Don't Expect a Contested Election

Charlie Cook New
November 3, 2020

On a hundred-odd Zoom meetings, webinars, and conference call speeches that I’ve participated in over the past two months, virtual attendees continue to raise the possibility of a contested presidential election, even though the chances of that have been getting smaller all the time. Every day that Trump remains behind in the polls, outspent badly and with the early vote gushing in, the cone of uncertainty narrows, and the odds of such an upset goes down.

Joe Biden’s path to 270 electoral votes seems pretty straightforward: Hold all 20 states (plus the District of Columbia) that Hillary Clinton carried four years ago, which total 232 electoral votes, just 38 short of the majority threshold of 270. Then win each of the three states that Clinton lost by eight-tenths of a point or less: Michigan (0.2 percentage points) Pennsylvania (0.7), and Wisconsin (0.8). That gives him 278 electoral votes, eight more than needed. Biden will likely also carry two congressional districts that eluded Clinton in 2016, Nebraska’s 2nd District and Maine’s 2nd, giving him 280 electoral votes. That would represent a “skinny” Biden win.

A big Biden win would bring in Arizona, Florida, and North Carolina, and might also include one or two states from the next tier, mostly likely Georgia or Iowa, although don’t count out Ohio or Texas. Generally speaking, Trump is underperforming his 2016 pace by 3 to 8 points, depending upon the state or district.

The RealClearPolitics average of national polls pegs Biden’s lead at 7.4 points, 51.1 to 43.7 percent. But that’s a less discriminating measure, including as it does some mediocre surveys, some that seemed congenitally slanted toward one side or the other, and some that would be better utilized lining hamster cages. The FiveThirtyEight modeled average of national polls, which is more selective than the RCP average but still includes some surveys that I consider rather sketchy, puts the Biden lead at 8.8 points, 52 to 43.2 percent.

I believe his actual lead is more like 9 or 10 points, based on the higher-quality, live-telephone-interview national polls conducted since the first debate, as well as the gold standard of online polling, the Pew Research Center’s mammoth poll of 11,929 voters released two weeks ago.

Any way you slice it, these are pretty good leads, considerably higher than the 3.2-point national margin that Hillary Clinton had over Trump in the RCP average on Oct. 29, 2016. When all the votes were counted, the margin ended up being 2.1 percent.

In fact, one of the stories of this election is how Democrats have opened their checking accounts to candidates and causes this year. As reported by Advertising Analytics on Wednesday, the Biden campaign has bought $626 million in TV time, $268 million more than Trump’s $358 million by the Trump effort.

All told, Advertising Analytics reported that political campaigns and causes dropped $8.12 billion in TV ads so far this cycle— $4.633 billion by Democrats on all levels, $2.606 million by Republicans, and $907 million by independents. Of the $2.948 billion spent on television by presidential campaigns, $2.163 billion came for Democratic candidates to $780 million for Republicans. Senate candidates spent $2 billion, $1.130 million spent by or for Democrats and $870 million by or for Republicans. Of the $1.105 billion spent on House advertising, the split was $649 million on the Democratic side, $500 million for Republicans.

Democratic donors have bucked recent trends to deliver a substantial spending advantage for their side, voting with their wallets long before anyone voted with a ballot. Democrats have had their hair on fire since Election Night 2016 and that has shown no sign of abating. In my judgement, a landslide is more likely than a contested election.

The House looks likely to see Republicans lose a few more seats on top of the 40 they dropped in 2018. If the over/under is 10 seats, I tend to come down on the higher side.

The Senate is increasingly less a case of whether Democrats will take a majority, but how large will it be. The chances of the GOP keeping its losses down to a seat or two are dropping; I am thinking that a five- or six-seat gain is becoming highly possible. The three most likely GOP incumbents to lose are Martha McSally in Arizona, Cory Gardner in Colorado, and Thom Tillis in North Carolina. Right on the bubble are Joni Ernst in Iowa, Susan Collins in Maine, and both Georgia seats. A touch back from that are Steve Daines in Montana and Lindsey Graham in South Carolina, as well as the open seat in Kansas. All three states are likely to be won by Trump, so look for a possible repeat of 2016, when every Senate race went to the same party that won the presidential race there—the first time that had happened since the start of direct Senate elections in 1914.

What I am wondering is if this will be one or the rarest species of national elections—a wave election in a presidential year ending in a zero, meaning it will reverberate for a decade thanks to the coming redistricting. There are not a dozen Republican Senate seats that could fall, as Democrats suffered in 1980, but Joe Biden may well replicate Ronald Reagan’s 10-point victory over President Carter. The odds are it will be a bit less, perhaps in the 53 to 44 percent range, with 3 percent going to independents and write-ins, half of the number from four years ago.

We’ll soon know. It won’t be long now.

This story was originally published on nationaljournal.com on October 30, 2020