Election preview: United States

Well, what more can you say about this? The United States goes to the polls tonight, and unless there has been a massive failure of polling, Democrat Joe Biden has it in the bag. Republican Donald Trump will become the first one-term president since George Bush senior three decades ago.

Trump won the job four years ago with a minority of the vote but a majority of 74 in the electoral college. This post from six months ago gives you more numbers, but the key thing is this list, the marginals on the Republican side of the pendulum:

  • Maine 2nd District (1) 5.6%
  • Iowa (6) 5.1%
  • Texas (38) 4.7%
  • Ohio (18) 4.3%
  • Georgia (16) 2.7%
  • North Carolina (15) 1.9%
  • Arizona (11) 1.9%
  • Nebraska 2nd District (1) 1.2%
  • Florida (29) 0.6%
  • Wisconsin (10) 0.4%
  • Pennsylvania (20) 0.4%
  • Michigan (16) 0.1%

The numbers in brackets are numbers of electoral votes, and the percentages are the required two-party swing. Assuming he doesn’t lose any Democrat-held states – which seems a safe assumption; Nevada is the only one that looks at all close, and it’s only worth six electoral votes – Biden just needs to collect enough from that list to add to 38 electoral votes.

Polls suggest that Michigan and Wisconsin are gone for all money. That’s 26, so he needs 12 more. Any of Pennsylvania, Florida, North Carolina, Georgia, Ohio or Texas on its own would be enough. So would Arizona, provided he also gets (as expected) the second district in Nebraska, it and Maine being the only two states that split their votes.

All seven are clearly winnable. But there’s a consensus that Ohio and Texas are behind the others, so they’re probably not worth so much attention: if Biden looks winning there, then he’s already won. Both the polls and most expert forecasts, however, currently have him either leading or too close to call in all of the other five.

As you’d expect from its position on the pendulum, Pennsylvania looks to be Biden’s best bet, but his lead there is not insurmountable. That means there is a possible path to victory for Trump, but it’s extraordinarily narrow: he has to win everything on the even-slightly-doubtful list. There is zero margin for error.

Even a relatively comfortable Biden win might take some time to become clear, and there are major concerns about how that time could be used by Trump and his supporters to muddy the waters and possibly try to hijack the result. Nathaniel Rakich at FiveThirtyEight has a handy guide to the times at which different results start to come in and how long they might take. (He’s using New York time; subtract eight hours for eastern Australia.)

There’s some encouragement for Trump in the fact that the late movement in the polls, such as it is, has been in his favor. A week ago, Biden was leading nationally by 10.7%; that’s now down to 8.4%. But even leaving aside the fact that eight points is still a substantial lead, a late swing is much less useful to Trump than it was in 2016 because so many people have already voted. Part of Biden’s bigger lead from a week or two ago is already baked in to the result.

The gap between the polls and the betting markets that I commented on two weeks ago has (contrary to my expectation) not gone away. This morning you can still get 2-1 on for Biden at Sportsbet, and Maxim Lott and John Stossel’s aggregation of the odds has him at just a 63.2% chance – as compared to, say, FiveThirtyEight’s model, which puts him at 89%. (Last week at the Conversation, Lionel Page explained some of the reasons why betting markets for this sort of thing are unreliable.)

What does it all mean? One thing I’ve stressed for the last four years is that Trump’s win was in no way revolutionary: he won not because he was a “disruptor” but because he was the Republican candidate, who got votes in much the places that any Republican would have. Republican leaders and Republican voters stayed loyal to him; for the most part, they still have, although because 2016 was so close the small number that have deserted him are more than he can afford.

So the problem – and if you don’t think Trump and Trumpism are a problem then you might as well stop reading at this point – is twofold: that the Republican Party had become the sort of organisation that was ready for takeover by a Trump, and that the American political system was structured in such a way that having a major party descend into barbarism was catastrophic rather than just inconvenient.

No other democracy has institutionalised its two-party system in the way the United States has. That means that unless Republicans are willing to cross all the way over to the other party, they have nowhere to go and no way of showing their disaffection. Some have now taken that step, for which they deserve credit, but the underlying structural problem is still there.

Yet even that only became problematic because over a period of two decades one of the two parties had dug itself deeper and deeper into an anti-enlightenment hole. Having won elections with increasingly less subtle appeals to racism, brutality and anti-intellectualism, it left itself defenceless against a demagogue who was willing to sound those themes with no subtlety at all.

The country this year has already paid an awful price for that, and if tomorrow’s result is open to dispute there may yet be worse to come. A clear win for Biden, on the other hand, will at least open the possibility of a road back to some sort of normality.

4 thoughts on “Election preview: United States

  1. Well, I rate T’s chances at better than evens – so I couldn’t resist betting odds of three to one, could I? Duly upped my stake today!


      1. The outcome of my flutter on an 8 – 1 runner today did nothing to bolster my faith in the reliability of gut-feelings 😦 But ‘tomorrow is … ” etc.


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