortable win with 334 electoral votes. Map 6 highlights this prediction. 

Rationale: This scenario is a midpoint between a narrow Biden win and a Biden landslide. That is why, for example, Texas, Georgia, Ohio, and Iowa are down as Trump states as is Maine’s 2nd district. It is possible that Biden could also win all of these and get as many as 413 electoral votes but as this scenario is a range between Biden just winning and winning a landslide, that is why predicted only on 334 electoral college votes. 

Explanation:  Polls indicate the likelihood of what is termed a “Biden landslide” is 29%. However, out of caution, due to the factors referred to in scenario 2, (the 2016 shock factor), and the prevalence of scenario 3 (a narrow Biden win), this has been reduced down to 25%. The same likelihood that Trump narrowly wins. 

In Conclusion

To summarise, there is a 65% probability of Biden taking the US Presidency in 2020 – the range of the victory differs from narrow to landslide depending on swing states. The chances of President Trump being re-elected are 35%, with only a 10% chance of bettering his 2016 performance. 

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