The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The electoral map is very weird right now

Is South Carolina really closer than Michigan?

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden speaks about his plans for combating the coronavirus pandemic at the Queen theater in Wilmington, Del., on Friday. (Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

You will be unsurprised to learn that, according to a poll released on Friday by the New York Times and Siena College, President Trump leads former vice president Joe Biden in Montana. Montana is almost definitionally red, part of the phalanx of Republican states that’s draped over the western Plains and Rocky Mountains.

You might be surprised, though, to learn the margin of Trump’s lead. It’s only seven points, which, if that margin were to hold until Election Day, would represent a 13-point swing away from Trump relative to his 2016 support.

More remarkably, that’s as narrow a race as the pollsters measured in both Michigan and Wisconsin, states Trump won by tiny margins four years ago. In Michigan, the Times-Siena poll had Biden up eight points; in Wisconsin, he was up 10.

This is one poll, of course. By now you’re likely savvy enough to know that its generally more useful to consider polling averages than individual polls. We took the most recent (as of writing) averages in each state, as compiled by FiveThirtyEight, and ordered the states by the current polling margin.

The results are striking.

The state that’s closest at the moment is — Texas. If Joe Biden wins Texas, it’s over.

But it doesn’t get less weird. Georgia, Iowa and Ohio — which Trump won in 2016 by five, nine and eight points, respectively — are the next three closest states. What’s more, Biden leads in the first two.

Notice where Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin land. In 2016, Trump’s narrow wins in those three states earned him the presidency. Now, Biden leads by at least six points in each. Arizona is closer than any of those three states. Alaska is closer.

We highlighted a particularly odd stretch of margins. South Carolina is closer than Michigan? Michigan is closer than Montana? Nebraska is closer than Minnesota? What is happening here?

We must of course note that polling a bit over a week before the 2016 election also showed Trump trailing in key states by fairly wide margins. All of those states that are narrower than Arizona are within about three points — a margin that could be within a normal polling error range.

Earlier this month, we made a tool allowing readers to see how errors in the polls (underestimating the number of Trump voters who turn out, for example) would affect the national results. At the moment, if the polls in every state were wrong in the exact same way as they were in 2016 — Biden still wins the presidency with over 300 electoral votes. (If the polls are off to the same degree as 2016 but in the other direction — which could happen! — Biden’s margin is far bigger.)

Poll shift?

Or uniform error of 0 points.

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Feel free to play with the slider. You have to assume a pretty big uniform shift to Trump for him to win.

But, of course, that’s assuming a lot of things that we shouldn’t assume. A big one is that the polls will shift over the next 11 days. In 2016, that is why Trump won: The polls narrowed dramatically in the last few days of the race as well as underestimated his support. Earlier this week, we made a tool that tracked a number of potential swing states relative to how the polls narrowed four years ago. The takeaway is this table, showing where the polls are now, how they’ve changed over the past week, where they were four years ago at the same point and how those polls had changed.

As of writing, the average shift across the swing states in the past week (setting aside Nebraska) was about a quarter of a percentage point toward Trump. During the same period in 2016, the polls had shifted an average of a point toward Trump. The problem for Trump is that he trails now by an average of 4.3 points in these states, while he was down only 2.5 points then.

A lot can change, in theory — but it hasn’t so far. This race has been remarkably static. Trump was able to gain ground four years ago in part because many voters still hadn’t made up their minds. That’s less the case now: Most Americans have very strong opinions about Trump and whether he deserves a second term. There’s less room for Trump to pick up support without Biden losing any, and so far that hasn’t been happening.

So, who knows. Maybe Montana will be closer than Michigan. If it is, it’s easy to guess who will be president next January.