The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Joe Biden might win in a landslide. That would make things more complicated.

Democratic nominee Joe Biden and running mate Kamala D. Harris in Wilmington, Del., on Aug. 20. (Stefani Reynolds/Bloomberg)
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For weeks, the mantra of the data nerd has been that President Trump can still win reelection. The Democratic nightmare scenario — Trump loses the popular vote but again wins the electoral college — is very much still on the table.

But the same statistical models that show a path for Trump also outline an oft-overlooked possibility: an outright landslide for Democratic challenger Joe Biden.

The chance of a massive sweep by the former vice president is a reminder that for all the Democrats present this election as a choice between more Trump and a return to normalcy, there’s another possibility on offer. If Biden turns out voters in numbers that give him a huge victory, they may well elect a Congress and state officials eager and able to enact a sweeping progressive agenda.

The numbers are clear. The average outcome produced by an election simulator I recently built (you can learn more about it here) gives Biden 319 electoral votes. Trump still has a chance in this model — he wins about 1 in 5 of the scenarios generated. But in roughly 10 percent of the model’s simulations, Biden earned 400 or more electoral votes. In these cases, Biden easily sweeps swing states such as Pennsylvania, Florida, Michigan, Arizona, North Carolina and Wisconsin and reaches deep into red territory to get electoral votes from states such as Georgia, Texas, Iowa and Ohio. In the sunniest simulations, Biden wins enough rural White voters to grab deeply Republican states such as Alaska or South Carolina. Trump mostly keeps his base — Appalachia, the Interior West and the rural South — but those states alone don’t come close to cracking 200 electoral votes.

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That might seem outlandish, considering that Obama won only 365 electoral votes in his massive 2008 victory. But Biden has a bigger lead now than Obama did at this point in 2008, and he’s competitive in big red states such as Texas and Georgia. That’s why my model — as well as those from FiveThirtyEight and the Economist — see 400 or more electoral votes as an optimistic but plausible scenario for Biden.

The basic political environment makes it clear why the math is suggesting these results. The issues that are most able to swing the polls — the pandemic, the economy and protests against police violence and racism — are volatile and in many aspects out of Trump’s control. Suppose progress on a vaccine stalls, the death rate shoots up as Americans grow weary of physical distancing and Congress fails to provide more relief to working Americans. Moreover, imagine what would happen if peaceful protesters — such as the NBA players who temporarily walked away from playoff games — take the media spotlight from looters and rioters. Events could throw Trump into free fall, whether or not he runs an effective campaign.

And if Biden did record a 400-plus electoral vote win, the political consequences would be huge. In the Senate, any new member who rides his coattails to power would serve for six years — safe from potential Republican comebacks in 2022 or 2024. That breathing room could allow Biden — or progressives in Congress — to make significant advances on issues of their choosing, not least because the liberal wing of the party might finally have enough votes to bypass moderates such as Sen. Joe Manchin III (D-W.Va.). Policing, gun control and wealth inequality would all be ripe for action.

The long-term benefits might be even more substantial for Democrats. The state legislators elected in 2020 will play a pivotal role in drawing the next set of congressional and state-level district maps. If Biden can lift Democrats to victory in the states, they’ll be able to replace Republican gerrymanders with fairer maps — or, if they decide to take the unprincipled routes, gerrymanders of their own. Either way, these maps would outlast the Biden administration and shape politics for years to come.

This election is often cast as a straightforward choice: Will voters make Trumpism the permanent, dominant strain in our politics, or do they want a return to Obama-era normalcy? It isn’t that simple. A stinging rebuke to Trump and the desire to heal the nation may not be compatible — especially with Biden’s campaign relying on the most progressive platform in modern history to excite voters.

Here's what the Biden-Harris Democratic ticket needs to do to keep progressive support, Black Lives Matter co-founder Patrisse Cullors says. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Danielle Kunitz/The Washington Post)

Read more:

David Byler: Nobody can predict this election. Here’s why.

Jennifer Rubin: Trump has the narrowest base ever. Biden has the broadest.

Eugene Robinson: Scared that Trump can come back to beat Biden? Good.

Katrina vanden Heuvel: How the Biden campaign can turn Trump’s ‘strength’ into a weakness

Greg Sargent: Trump has one last remaining lifeline. Biden is moving to sever it.