The US presidential election suddenly appears either candidate’s to win – or lose – with the number of in-play battleground states now in the double digits.
National polls offer an imperfect picture of the races within the presidential race that analysts say will decide who occupies the White House come late January. Still, Democratic nominee Joe Biden has a 6.5 percentage point lead nationally, according to an average of polls compiled by RealClearPolitics that shows the former vice president’s coast-to-coast lead shrinking.
The same is true of his lead in key battleground states, which is down to an average of 3.7 points – within the margin of error of most professional polls.
Political observers for over a year have pointed to six or seven states in the country’s Rust and Sun belts as the ones to keep an eye on as Election Day neared. But with Election Day now only 48 days away, that list has ballooned to around a dozen.
Patrick Murray, director of polling for Monmouth University in New Jersey, said this week he is closely watching 11 states as the 2020 race turns for the homestretch.
“Pennsylvania and Florida are likely to be the tipping point states for the presidency. Hard for Biden to cobble together an Electoral College victory without Pennsylvania, and hard for Trump to do the same without Florida, which means Wisconsin and Michigan remain important for both candidates,” Mr Murray told The Independent.
His list, like other political analysts contacted this week, only grows from there.
He is watching North Carolina because it has been “on the verge of going consistently blue in federal elections level after 2008 – but never quite gets there, and has a very popular Democratic governor on the ballot this year (Roy Cooper).” Mr Murray is watching Arizona for possible “signs of Sun Belt demographic shifts.” Georgia and Texas, long GOP presidential strongholds, are on his radar for the same reason: “Not because I expect them to flip in this election, but to see if Democrats continue to make gains there for next time,” he said.
One Democratic strategist put Florida in the third most important group, along with Ohio, betting Mr Trump holds both. But another, Brad Bannon, says the race is too-close-to-call in the Sunshine State.
“Florida State may have flopped in its college football season debut against Georgia Tech, but the state of Florida is still No. 1 on the list of key states in the presidential race,” Mr Bannon said this week. “A victory in Florida would go a long way to an Electoral College win for Biden. Adding Florida's 29 votes to the 227 that Hillary Clinton won in 2016 would bring the Democratic nominee up to 256. That’s within spitting distance of a majority.”
Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin also made analysts’ top six, and have for months. Mr Trump won all three four years ago, a massive haul of 46 electoral votes. Biden’s lead in the Keystone State was 8.5 points on July 24; it’s now down to 4.3 points, according to RealClearPolitics’ average of polls there. It is a similar story in Michigan: Biden led 49.6 per cent to 41.2 per cent on July 27, but his lead has slipped to 4.2 points.
Wisconsin is suddenly a concern for the Biden campaign. That’s because a Washington Post-ABC News poll released on Wednesday put the former VP’s lead among registered voters at just 4 percentage points (50 percent to 46 percent), and at 6 points among likely voters (52-46). RealClear’s average had Mr biden up by 8 points on June 27. As the Post noted, neither margin is insurmountable for this president as the survey’s margin of error is 4.5 percent.
Those numbers – coupled with pollsters’ and Mr Trump’s expectations that the “hidden Trump” voter is still out there, still not telling those conducting the polls on the phone they support the bombastic president – suggest the race is much more of a dead heat than many media outlets and Democratic strategists suggest.
The true nature of the race began to come into starker focus after the Cook Political Report, a widely respected political prognostication service, adjusted its Electoral College models in favor of the president.
"Biden's Electoral College lead has narrowed to 279 to 187 for Trump," wrote Cook's Amy Walter. "Earlier this summer, Biden held a 308 to 187 lead." The former VP’s projected total is still above the 270 needed to win in November, but that Cook took two key states out of his firm control is significant; the organisation now lists Florida as a “Toss Up” after having it in the “Lean Democrat” column. It also shifted Nevada from “Likely Democrat” to “Lean Democrat.”
During a recent event on the campaign trail, where Mr Trump appears so comfortable, he said some unnamed people were speculating that voters were again lying to pollsters about supporting him. He quipped that while such a phenomenon doesn’t look good optically, it is a big reason why he believes he is actually winning the presidential contest.
Mr Trump won by around 90,000 votes in six states four years ago, and experts say this one could come down to around 100,000. The president, as he showed once again during the Philadelphia town hall is doing little to change his tone even a little, betting big that just enough voters in several voting blocs that broke his way last time but have since gone Democrat in congressional and gubernatorial races will drift back into his orbit come November.
That’s why he remains publicly Covid-skeptical and staunchly pro-police. His law-and-order message, mixed with his return-to-normalcy calls on Covid, appears to be keeping him in the game in more than just those six or seven states on every expert’s list.
Mr Murray, the Monmouth polling guru, says he also is studying Iowa, Minnesoate, Nevada, and Ohio, calling them “wild cards that could rise in the rankings over the next few weeks.”
His conclusion about the state of the 2020 race: “In other words, if you are only watching 6 states, you are bound to miss something.”