America votes: A look at the numbers going into Election Day in the US

America votes: A look at the numbers going into Election Day in the US
Source: Edgard Garrido, Reuters

It’s November 3, 2020 – Election Day in the United States. Every four years, on the Tuesday following the first Monday in November, Americans take time out of their day to vote for president. While senators, representatives, local officials and proposed laws can also be on the ballot, ultimately the biggest story of the day is always the presidential race.

This Election Day arrives under considerable uncertainty. With a pandemic still raging in the country and many voters attempting mail-in or early voting for the first time, this Election Day won’t look much like ones in years past. News organizations have been accustomed to calling the presidential election results by late evening, but this year the results may not be known for days, even weeks.

When pollsters and other prognosticators attempt to determine election results ahead of time, they rely on the past to inform predictions about the future. Polling, demographics and state voting trends are just a few of the resources that can give election outcome insights before the results are known.

Understanding that voters will be anxious for results today, TMS has put together this resource of historical data to help provide some clarity. Any multitude of unforeseeable or unprecedented events – foreign interference, legal battles over mail-in ballots, the president “stealing” the election – could still affect the final outcome.

Barring any such events, though, this data can help make sense of the chaos, even in a year as unique as 2020.

Presidential polls

After Trump defied the odds to win in 2016, it became a common refrain that “the polls got it wrong.” Earlier that year, opinion polling had also failed to predict the results of the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom. This has led to the frequent question in 2020: can election polls be trusted?

It will surprise no one that pollsters still believe they are the most reliable metric for predicting election results. In the months that followed, the post-mortem of the 2016 election came to one overriding conclusion: while the national polls did accurately reflect the popular vote totals, the state polling (more important because it better reflects the electoral college) had flaws.

Polling organizations have taken that conclusion to heart, updating their methodologies to eliminate sampling errors and to poll underrepresented groups. These changes don’t guarantee that the polls will necessarily get it right this year, but pollsters have confidence in their results. It helps that polling in the 2018 midterms were, according to Nate Silver, “quite accurate and largely unbiased.”

So, what is the polling saying this year? Silver’s FiveThirtyEight aggregates national polls and has consistently found that former Vice President Joe Biden is favored over incumbent President Donald Trump. Going into Election Day, Biden had an 8.5-point lead over Trump. That holds true even if you eliminate all but the A-rated polls.

National polls reflect overall popularity but, as 2016 proved, a candidate does not have to win the popular vote to win the election. The electoral college, made up of 538 electors (equal to the total number of Congress members from each state), is ultimately the deciding factor.

Coming out of the final weekend before the election, FiveThirtyEight also favored Biden in their electoral college simulations: Biden was projected to win in 89 out of 100 simulations, whereas Trump only won in 10 out of 100. Those projections take state polling into consideration, so they are expected to provide a more accurate sense of the race.

Of course, as long as Trump’s chances are even 1%, he can still win. That is the frequently misunderstood aspect of odds – improbable does not mean impossible.

FiveThirtyEight’s final 2016 projection gave Trump a mere 28.6% chance of winning and we all know how that turned out. Nonetheless, the site is confident Biden is well ahead: “At this point, President Trump needs a big polling error in his favor if he’s going to win.”

NPR also gave the advantage to Biden in their final electoral college projection before Election Day. Based on the number of states they rate “Likely Dem.” or “Lean Dem.,” Biden was projected to win 279 electoral votes. And that was without any of the 134 “Tossup” votes on the board.

Which is to say, if Trump does pull off a victory again in 2020, it will be the second presidential election in a row in which he overcomes poor odds. And many pollsters will be eating crow, again.

When polls are conducted, the results are broken down into various demographic categories such as gender, race, age, level of education and more. These demographic breakdowns help ensure the polling accurately reflects the general populace. It also allows election watchers to make predictions about future election results.

One of the most telling demographic factors for election predictions is race. For three decades, political scientists have been predicting that the rising percentage of minority races (in particular, Black and Hispanic) represented a demographic shift that would inevitably favor Democrats. The 2016 results did little to dispel the notion that the Republican base is racially homogeneous.

In the previous presidential election, Trump’s voting bloc, according to Pew Research, was overwhelmingly white (and male). He received 54% of the total white vote, compared to 39% who voted for his opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. In total, white voters made up 74% of all voters.

