The Final Furlong: The 2020 US Presidential Election

Authored by Professor Amelia Hadfield, Head of the Department of Politics, University of Surrey and Chris Logie, a Law with International Relations graduate.

The following blog was published on 28th October 2020 on

Those who have followed the US Presidential election  – whether minute by minute or with one eye open – would be forgiven for thinking that the election campaign would never finish. To properly brace for impact, a quick review of the deciding ‘issues’ in voters’ minds; and a review of the key states (very much still in play); the battleground states (crucial), and tsunami-warning states (anything could happen).

Deciding Issues

It seems strange to recollect, but let’s bear in mind a few key points. First, as incumbent, Donald Trump began spending money on his reelection on 24th November 2016. His first ‘major’ Democratic Party challenger (then-Congressman John Delaney) announced his candidacy just eight months later, 28th July 2017. President Trump was impeached on 18th December 2019 for attempting to solicit a Ukrainian investigation into now-Democratic nominee Joe Biden. And the first electoral component of the election proper began with the Democratic Primary, nearly 10 months ago, on 3rd February 2020. Since then, America has had to come to terms with the impact of Covid-19, the importance of the Black Lives Matter movement, as well as making its collective mind up over the presidential debates.

In terms of the pandemic, President Trump’s consistent downplaying of the seriousness, and the impact of COVID-19, followed by constant demands to reopen the American economy likely accelerated Trump’s electoral slide, with consistently mid to low approval ratings. Only 39.6% of Americans approve of Trump’s handling of the issue against a 57.5% disapproval rate, percentages that score even lower than Trump’s overall job approval rating. In this way presidential mismanagement of Covid has dragged down his re-election chances since late spring. Despite attempts at a ‘positive take’ on having actually caught Coronavirus himself, the continued large and growing case numbers make it impossible for Trump to simply dismiss the issue. 

Following the police killing of George Floyd in May, support for the Black Lives Matter movement among Americans rose to over 50%. Since then, however, support for the movement, further complicated by violence accompanying various protests in key states has seen a marked increase in Americans opposing the overall movement, in some places as high as 39%. There are myriad background reasons for this trend, but the main drivers are arguably connected to the election. First, almost every aspect of the Black Lives Matter movement was swiftly politicized, and then securitized, producing stark divides between Republican voters as vocally oppositional to the movement and Democrats who supported it. Second, the range and type of protests that followed saw another clear distinction: core Republicans following Trump’s argument that ‘law and order’ was the only possible response, and a range of pro-BLM supporters from across a much wider political spectrum advocating the systemic changes needed to alter fundamentally the balance of America’s race relations, largely supported by Biden.

Finally, the much anticipated, and largely disappointing head-to-heads. The first Presidential debate was an interruption-ridden debacle in which neither candidate covered themselves in glory. Despite Trump skipping the proposed online Covid-compliant clash, there were still expectations that if Trump could simply act more Presidentially and sound more coherent in the final debate, he would benefit from the low expectations set at the beginning of the process. While the President indeed gave a more subdued performance, it didn’t yield many electoral dividends. 39% of CNN’s[1] viewers agreed that Trump performed well, but markedly less well than Joe Biden, with 53% scoring Biden higher. Other polls suggest similar perceptions; overall, Trump’s inability to perform positively,and Biden’s unspectacular but steady performances in both debates, contributed to his ability to maintain the lead he established early on.

Numbers, numbers…

At this late stage of the game, former Vice President Joe Biden continues to polling strongly, with a 9+ point lead over President Trump. However, given that the Presidency is decided by the electoral college[2] rather than the popular vote, national polls offer only a partial picture. Hillary Clinton won the national popular vote in 2016 by a solid 2.1%, but significantly lost the electoral college by 304 to 227 electoral votes. To offer a more comprehensive picture, we need to drill down into the key states that will decide the election outcome.

This means examining three kinds of states: first, those which will almost certainly decide the winner after swinging for Trump in 2016; second, the 2016 Trump-won states which by virtue of Biden’s large lead and political circumstances are within reach for Democrats;[3] third, states which were also 2016 Trump-won but which would symbolize a truly historic Biden victory if they were to flip, Texas in particular.

The Key States

These include the three Midwestern states of Michigan, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and will almost certainly decide the election winner. The trio provided Trump with his electoral college majority in 2016, but on the basis of a collective margin of just 78 thousand votes. Should Trump win these three again, he will retain the Presidency. If Biden takes them, he will reach over the required 270 electoral votes to defeat Trump. Here are the Key State figures:

  • Michigan (Trump +0.23% in 2016, current Biden average +8.3%)
  • Wisconsin (Trump +0.77% in 2016, current Biden average +7.1%)
  • Pennsylvania (Trump +0.72% in 2016, current Biden average +5.3%)

On this count, Biden has a clear advantage in these deciding states. The knock-on effect is key: assumptions that Biden not only ‘has’ these three states, but has led the polls in all three states for more than half a year is significantly boosting his overall national profile. Nevertheless, it is these same states that could produce an upset and return Trump to the White House. While Trump has a comparatively low chance in this respect, the chance itself is far from zero. Should Trump beat his predicted polling numbers (as he did in 2016) and narrow the race going into election day itself, he could pull off an incredibly narrow win. Timing is key.

