Let’s assume that two things will happen that will not happen. Let’s assume that the FiveThirtyEight averages of polls in all 50 states remain unchanged until Election Day and, further, that they’re not wrong at all.
If we plot each state on a graph, it looks something like this. (We’ve excluded D.C., which is going to back Biden by a wide margin no matter what, and Nebraska’s Third Congressional District, which awards one electoral vote and which Trump will almost certainly win.)
Now, let’s say you’re Trump campaign manager Bill Stepien. You’re looking at this chart and trying to figure out which of those bubbles you can pull over to the right, just enough to cross the middle line. What states are your best bet?
People who’ve spoken with Stepien and talked to Axios’s Jonathan Swan have an answer. Specifically, they articulated three paths to victory, each increasingly narrow for the president. And each, at a minimum, requires that Trump win a state where he currently trails by about 7 points.
At the outset, Stepien apparently thinks Trump needs to win four states — Florida, Georgia, Iowa and Ohio — as well as the electoral vote in Maine’s Second Congressional District. (Maine and Nebraska are the only states that divvy up some of their electoral votes this way.)
Ohio is the easiest of the lot, according to the current polling average; Trump just needs to hold it. The hardest is Florida, where Trump trails by 4 points on the average. But given the state’s history, it’s more than fair to assume that it’s in play.
But remember: These are baseline wins for each of the following three scenarios. You lose Florida, Ohio or Georgia, and none of the paths below is viable. Lose Iowa, and the latter two are out of reach. Lose Texas, and Trump just loses, flat-out.
One path Trump could then take to the necessary 270 electoral votes would be to win Arizona, North Carolina and Pennsylvania.
He won all three four years ago. Arizona and North Carolina are leaning Biden but not out of reach. Pennsylvania, though, seems like a stretch: Trump currently trails by about 7 points.
The second scenario drops Pennsylvania in favor of Michigan.
You’ll notice that this doesn’t make things easier. Michigan is even worse for Trump at the moment.
But winning Michigan also opens up a third path, including Nevada and North Carolina.
This gets Trump the bare minimum 270 electoral votes, meaning he has to win that Maine district, or the election ends up in a tie and everything hits the fan. This path also requires that Trump win two states where he’s down by at least six points, not a trivial endeavor.
At this point, you should be saying something along the lines of, “But, wait, Trump was supposed to lose Pennsylvania and Michigan in 2016, too.” And that’s true. In fact, the polls in those states right now look an awful lot like the polls four years ago. In fact, Michigan is closer now than it was then, but Trump won it anyway.
Show average, including
The arrows at right indicate the actual final margin.
There are several reasons that this is not an apples-to-apples comparison, though.
First, the race in both states has been much more stable than it was four years ago. Shortly after the Republican convention that year, Hillary Clinton’s lead in each state vanished. Over the next few months it swelled and contracted. This year, Biden’s lead has been much more stable.
Second, that polls in each state were off the mark — by 3.3 points in Michigan and 3.8 in Pennsylvania, relative to the FiveThirtyEight averages — has added scrutiny to the numbers this year. Pollsters who underestimated Trump’s support in 2016 are aware that they did so. It is safe to assume that poll results have therefore been calibrated to avoid a similar mistake and, therefore, to better estimate Trump’s actual support.
If we combine those two factors, we see how tricky this task is for Trump’s team. As we’ve noted, even if the polls are as far off this year as they were in 2016, Biden will still win both states. If the polls hold steady, a four-point swing in Michigan or Pennsylvania won’t be enough for Trump to win.
We’re getting close to a point where our reflexive “of course Trump can win” qualifiers need to have their own qualifiers. Yes, he can win — but to do so, he needs to start seeing the polls shift in his direction soon. Voters are voting right now, locking in support at levels where Trump trails badly. Even if he pulls even in Pennsylvania in the next week, that’s a week of early voting that’s gone heavily against Trump.
That is why the central thesis of Swan’s assessment of the Trump campaign wasn’t that they thought there were three paths to victory. It was that they thought victory was unlikely.