Polling, however, suggests that his base isn’t enough to win using that strategy either. Sure, Trump claims that polls understate his support, an assertion that’s never been bolstered by any analysis of high-quality polling. And sure, polls in key states were off by enough in 2016 to offer a faulty sense that Hillary Clinton would win the electoral vote that year. But the polls now, as averaged by FiveThirtyEight, show a much friendlier playing field for Biden than Trump.
As of writing, FiveThirtyEight’s publicly available state-level (and in Maine and Nebraska, congressional-district-level) polls show Biden picking up wins in nine places where Trump earned electoral votes four years ago. That includes both Florida and Ohio, more than enough to win the presidency.
Those margins, though, are very narrow and very much subject to rapid change. What’s interesting about the state of the race, though, is how the margins in states compare with one another.
Montana, for example, is about as close as Minnesota. The former is generally considered solidly red, and the latter is a state that Trump’s campaign has been targeting — but polling suggests that one is no less likely than the other to offer a surprise on Election Day. Texas is closer than Nevada in the current averages. Kansas is as close as New Hampshire, a state that Trump lost by fewer than 3,000 votes four years ago.
What’s important to remember about those numbers is that they’ve been unusually stable. Nationally and in many states, the Trump-Biden margin has only moved within a narrow range, suggesting that a lot of voters have made up their minds about how they plan to vote. (On the interactive below, the arrows at right show the actual result in the state or nationally.)
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This is very much part of Trump’s strategy: assume that he’s probably not going to expand his voting base much at this point, so do everything he can to energize his supporters and dampen enthusiasm among Democrats for coming out to vote for Biden. The problem for Trump remains that he is also the primary motivator for Democratic voters, and his hyperactive performance in Tuesday’s debate probably served to energize many Democrats, too.
It’s also a flawed approach simply because the playing field has moved so much over the past four years. In nearly every state and district for which FiveThirtyEight has a current average, Biden’s position relative to Trump is stronger than Clinton’s was on Election Day 2016. The sole exception is Hawaii, which Trump has about as much chance of winning as I have of becoming a starting forward for the Knicks. Or, well, for the Lakers.
In state after state, big Trump leads from 2016 have narrowed, or narrow Clinton leads have become larger Biden ones. In the swing states of Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Michigan, North Carolina and Florida, Biden leads. In more traditionally red states such as Ohio and Arizona — Biden leads.
Just a ton of leftward-pointing blue arrows.
Again, polls have built-in margins of error, inherent recognitions that they imperfectly capture the state of the race. If state-level polling in fact is once again misrepresenting Trump’s support, he could easily overperform the map above, even if the national race dynamics don’t move as much.
But that’s a risky thing to rely on instead of, say, using a presidential debate as a moment to allay the concerns of voters who backed him as an unknown factor in 2016 but are now skeptical of his performance as president, both in the particulars and in his approach.
The Trump we saw Tuesday night is the Trump that earned the polling map above. One would think that trying to be a slightly different Trump might therefore be advisable.