Black and Hispanic voters, who each made up around 10% of voters in 2016, went for Clinton by a considerable margin. Black voters preferred Clinton to Trump 91% to 6%. Trump did a bit better with Hispanic voters, earning 28% of their vote as compared to 66% for Clinton.

Additionally, men went for Trump 52% to 41%, whereas women went for Clinton 54% to 39%.

Similar numbers are expected in the 2020 election. Based on voters who either strongly support or lean toward one candidate or the other, Trump is expected to, once again, carry the white vote by a margin of 51% to 44%. In almost all other categories, though, the numbers are not great for the president. Even among male voters, Biden is projected to win 49% to 45%.

Biden is projected to win 89% of the Black vote in comparison to Trump’s 8% and 63% of the Hispanic vote in comparison to Trump’s 29%. Interestingly, in both groups, Trump’s projected vote percentage would be an increase over his 2016 totals.

Black voters could be the deciding group in the election. After 2008 and 2012, when strong Black support helped elect the first African American president for consecutive terms, the Black vote dropped in 2016 for the first time in two decades. If those numbers don’t go back up, Biden’s voter coalition might not be big enough to secure a victory.

(While there are some who claim there is a “Blexit” of Black voters abandoning the Democrats for Trump, the polls don’t support that claim.)

By comparison, Hispanic voters tend to be somewhat less monolithic, in part because of their different countries of origins. In Florida, for instance, the Cuban American population traditionally favors Republican candidates. A strong turnout of Cuban American voters could help Trump win Florida and its vital electoral votes. Mexican American voters, on the other hand, are predominantly Democrats.

As with Black voters, the influence Hispanic voters have on the election will depend a great deal on whether they vote in large numbers or not.

Every election cycle, one of the main conversations is about swing states (or battleground states), those states that are not overwhelmingly Democratic or Republican. These states could go either way on any given election. This year, depending on the source, the number of such states can range from only six swing states to as many as eleven.

Politico identifies eight swing states in 2020: Arizona, Florida, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, North Carolina, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. This list conflicts with NPR’s final list of tossup states, with NPR labeling Minnesota, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin as leaning Democrat and adding Iowa, Ohio and Texas as toss-ups.

All other states are considered either safely Democratic or Republican and, therefore, rarely get the same level of attention in election prognostication.

While candidates might say that every state matters, political experts know that campaigns focus most of their time and effort in states that are winnable and valuable electorally. Among the swing states, the most valuable in terms of electors are Texas (38), Florida (29), Pennsylvania (20), Ohio (18), Georgia (16) and Michigan (16).

(California (55) and New York (29), the first and third most valuable states are considered safely Democratic.)

Texas isn’t a normal swing state – it’s voted for a Republican in every election since 1976 – but this year, polling shows Biden has a shot there. If Biden were to win in Texas, Trump would have to piece together an unlikely coalition of states to win. It’s worth noting that early voting in Texas this year has broken records, so election watchers are interested to see how that affects the final outcome.

Florida is one of the most revealing swing states. Since 1972, the winner of Florida has won the election in every year other than 1992. That year, Florida went to incumbent President George H.W. Bush, but the challenger, Bill Clinton, won the election. Florida was also the contested state at the center of the 2000 election, which eventually went to President George W. Bush.

Like Texas, Pennsylvania’s status as a swing state is a more recent development. From 1992 to 2012, the state went for the Democrat. In 2016, Trump won a surprise victory there, winning the state by less than 50,000 votes (out of roughly 6.17 million votes). Many experts believe Trump has to win Florida and Pennsylvania to be reelected.

Ohio is perhaps the crown jewel of the swing states. Not because it’s the most valuable, but because Ohio has voted for the winner in every single election since 1960. At only 18 electoral votes, a candidate could easily lose Ohio and still put together a winning coalition. As fate would have it, though, that hasn’t happened for 60 years.

Georgia and Michigan are mostly interesting as swing states because both have been consistent over the last two decades. Georgia has been a Republican stronghold since 1992, while Michigan went to the Democrat in every election from 1992 to 2012.

This year, Georgia is a true tossup, with Biden and Trump having traded the polling lead there all year. Meanwhile, Michigan was another surprise pickup for Trump in 2016, but Biden has a commanding lead in the polls there this year.

When it comes to presidential elections, nothing is set in stone, as 2016 proved. As voting tallies come in on Election Day, though, expect the major themes of discussion to be centered on where the polls are proving to be right or wrong, as well as on past voting trends.

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