With less than a week to go, and so few uncertainties left, Biden’s likelihood of victory will only widen. It is tempting to underestimate Biden’s robust lead on the basis of the 2016 upset, but as we explored earlier this year, there are myriad reasons why the 2020 election is radically different from 2016, including polling. In sum, despite a rash of last-minute rallies across the region, Trump’s “prospects in the Midwest look far less rosy than before” with Biden polling higher than Clinton in 2016 in terms of his own campaign, and “Republican senatorial candidates in the Midwest… forecast to lose”.

The Battleground States

This next set of states includes Florida, North Carolina, Arizona, which represents a varied collection, but taken together would represent a clear wave, if won by Biden. North Carolina is a vital component, and was last won by Democrats during Barack Obama’s historic victory in 2008. A Biden win in North Carolina would be of a similar scale. Arizona is equally fascinating: a traditional conservative bastion, and John McCain’s home state, the state has been moving increasingly towards the Democrats since 2016, due to shifting perceptions among large suburban communities comprising retiree and Hispanic groups.

  • North Carolina (Trump +3.66% in 2016, current Biden average +2.4%)
  • Arizona (Trump +3.55% in 2016, current Biden average +2.9%)

In terms of their demographics, Arizona and North Carolina are fairly dissimilar states. Yet they share similar pro-Biden polling leads, both of which have been remarkably stable for the last six months. While Biden is less likely to win the battleground states than the key states, his consistent leads in all three point towards a clear Biden wave. These states are also the key to controlling the Senate: both Arizona and North Carolina are holding Senate races which Democrats must win in order to regain the chamber after six years in the minority. Arizona in particular would be a historic win for Democrats, and symbolic of their new sunbelt power base.

  • Florida (Trump +1.2% 2016, current Biden average +2.9%).

Florida is famous for its notorious swing status. After providing Trump with a narrow but decisive victory in 2016, Florida now looks set to swing against Trump. Demographics are all-important; the sunshine state is a retirement destination for many Americans, and Biden’s character, and particularly his attitude to managing the Coronavirus has enabled him to establish a strong lead among older voters. Trump initially carried senior citizens in Florida by a substantial margin of 17 points, but a recent CNN/SSRS poll found Biden up among this group by a solid 8 points in Florida.

Tsunami Warnings

Last but not least are Georgia, Texas, Iowa and Ohio. These four states represent two further subsets. First, Georgia and Texas, which have been moving steadily towards the Democrats, on the basis of post-2016 suburban and long-standing demographic change. Second, Iowa and Ohio; initially these two swung hard from Obama to solidly Trump, but which now appear to be swinging back from their emphatic Trump wins in 2016. If any four of these states are taken by Biden, he will not only win handily on election night, but possibly by something of an historic landslide.

  • Georgia (Trump +5.16% in 2016, current Biden average +1.2%)

  • Texas (Trump +8.99% in 2016, current Biden average -1.2%)

Unpredictability and scale are the watchwords here, hence tsunami. Driven by massive suburban shifts, including shifts driven by women voters and wider demographic changes, Georgia and Texas have together shifted towards Biden. The question is whether Biden can seal the deal, particularly in Texas where dreams of a ‘blue’ Texas have long nurtured since the last Democratic victory there in 1976. This may feel unlikely, but consider both Trump’s wafer-thin lead, as well as the likelihood of an enormous state turnout. The state has already cast over 80% of its total votes in 2016, with more than a week of voting still to go. 

  • Iowa (Trump +9.41% in 2016, current Biden average +1.2%)
  • Ohio (Trump +8.13% in 2016, current Biden average -1.6%)

Electorally, Iowa is a traditionally opening act: being first in America’s primaries rather a strategic closer. However, with both Iowa and Ohio still dominating in terms of last-minute swings is again testament to the state of the race. Trump won both states with a large lead 2016, but Biden’s strength with senior voters, combined with shifts among large groups of undecideds suggests potential surprises. Again, Biden is not strategically reliant upon either of these states, but they will play positively for him, with polling figures -albeit slim – indicating the breadth of his overall position.

The Final Act

Heading into the final furlong, Joe Biden remains broadly favoured in the majority of key states, comprising both consistent leads in deciding states and narrower leads in others. Taken together, the most likely outcome is a very solid Biden win, making President Trump the first incumbent to lose a re-election since Republican George Bush Senior in 1992. Equally, while Trump’s chance of victory is now slim, the race is not a done deal. Despite this, polling places Biden as close to Trump in the solidly Republican states of Alaska and Montana, as Trump is to Biden in the deciding Midwest trifecta of Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania. To put it another way – Biden would still win convincingly if the polls in Michigan, Wisconsin and Pennsylvania together were as inaccurate as 2016. However, we doubt that the polls will be that wrong to that degree, or in that direction. Trump’s chance of winning is therefore currently less likely overall than Biden’s chance of winning by a landslide. Tune in for post-election analysis!

[1] CNN/SSRS polls are conducted among viewers who are registered voters.

[2] The Electoral College consists of 538 Electoral Votes (EVs) with each state getting a number of votes equal to their number of congressional representatives (535 total; 435 from the House of Representatives and 100 from the Senate) plus three votes from Washington D.C (which is not a state). States allot their EVs according to the vote winner in that state, apart from Maine and Nebraska which split their allotment between the vote winner of the state as a whole and their separate congressional districts. To win the College therefore requires a simple majority of 270 votes or more.

[3] If Trump were performing more strongly overall, we could also consider those states narrowly won by Clinton, including New Hampshire (Clinton 2016 margin of +0.37%), Minnesota (+1.52%), Nevada (+2.42%) and Maine (+2.96%). However, Biden’s current lead puts these states statistically out of reach (for example Biden is polling over 11 points ahead in New Hampshire).