With just a couple of days until November 3rd and over 70 million ballots already cast, Americans are now obsessing over the polls. There is little either campaign can do now to seriously affect the outcome of the election unless some monumental scandal breaks over the coming weekend. The recent riots and protests in Philadelphia could have some effect. But barring the unlikelihood of any major swing in voter sentiment, all we can do now is wait and see what happens on election day. And while we wait, we fuss over polls, nervously refreshing our browsers every few hours to digest the latest numbers.
Obsessing over polls is a quadrennial ritual that attends every 4th Halloween. The ghosts of past polling failures haunt the airwaves as TV personalities expound on the deeper technicalities of statistical data modeling. We care about the polls mostly because we are anxious, and one way of coping with anxiety is to dive deep into projections, estimations, and averages, and collect information in an effort to feel like we are in control of something much larger than ourselves. This behavior is commonly seen in cancer wards, where loved ones take copious notes and ask needlessly tedious questions of doctors in the vain attempt to understand what is happening to their dying beloved and perhaps, just maybe, find a way to speculate about the future. But it is almost never enough, and no amount of data, information, or research can bring us the relief we seek.
With that preamble out of the way, let’s dive into the numbers.
Biden is leading Trump in the national polls by a healthy margin 7.5% according to Real Clear Politics. As expected, the polls are much tighter in battleground states like Florida and Pennsylvania, both of which Trump must win in order to have a shot at winning the election. But last week, news broke that the Trump campaign is pulling ads from Florida. That means that either the Trump campaign has some internal data that is not public showing that he will win in Florida, or he has decided to cede that state to Biden and focus on bolstering his support in key electoral college districts like Nebraska’s second district, where he campaigned in Omaha a few days ago.
With such a bold move with only days left to go and no sign of a late surge as happened in the 2016 election, the question is: could Trump still win?
FiveThirtyEight pollsters now give Trump just a 10% chance of winning, which means that he could still win according to their modeling. Doing some math, it is clear that a lot comes down to Florida and Pennsylvania. Without winning at least one of the two states, Trump has no serious chance of taking the electoral college. That does not mean that he will win overall if he wins these two states — on the contrary, Biden still has other paths to victory should Trump win them both. But without them, Trump is toast.
Luckily for Trump, Florida is a friendly place for him. He lives there, he has a strong base there, and while Biden is challenging him in the polls, Florida is a state known for surprises. One of the main reasons why Florida could tip to Trump in the end is that the state’s large population of older conservative voters are hyped up and ready to vote in person on election day. There is an intuitive sense one feels after months of consuming media coverage of Florida’s disastrous response to the Coronavirus pandemic, the massive pro-Trump golf cart rallies in The Villages, and the anti-lockdown protests across the state that Florida is Trump country, not Biden country. This intuition is not based on any numbers, but it is more of a general sense that Florida is unlike any other state in the union, and that Florida Republicans are a special brand. Let’s also not forget the ghosts of 2001 that still haunt the Miami-Dade County election board offices. Anything can happen in Florida, and given that the number 1 rule of life in the year 2020 so far is that anything that can happen probably will happen, it would make sense if Trump won here. A Trump win in Florida would just be so Floridian.
Pennsylvania, meanwhile, is a state with a unique mix of influences from New England, the Rust Belt, and the Bible Belt. But unlike Florida, Pennsylvania is similar enough to other states like Michigan, Wisconsin, Ohio, and Arizona that it can serve as a decent bellwether for election outcomes in these other battlegrounds. Things are looking good for Biden in Pennsylvania, and the state could easily tip blue if nothing changes between now and November 3rd. That being said, the riots in Philadelphia following the recent killing of Walter Wallace Jr. could give a last-minute boost to Trump if they provoke a conservative backlash. The upset victory is definitely still possible. In the end, though, Pennsylvania is Biden’s birth state, and he is crushing Trump by double digits in the Philadelphia and Pittsburgh suburbs, so as things stand, Biden looks poised to win.
Of course, there are still a couple of days left, and in Trump’s 2020 America, each day may as well be an eternity. The polls could still tighten, and the polls could even be wrong — who knows? All that we can say for sure is that Americans will spend these days pouring over the polls like they are the vital signs of a loved one on their deathbed. We will watch the numbers closely, and as our date with destiny approaches, we will rely on pollsters to tell us bedtime stories so we can sleep at night. But the tales the pollsters tell us, no matter how fantastical and hopeful, must acknowledge one truth: unlikely as it may be, Trump could still win, and we could be in for another 4 years of a national nightmare. Sweet dreams.